Book Review of the Week: Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

As a Special Bonus, Frommer's has graciously donated a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009, to be awarded to a randomly drawn commenter on this article. Post your comments - you might win!  



Everyone loves Walt Disney World! I remember heading there several times, and being overwhelmed by the wide range of options available. I have been to Tokyo Disneyland over 80 times - when I was working in Japan, we often took visitiors there. However, Walt Disney World remains a place that is still new to me, due to proximal distance from Michigan!  However, the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009 aims to take the stress of navigating such a huge place out of your visit. 


TRULY comprehensive, this unofficial guide ranks and rates hotels, attractions, restaurants, and more. They give insider tips to save time and money. I was perusing the book with our neighbor, who has been to WDW many times. She was completely amazed at the content - she said they had to learn the hard way for only some of those recommendations (there was so much more she was surprised at!), but wanted to get a copy for herself!  As we try to plan vacations in this uncertain economic time, anything that helps save both time and money is more than welcome. 

In preparing for this week's Book Review, I contacted the author, Bob Sehlinger, engaged in dialogue about the book, and sent him my interview questions. To my great delight, he shared much more than my questions asked - and made me want to run out and get ALL of the Unofficial Guides, as they are so incredibley detailed.

Here's what Bob Sehlinger had to share, about the new Unnofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009...

The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is revised for each printing, usually twice a year. Between editions we post changes on our Web site, At almost 900 pages, it is the largest and most comprehensive guide to WDW in print.

Many of us who work on the guide, including myself, come from scientific and operations research backgrounds, as opposed to travel writing backgrounds.  That means that while other writers are describing the “rhythmic cadence of the eternal seas under an azure sky,”  we’re out measuring stuff, collecting data, modeling, and figuring out how our readers can see everything at the theme parks without spending all day standing in lines. 

From the first edition of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, minimizing our readers’ wait in lines has been a top priority. We know from our research and that of others that theme-park patrons measure overall satisfaction based on the number of attractions they’re able to experience during a visit: the more attractions, the better. Thus, we developed and offer our readers field-tested touring plans that allow them to experience as many attractions as possible with the least amount of waiting in line.

Our touring plans have always been based on theme-park traffic flow, attraction capacity, the maximum time a guest is willing to wait (called a “balking constraint”), walking distance between attractions, and waiting-time data collected at specific intervals throughout the day and at various times of year. The touring plans derive from a combinatorial model (for anyone who cares) that married the well-known assignment problem of linear programming with queuing (waiting line) theory. The model approximated the most time-efficient sequence in which to visit the attractions of a specific park. After we derived a preliminary touring plan from the model, we field-tested it in the park, using a test group who followed our plan and a control group (that didn’t have our plan) who toured according to their own best judgment.

The two groups were compared, and the results were amazing.  On days of heavy theme park attendance, the group touring without our plans spent an average of 3-1/2 hours more waiting in line and experienced 37% fewer attractions than did those who used our touring plans. 

As sophisticated as our model may sound, we recognized that it was cumbersome, slow, and didn’t approximate the “perfect” touring plan as closely as we desired. Moreover, advances in computer technology and science, specifically in the field of
genetic algorithms, demonstrated that it wouldn’t be long before a model, or program, was created that would leave ours in the dust.

Do you remember the story of John Henry, the fastest nail driver on the railroad? One day a man appeared with a machine he claimed could drive spikes faster than any man. John Henry challenged the machine to a race, which he won, but that killed him in the process.  We felt a bit like John Henry. We were still very good at what we did, but knew with absolute certainty that sooner or later we’d have to confront the touring-plan version of a nail-driving machine.

Our response was to build our own nail-driving machine. We teamed up during the mid-1990s with Len Testa, a cutting-edge scientist and programmer, who was working in the field of evolutionary algorithms and who, coincidentally, was a theme-park junkie. Marrying our many years of collecting Walt Disney World observations and data to Len’s vision and programming expertise, we developed a state-of-the-art program for creating nearly perfect touring plans.

Several university professors, all leaders in their fields, have contributed research or ideas to the new software program. Results from early versions of the software have been published in peer-reviewed academic journals. The most recent versions of the program are protected through pending patent applications.

