On a busy day at Disneyland, the posted wait signs strike terror in the hearts of visitors from all around the world. However, many Disneyland guests can't help but wonder just how accurate those signs are. How often are they updated? How are wait times calculated? Do they inflate the actual wait time to prevent too many people from flooding the queue? Do they minimize the time in hopes of getting more people in line??? Okay, enough questions. Here are some answers.
Speaking as a former Disneyland attractions cast member with a great degree of experience, I can tell you with great certainty that the posted wait times, more often than not, are nothing more than arbitrary estimations. It is no particular cast member's job to update the wait time. It's usually just the job of however happens to be closest to the control box that is used to adjust the wait time. Cast members are generally free to manipulate the wait time however they see fit.
So, to answer some of the earlier questions, yes, the wait time is commonly exaggerated in hopes of diverting people away from the attraction. And yes, the wait time is also minimized in the interest of not immediately upsetting guests. It all depends on who is setting the time. A 19 year old cast member who is rather unconcerned with guest satisfaction is probably more inclined to do the former, while an attraction lead or area manager is more likely to be guilty of the latter.
Now, this isn't to say that the wait time is never accurate. There are seasoned cast members on any given attraction that do have a good understanding of how long it really takes guests to move through the queue. These cast members take into account several factors, including the current capacity of the attraction (such as how many vehicles are in use), as well as the efficiency of the crew that happens to be working. However, more often than not, these seasoned cast members are not the ones fiddling with the wait time. Sometimes the cast member out front near the wait time adjuster will get a call from someone inside the ride who actually has a reasonably accurate estimation and they will be informed of what to set the wait time to (of course, they don't always do as they're told).
There are a few exceptions to this. Once in a blue moon (a few times a year as I recall, usually on the busiest days) the attraction lead will have the cast member at the entrance of the attraction pass out little cards to random guests getting into line, and ask them if they would mind giving it to the cast member that they meet in the station. They then write the time the card was issued, and when the cast member inside collects it, they can do the math and get a more accurate idea of the actual real-world wait time.
So, in conclusion, you shouldn't really have a whole lot of faith in the posted wait times. Overall though, I'd say that in the majority of cases, the posted wait time is usually higher than the actual wait time. This is pretty common practice because it's much better for guests to be relieved that they got through sooner rather than later, instead of having them walking around fuming mad and taking it out on the poor helpless cast members.
During my few short years working as an attractions cast member at Disneyland park in Anaheim, CA, I learned a lot about people. When confronted with wait times upwards of three hours on maximum capacity days, even the most straight-laced and law abiding citizens aren't above lying or cheating their way past the lines. After all, Disneyland is not cheap. Why should you have to spend your time there waiting in line? I am now going to go over the smart and the not-so-smart ways of bypassing the stand by lines.
Before we get to that, let's talk about Fastpass. Fastpass is a free service that was put into place at the turn of the millennium that gave people an opportunity to sort of make an appointment to ride their favorite attractions and then return with a minimal wait time. As much as Disney would like you to believe, the logic behind this new system was not to improve the experience of the guest, but rather to get them out of line and into other areas of the park where they can spend money. However, this system is not without its good points. When utilized, Fastpass can be a very handy tool that will greatly reduce the overall amount of time you spend in line. Today, much to the dismay of disgruntled cast members who loathe maintaining it, Fastpass is still in place in the majority of the most popular Disneyland attractions. The Fastpass line is reserved for those guests that have a valid Fastpass ticket. Therefore, the Fastpass line is a highly coveted place to be, especially since there wait time is usually less than five minutes. On a crowded day, the standby line may feel like it's not moving at all. This can be very frustrating when Fastpass toting guests are breezing by you in the other line.
Now let's look at the wrong ways to go about expediting your wait time.
It may sound funny, but you might be surprised how many guests attempt to gain entry into the Fastpass queue by pleading. Most cast members have heard just about every story, and most are too fed up with their job and a little too empowered by the little bit of authority they have been given for this method to work. Unless of course the cast member in question is a male and you happen to be an attractive female (or better yet, an attractive group of females).
