- TouringPlans.com has been using artificial intelligence to help users plan the perfect vacation at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and other major tourist destinations, for subscriptions starting at $US16 per year.
- Punch in the dates of your trip, and it tells you projected crowd levels at the Disney parks. Enter your proposed itinerary of rides, restaurants, and shows, and it uses AI to come up with an optimised itinerary that minimizes time spent in line.
- Founder Len Testa tells Business Insider that TouringPlans.com has some 140,000 paying customers.
- The site was built based on complex algorithms developed while Testa was in a graduate school, but has evolved into so much more since.
- Visit BusinessInsider.com for more stories.
We’re not going to Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, for another six months, but I’m already getting neurotic about planning the trip.
How neurotic? I have an alarm set for 3 a.m. on Sunday morning, which is the earliest that we can start making restaurant reservations for our trip. There’s even a spreadsheet with all the restaurants we want to visit, as meticulously researched from videos and handy guides from places like Disney Food Blog and WDW Prep School.
So I was more than receptive when someone recommended that I check out TouringPlans.com – a site that uses complex algorithms to help you plan the perfect vacation at Disney World, Disneyland, or a handful of other theme parks like Universal Studios Orlando. It’s a premium service, with subscriptions priced starting at $US16 per year.
Len Testa, the founder and president of TouringPlans.com, tells Business Insider that the service currently has 140,000 paying users, but that it’s had millions of users total since its inception in 2012. It has seven full-time employees on the staff, and 12 part-time employees, says Testa, as well as a business in publishing “Unofficial Guides” to Disney World, Disneyland, and other popular tourist destinations.
The service is important, says Testa, because with a little forward planning, you can make the most out of your very limited vacation time at Disney World. Even if you only save an hour a day, that’s an hour that can be spent going on your favourite ride again, or getting a better seat for the fireworks.
“It’s so important to have a plan,” says Testa. “An hour is a pretty good investment.”
What TouringPlans.com does
After playing with it for a few days, I can tell you this: TouringPlans.com may not be much to look at, but much like the Millennium Falcon – the star of this year’s new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge lands at both major Disney parks – it’s got it where it counts.
TouringPlans.com helps you decide which Disney World park to visit by analysing historical attendance data to predict crowd levels on any given day. Then, for each day of your visit, just plug in all the rides, shows, and restaurants you want to hit up, and it spits out an optimised itinerary that promises to minimise wait times while still getting you everywhere you want to go.
It even makes recommendations on how, when, and where to deploy FastPass+, which lets you make reservations to go on the resort’s most popular rides ahead of time.
But wait, there’s more: It will alert you if hard-to-get reservations at in-demand eateries like Be Our Guest at the Magic Kingdom open up. A personal favourite feature is that it has a directory of the view from every single Disney World resort hotel, and can automatically send a fax to the front desk requesting a specific room. The site even recommends rooms to request, based on criteria like distance from the food court or time to the bus stop.
It started in line
Fittingly, the idea that would become TouringPlans.com struck Testa while he was in line at Disney World during a family trip in 1997 – specifically, during a two-hour line for the now-defunct Great Movie Ride at Disney-MGM Studios (now known as Disney Hollywood Studios).
“In the middle of the two hours, I thought, ‘there has to be a better way to do this,'” says Testa.
At the time, Testa had just finished his undergraduate degree at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and was getting ready to re-enroll at the school for a grad program in computer science. As soon as he could, he took his big idea – using algorithms to improve the theme park experience – to his advisors.
They had two questions, he said. First, “besides you, does anyone care?” And secondly, they questioned if the problem was hard enough to be worth Testa’s time to solve. It turned out that, yes, it was: Planning the perfect Disney vacation is actually very similar to the travelling salesman problem, a famously complex computer science problem that requires the calculation of the optimal route between a set of cities.
As his graduate thesis, Testa wrote the core statistical models that would grow into TouringPlans.com. Today’s version, he says, is three or four generations removed from that original project. The fact that it only needed that many revisions over the 20 or so years since inception is proof that the foundations were solid, he says.
Nowadays, companies like Google, Microsoft, and Amazon use similar approaches as Testa’s original algorithms, as Silicon Valley increasingly turns to artificial intelligence to solve complex problems. At the time that TouringPlans.com was conceived, though, AI was still a long ways off from its current moment in the spotlight.
“I think we were a little ahead of the curve there,” says Testa.
And, as a side-note, in 2015 Testa would later team up with Dr. Bradley Eilerman – a fan of TouringPlans.com – to launch GlucosePATH, a service that uses modified versions of these very same algorithms to help diabetes patients manage their medication. That’s currently in a pilot program with Kentucky Medicaid, says Testa.
A data-driven Disney experience
It takes a lot of data to get useful answers out of complex algorithms, and the ones that power TouringPlans.com are no exception. To that end, Testa says that the site gets data from myriad sources, including ride wait time estimates taken from Disney’s own apps.
An important note, here: Testa says that the site has a good relationship with Disney, and that he and his team often attend the annual Disney Analytics Conference for data scientists. However, the site has no official affiliation with Disney or the parks, meaning that it’s not given any of this data directly.
Instead, a big part of what makes TouringPlans.com work is help from its users, Testa says.
Every day, he says, there are 300 to 500 families at Disney World who use the official TouringPlans.com Lines app on their smartphones to report their actual ride wait times, which Testa says can vary wildly from Disney’s official estimates. He likens Lines to Waze, Google’s popular crowd-sourced navigation app – except that instead of trying to route around rush hour traffic, users are trying to minimise their wait for Space Mountain.
Importantly, all of that data gets added to TouringPlans.com’s trove of historical Disney data, which gets used to make better predictions for the future. By analysing the data from every previous holiday season since it started in 2012, it can make a pretty reasonable prediction about what the crowds will look like for my trip this November.
It’s actually a little more clever than that, too: If a ride breaks down during your visit, Testa promises that TouringPlans.com will automatically refresh with a new itinerary – using that same historical data to make an educated guess about how long the outage will last, and when you should probably try to come back.
There are outliers that can throw the models off a little, says Testa. When Disney World opened the “Avatar: Flight of Passage” attraction in 2017, Testa and his team didn’t expect the hubbub to last much longer than six months, which is about how long it usually takes for the hype to come off new rides. Instead, wait times took about a year and a half to stabilise, he says.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge could be another big launch that bucks all historical trends, he says.
I’ll find out for myself how well TouringPlans.com works when I go in November – and I’ll be sure to report back.
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