We’ve had many requests from Parkeology Challenge fans who want to know everything that went into the Oxygen-Free run. What follows is a detailed write-up taking you deep inside the quest to ride every ride without FastPass. Expect a long read. You are forewarned…
Flashback. June 2016.
Shane and Ted, creators of the Parkeology Challenge to ride every Walt Disney World ride in a single day, visit the Tokyo Disney Resort with their families. For once, there is no crazy theme park challenge involved.
While they are away, Frozen Ever After opens at Epcot. It is instantly the most coveted FastPass on property.
Upon their return to the States, Team Parkeology attempts the first ever Holy Grail completion of the Parkeology Challenge. They reserve 3 FastPasses at Magic Kingdom and grab 3 more using the My Disney Experience app throughout the day.
The new Frozen ride breaks down early. It never comes back up.
They fail by 1 ride.
Three months later, the My Disney Experience app receives an upgrade…
Genesis of the Idea to Ride Everything Without FastPass
Challengers call it “the dump.”
When unused FastPasses flow back into the system, they suddenly appear as available for someone else.
That’s when the smart players pounce.
In the early days of the Parkeology Challenge, FastPasses were paper tickets, dispensed by vending machines at popular rides. They provided guests with a window of opportunity. Skip the line and hop straight on the ride. Disney soon switched to a digital world, allowing guests to make reservations 60 days in advance for up to 3 rides at any one park, with the ability to grab additional FastPasses from kiosks around property.
A few years ago, things changed. Remember Steve Jobs’ legendary iPod pitch — “A thousand songs in your pocket”?
In 2016, My Disney Experience introduced the same idea to rides.
Not only could you reserve FastPasses ahead of time, but you could swap them for better ones. You could search for FastPasses in different parks. You could change the times. And you could do all this as soon as you tapped the touchpoint for your current FastPass.
Tap. Grab. Modify.
With deep understanding of the system, a fully charged phone battery, and a whole lot of patience, users could refresh their way to the perfect score.
Parkeology Challengers began snagging upwards of 20 FastPasses in a single day. And not just for mid-level rides. Challengers routinely pulled major FastPasses like Frozen Ever After or Na’vi River Journey without breaking a sweat — something the average guest considers impossible.
The truly elite challengers can do even better. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Slinky Dog Dash. The daunting Avatar Flight of Passage … the best players can get them.
If you want to ride every ride at Disney World in a single day, this is the best way to do it.
“This plan doesn’t work. We need two more moves.”
I’m talking to Kristina of Epic Disney Escape via Marco Polo, for the hundredth time in the last several days. We still have all the logistics of our April 24, 2019 Parkeology Challenge run to work out. What time are we meeting? Who is getting the ponchos? Are we sure Oreos are a good idea?
Kristina is a Parkeology Challenge veteran. She notched her first completion last summer. I’m co-creator of the darn thing with Parkeology partner-in-crime Ted.
Kristina and I had joined forces the year before to run the challenge with an embedded reporter. It was a totally unique experience, but we came up short. Now we were about to try it again, sans reporter.
But it’s all going to end the same.
We are going to fail.
FastPasses don’t guarantee anything. The challenge success rate still wallows in the single digits. You will always need knowledge, skill, and stamina.
In other words, the mountain doesn’t change just because you have better shoes. You still have to climb it.
Over the years, the prevailing image is of a challenger heads-down on a ride, staring at their device, planning their next move. I’m the first to admit that enjoying the rides is not the point of the challenge. One does not run the Boston Marathon for the architecture.
But like climbers scaling Mount Everest without supplemental oxygen tanks, Kristina and I were going to test the limits. The parks are a hostile environment — enormous crowds, sweltering heat, physical exhaustion, constant stress. FastPass was the lifeline.
If you strip it away and try to ride without FastPass, can you still survive?
I first broached the idea of an oxygen-free run to Ted a couple of years ago. Every time I tried to plan it, I ran into a scientific barrier.
The axiom of time.
Imagine a day at the parks. It doesn’t matter how you carve it up. There are only 3 ways to spend your time:
- Waiting in line
- Riding a ride
- Transitioning to the next ride
Ride duration (#2) is static. Every challenger will take this hit — with or without FastPass. It looks kinda like this:
Add up every ride duration. Then strip it out of your clock.
Transition Time (#3) is not not quite static, but it is inevitable. You can’t teleport from ride to ride. You must still cross distance between rides. In the longest cases, between parks. You have 3 ways to handle this:
- Minimize park hops. 3 is considered the Holy Grail.
- Hit rides in close proximity. This is sometimes a trap. Saving 1 minute of transit time is useless if the wait is 5 minutes longer.
- Physically train to improve your cardio and endurance. You’ll move faster.
That leaves #1. Waiting in line.
This part fluctuates throughout the day. As the parks fill up, standby lines get longer. During peak seasons like spring break or Christmas, the lines get way longer.
Almost every standby wait time is a bell curve. Short line at the beginning of the day. Long lines in the middle of the day. Then dropping again as we approach park closing.
Rope-drop a ride and you’re guaranteed a short line. Save it to the very end and again your wait will drop. Extra Magic Hours and staggered park hours might afford you more than one rope-drop, more than one last-minute hop-on. But there’s still 46 rides to account for.
Of course, you could always grab a FastPass. But that was off the table.
The weeks leading up to our run had been miserable. Spring Breaks across the country flood into Central Florida, stretching theme parks to their breaking point..
But we thought we had spotted a chink in the armor.
We had Easter at the front of the week. Traditionally an extremely crowded day, but falling unusually late this year. There were cheerleader competitions the following weekend — also a no-go. But as we went state by state down the East Coast, checking spring break schedules, only some districts in New York and New Jersey were off that week. Everyone else was back in class.
Crowd calendars on the internet were predicting mid-range crowds. Yet for some reason on Wednesday, April 24, the park hours were still locked in on Spring Break norms.
