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. 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. We had 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.
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.