The same problem applies here with the previous scenario; there are way too many power-tripping cast members with special flashlights they bought with their own money looking for a chance to exercise their authority. However, there is not nearly as much surveillance in Disneyland as most people think, so this method isn't entirely unreasonable. Even if you do get caught, the worst that will happen is they'll ask you to leave that particular attraction.
This one isn't quite as cut and dry. No hourly cast member is going to bow to the wild demands of a guest, especially if he's being rude or confrontational. However, with enough complaining, eventually you can get management involved, and in most cases management will give you the deed to the magic castle before they tell you that you were in the wrong. You can literally get just about anything from the management if you complain enough. But this method is still falls under the "wrong way" column, because frankly, it's just lame. You don't have to go that far to get what you want.
Now let's take a look at some of the easier, more effective ways to skip the line.
Special Assistance Pass (SAP)
You may have been waiting in line for a ride and noticed a group of seemingly healthy individuals sneak in through the back and get put right on the ride. In some cases, someone in the party has a visible ailment or is seated in a wheelchair, making the accommodation seem not too out of the ordinary. But in other cases, there may be someone in the party who suffers from something that is not as apparent, such as a mental disorder or even a bad case of claustrophobia that prevents them from being able to wait in the regular line. These people are carrying what is known as a Special Assistance Pass. Basically the pass indicates that the guest has spoken with guest services about their situation, and they have been given a pass to bypass the normal queue. The specific reason is not stated on the SAP. So, how do you go about getting an SAP? Well, you walk through the main gate, head through the left tunnel, and the first building on your left is City Hall. Then you simply stroll into City Hall and explain why you or someone in your party is not capable of waiting in the regular line. Guest Services policy changes from time to time about how much proof they need from you, but it's usually none. And if you make a big enough deal about it, they're going to give you the pass, bottom line. The line to the desk in City Hall may be the only real line you wait in for the rest of the day.
Rider Switch Pass
Some Disneyland attractions have a height requirement. Because of this, they created what are known as Rider Switch passes. The pass enables someone to wait with the child that does not meet the height requirement while the rest of their party waits in the regular line. Once the party exists, the person that waited can leave the child with someone else in the party, and then proceed through the Fastpass line with one other person. The idea is that the party shouldn't have to wait in line twice. These passes are usually obtained from a cast member positioned near the attraction entrance. Many guests are aware of this program, so it is very common for cast members to be asked for these passes. Technically, cast members are only supposed to issue the pass once they visually confirm that there is a child under the height requirement in the party. However, most cast members simply don't care, and assume anyone that knows about the program has a legitimate need for the pass. Worst case scenario, if the cast member asks where the child is, just point off in the distance and chances are there will be several children in the vicinity of where you pointed, and the cast member will simply nod their head and hand you the pass. You might want to wait a few minutes before using it, since it is meant to be used after the first half of your part goes through the standby line and exists.
If you really want to avoid interacting with or manipulating Disney cast members altogether, then this method might be for you. When a Fastpass is issued, it is stamped with a one-hour window that the guest is supposed to return during. What most guests don't know, is that this one-hour window is more like a suggestion. However, please note that the vast majority of cast members will NOT allow you to enter before your stated time. This problem drives cast members insane, since so many people attempt to enter early. If they were allowed to enter whenever they wanted, the Fastpass queue would become flooded, and the whole system would become inefficient. The reason I say that the one-hour window is a suggestion is because you do not necessarily have to be on time. If you return any time after the first time on the ticket, you will be admitted, no questions asked (as long as it's the same calendar day, but even then they probably wouldn't notice). Since a lot of guests don't know this, valid Fastpasses are constantly discarded by guests who think they are too late to use them. Most of these are usually tossed carelessly near the entrance of the attraction. It shouldn't be hard to find them if you look around.
Now that you are armed with this insider knowledge, hopefully your next visit to Disneyland will be a bit more tolerable! Good luck.