- Magic Kingdom open from 8am to midnight, with Extra Magic Hours until 2am
- Hollywood Studios from 9am – 8:30pm
- Epcot from 9am – 9pm
- Animal Kingdom from 9am – 9:30pm
18 hours in total.
The Hollywood Studios (DHS) hours were slightly deceiving. DHS had an Early Morning Magic hard-ticket event from 8am – 9am in Toy Story Land, which is not allowed for purposes of the challenge. With paying customers in the park, there was a real threat that the three Toy Story Land attractions would already have lines by the time regular guests were admitted.
There were 46 rides available that day — exactly half of which were in the Magic Kingdom. Looking at the hours for the other parks, that left us a hard barrier of 12.5 hours in which to hit the remaining 23 rides.
Of course, that also means a minimum of 3 park hops in there somewhere.
And to make matters worse, there are 2 rides at the Magic Kingdom that open late and close early (Rafts to Tom Sawyer Island and the Liberty Belle Riverboat). So tack on another park hop and 2 more rides that have to fit into the same 12.5 hours.
All this assuming you can ride the remaining 21 Magic Kingdom rides either before 9am or after 9:30pm.
By utilizing all our skills from past Parkeology Challenge runs, Kristina and I thought we could come close. But no matter how we sliced it, our calculations still came up 2 rides short.
Remember the axiom. There’s only 3 ways to spend time on challenge day. Waiting in line. Riding rides. Moving to the next ride.
But there is a secret buried there. To unlock it, we had to throw out all our assumptions.
There’s still 3 ways to spend time. But what if you can find ways to do some of those things simultaneously?
Let the time heist begin.
Nobody on Twitter ever sees the pre-game.
To take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, challengers need to book a participating hotel. Sometimes these are burners, if challengers are local like me and prefer to sleep in their own beds. But for Kristina, the challenge began on Tuesday evening, when she checked into her hotel room for an early bedtime.
She had a suitcase full of supplies: Applesauce pouches, PowerAde, caffeinated beverages. There were other items to account for as well: Magic bands, Band-Aids, hair bands. Basically anything with a band.
One thing she did not have was any sort of bag for the next day. Bag inspection at the front of each park steals time. It was the first thing we stole back.
I spent Tuesday night at my house, but I had my own list as well — bottled water, cheesesticks, and a couple of Dollar Store ponchos exclusively for use on Kali River Rapids. I arose at 4:15am on Wednesday to run through the last several items on my checklist.
Peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, check.
Cooler with ice, check.
Spare phone battery, check.
I texted Kristina that I was on my way.
25 minutes later, I pulled up at the wrong hotel. Already off to a hot start.
After tailing a landscaping truck down the street for five minutes (apparently Disney does all of its curb edging at 6:00 in the morning), I finally managed to pick up Kristina at the correct hotel. We quickly loaded her gear, then went to my hotel for a very early check-in. After all, I needed Extra Magic Hours access too.
Though it was still not quite sunrise, I was surprised to find that my room was ready. I took it as a good omen. At least the resort wasn’t sold-out.
For some reason people are always fascinated about bathroom breaks on this challenge. Bathroom breaks are a time stealer. Remember when you’d get ready for a long journey and your mother would ask you if you needed to go? You’d always say no. And she’d always encourage you to just try.
Hot top: If Challenge Day presents you with an available hotel bathroom, just try.
Now you know.
We had breakfast on the go and a quick walk around the hotel grounds to review the game plan one more time. The first 9 rides were completely scripted. Then the situation would get fluid in a hurry.
Just before 7am, we completed our last preparatory move. Park hops are a necessary evil for the Parkeology Challenge. Minimizing them is a dark art. Disney talks up its vaunted transportation system of buses, ferry boats, gondolas, and monorails, but the fact is that Disney transportation is often dirt slow. Aside from maybe walking.
We opted for personal vehicle.
Kristina strategically positioned the cooler in the backset for easy access. I was the designated driver. An ideal parking space was selected for quick exit, the car backed-in for a rolling start. Other supplies like spare batteries and ponchos were placed at the ready. We were locked and loaded.
With the sun on the rise, we traversed the Contemporary hotel walkway leading to the Magic Kingdom.
Contrary to popular belief from skeptics on the internet, it is possible to get from Magic Kingdom to another park like Disney’s Hollywood Studios without breaking the laws of physics.
Parkeology Challengers are only allowed to use transportation mechanisms that are available to the average guest. But going through the TTC — with its gauntlet of trams, bag check lines, slow-moving monorails or mile-long boat trips across the Seven Seas Lagoon — just might be the worst of them.
The Contemporary Hotel is within walking distance of the Magic Kingdom. And from there, transportation works just like any hotel anywhere else in the world. Not just Disney buses, but taxis and Uber too.
When Ted and I first did the challenge, we thought it was pretty clever. Now nobody is messing with monorails.
Two guards staff the tiny bag check on the Contemporary walkway when we approach. It is not yet 7am. They hold us there.
This gives us time to read the security fine print. Did you know that miniature horses are the only other service animal besides dogs that are allowed in the parks? Someday I hope to spot one. They say it’s happened.
A small crowd starts to accumulate, including another challenger who was running the same day and a British group insisting that they are “there for the tour.”
Well okay then.
The guard gets the call and waves us through. Kristina and I sprint through the metal detector straight into a rank cloud of swamp gas next to the monorail pylon. The railroad is down for refurbishment, where they’re apparently exhuming the grave of Swamp Thing along the turn from Space Mountain to Main Street.
We are poised to be first in line … but instead we stop at the restroom again. For all you bathroom people that want to know. Seriously, why are you so interested?
By the time we make the turnstiles, we are already behind two other challengers. The great irony of course is that we are all ridiculous. Literally none of us is heading for a mega ride first.
Yes, we are all up at the crack of dawn to hit the least popular ride on property. The Main Street Vehicles (MSV). A Parkeology Challenge poison dart that can end your challenge day before you even know you’re dead.
