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

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I have a confession.  When my kids were very young and woke up at the crack o’ dawn every day, it was no big deal to rope drop the parks. By the time we needed to leave in order to be first through the tapstiles at opening, we had already been up for two hours.  But now that they are older, I really don’t like to set an alarm clock on vacation.

Conventional Disney wisdom has it that rope drop is a critical piece of good touring strategy, allowing you to get a jump on the lines at big rides and get more done. Before I commit myself to a lifetime of early rising on park days, I decided to do a Mythbusters-style experiment and find out if it’s really true.

The Design

I took the same set of attractions and set up three separate touring plans: one arriving at park opening, a second one an hour later, and a third a full two hours after park opening.  Aside from things like not riding Splash Mountain right before lunch so that you don’t spend the meal shivering in your wet clothes, I find that the order of attractions often takes a back seat to saving time in lines.  I decided I would be free to use the Personalized Touring Plan app to set the order however I wanted and calculate the total time.  My goal was to get all three plans to have about the same time in the parks.

A screenshot of the setup screen for a Personalized Touring Plan
Personalized plans let me get the best order for my list of attractions

Before getting started, there were two more variables I needed to consider.  The first is the list of attractions in my plan, and the second is the date that I’d be “visiting”.   Showing that I could get the same results for different plans and dates was critical to drawing conclusions that might apply to a random person (that’s you!) on any date.

For attraction lineups I decided to select two plans from the Touring Plans team, the same ones that are included in the Unofficial Guide.  These plans are based on a full day of park touring and focus on popular attractions that visitors would choose as a priority to experience. If I could be successful with two different plans that include so many “must-dos”, it would be more likely that my result is generally true.

When looking at dates, I wanted to choose days that have long park hours so that I didn’t have to worry about a 7:00 p.m. closing cutting these jam-packed schedules short. I also wanted to cover a couple of different crowd levels, since I know that can have a big effect on lines.

A table showing the different combination of plans and dates
The short names are just the first letter of the plan plus the crowd level of the day.

The Execution

I started by taking the official Adult 1-Day plan and copying it into a Personalized Touring Plan.  Then I made 2 more copies of this plan.  For each plan, I left the Walking Speed set at Average and the Waiting vs. Walking slider set to Balance.

Graphic of Plan Preferences settings, showing sliders set to Average walking speed and Balance of Waiting vs. Walking.
Settings on the Personal Touring Plans Preferences panel

Once I had my 9:00 a.m. start time plans set up, I calculated each one differently.

The Paper Method

With the first plan, I just used the Evaluate button, which fills in times for each step of the plan without changing the order of any steps. This plan represents what would happen if I just xeroxed the plan from the Unofficial Guide and took it to the park.  The only change I made was to adjust the step number for lunch and dinner so that they actually occurred at lunch and dinner time, the same as you would do if you were actually in the park.

The One-Click Method

I used the Optimize button for the second plan, which comes up with a best order based on my settings.  Like the description says, the computer overlords will tell me what to do.  This is the absolute minimum effort I could make to customize my plan to a particular date and arrival time.

Display of the optimize and evaluate panel of the Personalized Touring Plans app
Optimize vs. Evaluate

The Three-Click Method

For the last plan, I started by running the optimizer.  Then I made minor adjustments that I thought would help the plan be a better fit for my goal. Sometimes I adjusted the order of attractions based on past sessions of geekly research about what rides are crowded when. More often I didn’t change anything aside from the plan Start and End times — you’ll see why when we discuss the results!  If I made any changes, I used Evaluate to get new times.

Data Collection

I recorded the Total Time, Time in Lines, Busy Time (riding or eating), Free Time, and Walking Time for each plan, along with notes about anything that stood out about each plan.  Examples of notes were big chunks of free time, or rides that I arrived at right before closing where even a couple of minutes difference in the park could mean missing that attraction.

Next I repeated these same three timing strategies with the plans starting at 10:00 a.m., and then 11:00 a.m..  When I was done I had a raw data set that looked like this:

Chart showing raw data collection from the various scenarios
Don’t panic! I’m going to break it all down in pretty charts later.

Finally, I did this same 9-plan analysis three more times, once more for the Adult lineup on October 2, and once on each date for the Parent plan.  For the Parent plan I changed the Walk speed to Relaxed based on my family’s experience navigating the parks with younger children.

The Results

Sign that reads "Busted"
So what did I find?  Well, there’s a little nuance that I’ll get to in a minute, but I’m not going to bury the lede.  This myth is BUSTED!  In each scenario that I ran, I was able to create a plan that had me arriving at the park anywhere between 9:00 and 11:00 a.m. and spending less total time than if I had just shown up at rope drop with my printed touring plan and followed it to the letter.

