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July 30, 2013

Mouse Mayhem - Walt Disney World Crowd Control

From the moment you arrive at a Walt Disney World theme park, you may as well get used to the above view... the mob! OK - being fair, I must admit that this isn't necessarily representative of your everyday Disney crowd, but it also isn't completely off-base, either. It does warrant mention however, that being faced with the immediate bottleneck of security blocking up coveted traditional entry photos is an instant downer from the get go. I'm all for security and safety, but let's be honest - the half-poke stick procedure they call a security check serves absolutely no purpose whatsoever. This process is such a pointless nuisance that I've simply learned to carry nothing but the essentials that fit in my pockets when going to the parks. Improve the process, relocate the process or eliminate the process. 

For a time, we were seasonal pass holders at the WDW parks, and that was more than sufficient for us. The Florida resident seasonal pass allows unlimited admission to all four parks, but there are blackout dates where you are blocked from entry. At that time, I didn't mind the seasonals. They were half the price, and the way I saw it, the blackout dates were peak attendance dates when locals with any sense in their heads avoid the parks anyway! In recent years, we've opted for the standard annual pass instead. Our visiting patterns have changed. We often go to the parks for an hour or two, to catch a meal or show, or to shop, so we don't always care if we turn around and leave when it turns out to be too crowded for our liking, but we DO care when that IS the always. One thing I've discovered by going to the various parks multiple times a week - it is always peak season anymore! The ever-reliable crowd watch charts and predictions that everyone in the know came to rely on are fast becoming useless and unreliable. My family is very anti-crowd. It sours our moods right quick... especially when the Florida heat is peaking simultaneously. More often than not, our visits to the parks lately have merely been a quick wander through on a crowd check before leaving to seek entertainment elsewhere. I think the final straw came two days ago when we spent two hours trying to find accommodations for two for dinner ANYWHERE at Epcot to no avail. Really? NOWHERE?? Keep in mind - these restaurants keep adding more and more tables/ seating to really cram the guests in there. In all my years visiting Disney, I've never been completely denied dining - even when a park has hit capacity! No excuse for that one!
Some of the more prominent, consistent crowd issues at WDW...

I like to call this the Fantasyland smush. This refers to a concern that is mainly seen at the Magic Kingdom more than the other Disney parks - areas that encourage a traffic jam. At MK, you'll most often see this in all areas of Fantasyland, as well as Main Street and the Frontierland stretch that runs in front of Country Bears toward Splash Mountain. My observations attribute this to tight squeeze pathways, excessive stroller traffic and areas of large confused group congregations. Considering the guaranteed reliability of unreasonable crowding in these zones, I often try to bypass them altogether. I lower my head and charge down Main Street like a bull! Slowly but surely, this is becoming the accepted norm at the Magic Kingdom overall.

Everyone loves a parade, right? Apparently!! Disney parades have always been a draw. In fact, locals always say that these are the times to avoid extended wait times at the most popular attractions because so many guests are occupied with procuring, preserving and enjoying the perfect viewing spot. There have always been people lining the parade path in advance of the start time. Difference now is that those people are about ten deep, taking up ALL walk ways that pave the way through the parks, AND they're there for an hour and a half prior to parade start! There's such a massive herd, in fact that I don't believe that half of the viewers can see past the person in front of them! Let's not even talk about the colossal mob that forms to follow the tail of the parade throughout the route at the end! Just run away... FAST! As cool as the parades are, they are absolutely NOT worth that! The mass exodus at the end of a parade or fireworks show looks something like this...

And... watch out for the stroller commandos! Those things aren't transporters... they're steamrollers designed to take you out. 

