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Touring Plans Mythbusters: Rope Drop and Lines at the Magic Kingdom Revisited

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Last week we took a look at the price of sleeping in on a visit to the Magic Kingdom, measured as extra time in lines. The past year has seen a lot of change in Disney’s operations, and I knew I’d want to do a redux of this experiment at some point in the future, but I did not anticipate writing about it again only a week later.  (I thought I’d be writing about the EPCOT results, instead.)  Yet, here we are.  What happened?

A few astute commenters made an extremely fair criticism of that experiment, noting that it didn’t account for the fact that the parks are currently opening 30-60 minutes before the published time. While true, I didn’t immediately see any good way to address that issue with data.  But I’m a bit of a perfectionist and this really nagged at me, so I decided to investigate a bit more.

Pre-Park-Opening (PPO) Plans

After some sleuthing around, I discovered I was working from an out-of-date assumption. I knew that Lines had been updated in January to let you to optimize your plan if you were in the park early, but I thought you couldn’t make such a plan in advance. Our tools are consistently updated to match Disney’s operational changes, and what I had missed is that in early March the software was updated again so you could do just that.  This was exactly what I needed to collect that prediction data I had thought I couldn’t get.

Since this is a new feature, I checked in with the team for any gotchas I should be aware of when using it. Aside from the obvious problem that we don’t know exactly when to start our plan to align with the time that the park will actually open, here’s what they told me:

  1. The data is only coming from user-submitted wait times, which we have only been collecting for a few months.  That means wait time predictions before the published opening time are less precise.
  2. Not all the rides are running when the park opens early, and the list of rides that are open early may not be consistent from day to day, although several “big” rides are routinely open.
  3. Even for rides that are running, they don’t all open at the same time.  Some may open with the park, some may open only 10 minutes before the official opening.

What this means is: if a plan sends you to Pirates of the Caribbean at 1:00 p.m. and predicts a 20-minute wait, then barring a breakdown the ride will be running when you get there and you can have some confidence in that wait time.  But if a plan sends you to Pirates at 8:40 a.m. and says you’ll have a 3-minute wait, then it might or might not be running when you get there, and the prediction is a bit more likely to be off than the one from later in the day.

Adding more data

If you didn’t see last week’s writeup, now might be a good time to take a quick look at how the experiment was designed and the original data collection strategy.  If you want the super-skimpy review, see the graphic below:

A table showing the different combination of plans and dates
Each plan was optimized three ways at multiple start times: “Paper” which simulated taking a printed plan to the park, One-click which was the simplest optimization, and Three-click which was an optimization designed to eliminate large blocks of free time in the park.

For the update, I did the following:

  • Collected data points at 8:15 a.m.  This was the earliest time that I could set my plan to start.
  • Filled out the complete set of noon points for the Parent plan, since those shorter plans had been showing a pattern of decreasing times as the park entry got later and later.
  • Recalculated the existing noon Three-click points for the Parent plan, to make sure that all the noon data was comparable.

About that last bit: between my original data collection and when I went back this week, the estimated park hours of 9 to 11 for June 29 had changed to published hours of 9 to 9.  This was a thorn in my side, but it’s a solid reminder of why it’s important to always optimize your plans a day or so before heading to the parks so that any closures, changes to hours, or updates on crowd predictions can be factored in.  Recalculating all the plans wasn’t an option due to the number of steps, so instead I focused on making sure all the data for any timepoint was collected together.

So what did I find?

All the major patterns we had already identified held:

  • The Paper plans were still consistently the longest time in line of the three
  • The One-click plans were still consistently the longest total time in the parks and the shortest in overall lines, with big gaps in the middle of the day.
  • The Three-click plans were still consistently the best in total time, with an intermediate line time between the Paper and the One-click plans.

Clustered Column Chart showing the line waits organized by method and then plan

Outside of those general trends, the only consistent pattern was that 8:15 was better than 9, but we already know that 9 was not necessarily the best.  When the PPO plan was compared instead (within method) to the lowest wait of the starts after official opening, the results were mixed.  Sometimes it was worse (P-8 Paper, 39 minutes longer than arriving at noon).  Sometimes it was better (A-5 Three-click, 53 minutes shorter than arriving at 11:00 a.m.).  The average over all sets was 17 minutes saved by arriving in time for the early opening.  If anything, the inconsistency of the outcomes only highlights the idea that following blanket advice like “Be there at rope drop, or else!” might not be such a great plan unless it fits with your touring style anyway.