Now, some of you are very clever and you might be hauling out your squinty-eye — yes, it’s true that I compared the plans I adjusted to the 9:00 a.m. paper plan instead of comparing them to each other. That’s the bit of nuance that I said I’d get to in a minute. The truth is that when you compare the plans to each other, there were a couple of cases where the 10:00 a.m. plan didn’t work out quite as well but a later start time did.  I’d say it’s a bit more of a judgment call whether you think they are close enough to call this busted or not, but my take is that the goal of the experiment was to see if you can sleep in. For me, being able to arrive well after opening and get everything on your list done without spending a lot of extra time in line is a success, and I was able to do that in all four test cases as long as I had a touring plan at the ready.

To see why some days only worked with 11:00 a.m. or later starts, we’ll need to do a deeper dive and put the results into context. In my next post I’ll do a full analysis and discuss whether this conclusion will still hold when capacity limits are lifted and FastPass returns. Tune in tomorrow!

 

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Jennifer Heymont

Jennifer Heymont has a background in math and biology, but since she couldn't pick between the two 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.

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

  • April 15, 2021 at 9:45 am
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    This is a really helpful piece of information. Thanks for running the test. Now that we’re older, we like to sleep in as well; knowing that rope drop is not absolutely essential to efficient touring is a big relief.
    I think I’ll hit the snooze button again…

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 11:35 am
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      Glad you enjoyed it! Although I found this exercise really informative, it is a little lacking in comprehensive statistical power — I would encourage you to run the numbers for your particular touring day and plan before canceling your alarm. But I predict a high probability of a successful outcome. 🙂

      Reply
  • April 15, 2021 at 10:48 am
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    Really interesting experiment. Not being able to see all of your data collection, to get out of the park earlier has you still arriving at 9am with the hand method.

    Why do we rope drop? Because our kids wake up early and they aren’t staying up until 9-11PM. But any plan that has less than 50% of your time waiting in a line is pretty good – as long as you aren’t criss crossing the park 50 times a day!

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 11:49 am
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      I hear you about those kids waking early, ten years ago I was in your shoes!

      There will be a follow-up article (should be tomorrow) that does a deep dive and has more details about the data and patterns. As a general takeaway though, I would modify your statement a little bit: arriving at 9 AM generally gets you out of the park earlier than arriving at a later time, but a relatively minimum effort to create a personal touring plan gets you out of the park soonest of all. Here’s an example using some of the collected data:

      Running the adult plan on 6/29, starting at 9 AM with a xeroxed plan gets you out of the park at 9:41 PM.
      Using the three-click optimization, arrivals at 9, 10, and 11 AM get you out of the park at 8:07, 9:33, and 10:11 PM respectively.

      Each of those plans is a total of 11-12 hours in the park, but setting up a three-click optimization and printing that plan to take to the park instead of the one that is not date-specific gives you more choices. You can still arrive at 9 AM and leave 90 minutes earlier than you would have with the xeroxed plan, or you can arrive at 10 AM and leave at just about the same time as if you had gone at 9 AM with the unoptimized plan.

      Reply
      • April 15, 2021 at 4:55 pm
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        Before kids we were squarely in the “in the parks until 1am” group really taking advantage of lower crowds. Luckily,we’ve been using the TP app for a while now and travel regularly. So getting favorites done without having to think about it helps.

        Looking forward to additional analysis!

  • April 15, 2021 at 12:31 pm
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    There has been a lot of talk about this on the Saturday Twitch streams this past month (and if you haven’t watched these streams on Twitch, they are fantastic!). Right now it appears that if you can’t be there at rope drop (which nowadays really means at least an hour before the posted opening) that being there right after rope drop is about the worst thing you can do. However, the major attractions experience a little lull in wait times in mid-morning after all the rope droppers have done them, so showing up at mid morning is actually better than just after posted opening time.

    There has also been some success with showing up at a park in the mid to late afternoon and experiencing the same touring plan as someone who showed up just after posted opening time in nearly half the time.

    I asked the Twitch crew that here in the Covid era with this new data, is it possible to do two complete plans at two parks in one day with a parkhopper. They believe that, yes, it is indeed possible with some of the parks being paired up in one day.

    I do remember seeing the mid-morning lull a couple years ago at Universal for Escape from Gringott’s. The touring plan specifically states that you should not get in line if the wait time exceeds 30 minutes. When we got to Diagon Alley in mid-morning, the wait time was 50 minutes. We shopped the shops while keeping an eye on the wait time, and sure enough the time dropped to 30 minutes a short time later.

    Our mantra when we go to Orlando is “trust the plan”. It hasn’t failed us yet, and as long as we adjust to the new data that has been collected over the past year, I doubt if the touring plans will.

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 3:50 pm
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      There is a followup coming (probably tomorrow) that does a deeper dive into the data, and one thing it calls out is the exact pattern that you’re talking about — a really late start is often better than a not-so-late start. It remains to be seen how this will change when the parks change again, but one of the reasons I wanted to do this post is that I’ve done similar things for my actual (instead of virtual) trips over the years and have been pretty successful generally with late arrivals. As you say, trust the plan!