General consensus is that the blame for most of Disney's recent overcrowding issues lays with the surge in popularity of huge foreign youth tour groups. A search of the Web shows that a great many Disney guests are reporting distasteful, vacation-tanking encounters centering around these groups. They are typically nearly unsupervised (seems to be one or two adults to every group of maybe 30 youths, if that), and they travel in huge mass throngs, overtaking walkways and causing wait times to triple in an instant. They are generally rude, obnoxious, and offensive in volume and subject matter... and these are the best things I can say about them. They can easily be spotted by their matching shirts, loud foreign chants, and a young leader often waving a huge flag. No, I'm not kidding. And where one goes, they all go - so imagine when they choose a shop, restaurant, ride or show to stop at! Even their selection of viewing locations for Illuminations at Epcot often forces a complete stoppage of traffic from those walking by to pass. One mass can easily close a sidewalk.... especially when they start laying down all over the walkways! Yes - I'm serious! Word of warning... They all stay at the All Star resorts. If you think it's bad at the parks, watch out!!! Just avoid the All Stars at all costs!

Naturally, there's a plethora of crowd-busting tips available online. You've probably shared or received a suggestion or two as well. In the interest of being thorough, I'll address the most common...
  • Fastpass: I can't say I've never seen the benefit, but this too has lost its pizzazz lately. You go for a Fastpass at 10AM, only to be scheduled to return at 5PM. Well, who even knows where you'll be by then, so who knows if you'll want to trek back? By 2PM, it may well be out of Fastpasses for the day - not unusual. Let's not forget - this is often only going to save you at one or two rides per day because it is not offered at each attraction, nor can you have more than one at a time. (You can sometimes get a second, but only if your return for the first is way off in time. Then, you may get another a bit earlier than the time you're due to use the first. Confusing, isn't it?)
  • Plan your attack: In essence, this sounds great, and some people thrive on planning. I was always the post-it note, itinerary type... but Disney changed that. I have more fun when I go with the flow there. I understand that this may be a locals luxury. If I were spending tourist money there every visit, I'd be militant too. BUT... I also must make you think a second from my perspective. Every single time I'm there, I find at least one parent who is yelling at/ dragging a miserable looking, but well behaved child around at warp speed, screaming about how they had to do this and that, and how much money had gone into this. People - think about this, please! It's not a mission - it's a family vacation. Worry less about the accomplishment. Take it from someone who's played both sides, and from someone who's taken notice of your kids' devastation. Not the Disney way, folks! The memory of your child eating a pretzel on a bench with a duck at their feet is more meaningful than conquering Space Mountain... priceless, too!
  • Dare to be different: Avoid the parades, trudge on in the rain (and lose the God-awful poncho.... it's just rain, and not the acid variety!!), eat lunch at 2:30. Crowds tend to migrate right at Disney. Go left. Get the point here? And... from a former Cast Member, I now have the freedom to speak bluntly... For crying out loud people, when there are two lines to enter a queue, what is the cause of the idiotic herd mentality that keeps nine out of ten people opting for the same line??? Pay attention!! If there are two lines (i.e. its a small world), go down the one that is shorter!!! DUH!!!!!!! You would not believe how consistently people avoid the short line! Drove me nuts!
  • Extra Magic Hours: Not a tremendus saver, but it helps! Guests of the Disney hotels can take advantage of extended hours as they rotate this feature at the various parks. Could be morning, could be night... but for an extra hour or two, you can enjoy a more normal crowd level... like the good ol' days of Disney past. 
  • Start early, and hit the hits first: Again... a bit militant for my taste. I also sincerely hate spending all day and night at the parks anymore, and starting early is simply not usually my preference. The plan to start with the most popular rides is much like Fastpass - it'll help with one or two at least. Not a huge help.

I understand that Disney is a business, and a thriving business strives to maximize profit, but exactly when did Disney shift to becoming such a blatant money machine? Pack 'em in, right? When the experience is so cheapened, it becomes an epic fail. Disney is very fast becoming an establishment that charges guests simply to walk their sidewalks, because it's nearly impossible to do much else there! Disney research once showed that the average Magic Kingdom guest can accomplish nine rides in an average day (approximately a ten hour day). I would bet that even that is a generous average by today's standards! So, why are the prices consistently going up (on everything from admission to dining to souvenirs) while the quality of the experience is proportionately falling? Our experiences have seen a new normal - One where we often leave Disney parks frustrated and grumpy, or concerned about our rather claustrophobic daughter. Happiest place on Earth? Not lately! Someone needs to weigh the consequence to the attempted gain. Scaring off the regulars is not wise business, and many disgruntled Disney loyalists seem to agree.

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