Disneyland - a Software Engineer's Perspective
So, we went to Disneyland last week. It was my first time. Personally I was a little iffy about going. I've traveled to enough third world countries (and lived with locals) to have a healthy dose of First World Guilt and I'm usually very uncomfortable in large crowds especially when there is a good deal of "excess" being bandied about. Certainly Disneyland is a place of excess. All that preamble said, here's a few of my thoughts as I experienced Disney for the first time as a 30-year-old adult.
There were a crapload of people. A lot. At $50 per head, per day, I began to wonder how folks were paying for the trip. We saved for a few months to make it happen, and there were some church groups there with 20+ kids in tow. That adds up.
The crowd control is minimal, mostly being handled by thoughtfully placed ropes and small barriers. In two days we were only officially "herded" once by a couple of usher-types into the Snow White musical.
Kids were easily lost and there was an official "Lost Parents" office. This doesn't make me feel to good about the potential for kids getting nabbed.
I was very underwhelmed by the security. There are three places to go, Disneyland itself, Disneyland California, and a free place called Downtown Disney. There are checkpoints when you enter the whole compound where disinterested and likely underpaid workers glance at your purse or backpack. It actually makes me MORE uncomfortable to have lousy security than no security at all.
The first time I went through security I had to show them my insulin pump and blood sugar meter as I was carrying them in my hand. The second time, as a test, I simply clipped the whole apparatus to my belt as a front-fanny-pack and even ASKED if they need to see it. They said "too small" and let me pass unmolested.
They've got this new FastPass system that is meant to shorten the line length at the most popular rides. When you buy a Disneyland ticket you're given a small cardboard credit card with a printed bar code.
At the popular rides there are three lines:
- FastPass tickets - This is where you put your card in a machine and a receipt is printed with a one hour time window. That "reserves" your place in line and you are to return between that time.
- FastPass return - This is a special line that you come to at your designated time. I didn't wait more than 10 mins in a FastPass return line.
- Standby - This is a standard line that you stand in until you get into the attraction. They know how many FastPass people are supposed to arrive at a certain time, and the standby people fill the leftover seats. I waited in on of these lines for 65 minutes for the Soaring Over California attraction.
Some interesting things to me:
- There are digital signs that tell you at a glance:
- When you'd have to return if you got a FastPass that moment.
- How long the average wait is in the standby line.
Additionally, when you get a FastPass (here's a clever part) you can't get another FastPass ANYWHERE for at least 60 minutes. This foils the plan we had of running around the park collecting FastPasses up front then visiting the rides as our times came up.
This system worked great as the FastPasses would typically be in an hour or two from the present time. We'd say, "Oh, cool, we'll do this and that and come back at four." So, I think for the 80% solution it works - it maximizes customer satisfaction as well as the "ride saturation." Certainly a lot of angry people waiting in line or worse, leaving a line, doesn't help anyone. This makes sure the ride is always 100% in use.
The problem happens - just as it does with freeway onramps - when the system is VERY saturated. We were at a ride at 2:45pm on a Saturday and the FastPass system said to come back at 8:15pm and the standby time was 205 mins. Certainly this was the exception, not the rule, but the point was made nonetheless.
Some of the systems were clearly very simple, take Pirates of the Caribbean for example. The animatronics were in a repeating loop and didn't vary from that loop. Same with the New Orleans Haunted Mansion.
The systems that did synchronization between the physical and the not-physical were interesting. In Star Tours there was an animatronic robot pilot talking to video screens with characters supposedly in remote locations. I believe these systems (Star Tours) may have been created before the proliferation of digital media, so I wonder if they are using old style Laser Discs or 1/4" Video, or what? And do they have a keyframing technology to make sure the tracking doesn't float as the system repeats and get off by a second or two. None of the systems I saw ever got "off track" as I thought they might. I'm clearly missing something around my understanding of how the control systems communicate with the media (audio, video) that support them.
Having taken mechanical physics classes, I was comfortable riding the roller coasters, but I'm always a little nervous when I feel centrifugal force that might mean my little car could shear right off the edge of the track. Some of the older steel tracks had some spot welds that looked a bit dodgy.
While we were there, the Indiana Jones ride broke down and they had to walk everyone out of the right. I'm not sure if the shutdown was manual or automatic. I'd be interested in understanding if the system can detect derailments.
It was all very interesting and shiny, but our favorite ride, and the one I will remember was the one I didn't think I'd care that much for. The Soaring Over California ride sounds boring. They strap you into something and show you a movie shot from the air over various California landmarks.
The catch is that they actually dangle you from a chair/harness that is lifted 15+ feet into the air and pushed forward into an Imax-sized screen. They move you forward until the dome of the screen fills your field of vision completely. They FULLY cover 180 degrees, so no peripheral vision is there to stop the illusion. Additionally they gently blow wind and (we think smells) at your face, accelerating and decelerating as the on-screen action changes. the effect is staggering and I highly recommend it. It can make you motion sick though.
It takes a lot of people to make that place work and I was impressed that they could pull it off every day, day after day. I don't think I'll go back for a few years though.