They run only for an hour or two each day. Then they evaporate into thin air. None of us are taking any chances this day.
They let us through the turnstiles sometime just before 7:30, but hold us at the train station tunnel until closer to official opening time. Kristina and I aren’t worried. We had followed this exact procedure during a test run the previous Saturday. They would let everyone into the park about 7:43 and the Main Street Vehicles would be waiting. We’d have one ride completed before the rest of the park even opened.
We catch glimpses of the MSV warming up on the track, like a bunch of ridiculous over-confident marathoners who would all get cramps an hour after starting — a fire engine, a horseless carriage, the lumbering Omnibus. They circle Town Square before disappearing out of view. A plethora of options. No sweat.
7:43 comes and goes. By 7:50, we’re still holding at the train tunnel, watching group after group of cheerleader tours waved through. We also see the British group. They were, after all, “there for the tour.”
When they finally let us in at 7:53, we rush into Town Square to find it completely deserted. No MSV to be found.
They must have repositioned them down at the Hub. We run down Main Street and search frantically.
We have a quick conversation. It was almost time for official rope drop. Did every single Main Street Vehicle get a flat tire? Do we hit a ride then come back? Does Disney monitor Parkeology runs and take away vehicles out of spite?
We decide to go back to Town Square to see if we can get a status on the vehicles. We dash back to the barn to find @Disneymw, one of the other challengers, also searching. Everyone else had moved on. Back at Cinderella Castle, the cheery opening show begins — some jerk mouse and his obnoxious buddies counting backwards from ten.
Flashback. November 2014. Team Parkeology is hoping to become the first to ride every ride at Walt Disney World in one day. First on the list: Toy Story Mania. They race to the ride to be the very first in line. Just one problem. Delayed opening. Turmoil. Dreams up in smoke.
We track down a CM, who brusquely tells us the Vehicles would be out later after the park opens. If he had a mustache, he would have twirled it and cackled.
We ask him to go check. He rolls his eyes. He hems and haws. Then he mutters something under his breath and disappears.
After a few more tense moments, the backstage doors swing open like the gates of heaven. A majestic blue car inches forward. Its driver is Joseph and he is a King of Challengers, a Patron Saint of Last Hopes, a Grantor of Dreams.
Lest we forget, Team Parkeology completed that 2014 run.
The three of us pile in, buzzing with excitement. Joseph — the same driver from our test run on Saturday — gives us the safety spiel in his sonorous, melodious voice. We are about to get underway when a family of four dashes up, looking for a ride to the Castle.
A cloud passes over their faces. Maybe they can sense the desperation in the demeanor of the 3 challengers in the vehicle. They don’t understand it, but the crocodile brain — that primal instinct we all have — tells them they have just stepped into a situation much too large for them. Their vacation has intruded into a larger story with far-reaching consequences.
But then again, there are four empty seats, so…
Joseph welcomes them aboard. Finally we’re underway. Kristina is on the ball with Twitter and proof-of-motion videos. Tweets explode from her phone the instant she steps into the vehicle.
The ride ends. By now the park has been open for five minutes. Disneymw is already headed for the Magic Kingdom exit, en route to Hollywood Studios rope-drop. But Team Oxygen-Free has a time-heist in mind.
Jungle Cruise may have seemed like an insane choice for the second ride of the day. Remember the bell curve. Lines are shortest at the beginnings and ends of the day. A high profile ride like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain, or Peter Pan’s Flight — all of which get huge lines — would be much more desirable.
But that bell curve is also universal across every ride. At 9:30pm that evening, Animal Kingdom would close. And that was exactly when we wanted to be stepping in line for the most popular ride on property: Avatar Flight of Passage (FOP).
We expected a minimum of an hour wait and ride time for FOP, plus another park hop to get back to Magic Kingdom, which had Extra Magic Hours from midnight until 2am.
However, there are four rides that do not participate in EMH. Jungle Cruise, Splash Mountain, Tomorrowland Transit Authority People Mover (TTA), and Carousel of Progress (COP). So we would have to complete all four of those rides by midnight.
We wanted to take at least one early closer out of the equation.
Look through the prism of the 3 constraints.
- Wait time. Splash would have the longest average wait time throughout the day. Jungle would be second, followed by TTA, then COP, which never has a wait.
- Ride Duration. COP was by far the longest — 20 minutes of ride time. Splash and TTA were both around 12 minutes and Jungle was the shortest at about 9 minutes.
- Transitioning to the next ride. Remember that at 9am, 3 other parks would open, meaning we had another rope drop opportunity. We wanted to be as close to the Magic Kingdom exit was we could to minimize the park hop time. Splash was in the back corner of the park. The other 3 early closers were all about the same.
Viewed through that lens, we found a winner.
Even with the snafu at Main Street Vehicles, there was no line. We boarded the second Jungle Cruise launch of the day. Everybody else in the park was playing the bell curve, hitting more popular rides. 8 minutes later, our second ride of the day was almost complete.
Flashback. The day before Easter, Shane and Kristina rope-drop Jungle Cruise during the Magic Kingdom test run. The first boat is delayed nearly 4 minutes while managers mess around with paperwork on the dock. They also time the walk from Jungle Cruise to the Contemporary. Just over a half mile.
We knew exactly how long it would take us to make it to Hollywood Studios. We knew when we could expect the rope drop. If we left now, we’d make it to DHS with 9 minutes to spare.
We weren’t about to waste 9 minutes in a rope-drop line.
The bell curve was still at the bottom. No waits anywhere. We needed one more ride, something in close proximity, with a short duration.
We had desperately wanted Pirates of the Caribbean. Our test run had proved we could get it, if we had made the first Jungle Cruise boat of the day and managers weren’t screwing around with paperwork. But MSV had ruined that. That left Magic Carpets of Aladdin, sitting literally yards from the Jungle Cruise exit and only a 90 second ride.