      Reply
  • April 15, 2021 at 10:21 pm
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    So… I’m not sure that “rope dropping lets you do more in less time” is a busted myth. But maybe I’m not understanding fully. If you look at your chart, it looks like the version where you would spend the least amount of time in line is the plan that begins at 9 and is optimized. And with both the optimized plan version and the three click method, you wait in line for less time at 9 am than you do 10 am, and the most when arriving at 11 am (when comparing the same method at different times).

    For whatever reason, all of the optimized versions in your table have some odd late afternoon break (free time) that make it look like it takes longer to complete the plan. But nearly 4 hours of “free time” that ends at 5:50 in the 9 am optimized plan predetermines that this plan will take longer to complete because you force the plan to begin at 9 am, and can’t begin the last half of it until 5:50 pm. Other plans either begin later or don’t seem to have a predetermined break just before 5:50 (or both).

    I think this chart tells me:
    1) The best option to avoid waiting in lines is to arrive early with a personalized & optimized plan
    2) If you can’t arrive at rope drop, be sure you have an optimized plan.

    But it definitely does not expose rope dropping as a good touring strategy to be a busted myth.

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 11:17 pm
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      I love people who can’t wait to dive into the data. 🙂

      I admit I did not make the chart easy to read by not using the same labels in the Method column that I used in the post — sorry about that. But I think you have read something awry, somewhere. I’d like to direct you to the Three-Click (Hand) method in the snippet above:

      9 AM waits 323 minutes in line and leaves the park at 8:07 PM
      10 AM waits 348 minutes in line (+25) and leaves at 9:33 PM
      11 AM waits 327 minutes in line (+4) and leaves at 10:11 PM

      It’s probably a matter of preference whether an extra hour’s sleep is worth 25 minutes in line — some will say yes, some will say no (I’m in the yes camp), but I think it isn’t the kind of severe penalty that is often envisioned when discussing late arrival and that’s worth knowing. Four minutes, however, is well within the margin of error that we see in wait time predictions every single day. Yes, 327 is bigger than 323, but from the perspective of predicting how long you’re going to wait in line when you actually get to the park, they are functionally the same number.

      There is definitely one part of your conclusion I’m fully on board with though, which is that your best strategy is always to have a personalized and optimized touring plan!

      Check out tomorrow’s post that goes deeper into the data and patterns — it has an explanation for those breaks you noticed, and I think you might enjoy it.

      Reply
      • April 17, 2021 at 8:04 am
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        Thanks for these posts. I’ve read part 2 & it definitely adds some clarity. I still don’t think there’s any busted myths here with regards to rope dropping, especially when considering M.B.’s point (below) that these aren’t actually analyzing rope drop, but park opening. But I do think these posts show that there are many ways to save time while touring, even if you’re a late sleeper, as long as you have a good plan!

  • April 15, 2021 at 11:14 pm
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    The problem with this analysis is that “opening” right now actually means 30-45 minutes before the official opening time. So to compare the real advantage of rope drop, you’d really need to analyze the plan with that pre-opening time accounted for too. By 9am, the wait times are often substantial and you’re behind the rope drop crowd.

    Reply
    • April 15, 2021 at 11:51 pm
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      Yeah, that is definitely a confounder. Unfortunately while Lines will allow you to re-optimize your plan against a before opening start-time once you’re in the park, you can’t make a plan in advance that starts before the official opening.

      Still, I did take a look at waits for, say, Space Mountain as the first ride at 9 AM (it was almost always first) and 7 Dwarfs which was the other one that popped routinely. When I compared the time of arrival at those rides on 6/29 with the wait times of those rides on the same day two years previously, they were almost identical. (6/29/2019 was a crowd level 6 day with no Early Morning Magic event).

      How much does that mean? It’s hard to say — obviously there were more people in the parks then and Fastpass brings a different dynamic. However we also know that Disney adjusts throughput on the rides based on crowd levels, and mid-day waits for various rides were often very comparable to the past, so I think they might not be so bad as comparators.

      Either way, good point, but unfortunately not one that can be addressed in any meaningful way with the tools at hand.

      Reply
  • May 1, 2021 at 11:19 am
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    While I appreciate the idea behind this, I don’t see where anyone actually went to the park to test these. I get it. It’s a nice ad for the optimize tools, but doesn’t really do any experimenting. Did I miss something?

    Reply
    • May 1, 2021 at 10:32 pm
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      It’s true that nobody went to the park to test these specific plans, and actually it’s unlikely that anyone would — these dates are relatively far in the future and the models are updated frequently. The best practice would be to optimize the day before, and there’s no guarantee that the plans would come up exactly the same at that time.

      The experiment uses the model to substitute for the in-park testing, so how valid you think it is as an experiment really depends on how good you think the models and predictions are. While no in park testing was conducted on these specific plans, the team does test in park on a routine basis (both to gather data and to confirm the model predictions) and their experience is consistent with the results found here. This post from one of their in-park tests dose show similar results to what I found: https://touringplans.com/blog/touring-plan-test-magic-kingdom-3-27-2021/

      Reply

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