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Theme park cast member stories: When to cut off the line?

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Published: August 30, 2010 at 11:10 AM

I've mentioned before that the most difficult thing a theme park attractions cast member has to do on a daily basis is to ask women if they are pregnant. But here's the second-worst thing I had to do when I worked at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom: Cutting the line and telling people they were going to have to keep waiting for the next show.

Cutting the line creates a moment of conflict that can escalate into a day-ruining (or at least a moment-ruining) experience. In effect, you're doing what you are not supposed to do as a park employee: You're telling someone "no."

Yet I've found most theme park fans to be smart, friendly people - when given the chance to be. If there's a line snaking outside a show building, you understand that there's a good chance that not everyone's getting into the next show. And that someone's going to be the last one into the next show, meaning that the person behind that person is going to have to keep waiting.

Of course, given the choice, folks would rather be the last one into that next show. :-)

Cutting the line isn't a big deal at rides, such as Pirates of the Caribbean or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. If someone doesn't get on the current boat or train, no big deal. There's another one coming down, right away. Anyone can wait a few extra seconds. Cutting the line only creates scenes at shows, where if you don't get into the next theater, you're stuck waiting for that show to finish and the theater to clear before you can come in and take a seat.

On the Magic Kingdom's west side, we ran three shows. I never worked the Hall of Presidents, and the next full show at the Tiki Room might be the first in a generation. But we had to cut the line frequently at the Country Bear Jamboree.

At "Bear Band," as cast members called the show, we had a pre-show waiting area that supposedly held as many people (standing) as would be able to fit (sitting) inside the theater. And we had a back-and-forth queue that snaked around our porch and the sidewalk area in front of the Country Bear theater building to hold the overflow that wouldn't fit inside the pre-show.

Knowing that, the logical thing to do might seem to be to fill the pre-show area with folks for the next show, then hold the people for the show after that at the turnstiles, backing into the queue. In fact, the turnstiles could be set to admit just the number of people who'd fit into the next show. As you came close to that number, a red light would illuminate on top of the turnstiles, and when you hit that number, the turnstile would lock, preventing anyone else from entering.

Seems simple, right? Well, simple isn't exactly comfortable when you're standing at the turnstiles position next to the unlucky folks whom you've just told to wait for an extra 18 to 20 minutes. Since the pre-show area typically takes less 10 minutes to fill, that group will be standing there next you in front of locked turnstiles for 10 minutes, often giving you the stink eye the whole time.

So I quickly learned two rules about cutting the line:

  • Don't put the spotlight on the unlucky party
  • Under-promise and over-deliver

No one wants to be the person standing there at a locked turnstiles for 10 minutes. It's bad enough having to wait an extra show; let's not pile on the humiliation of the "velvet rope syndrome," where you're left standing watching everyone else who is getting in, with that cold metal barrier keeping you out.

Instead, I would cut the flow of guests into the pre-show area before the red light came on. First, why pack this relatively small pre-show area like a can of salmon? Cutting the line early gives everyone a little extra space. Sure, that means that some people will be held in the queue, rather than inside the building, but I'd rather be lined up in a queue on the porch than packed into that pre-show area, with its low ceiling.

After a while, I got a feel for how many people were in the room, and didn't need to wait for the red light to tell me that we were close. So I'd cut the flow of guests into the pre-show a couple of dozen folks short of filling the room. That way, I could tell the people waiting at the turnstiles that they would be getting into the next show, but that we didn't want to overcrowd the pre-show area.

When I phrased it this way, everyone around me was happy. The folks inside the pre-show area were happy that I wasn't jamming more folks in around them, and the people at the turnstiles were happy that they'd make the next show.

When the current show was ending, and after I'd done my pre-show spiel, I'd reopen the turnstiles and let that next party in. Then I'd start asking the folks behind them how many were in their party, using my loudest stage voice, so that people behind them in the queue could hear. By this time, the folks on the porch had figured that they weren't getting into the next show, but they could see that I was letting in a few "extra" guests.