It has been a process of evolution and refinement, but in each year of its development the new program came closer to beating the results of our long-lived model. In 2002, at field trials during the busy spring-break period, the new program beat the best touring plan generated by the traditional Unofficial model by 90 minutes at the Magic Kingdom. This was in addition to the 3 hours saved by the earlier model. Getting there, however, wasn’t easy. 

The Challenge

Creating effective, dependable touring plans has always been difficult and remains so. The main problem is that there are many ways to see the same attractions. For example, if we wanted to visit Space Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Splash Mountain as soon as the Magic Kingdom opens, there are six ways to do so:

    1.†First ride Space Mountain, and then ride Pirates of the Caribbean, then Splash Mountain.
    2.†First ride Space Mountain, and then ride Splash Mountain, then Pirates of the Caribbean.
    3.†First ride Splash Mountain, and then ride Space Mountain, then Pirates of the Caribbean.
    4.†First ride Splash Mountain, the ride Pirates of the Caribbean, then Space Mountain.
    5.†First ride Pirates of the Caribbean, and then ride Splash Mountain, then Space Mountain.
    6.†First ride Pirates of the Caribbean, and then ride Space Mountain, then Splash Mountain.

Some of these combinations make better touring plans than others. Since the queue for Space Mountain increases rapidly, it’s best to see Space Mountain first thing in the morning. For similar reasons, it would be better to see Splash Mountain before Pirates. In this example, touring plan number 2 would probably save us the most time standing in line. Touring plan 5 would probably result in the most waiting in line.

As we add attractions to our list, the number of possible touring plans grows rapidly. Adding a fourth attraction would result in 24 possible touring plans, since there are four possible variations for each of the six plans listed above. In general, the number of possible touring plans for n attractions is n x (n–1) x (n–2) x . . . x 1 (Don’t let the mathematical notation throw you. If we plug real numbers in, it’s quite simple.) For five attractions, as an example, there are 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1 possible touring plans. If you don’t have a calculator handy, that adds up to 120 potential plans. For six attractions, there are 6 x 5 x 4 x 3 x 2 x 1, or 720 possible plans. A list of ten attractions has over three million
possible plans. The 44 attractions in the Magic Kingdom One-Day Touring Plan for Adults have a staggering 51,090,942,171,709,440,000 possible touring plans. That’s over 51 million billion combinations, or roughly six times more than the estimated number of grains of sand on Earth. Adding in complexities such as FASTPASS, parades, meals, and breaks further increases the combinations.

Scientists have been working on similar problems for years. Companies that deliver packages, for example, plan each driver’s route to minimize the distance driven, saving time and fuel. In fact, finding ways to visit many places with minimum effort is such a common problem that it has its own nickname: the traveling-salesman problem.

For more than a small number of attractions, the number of possible touring plans is so large it would take a very long time for even a powerful computer to find the single best plan. A number of proposed techniques give very good, but not necessarily exact, solutions to the traveling-salesman problem in a reasonable amount of time.

The Unofficial Guide Touring Plan program contains two algorithms that allow it to analyze quickly tens of millions of possible plans in a very short time. (An algorithm is to a computer like a recipe is to a chef. Just as a chef takes specific steps to make a cake, a computer takes specific steps to process information. Those steps, when grouped, form an algorithm.) The program can analyze FASTPASS distribution patterns at all attractions, for example, and suggest the best times and attractions to use FASTPASS. The software can also schedule rest breaks throughout the day. If you’re going to eat lunch in the park, the software can suggest restaurants near where you’ll be at lunchtime that will minimize the time you spend looking for food.

The new program, however, is only part of what’s needed to create a good touring plan. Good data are also important.  For more than six years, we’ve been collecting data in the theme parks at every conceivable time of year. At each park researchers recorded the estimated wait at every attraction, show, FASTPASS booth, and restaurant, every thirty minutes, from park opening to closing. On a typical day at the Magic Kingdom, for example, each researcher walked about 18 miles and collected around 500 pieces of data. One of several research routes would start researchers at the Swiss Family Treehouse in Adventureland. After collecting data on all of Adventureland, they would continue to the attractions and restaurants in Frontierland. After that came Liberty Square, then finally through half of Fantasyland, before returning to Swiss Family Treehouse for an eight-minute break before starting the next round of data collection. A platoon of additional volunteers collected data in the other half of the park.

