Amusement parks do it. Even Disneyland has done it before. And now Walt Disney World has joined their ranks and taken that first step, too. I’m referring to throwing a bone to a park’s annual passholders in the form of a private party night with “Extended Ride Time” (ERT) for a premium roller-coaster. In this case, it was Expedition Everest, and it took place last Friday evening. And while the event was completely free for annual passholders, it left an odd taste in the mouth, maybe because it wasn’t everything it could have been.
The ostensible reason for the party was to commemorate Everest’s five year anniversary. They kept Expedition Everest open an extra three hours after the normal park closing of 6pm on a Saturday night, and only passholders who had pre-registered could get the bracelets to stick around for this ERT. As a bonus, they also had Dinosaur and TriceraTop Spin open, as well, in addition to a few snack stands, a shop, and a live DJ near Dino-Rama. But it was clearly Everest’s event, since that was the attraction with the birthday.
Nodding to the anniversary was a laudable goal in an of itself, and it would be unfair to sell short the acknowledgement the park’s management deserves for this gesture. First for recognizing the importance of history (hooray! Someone cares!), and second for actually doing something about it. They could have sent out a press release and called it a day. Or crafted a trading pin, as they’ve done for other recent anniversaries. But they resisted the easy answer.
We rode four times that night. How did I manage 13 trips on that opening day five years ago?
While it didn’t cost passholders anything to attend, it most certainly cost the park money. They had to pay quite a lot of people money for working—those extra hours certainly added up. You had security, custodial, shops, restaurants, and of course attractions Cast Members working. It’s extremely hard to guesstimate numbers from the outside, but let’s play just for fun. Assume 100 workers, each tacking on an extra four hours, for a total of 400 man-hours. Back in my day, Disney used a formula to estimate the total labor cost per man hour, factoring in such things as vacation pay, benefits, and so on—a “total cost” number we called the Comp Rate (presumably, short for compensation rate). In the late 90s at New Orleans Restaurants, this was usually around $14 per person, despite the hourly wage of my restaurant workers mostly being around $7 or $8. So is it in the ballpark to assume those 400 man-hours at DAK cost $30 each, for a total of $12,000? I’m probably missing a crucial component here, so someone please chime in if my numbers are way off.
Assuming these calculations are reasonably close, though, we could generously round up to $20,000 (almost doubling my guess), and we’d still have a fairly inexpensive evening. Twenty grand sounds like a lot of money to just “give away”, and of course it is. But then again, they were building goodwill. And it’s not like they can’t afford it. If a mere 40 people decide to renew their annual passes due to this party (when they hypothetically wouldn’t have otherwise), then Disney has recouped its money.
Disneyland had a massive, park-wide private party for its annual passholders in the late 1990s—a kind of ERT on steroids. They even ran Space Mountain with the work lights blazing, to give these hardened (jaded?) visitors something new to chew on. It was a smashing success. These days, Disneyland has too many annual passholders to offer such perks. But WDW doesn’t have that many locals with passes, so perhaps they can get away with smaller parties like this.
The tickets were limited. I did not hear how many were issued, but those three rides were not heavily packed. There was a 12-minute wait for Everest right after 6pm (by the way, that’s how long the line takes, folding in to every pathway, when there is no FastPass running… tells you something about how many seats per train usually go only to FP!) and neither of the Dinoland rides had a wait. By the end of the evening, 9pm, everything was a walk-on. So there couldn’t have been more than a few thousand visitors here.
Even though every walkway was used, the line moved briskly and the wait was minimal.
It was a pleasure to see Disney lines moving so quickly again!
Ordering the tickets a few weeks beforehand was a major ordeal. The website seemed to suffer from overload, and it took many minutes of repeated tries to score those coveted slots. My wife had to try for two hours, hitting refresh every few minutes, before she was successful. I hope that if they continue to offer such in-demand specials, they consider increasing their server capacity.
Once at the event, things ran more smoothly. Nothing broke down. In addition to the rides and the DJ, there was a photo opportunity with Mickey and Goofy, decked out in sherpa gear. But there also wasn’t really a “there” there. The event felt anticlimactic. It began without an announcement, and it ended on an equally awkward note, with the audio feed from the DJ just cutting off to the Everest area at 9pm. It really was just the rides—this was pure ERT, and nothing more.
A PhotoPass photographer was near Sherpa Mickey, of course.
On the one hand, there’s nothing wrong with that. ERT is a method of rewarding your frequent customers, as a way to thank them for their yearlong patronage. And they got to do something different—ride Everest at nighttime! Usually this park closes at dusk, and it’s not possible to ride this thing at night. I’m here to tell you that the ride is greatly improved at night. It’s a good ride to begin with, mind you, but once all trace of daylight is gone, it takes on a new character. The outdoor sequences at the start and again just before the yeti take place in almost complete darkness, as there are no lights for this part of the ride. It was eerie-cool, and creepy-fun. I want to do it again.
In case you’re wondering, no, the Yeti was not turned on for this special event. It was still switched off into B-mode, where it doesn’t move and is only briefly illuminated at the very end by a strobe light. This is the famed “Disco Yeti” mode.
It struck me that maybe the “goodwill” Disney was building up with this free event had to do with counteracting the fact that the coaster hasn’t really operated with all effects in YEARS. But there’s an inherent irony, perhaps even contradiction, if that was the attempt. You can’t build up goodwill about an attraction when the very sore spot—the Yeti—is still not functioning in your goodwill attempt.
The gathering dusk at 6pm.
What they should have done was take a page out of Disneyland’s book (it wouldn’t be the first time) and let these hardened visitors see something new. Yes, it was new to experience the outdoor scenes in the dark. But why not do something inside the ride too? Turn the lights off all the way, just to have it feel different. Or, turn on the work lights and leave them on. It would be neat to really SEE the yeti for a change. If not at Everest, then maybe at Dinosaur? The crowd would have loved something new and different like that.
Most puzzling of all was the lack of special event merchandise. I’ve seen pins for sale in Frontierland touting the anniversary of minor attractions. You’d think that Everest, as a major attraction, might qualify. Certainly the annual passholder crowd is more likely to buy limited edition merchandise than the general tourist population, too. Add in the fact that it would be limited merch from something they were actually present at, and you’d have an irresistible buying opportunity. But nothing was offered for sale. A pin, a pen, a patch, a Vinylmation, even a t-shirt would have sold well. This is a crowd that likes to wear shirts proclaiming “they were there” at such events.
Nighttime Dino-Rama is equally unusual to experience.
At the end of the day, I don’t want to complain too loudly. Having an event is better than not having one. While it was anticlimactic and it didn’t offer nearly as much oomph as I was expecting, it was nice to experience, and I want to thank the park for offering it for free.
They asked for feedback in a handout at the gate. Well, here are my two cents: do these more often (keeping them free, of course), fix the reservations system, tweak the experience so it’s something *different* than the normal daily operation (beyond the time of day and natural daylight), and offer something for sale. It’s not every day that people are begging you to sell them something. Feed our inner geek by delivering a “new” experience and let us buy an “exclusive” item, and you’ll not only recoup some of your operating costs for this free event, you will create the very goodwill you were seeking. “Normal” rides alone don’t do it, at least not nearly as effectively.
The next fan meeting to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Magic Kingdom will be celebrating Stitch’s Great Escape. As always, we’ll meet first at the Enchanted Grove at 2pm. Join us if you can!