We darted into the Carpets queue to find them already loading. The CM allowed us to quickly board and started the ride almost immediately. By 8:18, we were running for the exit.
For the record, there are 2 traffic lights between Contemporary and DHS. If you hit both, it’s a 13 minute drive. Hit only one and it will shave off at least a minute.
We hit one.
I had executed no fewer than 3 separate test runs of the Hollywood Studios rope drop on mornings with Early Morning Magic. I learned three things:
- The rope drop time is wildly inconsistent. On some days, as early as 8:47. On other days, as late as 8:51.
- When the rope drop crowds head towards Toy Story Land, it pays to find the sweet spot. We figured to be arriving shortly before rope drop, with a large crowd already ahead of us. Depending on where you join, that crowd does not all move at the same speed.
- Everybody wants Slinky Dog Dash (okay, maybe I already knew that one).
So here was the plan. Take Slinky if we could. I had only managed it once in the 3 test runs, boarding about 15 minutes after park opening. But otherwise, we would zig while others zagged, knocking off a 90-second Aliens ride and the somewhat longer Toy Story Mania rides with no wait and preparing ourselves for a brutal Slinky wait later.
All that changed when we learned that Alien Swirling Saucers had been down for the entire Early Morning Magic. We locked into Slinky.
We worked the sweet spot strategy, merging us right into a flowing river of human bodies. By the time the main crowd had negotiated the tight turns at the Animation Courtyard and One Man’s Dream, we had worked our way into the pole position.
Rope drop crowds are scary, like a line of redcoats marching across the battlefield into enemy fire. We parked ourselves behind the leading CM and stayed shoulder to shoulder to protect our space as snipers darted around trash cans and barrelled forward with strollers. It worked. We just managed to hold the line.
We were among the first dozen or so people to enter the Slinky Dog line. A few minutes later, we were on and off the ride.
We had already scoped Aliens from the Slinky lift hill. Still down. That left Toy Story Mania, still at the bottom of the bell curve with the park having just opened. We boarded quickly and talked strategy for the first few Midway games. We wanted Saucers next, obviously. It was close proximity and a Tier 1 (i.e. popular) ride. But if it wasn’t up yet, we would have to make a decision.
Check the axiom. Rock n Roller Coaster (RNR) and Tower of Terror (TOT) figured to develop the longest waits, while Star Tours would stay light for a bit. In terms of duration, every ride has a preshow, so it looked like a wash. That left proximity. It made sense to hit Sunset Boulevard attractions together. We figured to use Single Rider for RNR, but the TOT line was already building.
Going in, we figured at least one long wait at DHS was inevitable — either Slinky or TOT. But it made no sense to take the hit now. By the time we slogged through Sunset Boulevard, Star Tours would be on its way up the bell curve.
We called it “playing the board.” In Texas Hold ‘em poker, the board gives you 5 community cards as a potential hand, even if you don’t use your face-down cards. If the park was going to offer us a ride with no wait time, we felt we had to seize the opportunity.
Star Tours made Ride 6. With Aliens still down, we said a short prayer in the preshow area and began to discuss the real possibility that we might have to split the park — something that was definitely not in the plan. But we still had 2 more rides to worry about. The inevitable TOT wait figured to give them another hour to get Aliens back up and running.
Before TOT, we played the board again. RNR standby had started to grow, but the bell curve for Single Rider grows more slowly and the park had not yet been open a full hour.
After RNR, we settled into TOT with a posted 60 minute wait time and kept our eyes on the downed ride in Toy Story Land.
TOT turned out to be a slightly shorter wait than advertised — about 45 minutes. But we spun that good luck into bad when we chose the wrong split inside the boiler room. The line splinters off in two directions, each with two drop shafts. But the side we picked was down to one. More minutes off the clock.
We checked on Aliens before we boarded. Still down, leaving us no choice. We would have to leave Hollywood Studios and come back later in the day, hoping that they got Aliens back up. We began plotting our next park hop.
As TOT finished, we waited for the elevator doors to open and the seatbelts to unlatch. I decided to check on Aliens one more time. The map showed it was still down. Then the wi-fi caught.
Two heartbeats. A refresh.
Aliens Swirling Saucers was back up. Wait time: 25 minutes.
By the time we raced to Toy Story Land, the line had grown to 50 minutes. We could probably get Aliens with a shorter line later in the day, but that advantage would be wiped out by the extra park hop. We got in line.
Now we could see why the line was moving so slowly. Only one of the 2 turntables was running.
After half an hour, they finally got Side B going. Now things began to move. After about 45 minutes, we were finally next to board — only to have the ride E-stop.
Some lady on Side A had lost her hat. It is some kind of federal law that when you have 2 identical carny rides next to each other, they absolutely must run in perfect synchronization. A delay of two more cycles. Then finally we were on.
Hollywood Studios complete.
Heart of Darkness
That’s Parkeology’s term for that part of the day when the sun is highest and every upcoming ride is an outdoor slogfest. It came early for us.
By getting Slinky earlier than expected, we had beat our DHS estimate by almost 45 minutes. We were feeling good as we made our way back to the Contemporary. We still needed those river rides. Tom Sawyer Island (TSI) had only just opened at 11am.
But the timing of the hop was already proving a problem.
The Liberty Belle Riverboat has huge capacity and relatively low demand. This means there’s almost never a line. But the boat has its own challenges. Namely, it’s a 20 minute ride that only leaves at the top and bottom of every hour. By our estimates, we figured to be rolling in by 12:05 — just missing it.
That left TSI as our play, but we needed it to go like clockwork, or we would jeopardize the 12:30 Riverboat departure.
The noonday sun was brutal as we jogged the half-mile path between Contemporary and Magic Kingdom. We dashed into Frontierland just as they were loading a raft and managed to score Ride 10. The CM let us just stay on the raft for the return trip, then we power walked to the Riverboat dock to join a swarm of people already boarding the Liberty Belle.