So how good are the new touring plans in the Unofficial Guide? Our computer program gets typically within about 2% of the optimal touring plan. To put this in perspective, if the hypothetical “perfect” Adult One-Day touring plan took about 10 hours to complete, the Unofficial touring plan would take about 10 hours and 12 minutes. Since it would take about 30 years for a really powerful computer to find that “perfect” plan, the extra 12 minutes is a reasonable trade-off.

From the concept up, Unofficial Guides are different from other guidebooks.   Other guides (regardless how information is formatted to fit a given series) are researched and developed by individual authors or co-authors, usually travel writers.  Thus, everything is filtered through the lens of those authors’ tastes, preferences, and opinions.  Publishers of these guides hope that the information the author presents is compatible with the needs of the reader, but if it is, the compatibility is largely accidental.  For good reason then are guides developed in this manner (Fodor’s, Frommer's, etc.) often referred to as “general” guides.  With such guides, one size fits all, and must, because the needs of a specific target market are never truly taken into account. (As an aside, the success of Frommer's and Fodor’s demonstrates that there is nothing wrong with this approach except to the extent that lack of market focus and absence of segmentation force these guides and others like them to fight for market share in an increasingly competitive and oversubscribed market.) In Unofficial Guides, by way of contrast, it is the tastes, preferences, and opinions of our carefully defined target market that dictate the content of the guides.  In other words, we start with the needs of our reader, identified through exhaustive research, and build a book that specifically meets those needs.

Our target audience is defined psycho-graphically, which is to say that our target reader manifests a set of characteristic behaviors and emotional states that we can meaningfully address in our guidebooks. 

Most general guidebooks do a reasonably good job with what and where. Unofficial Guides, as mentioned, add the dimensions of how and why. Describing a hotel, attraction, or casino (the what) at a given destination (the where) is the foundation of other travel guidebooks. Our readers, however, like to know how things work. Take hotels as an example. In the Unofficial Guides we not only provide the reader with abundant hotel choices (rated and ranked, of course), but also explain the economic and operational logic of the lodging industry (the why), and offer instruction (the how) that enables the reader to consistently take advantage of opportunities for discounts, room upgrades and the like.  Whether we’re discussing cruise ships, theme parks, ski resorts, casinos, or golf courses, the Unofficial Guides reveal the travel industry’s inner workings and demonstrate how to use such insight in selecting and purchasing travel.  For our readers, knowledge is power, which translates into informed decision making and confidence.

By way of analogy, a Frommer's or Fodor’s gives the reader a plate of fish to choose from. An Unofficial Guide does this as well, but additionally points out which fish is best. More importantly, however, an Unofficial Guide teaches the reader how to fish.  Anyone who has ever read the hotel chapter in an Unofficial Guide can use the information and methodology to book a great hotel room at a bargain price in any city in the world.

Because most travel authors are expert travelers, they tend to make assumptions concerning the reader’s travel experience and sophistication. It’s difficult for these writers to recall what it was like to be a novice traveler. They tend consequently to make leaps in logic or omit pertinent detail. These gaps give rise to uncertainty and discomfort.  A good example can be found in our Unofficial Guide to Washington DC. Other guidebooks discuss the Metro subway system in Washington DC as clean and efficient. End of story. Unofficial Guides, however, taking nothing for granted, realize that (1) a majority of Americans have never used a subway system, and (2) that our readers desire logical, sequential, complete coverage. Thus, we provide step-by-step instructions for riding the Metro supplemented with route maps and photos of fare machines and subway signs. 

It has been suggested that including such basic information is a turn-off to the more sophisticated traveler. An experienced traveler, however, understands the complexity of travel and recognizes the author’s obligation to make any given subject comprehensible to readers of varying backgrounds.   More important in a guidebook to a seasoned traveler are an authoritative voice, the inclusion of information that addresses his needs, competent writing, and clarity of presentation. 
I mentioned earlier that most guides offer the reader a numbing array of choice, and that plurality of choice only serves the reader when it is presented in an ordered, prescriptive way. An Unofficial Guide reader, for example, does not want descriptions of 100 hotels. Rather, he wants to know which hotel is best, which next best, and so on. Thus the Unofficial Guides rate and rank, even breaking ratings and rankings down into age specific ranges.  Distillation of choice through comparative analysis and accessibility of information through cross indexing and “at-a-glance” formats are what turn a mere list of choices into meaningful, useful information. When a reader uses an Unofficial Guide, the hardest job, comparing and differentiating all those choices, has been done for him by a team of authors and researchers.