Why I’m not changing that Busted rating

There is a simple answer here, which is that the average visitor considers “rope dropping” to mean arriving at most a short time before the park officially opens.  From that viewpoint, we didn’t need to consider any of this PPO data to answer questions about rope drop and lines.  But I’m going to go for broke and argue a more nuanced perspective as well, which considers what awaits visitors who do know that the parks are opening early. Here is where we get into the really nerdly nitty gritty, because we are gambling.

That plan that banked on everything being open at the earliest possible time to save us 53 minutes?  That’s the best case, three Mickeys on the slot machine.  For everything that could take away value from that plan, we have to shave a bit off our expectation. Extra waits for transportation around open and close due to social distancing measures? Those need to be subtracted from the time saved in line, because waiting is waiting, y’know? Seven Dwarfs not running when we get there?  I don’t know the exact odds of that, but it’s going to decrease our expected payout.

Picture showing long lines at the MK bus stop at Pop Century, over two hours before park opening
Magic Kingdom bus stop at Pop Century, 2.5 hours before the park opens.

I already put my stake in the ground that I didn’t think an extra 20 minutes saved in line was a good enough return on my investment for waking up early.  For some days and plans the 8:15 start couldn’t offer anything better than that.  For others, fifty minutes is definitely in range of my personal line in the sand, but there’s just a lot more uncertainty.  We might come out almost an hour ahead, but there’s decent odds we’ll be left with nowhere near the gain we bargained on. Our first take on this showed that arriving later in the day was usually almost as good as arriving close to park opening, and I don’t see enough here to convince me to overturn that on replay.

Where’s your line in the sand?  If you’re on team sleeping-in, how much time would you need to get back to make rope drop a strong consideration?  How certain would you need to be that you’d get it? Let us know in the comments.


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Jennifer Heymont

Jennifer has a background in math and biology, so she ended up in Data Science where she gets to do both. She lives just north of Boston with her husband, kids, and assorted animal members of the family. Although it took three visits for the Disney bug to "take", she now really wishes she lived a lot closer to the Parks.

8 thoughts on “Touring Plans Mythbusters: Rope Drop and Lines at the Magic Kingdom Revisited

  • Thanks for yet another follow up with this analysis. For the next series, I wonder if park open times matter on impact. If the park opens at 7am for all guests, is there more of an edge vs a noon opening. We noticed that when EPCOT was opening late in December, it meant we would end up arriving when more people would surge into the parks, as is evident by the lower number of people who would show up for a 7 am park opening.

    • That is a really excellent question! I’m working my way through the other parks first (look for the Hollywood Studios results later this week), but that’s definitely something to examine in the future.

  • Yes, me too!

  • Curious to see how this analysis evolves if/when Disney finally implements their new Early Entry system, returning non-resort guests to a fixed, published rope-drop time.

  • We have 2 toddlers in our group who are usually up by 5:30am. Also “beating the heat” is a big motivator for the grandparents in our group. So rope drop looks like a win-win situation. At least that’s the plan for our MK and AK park days with a 3-4 hour break and then hop to HS or Epcot for an early evening.

    • Yes, we usually visit in August and getting to the parks early can really help with the heat.

      One thing the data definitely does show is that there can be a big difference — an hour or more — between arriving in time for the actual (early) opening and arriving for the official opening. So if you’re aiming for rope drop then any moves you make to be there when things start running will probably be well rewarded.

  • Trying to understand the data, here’s what I’m getting (please correct me if I’m wrong!): Get there when you get there, use the lines app, and refresh frequently.

    • Hey Chrissy, thanks for reading! I admit there’s a lot of data — since there is a bit of a judgment call aspect here I wanted to give people anything they needed to make up their own minds.

      You are right that using the Lines app and refreshing frequently will always be a good strategy. To figure out the best time to get there, just try out a few different arrival times and see how it affects your plans.

      Going back to the data, the easiest way to read the numbers in this chart is to find a single column and read down — that will tell you how the line waits changed based on arrival time for that plan. There are lots of cases where you do see the wait time jump up by 1-2 hours after 8:15 and stay high for a while. The point is not so much that arrival time doesn’t make any difference at all or that arriving right when the park actually opens isn’t a good strategy, but rather that if you don’t *want* to arrive right at park opening, there are currently other options that are equally effective.


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