We hung out in the unofficial Parkeology room, snacking on single-serving bags of chips as we waited for the boat to make its lazy circle around the Rivers of America. We had completed the 2 critical early-closers.
But this Magic Kingdom leg had a much more specific purpose. Earlier, I said that we had figured out a way to challenge the axiom.
Three ways to spend time: Wait, ride, transition. By design, we were actually in the process of doing 2 of those things simultaneously.
Remember, it’s about lunch time. By now, Magic Kingdom is packed. We are at the top of the bell curve across the board. 100 minutes for Seven Dwarfs. 80 for Pan. 80 for Splash.
There are just three rides in all of Magic Kingdom that don’t participate in the bell curve. TSI, Riverboat, and Carousel of Progress (COP). They almost never have a wait, even on the most crowded days. If you show up, you can usually get on the next run.
But it gets better. All three of those are long duration rides. TSI could take 10 minutes. The Riverboat and COP are basically the longest on property. 20 minutes each.
Remember that everybody running the challenge will take those hits, no matter what. By stacking all three of them back-to-back-to-back, that’s nearly an hour of ride time.
Eating a chunk out of the day’s bell curve for all the other rides!
By the time we’re finished riding, we are that much closer to the downward slope. We’ve replaced wait time somewhere else with ride time now.
And to cap it all off, COP is also an early closer. It doesn’t close as early as the river rides, but it does not participate in EMH. By hitting it now, we’d only have TTA and Splash in the squeeze before the final push.
We had already timed the walk from the riverboat dock to COP during our test run. Moving at a brisk pace, we traversed the Magic Kingdom in just under 3 minutes and were soon inside the air conditioned theater.
For a hot minute, we debated audibling for PeopleMover next. It had maybe a 15 minute wait — about what we figured it would be at night. More importantly, it was another long duration early closer, slicing deeper into that bell curve.
But it felt greedy. With all of Epcot and Animal Kingdom still on the table, we didn’t want to blow our chances by staying at MK too long. That decision was confirmed when some goober stood up and left COP in the middle of the show, forcing us to repeat the Fabulous Forties.
When the ride finally ended, neither of us were looking forward to repeating that long jog to the Contemporary in the punishing sun. But the plan was intact. On to Epcot.
Hitting Our Stride
We summoned the strength for another sprint across blazing asphalt en route to Epcot’s main entrance. We had 3 potential first moves in our pocket.
If Spaceship Earth (SSE) had a short wait, we were just going to play the board. Some Future World rides tend to thin out in late afternoon, but SSE is unpredictable. And it had been having operational problems all morning.
When we came through the gate, we quickly gauged the line and took it off the table.
Our next preference was Test Track single rider. Test Track is prone to shutting down if someone so much as whispers the word “rain.” With the sun raining fire down on all the concrete surfaces, we didn’t think that was likely. But the ride is so temperamental, we didn’t want to take chances. As we dashed up, we saw that the normal line was its usual hour-plus self. But single rider was posted at only 10 minutes.
By the time they loaded us into the car, we had already called an audible.
The original plan called for us to go to Frozen next. It was the same thinking we had employed at Tower of Terror. Frozen was likely going to be an hour investment no matter when we hit it. It wouldn’t start its descent down the bell curve until much closer to park closing — and we needed to be in Animal Kingdom by then.
If the wait was inevitable, we should take it now and slice into the bell curve for all the other Future World rides. They would start to drop by late afternoon.
But Mission Space gave us an opportunity. The Orange Mission was somewhere in the 30 minute range, but Green Mission was down around 10. When the park gives you a close proximity ride with no wait, you play the board. We rushed next door from Test Track to find the Green Mission basically a walk-on.
Now we shifted back to our Frozen plan, but the heat was proving severely draining. We took a shortcut through the Odyssey restaurant to enjoy a few precious seconds of A/C. Frozen had a posted wait time of 55 minutes, but right next door, Gran Fiesta Tour was showing its usual 10. Once again we called an audible and played the board. With Mexico down, we had completed 15 rides.
Frozen was every bit the slog we expected it to be — all told about an hour of our day. We used the time to enjoy the air conditioning and talk about our families. We also had time to strategize our next move. SSE was down yet again, but the West side of Future World was beginning to thaw out.
We knew from experience that Nemo was probably a walk-on by now. Imagination and Living with the Land were both showing short wait times. Soarin’ was the kicker — still up around an hour, though we knew from research that it would eventually start dropping. We made Imagination our next choice.
It was a mad dash from Norway to the Imagination pavilion and by the time we arrived, we were dripping with sweat. But at least the line was short. We didn’t wait more than a couple load cycles before we were on the ride.
About halfway through, we spotted that SSE was back up. It meant crisscrossing back to the front of the park, but:
- We didn’t want to risk it going down again
- We thought there was a good chance we could pounce on it with a short line.
Long duration, short wait. That magical quantity could help us slice into the bell curve for Soarin’.
We sprinted back to the main entrance to find SSE exactly as we hoped. The ride is somewhat out of the way for anybody that is already in the park. Only those coming through the turnstiles in the middle of the afternoon are aware of it. We got on with basically no wait and soon had ride 18 complete.
Wanting to squeeze every last ounce out of the Soarin’ bell curve for Soarin’, we planned to hold it to the end. And since Living with the Land was right next to it (minimal transit time), those would be our last 2 moves at Epcot. That left Nemo — a high-capacity Omnimover that by now had no line, other than a long trek through the building to reach the loading area.
We quickly knocked it out, then proceeded next door and took down Living with the Land. Soarin’ was posted at around 50, but once in the line, we could see it wasn’t quite there. About 45 minutes later we were on the ride.
Late afternoon was giving way to early evening when we pulled into the Animal Kingdom lot. We had scarfed down yet another PB&J during the short drive and were by now royally sick of them. Kristina grabbed us some Oreos as I piloted into the Preferred Parking area.
