My Disney Navigator

Attendance at Disneyworld has grown by 14% since 2008, which has given rise to an entire ecosystem of official and third party ways to combat the crowds and plan the most efficient visit. Last year, when I started planning our trip, I knew we had to get “FastPass” reservations for rides like the brand-new Avatar Flight of Passage at the earliest possible opportunity, which in our case was 60 days before we arrived, otherwise we’d face waits of two to four(!) hours in line.

I was prepared for that. I wasn’t prepared to have to reserve tables for sit-down restaurants over a month in advance, or discovering that we needed to order our fast food choices and snacks in advance if we didn’t want to endure long queues. But I did it, and in the end – on our first visit – we were able to hit up practically every single ride and show in Disneyworld in just a few days, waiting no longer than 30 minutes in line, with most waits being just 5-10 minutes.

Achieving this required the relentless, single-minded use of the My Disney Experience app, which handles all FastPass reservations, booking and ordering at sit-down and ‘quick service’ restaurants in advance, and displays live wait times for almost all attractions. It also required flexibility and opportunism – if a desirable ride’s wait time was unexpectedly short, we’d change our plans and rebook FastPasses. It got to the point where I was looking up the length of shows and attractions to figure out if we could fit them in and make it to the next ride in time, in a more complex version of the Travelling Salesman problem.

You don’t need to do any of this, of course. But you’d be literally wasting your time and money if you didn’t – and when tickets to Disneyland cost well over $200 per day for a couple, avoiding spending a quarter or third of your time in lines isn’t just for obsessives.

And so you’ll see plenty of people fiddling with the My Disney Experience app at the park. Yet as far as I could tell, most people weren’t – and very few were using the app to the degree that we were. That helped us, but I felt bad for those who, for whatever reason, endured gruelling waits while we zoomed by in the FastPass line.

I believe there’s a better way. Not just to get more people enrolled in the app and booking rides and food in advance; not just to save obsessives like myself from checking the app all the time; but to make Disneyworld more money.

Call it My Disney Navigator, an entirely new way of making your stay as fun and smooth as possible.

Your Priorities

After opening the Disney Navigator for the first time, it asks you these optional questions:

  • Which rides and shows do you really want to see during your visit?
  • What food do you like and dislike?
  • Do you have any times you need to block out?

That’s it. It doesn’t ask you whether you’re a completionist or how fast you think you can walk, because people don’t know themselves very well, or might feel obliged to lie. The app will determine the answers to those questions simply by observing your behaviour.

When you arrive at the park, you’re encouraged to see that the Navigator has booked you a slot on one of your must-see rides, Expedition Everest, in the morning. Once you’ve staggered off the rollercoaster, it gives you a few choices about what to do next, from the Maharajah Jungle Tour next door (no queues), to the DINOSAUR ride in 20 minutes time (10 minutes walk away), to the Lion King show in 50 minutes.

You’re not obliged to do any of them. You can ask for more suggestions, or you can just ignore the Navigator entirely and it will happily keep supplying new suggestions just as your GPS navigator will when you don’t follow its route – but if you do, it’ll continue to learn which sort of rides you choose and which you don’t; and it’ll remember how frequently you get on rides and adjust its suggestions accordingly.

Crucially, the Navigator doesn’t plan out every hour of every day in your trip in advance. It reacts to the real-time traffic in the park, and it learns from your observed preferences. If it notices you’re near a ride with a short line, even if it’s not on your must-see list, it’ll suggest it. Ditto for meeting characters. It’ll make lunch and dinner and snack suggestions and will ensure your order is ready just as you’re arriving, thanks to GPS tracking. In other words, it’s responsive, not prescriptive.

Oh, and it’s a Chatbot

In my experience, chatbots are fantastic at making quick transactions longer and more tedious. When it comes to ordering a pizza, I don’t need a chatbot – I know how to read a menu. Chatbots’ true strengths lie in helping people through novel and complex problems, like writing formal letters to challenge unfair parking tickets, or figuring out how to optimise their time in a theme park with literally hundreds of options whose ‘cost’ (in waiting time) changes constantly and whose ‘value’ varies wildly between individuals

Yes, the Disney Navigator is a chatbot. And while the app has a familiar messenger-style interface, it can include interactive components like multiple choice menus and maps. This makes it easy for most people to learn and use, while remaining powerful and fast.

Best of all, chatbots can have character – and Disney surely know how much that matters.. Perhaps guests can even pick their navigator, choosing between a laid back Goofy or hyper-efficient Scrooge McDuck.

Reasons not to do it

Here’s why Disney might not want to make a Disney Navigator chatbot:

  • It might be really difficult: True, although you never know until you try. Assuming that Disney has well-documented internal APIs for things like FastPasses, restaurants, and payments (a big assumption, I know), it ought to be possible for a small team to prototype the idea in a few months.
  • People don’t want constant notifications: Perhaps! But the current situation is so bad and stressful that people might prefer two or three suggestions an hour to checking wait times and available FastPasses every five minutes.
  • I’m overestimating the benefit: Maybe I’m weird and most people are totally fine with waiting in line for hours, or they aren’t completionists, or they’re on their fifth visit and they’re more relaxed than me. Could be. But I still think it’s in Disney’s interests to help people make the most of their time in the parks, whether it’s their first or fifteenth visit. It has more insight into the relative availability of attractions, and it can help inject serendipity into a visit by suggesting things you might never have considered.

Two things are clear. Firstly, with the addition of Toy Story Land in June and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge next year, Disneyworld won’t be getting less crowded any time soon.

Secondly, apps aren’t going away. Disney has to decide whether it wants to take people even further down the road of micromanaging every minute of their trip weeks and months in advance. If it doesn’t – and I hope to god it doesn’t – then it find a new way forward. One that might be mapped out by a Navigator…

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