No other guides do this, nor can they really, because the scope of the research and processing of data require time, experience, and resources that are beyond the capabilities or a single author or even several co-authors.  An entire organization collects and compiles data for the Unofficial Guides, an organization guided by individuals with extensive training and experience in research design as well as primary data collection and analysis. Unofficial Guide research is known and respected in both the travel industry and academe, having been cited by such diverse publications as USA Today, Travel Weekly, BBC, Fox News, Dallas Morning News, New York Times, The Economist, Conde Nast, CNN, Bottom Line, Money, and Operations Research Forum. Unofficial Guide researchers have served as consultants or project planners for the Busch Entertainment Corporation, H.B.J. Theme Park Division, the Utah Ski Association, the Eastern Professional River Outfitters Association, the Boy Scouts of America, and for architects such as Emilio Ambasz.

As far as I know, Unofficial Guide authors are the most accessible in travel publishing. We tell our readers in the first chapter of each book how to directly get in touch with us (in other words, our readers don’t have to go through the publisher to contact us). Consequently, we receive thousand of letters and emails from readers each year. We acknowledge and respond to every letter we receive.

Finally I should mention that the Unofficial Guides are the only guides that deal with crime, the homeless, sanitation, and disease in a direct and forthright manner. Not only is this information potentially invaluable to the reader, but it also strongly underscores the editorial independence of the guides.  That this coverage is the antithesis of what the local convention and visitor bureau wants the traveler to know is not lost on he reader. On the contrary, it assures him that he can depend on the Unofficial Guides to tell it straight and not to gloss over the unseemly in order to make the destination appear safer and more attractive than it actually is.

With advice that is direct, prescriptive, and detailed, Unofficial Guides take the guesswork out of travel. Wherever you travel, Unofficial Guides put you in the driver’s seat. They allow you to travel to the most complex destinations with absolute confidence and peace of mind.

Our Web site is

On the site we post changes and developments at WDW. We offer a crowd calendar where you can look up the dates of your WDW visit and see what the crowd condition will be for each park for each day of your vacation. The calendar also specifies which park will be the least crowded each day. The site also features a Least Expensive Ticket Calculator that will calculate which of the myriad WDW ticket options best fit your needs.

Other Unofficial Guides include:
Beyond Disney: Universal, SeaWorld, and the Best of Central Florida
Mini-Mickey: The Pocket Sized Guide to Walt Disney World
And The Unofficial Guide to....
Adventure Travel in Alaska California With Kids
Central Italy
Florida With Kids
Las Vegas
Mexico's Best Beach Resorts
New Orleans
New York City
San Francisco
Walt Disney World for Grown Ups Walt Disney World with Kids
Washington DC

WE: Thanks so much, Bob!! I am so very impressed with your hard work on the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009! We've bumped up a trip there, just based on your book.

Again, for more information on the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009, please see:



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Please leave a comment on this book review to be entered into a random
drawing for a copy of The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2009, courtesy of Frommer's. Comments left until 11:59pm Monday, November 10th, will be accepted.

You must be a member of (free to join) to leave a comment, and reside in the U.S. to be eligible for this drawing.



Comments (5)

  • skywaywaver

    15 years 1 month ago

    I would love to win this, as this is my fave WDW guide.  Please enter me!

  • Claire

    15 years 1 month ago

    My sister is going to Disney next month and we are planning a vacation next year with my 3 year old!! I would LOVE to win this book!!! Thank you for the Giveaway!!!

  • ChocolateQueen

    15 years 1 month ago

    I am a huge fan of Walt Disney World.  I have even gone on visits by myself.  :)  I always make sure to pick up a guide book and more often than not it is from Frommer's.  I woiuld love this one.

  • Sam Pounder

    15 years 1 month ago

    This book seems to provide the information you would need to truly get the most out of your vacation to Disney World.  If I don't win I certainly will buy a copy, because I plan plan to vacation there next Summer.  Thanks for a great interview.

  • Dr. Jessie Voigts

    15 years 1 month ago

    Congratulations to our two winners - Chocolate Queen and Claire!


    Thank you all for commenting! 


    Jessie Voigts


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