Yeah, it costs a stupid amount of money. But every minute counts.
Our priorities were Dinosaur, Kali, and Safari. All three would close at 8:30 — one hour before park close. Kali and Safari were both posted at over an hour. And of course the 2 Pandora rides were monsters.
We settled on a counter-clockwise plan of attack. Dinoland to Asia, then Africa, and ending with Pandora. The early closers were critical, but the other rides were wildcards. Everest might be okay with single rider. But Ted and I had tried an evening single rider on our first completion only to find the line shut off. In a worst case scenario, we’d be backtracking.
Dinosaur was posted at 45 but Primeval Whirl was showing only 15. We decided to play the board. As we entered the Primeval queue, we saw only a handful of people in front of us. Our hopes were soon dashed when Cast Members began shutting down the left side of the ride completely — the third time that day where half capacity had burned us. We stood immobile for about 10 minutes before they finally cleared the FastPass line on the other side and routed us through.
As we got off the ride, we quickly scoped the proximity neighbor. Triceratop Spin is normally something they have to beg you to ride, but it was still a couple cycles deep. We could do better. Off we went to Dinosaur, where the posted wait was 45 minutes.
In our experience, their pants were on fire. Dino always clears out in the evening. We walked all the way to the Carnotaurus area before finally hitting a small line. After we made it through the preshow, the CM had some sort of counting deficiency and dispatched 2 straight cars with empty rows. Kristina tried to beg us on, but the CM wasn’t having it. Eventually we boarded the ride.
We had just reached the halfway point. Ride 23.
We backtracked to Triceratop Spin and found that spinning non-flying dinosaur carny rides were enjoying something of a renaissance. It was still 2 cycles deep. We decided to take the hit, since backtracking later would make it a wash. Then it was off to Everest.
Here we caught another break. Single Rider was still operating, only about 15 people deep. It took maybe 10 minutes to wait through the line and knock off this major E-ticket. Half the park done.
But the other half was nothing but problems.
Flight of Passage (FOP) was over 100 minutes. Both Kali and Safari were posted around 80 — and Safari is itself a 20 minute ride. Navi River was showing down. We figured we were in for a long wait regardless. But we were about to challenge the Axiom once again.
Earlier I said that ride duration is static. It doesn’t matter if use FastPass or not. Every challenger has to ride the ride, whatever length of time that may be.
Well, that’s not always true.
There are some rides where duration is more fluid than you might realize. Take the Main Street Vehicles. One of them is actually much slower than the rest. The Omnibus, which ironically has the largest capacity. Filling up that capacity takes time, as does unloading. You’re better off choosing a different vehicle if you can afford it.
And what about Mission Space, with its Orange and Green Team missions? Green (the Earth mission) is actually 30 seconds shorter.
But the real prize is Kilimanjaro Safari. It’s listed as a 20 minute attraction. And for most of the day, it is. But at dusk the ride begins its “sunset” version — which actually deletes the signature set piece (the collapsing bridge effect) from the ride entirely. Trucks follow a shorter path, cutting off the back loop of the normal ride and deducting 2 minutes from the ride time.
We weren’t quite at dusk just yet. But as we came out of Everest, we had Kali River Rapids in close proximity. We were going to wait somewhere. Might as well hit Kali now, slicing into the bell curve for Safari. That would give it time to hit its shorter sunset version, and also provide more time to get Navi River up and running.
The Kali line moved at a snail’s pace. The FastPass line seemed a mile long. But around the 45 minute mark, they finally let a large swath of the Standby line go through. We cleared the merge point, donned our Dollar Store ponchos, and finally knocked off the ride.
As we came up the exit ramp, we stripped off our ponchos and handed them to the next victim. Navi was still down as we raced into Africa.
I was shocked to learn that Kristina had never waited in the Safari standby line before. She had plenty of time to take it in, as we once again came to a standstill. A CM’s voice crackled over the intercom. Animals on the track. Expect delays.
I took the opportunity to FaceTime with my family. For my son it was already bedtime. I still had 6 hours to go. With Safari closing at 8:30, the number of FastPass riders was dwindling and the line finally began to move. After another long wait, we boarded as darkness poured into Animal Kingdom.
The long line had one saving grace: Navi River Journey was back up.
We sprinted for Pandora. Our practice run showed that both Navi and FOP would have inflated wait times as the park neared closing, to deter people from clogging the two most popular rides at the very end. We cleared Navi quickly and were in line for FOP well before the 9:30 closing time.
Only one more killer wait remained.
Standby took us all the way into the bioluminescent jungle before finally halting. We had figured to not make it into Magic Kingdom before 11pm, but at the rate the line was moving, we knew we had a shot at being back earlier. FOP still ended up as our longest wait of the day, but all told, it took only an hour to clear the most popular ride on property.
One last park hop. Back to the Contemporary one more time.
We had 29 rides down and 17 to go as we jogged up the path to Magic Kingdom for the third time that day.
We knew what we were up against. At midnight, Extra Magic Hours would kick in — and the four rides that didn’t participate would close. We’d already taken care of Jungle Cruise and Carousel of Progress. But the Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover and Splash Mountain were still out there. Both long rides. Both figured to still have some sort of line.
Splash was tricky. It’s easily the more popular of the two. But at an hour to midnight, it would also be trending down. Nobody wants to get soaked at the end of the night. The app had it in the 30s, but we long ago learned to never trust the posted Disney wait times. Still, it was hard to know just how long the line really was. A lot of Splash’s queue is hidden. You have to walk all the way back there to see what it looks like.
And if you’re going to journey to Splash, you would want to hit Big Thunder at the same time, since those 2 rides are buried way off by themselves. Thunder for sure had a wait. We decided to give Frontierland a little extra time to calm down. We went for PeopleMover, the known quantity. And we were also hoping to pick up AstroOrbiter right next to it, if we could catch a break.
