Queues: They’re really not that bad

Queueing theory (more commonly known as the science behind waiting in lines) is one of those things that affects us every single day even without us realizing it. Like gravity, it is in effect every single moment and is modifying our surroundings little by little. Now, before you start to think that this is going to be a long article about queues and the math behind it, I’d like to state that this article is simply going to address one small (yet significantly interesting) application of Queueing theory by Disney.

Before that, however, I’m going to provide a historical outline of the science behind this fascinating concept. Over a 100 years ago, telephone operators often faced a tough time in determining how long it would take a caller to remain on hold and how to calculate the capacity of centralized switchboards. It turned out that the number of telephone subscribers was becoming too many for the telephone operators to handle and they weren’t able to accurately place the calls every time. This is where Erlang came in (he published his first paper on this in 1909). He created mathematical models to describe the Copenhagen Telephone Exchange by estimating wait times, number of callers in queue, number of operators required and other such metrics. The rest is history as Queueing theory began finding use in a plethora of real -world applications till date.

I was made aware of the system put in place by Disney when I was going through an INFORMS article [1]. The general idea is that the company tries to improve the individual visitors experience by making use of forecasting and analytic tools. One such popular tool is Disney’s FAST-PASS system which is a unique queuing forecaster that provides visitors with a certain small time window within which they can arrive at a ride in order to skip waiting in line. While the actual implementation of this would be much more complex, the nutshell idea here is that once you analyze the locations and patterns of all of the individuals at the amusement park as one large mass, it is easy enough (in some sense) to tell when the line at a particular ride or event would free up. Since this could obviously vary depending a number of factors, the FAST-PASS system provides an interval within which, with a high degree of confidence, the queue times would be low. A central command center executes these ‘magical’ forecasting tools ever 5-10 minutes in order to revise the predictions and estimates in order to provide the customers with a seamless and enjoyable experience. Without doubt, a happier crowd is one that has to wait in line for the least amount of time. But even Disney, with all of it’s Operations Research skill set will be unable to bring the wait time to zero. This is one of their newest innovations comes in – Interactive Queues. Prior to entering the rides, the visitors will be able to have a lot of fun even during waiting by being able to interact with smaller, yet powerful, entertainment packages.

Disney, as a company, understands the importance of squeezing out every bit of enjoyment possible and making it available to the visitors and this is one of the reasons that it is much much more than merely an amusement park. As far as the Operations Research world is concerned, Disney is a goldmine of data and predictive analysis that provides a bit of fun, entertainment and amusement as a side activity.

[1] https://www.informs.org/content/download/258057/2434897/file/Roundtable-revised_ORMS3902_April2012.pdf

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