After the major success of Pandora in Animal Kingdom, Disney World is experiencing a magical makeover right now, with Toy Story Land and Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge both set to open within the next two years. As thrilling attractions and yummy food debut at these new lands, we finally convinced our BFFs to come on a Disney vacation with us, and we’ve already started to plan every detail of our upcoming trip — from which gorgeous resort to stay at to which trendy rose gold merchandise to put on our wish lists. But while we’re super-excited to experience all the new things that Disney World has to offer, we’re less enthused about standing in crazy-long lines for new attractions. (We hear that guests have waited up to five hours for Pandora’s new Flight of Passage ride at peak hours.)
Luckily, a new tech startup is changing the way we experience lines at theme parks. Touring Plans is a data-driven service that travelers can use to hack the system and keep waiting in lines to a minimum during their Disney and Universal trips. Through their complementary Lines app (available for iOS and Android), Touring Plans offers an inexpensive subscription service (seriously, a yearly subscription costs less than what you’ll spend on a Dole Whip and turkey leg) where theme park goers can check the actual wait times of popular attractions, using real-time data to plan the best time to queue up. We recently chatted with Touring Plan’s Brian McNichols to learn more about this cool new startup — and score a few insider hacks for avoiding frustrating lines at the Happiest Place on Earth.
Brit + Co: How did the idea for Touring Plans originate?
Brian McNichols: The short version of the origin story is that the founder (and still president) Len Testa wrote his master’s thesis on using a computer algorithm to calculate the most efficient way to tour a theme park — specifically Walt Disney World. From there, it has grown to include personalized plans that can be optimized online at TouringPlans.com or in the Lines app for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Universal Orlando Resort.
B+C: On the Lines app, users will find both Disney’s currently posted wait times at every attraction and how long guests will really wait in line. How do you come up with this estimated actual wait time?
BM: It started out with lots and lots of research, timing our own waits in line. Then we gave all the data to two excellent statisticians, Fred Hazleton and Steve Bloom, who have taken it and created models based on expected crowds, the posted wait times, and dozens of other factors. Most importantly, however, is that we ask our Lines users to time their own waits in line, which gives us lots of extra data points that we can use to fine-tune the models.
B+C: In your experience, are actual wait times usually longer or shorter than the posted time? Why do you think there’s such a discrepancy?
BM: Shorter, almost always shorter. Disney has more to lose by underestimating the wait than overestimating. If they say the wait is 30 minutes and guests actually wait 45, they might complain. If Disney says 60 and guests wait 45, they will be happier. There’s a lot of social science to keeping guests happy relative to expectations.
B+C: What is the Disney World Crowd Calendar, and how can travelers use it to help plan their vacations?
BM: Our Crowd Calendar tool is a 1 to 10 rating for every day that rates the crowd level: 1 is least crowded and 10 is most. Within each day, we also rate the crowds at each of Disney World’s four parks. The calendar is useful for comparisons: If you are deciding between two different weeks to travel or between two different parks on any given day, it can give you an idea of expected crowds.
B+C: What makes Touring Plans stand apart from other theme park tracking applications?
BM: In my (admittedly biased) opinion, our depth of research and commitment to scientific methods differentiate Touring Plans. We never simply guess at a crowd level or plan; sure, we use our personal experiences to adjust or hypothesize, but we always attempt to back it up with data. That allows us to find patterns as they develop that might not be easy to see.
B+C: Along with offering subscribers more accurate wait times, Touring Plans also offers travelers a customizable step-by-step plan to help them hit all of their favorite rides with minimum wait times. Can you explain how this works?
BM: The Personalized Touring Plans are an evolution of the first plans that Len developed all those years ago. Basically, you tell us what rides and shows you want to see, and we have a very complicated set of computer programs that reorders your steps based on expected wait times and walking times. You can tell it when you’re arriving, when and where you want to eat lunch, and even when you want a break, and it will factor all of that in. The goal is to minimize how long you wait in lines without making you speed-walk across the park over and over.
B+C: If you could offer Disney World guests three pieces of advice for avoiding long lines at the parks, what would they be?
BM: The biggest one is to get there early — and I don’t mean arrive at 9am when the Magic Kingdom opens at 9am, I mean arrive at 8 to 8:15am when it opens at 9. Getting in front of the crowd and onto the busiest attractions first has an exponential effect later. If you wait two minutes at 9am for your first ride, you might only wait 10 minutes for your second, but if you have to wait 30 for your first ride you might wait 45 for the second. We actually did a YouTube video testing this at Magic Kingdom recently.
Second tip: Plan ahead. The Crowd Calendar obviously helps with this, but with the Touring Plans you can get an idea of which attractions FastPass+ will be the most useful for as well. FastPass+ is a ride reservation system at Disney World that allows you to skip much of the lines for three attractions (there’s a little more to it than that, but that’s the basics). The catch is that you can book 60 days in advance if you’re staying in a Disney hotel (30 days otherwise), so you need to have a plan before you can do that.
And third is to take a break. Touring Disney World is tiring, and Florida is very hot much of the year. Getting to the park early in the morning and then relaxing for a few hours in the middle of the day can save your feet and your temper. Then go back into the park in late afternoon or early evening when it’s cooler and less busy. The busiest time of the day is around 11am to 5pm, so avoiding that just means avoiding the hottest sun and the longest lines.
B+C: While we’re entirely impressed with the function of the Lines app, we have to admit that it isn’t the prettiest app on the market. What was the reasoning behind the design of the app?
BM: Hahaha! Oh we know, and many of the employees tell Len about that regularly. The idea is to make it fast — internet service is not always great at the parks, and we don’t want people waiting around for maps and graphics to load. Someday we’ll pretty it up, as long as we don’t slow it down.
Are you going on a Disney vacation soon? Tweet us your planning tips by mentioning @BritandCo.
(Photos via Touring Plans and Walt Disney World Resort)