So the party that, ultimately, would have to wait for the next show wasn't too disappointed, as they'd figured before that they weren't getting in anyway. And by the time I'd told them this, the folks in the pre-show area were moving into the theater for the next show. So I'd simply hold the folks at the turnstiles for a few seconds while I closed the door to the theater. After that, the "unlucky" party simply blended into the rest of the crowd coming into the pre-show, instead of having to wait for 10 minutes at the turnstiles, feeling like some spotlight was on them.

Even more importantly, I always made to sure to watch the wait time we had posted at the end of the queue. I'd note how many minutes until the show were left when I cut the flow of guests into the pre-show area. Then I posted a wait time 20 minutes more than that. So if there were 10 minutes to go before the next show when I stopped people coming into the pre-show area, I'd post a 30-minute wait. If the line of waiting quests extended outside of our "normal" queue when I held the line at turnstiles, meaning that folks at the back of the line would have to wait two shows to get in, then I added another 20 minutes on to that.

This way, I'd be posting the wait time for that "unlucky" family who'd have to wait the longest period to see the show. For the folks immediately in front of them, though, the wait would be about 20 minutes less. That made the cut-off go even more smoothly, as I wasn't adding 20 minutes onto the "unlucky" family's wait time by making them wait. All I was doing was letting them know that they'd hadn't gotten lucky enough to get a wait time 20 minutes less than they'd expected.

To this day, I get steamed whenever I have to wait for an attraction longer than the wait time posted. But I never get upset when I have to wait that amount of time, or less. Even when I'm the one who gets "cut off" in the line.

For more stories about working in theme parks, visit themeparkinsider.com/stories.

Readers' Opinions

From Raymond Sydowski on August 30, 2010 at 3:38 PM
And this why experience and forethought matters at an attraction.
From Rod Whitenack on August 30, 2010 at 3:49 PM
I've got a question for you about cutting off lines that seems like it might be the third most uncomfortable job of the day. How do you handle cutting off lines at the end of the night when a popular ride is getting ready to shut down? I've seen some bad arguments go down when that happens, when people have run all the way across the park to try to ride something at the last minute but end up just a little late and the line has been cut off. I know you have to account for all the people currently in line and how long it will take to get them all through. I also know the employees have been running the ride all day and want to go home at some point. What's the best strategy for making the most people happy?
From Robert Niles on August 30, 2010 at 4:01 PM
Disney's policy was that if you were in line when the park closed, you got to ride (or watch).

We tried to time it so that the last show of the night would start at closing time, so that we didn't have to run an additional show for folks who arrived after the last show started, but before the park closed.

That usually meant an extra-long break after the next-to-last show. A few times, the theater operator screwed that up, and forgot to place a hold on the show. In that case, we usually just let people arriving just before closing to go straight into the theater to see the show in progress, in the hopes that they wouldn't demand a full show after the park closed. (Once, a family did demand that - so we had to call park control to allow us to start a new show five minutes after park closed. They did, and the family saw their show - and the theater operator got reprimanded for screwing up the timing, since security had to stay late in the area to clear the guests.)

In practice, the final show of the night was almost never filled. Only once did I see a full show at Bear Band at closing, forcing us to run a second show after the park had closed. That was on the old cast member Christmas party night, back when (a) those existed and (b) Bear Band ran the Country Bear Jamboree Christmas show, which, naturally, all the Christmas party-goers wanted to see.

From Anthony Murphy on August 30, 2010 at 6:55 PM
I think this proves the point of Cast Members over employees at some places like Six Flags. I was "spotlighted" at the last time at SFGA and half of my party got to go on!

I bet Fantasmic has gotta be brutal to stop the line!

From Raymond Sydowski on August 30, 2010 at 8:54 PM
Ah, I miss closing Everest at night. On those rare times of the year DAK closes after dark, it was something special. The park would clear out once dusk hits, so we'd have people in small groups riding and re-riding until they couldn't see straight. They'd be laughing and having a ball the entire time.
From 212.240.35.34 on September 1, 2010 at 9:22 AM
Sometimes its good to the the party who doesn't make it to the show which is about the load though as then you are first for the next one, often meaning front row seats as opposed to cramming in way at the back. Every cloud has a silver lining....and your on holiday so its time to relax anyway!

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