We entered Tomorrowland and quickly tossed Astro out the window. It’s the worst 90-second ride on property. Slow loading, with a complicated sequence of holding pens and elevators and more pens before you even get to the ride. We took one look a the line and decided to bump Astro to a later rotation.
PeopleMover did have a line, but it moved quickly. At least it did, right up to when it was our turn to ascend the moving rampway. Then everything shut down.
We waited as the minutes ticked by until finally it started moving again. CMs kept slowly unloading people on the ride above us, sending through empty cars. Nobody at the top bothered to restart the moving ramp. The bored CM at the bottom couldn’t care less. At last the guy upstairs figured out why no riders were coming through and restarted the ramps. Soon we were on. Another early closer done.
It was 10:40 with Splash Mountain still looming over our heads. It had experienced a delayed opening in the morning and had multiple downtimes throughout the day. But it also still had a wait. We went back to playing the board.
We circled back to Little Mermaid for an easy pickup, then scored another bit of good luck when we jumped into the Prince Charming Carousel line right when they were finishing loading. This one can be another slow loader, but our timing was great. 32 rides complete.
We didn’t want to push our luck, but as we passed Haunted Mansion on our way to Splash, we saw that it appeared to be a walk-on. This ride can be tricky. The line moves quickly due to the Omnimover, but its popularity can sometimes cause a line even late. We called an audible and went for Mansion now, taking what the board was giving us.
Now time for playing with fire was over. We switched to defense.
We found ourselves stopped in the outside portion of the Splash Mountain queue, waiting to ascend the stairs. For a couple minutes, the line didn’t move as more Fastpassers rattled through. Then things started to pick up. We quickly circled the upstairs barn portion and made our way down the rocky tunnels and onto the log. With 15 minutes to go until midnight, we had successfully completed all early closers.
We had done everything in our power to keep ourselves mathematically alive. There were 12 rides to go and 135 minutes. We would need to average a ride every 12 minutes, leaving us just enough time to hop into line for something at the end of the night.
Of the remaining rides, 3 of them had us legitimately worried. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is always the longest line in the park — often over 80 minutes during the day. Peter Pan’s Flight is a close second, with Space Mountain right behind it. Working in their favor is that they are all relatively short rides. Even still, we figured there was no chance of hitting any of them on the tail of the bell curve until sometime in the last hour.
Also still a concern were 3 long rides that each figured to take up more than 12 minutes each — even with no wait: Pirates, Small World, and AstroOrbiter.
We had already discussed our plan for the last ride of the night. Mine Train is usually the go-to move because of the line. But with the park open until 2am, we thought there was a chance that both Pan and Mine Train might dip into manageable territory after 1:30. Families with small children are simply not going to stay up that late. Even if we waited 10 minutes for a 3 minute ride, that’s 2 minutes better than a 15-minute Small World ride. We decided to hold Small World until the very end.
But first we wanted Big Thunder.
Unfortunately, when we got off of Splash, Thunder’s line was still visible in the outside portion of the queue and posted at 20 minutes. No way was it 20, but there was no way to tell if it was 5 or 15 without queuing up.
We decided not to fall for the proximity trap. We changed course to Pirates, which we knew was a walk-on. Maybe that extra 10 minutes spent on Pirates would let Thunder calm down.
It didn’t. Thunder was still at 20 minutes when we got off Pirates. Feeling the pangs of regret, we had to leave it behind like a favorite toy. We had cleared Adventureland, Liberty Square, and everything else in Frontierland. Thunder was hanging out way in the back corner. At some point, we were going to have to cross back.
The next several rides were a planned sequence of dominos, taking full advantage of the EMH bell curve. Someone on Twitter remarked that it was time for the kiddy ride gauntlet, and they nailed it. It was now after midnight. Young children were exhausted. Their parents frazzled. It was the perfect time to work our way through very short, no-wait attractions.
We hit Mad Tea Party, Dumbo, Barnstormer, and Winnie the Pooh. 39 rides complete. It was now 12:30. 7 rides and 90 minutes to go.
Thunder was killing us, still showing somewhere in the 15 minute range. We thought it might be possible to wrap Tomorrowland instead. We knew Buzz Lightyear was another short ride with no wait, but mainly we were hoping that AstroOrbiter had finally dropped to nothing — though still a 15-minute investment. Space Mountain was the wild card. It kept bouncing between 20 and 30 minutes.
We played the board and took down Buzz Lightyear. But once again Astro slayed our dreams. The downstairs pens were both full, with more people still in line. We didn’t think we could afford to wait even 1 extra cycle on it, due to how slow it loads.
Space Mountain was also mocking us like a chortling giant. It had a massive outside line stretching almost to the Orbiter as Cast Members painstakingly scanned everyone’s magic band to make sure they had access to Extra Magic Hours. There was no telling how long the line was inside.
Kristina made the call. It was time to knock off Big Thunder.
Flashback. Original Parkeology Challenge completion. With only a few rides to go, Shane and Ted exit Buzz and make a mad sprint all the way across the park to Pirates of the Caribbean. They collapse in the boat, giddy with excitement. Three minutes in, the ride goes 101. It stays that way for a quarter of an hour.
I pushed those thoughts from my mind as Kristina urged me on. Thunder is further than even Pirates, but somehow we made it and were rewarded with a modest wait inside. By 1am we had finished Ride 41.
This was it. One hour to go. Five scary rides remaining.
We needed a ride every 15 minutes, with a last minute hop on at the end. Pan, Mine Train, and Space were all posted at 20+ minutes. Orbiter was down to 10 minutes, but it had that oh-so-long load time.
Watch the magic.
We decided to play the board, tossed our endgame plan out the window, and dialed up Small World in the bullpen.
Not only was it closest to Thunder, but we knew it would have no wait. The big downside is that the ride itself is somewhere in the 13 minute range. Late at night, with nobody coming through, the boats also back up, making the unload process take several more minutes.
