How a statistician can help build your fairy-tale trip to Disney

Fred Hazelton says the app he works on is like having a GPS for theme parks on your phone, allowing tourists to get real-time data on crowd sizes and wait times as they map their routes. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)
Fred Hazelton says the app he works on is like having a GPS for theme parks on your phone, allowing tourists to get real-time data on crowd sizes and wait times as they map their routes. (Francis Ferland/CBC - image credit)

There's nothing magical about standing in line for hours in sweltering heat with restless children waiting for a ride that lasts less than five minutes.

But Fred Hazelton hopes to add a little bit of pixie dust to your family's next Disney vacation or trip to Universal Studios, with tools that help tourists navigate theme parks more efficiently.

"The number one way people judge the success of their day in an amusement park is how much they get to see and how long they have to wait in line," explained Hazelton.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Once a public servant at Statistics Canada, Hazelton quit his job 10 years ago to track crowds at theme parks.

The app he helped to develop is called "Lines" that uses machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence (AI), to predict when the park is less crowded. He also develops tools on the website touringplans.com that help tourists map out the most efficient route through the park, and displays a crowd calendar with real-time updates to show the best time to ride a particular attraction, for a small fee.

Every time someone uses the app to plan their itinerary, they enter their wait time, populating the data for others.

John Raoux/The Associated Press
John Raoux/The Associated Press

Once upon a time

Hazelton's unusual journey began in the early 2000s, when the statistician was planning a dream family vacation to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.

He came across Bob Sehlinger's "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World" travel books and says he was fascinated by the data-driven approach to solving theme park woes. Hazelton reached out to the author and was put in touch with computer programmer Len Testa, who'd been developing sophisticated algorithms to better navigate theme parks.

"[Testa] needed a statistician so my timing was kind of perfect. And we've been trying to solve this problem and refine our predictions for the last 20 years," said Hazelton, who, after a decade of juggling both his work at Statistics Canada and Disney, decided to quit the government to focus on developing travel tools as the site's "master statistician."

"It's been an absolute wild ride. It's an amazing job," he said.

Sydney Maloney
Sydney Maloney

Maximizing the magic

For Disney superfans like Sydney Maloney, a streamlined itinerary would help maximize the magic of each visit.

Maloney and her family have taken 10 trips to Walt Disney World, two to DisneyLand, and jumped aboard seven Disney Cruises.

For her, Disney isn't just a vacation, it provides both an escape and an emotional release.

"It allows me to let go of whatever I am dealing with in reality, and I can live out these fairy-tale lives," said Maloney, who cosplays as Disney characters in her spare time on Tiktok.

"I just love the magic of it all, and especially going to the parks being immersed in it. There's really nothing like it."

Like other Disney goers, Maloney has been frustrated by hours-long waits to experience her favourite rides. Though most wait times range from 20 to 45 minutes, she says she once waited 90 minutes for the Avatar Flight of Passage attraction.

To avoid that, she's purchased a "Fast Pass" or "Genie Pass" that allow her to reserve a spot online, and she is considering Hazelton's app for her next trip.

"As someone who has gone to the parks before, it is very helpful to plan my day out in advance. There is so much to do in the parks, and I really want to focus on doing the things that I love," she said.

Francis Ferland/CBC
Francis Ferland/CBC

Keeping the magic and happiness alive for tourists is why Hazelton continues to work on this project.

"It's an absolute thrill to see someone go to the parks and follow our touring plan and save time, and have a better experience because they've used something that I've helped create. There's nothing better than that."

With files from Francis Ferland and Ash Abraham