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Rachelle and I made it through our first weekend of Disneyland, which reminded me of why I never visit Disneyland on weekends. It was massively crowded on Saturday and Sunday, and the combination of the noise and crowds felt oppressive sometimes. It was an endurance challenge, but we made it through okay.
I felt sorry for anyone who had their first visit to Disneyland on that weekend because I don’t think they got their money’s worth. Wait times for the popular rides were often more than an hour. The Haunted Mansion ride had a 120-minute wait at one point. It’s decorated with a Nightmare Before Christmas theme at this time of year, and many people love that franchise. We’re really good at using the Fastpass system though, so for us the wait time for even the most popular rides is usually less than 10 minutes.
Fortunately Halloween itself (Monday) was much less crowded, and I’d expect today to be even less crowded. The park is usually really nice on non-summer, non-holiday Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, when the vibe is more relaxed. The more crowded it gets, the more stressful the park feels. You can generally tell how crowded the park will be based on the park hours. If the park is open till midnight, they expect huge crowds, and the longer hours don’t necessarily help much. You’ll often get a better value on a day when the park is open for 10 hours vs. 16 hours because the 10-hour days will have much lighter crowds.
I’ve observed that Disneyland will scale up or scale down the capacity of some rides depending on the crowds. For instance, if a ride has two sides for boarding, they may only run one side when the crowds are light, but they’ll run both sides when the crowds are heavy. It would be nice if they always ran their rides at maximum capacity, but I can understand why they’d scale down with lower traffic since it will save them money. It does, however, make some lines go at half speed relative to how fast they could be moving.
With a Fastpass you can pick up a (free) ticket to skip most of the line for a ride, but you have to return sometime later, which can range from 35 minutes to several hours, and you have a one-hour window to go on the ride. So if you pick up a Fastpass for a ride at 10am, you might get a slip of paper that says to return between 10:35 and 11:35am to board the ride. Then you’ll go through a separate (much shorter) line when you return. This adds more walking to your visit, but you can significantly reduce the time you spend standing in line. And you can still go on other rides while you’re waiting for your Fastpass window to come up.
You can’t pick up a new Fastpass until either the start time for your last Fastpass has arrived or at least two hours have passed (whichever interval is shorter). You can have more than one Fastpass at a time though. I’ve had as many as four on me at once.
If you don’t use a Fastpass within its one-hour window, it simply expires and becomes worthless.
For the most popular rides like Cars and Space Mountain, they’ll often run out of Fastpasses early in the day if the park is crowded. So lots of people race to get those Fastpasses early.
To make it more complicated, The Astro Blasters ride offers a Fastpass, but it’s on an independent system, so you can actually pick up a Fastpass for that ride without putting a hold on your ability to pick up other Fastpasses.
Some Fastpasses will essentially send you straight to the front of the line, so your waiting time is virtually nil even if the line is crazy long. The Roger Rabbit ride is like that. For other rides like Indiana Jones, Space Mountain, and Star Tours, you’ll skip most of the line with a Fastpass, but you still have to go through the last 10 minutes of the regular line with everyone else. And other rides like Thunder Mountain and California Screamin’ are somewhere in between, so you’ll wait just a few minutes in those lines if you get a Fastpass.
This system is complicated enough that most first-time visitors aren’t going to figure out how to use it optimally. No one teaches you how to use the system, so you have to figure it out as you go along or research it online. New visitors may pick up some Fastpasses here and there, but if they really knew how the system worked, they’d probably use it 2-3x as much. However, repeat visitors like annual passholders will eventually learn to master the system if they make an effort to do so. So the net effect is that new visitors will end up spending a lot more time waiting in line, while experienced visitors can leverage their superior knowledge of the Fastpass system to save themselves at least a few hours of waiting time each day.
Rachelle and I are Fastpass pros, and we often have 3-4 Fastpasses on us at any given time. We know all the pickup locations, and I’m pretty good at predicting which Fastpasses will have 35-40 minute fuses vs. the two-hour ones. We’re often going on some rides while our other Fastpasses are counting down. It takes a bit of mental juggling at first, but after a while it becomes second nature. One simple trick is to always pick up a new Fastpass before you use the previous one.
It’s possible to research the whole system online and to theoretically understand it before you visit Disneyland for the first time, and that will surely help. But you’ll still be lacking the visual memory of where all the Fastpass dispensaries are located, the most efficient routes between them, and other nuances of the system that only come from experience.
Attack of the Bubbles
Disneyland recently started selling battery-operated bubble guns, which have become very popular with the kids there. We can’t go through a day without having to walk through clouds of bubbles. Often kids will hold down the triggers and hose people with bubbles, including while standing in line for rides.
The kids at the park really seem to enjoy these bubble guns, but I’ve heard some mumbled complaints from others about the annoyance factor. It can indeed be annoying when you’re stuck in a crowded area and some kids are shooting continuous jets of soap bubbles that fly in your face.
I can see why Disney sells these because they’re viral money makers. When one kid sees other kids firing bubbles into the air, you hear, “Mommy… I want a bubble gun too!” Twenty dollars later…
I’m tempted to buy a couple of these bubble guns myself and hose whichever families shoot bubbles in my face. If Rachelle and I had a couple of bubble guns each, we could deliver some serious payback.
After spending a week at Disneyland, I’m impressed by the vast commercial machinery that Disney has become. This empire started with a guy drawing mouse cartoons. I remember early videos of Walt standing in an empty field, pointing and describing his vision for the area that would eventually become Disneyland’s Main Street. It took him multiple bankruptcies, but he successfully created his own reality.
Today I can still see and appreciate that vision. The park is filled with kids of all ages having fun.
I also see other layers to it though. I’ve been going to Disneyland since the 1970s, and I see how the park has evolved in terms of commercialization. Disney does a much better job today of tying its properties together to generate higher sales velocity. From the parades to the rides to the merchandise, there’s much more branding across all of these modalities.
There’s also a ridiculous amount of variety in Disney merchandise you can buy. Lots of people are wearing Star Wars themed mouse ears, where the ears light up with space battles. You’ll see them all around the park at night. It amazes me how many people are willing to shell out $20-25 to wear different types of mouse ears. The environment creates a reality distortion field that makes it seem like a good idea to spend money on Disney merchandise, so you can wear it around the park and become part of the silliness.
Internally this makes me think about how I could do a better job of creating my own reality. Disney’s reality is interesting to observe and experience, but it’s not the kind of reality I’d want to live in long-term.