But with the other 4 rides still too unpredictable, we felt it was our only play. Take the duration hit now, slice out wait time later. It also meant that Mine Train slid into the last spot by default.
As we rode through the kaleidoscope of chanting dolls, we discussed our next move. Astro had the shortest posted wait (10) with Space at 15. Pan was still at 20, and Mine Train was at 30.
We could play the board and go back into Tomorrowland. But that would mean crossing all the way back for Pan, and then having to cross yet again to get Mine Train.
We reasoned that Pan might say 20, but with Disney following Standard Imperial Procedure, it was actually somewhere less than that. We just didn’t know how much. Pan is a 3 minute ride. If the wait time was actually 15 minutes, it would be an 18 minute investment. If we left it behind and went for Tomorrowland, it might drop down to 10 minute wait, but would still require probably 3 minutes of backtracking.
I made the call. Let’s hunt some Pan.
We asked the CM at the front of Pan if it really was a 20 minute wait. She nodded grimly. We had no choice but to accuse her of being a dirty liar.
As we wound deeper into the queue without stopping, we began to hope. If we made it into the nursery before hitting the actual line, we felt it would have been the right call.
Our luck held. The line was stopped just on the other side of the nursery. 10 minutes later, we were on the ride.
We now had 3 rides to go and 30 minutes. Going for Tomorrowland was a no brainer. Our plan was to scope the Orbiter line as we ran past. If we thought we could jump right into a loading pen, we would do it. Otherwise, we would go with the less predictable Space Mountain.
Once again, Orbiter appeared to be at least one cycle out from letting us into the loading pen. Man, I hate that ride. So we dashed up to Space. Fortunately the outside line to scan in EMH guests had disappeared. We ran through the tunnels and landed in yet another line.
From here on out, every second mattered. And we were surprised to find that we had actually prepared for this moment. We dialed up a play from our planning conversations. We reminded each other in line to be alert, in case the moment came.
I had used it on a solo run last year. Space Mountain loads a pair of rockets at a time. 3 people per car. This configuration is not always ideal, especially with larger parties. If you’re ready, you can pounce.
Way ahead of us, the CM loaded 3 rows deep, then frowned and stepped up to the rest of the queue, holding up 2 fingers.
“Any parties of two?”
My hand shot up immediately. “Down here!” She immediately waved to us to come down. We skipped past about 30 people. No one else even had a chance.
A couple minutes later, we were on a rocket.
Now only 2 rides remained. The order was pre-determined. We were going to go for AstroOrbiter, then last minute hop on to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. As we raced up to Astro, the CM was already sorting people into the 2 downstairs pens. We weren’t sure if we would be sorted immediately or delayed one cycle. We just made it in.
The elevators took an interminable amount of time to return from the top, bleeding the life force out of our game clock. Finally they arrived and each pen loaded into the elevator.
When we got to the top, here was the situation. A ride was already in flight. One upstairs pen was waiting for the next flight. And then we would be waiting for the third flight. Some of the other passengers could hear our tense discussions. It turns out that some of them had actually been following our run throughout the day, though we didn’t know it at the time.
Astro is a painfully slow load. The straddling configuration of the rocket makes it difficult for riders to get in and out of, and the CM has to circle the entire platform, checking everyone’s seatbelts. We didn’t think we’d make it.
The ride ended and those riders headed for the elevator while Pen #1 was let in. The CM let them all get themselves situated while he went to dispatch the down elevators. It was then that we noticed an anomaly on the platform.
Pen #1 had been short by exactly one rocket.
We were right next to the CM as he loaded the elevators. We pointed at the empty rocket and he waved us through.
The clock had already ticked past 1:50 as he made his way around the seatbelt check. We still had a 90-second ride, a disembark, a slow elevator ride down, and then a mad dash to make it to Seven Dwarfs before 2am. Could we do it?
As the ride ended and we approached the elevators, we waved everyone in first so that we would be last to load — and first off. One of the guys next to us was actually doing a practice for his own run. He knew what this meant.
The elevator descended. The doors opened. We sprinted.
As we approached Tea Cups, I checked my watch. Three minutes. We were going to make it.
We slowed to a walk at the entrance to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. The CMs were still scanning magic bands, but at this point, it didn’t matter. We even waved another group through ahead of us.
Then we were in line for the last ride of the night.
A few minutes later, the park officially closed. But as all professional theme park challengers know, once you’re in line, they always let you ride.
A few minutes after 2am, we completed Ride 46.
There was no fanfare on the way out. Just quiet contemplation. We paused for the obligatory castle picture. Somehow we had done it.
There were still a few die-hards on Twitter congratulating us, including Ted tweeting from the official Parkeology account. But it was really late. Even both of our spouses had gone to bed.
It seemed like a fitting end walking down an empty Main Street, having just done the impossible. We were among the first through its gates more than 18 hours earlier. Now we were among the last to leave.
As we were passing the old Magic Shop, we ran into a woman and her daughter also on their way out. We had seen them at AstroOrbiter a short while ago. At the time we did not even realize they knew who we were. But they had been following all day. Ellie had been worried we wouldn’t make it. She was determined to stay up and cheer us on.
I don’t have too many mementos from this run. We travelled light. The tickets were all digital. The ponchos were discarded after Kali. The food all eaten or thrown away. We didn’t stop for any “I’m Celebrating” buttons.
But that’s okay. She gave us a hug. She gifted us each with a pin from her collection. That plus my magic band are all I need.
Kristina and Keli of Epic Disney Escape and Ted and Shane of Parkeology really appreciate all the support you have given us these last few weeks! It has been a wild ride. We are amazed and grateful at how the Parkeology Challenge has grown.
We would love for you to stay connected, especially in our Facebook groups:
We’re also active on social media and would appreciate a Follow or a Like:
Finally, Shane and Kristina both have books available on Amazon! If you’re looking for amazing adventures, we encourage you to check them out!