Theme Park Tech: The queue's blues
Written by Robert Niles
Theme park operations teams measure their effectiveness by a simple datum -- how many people did your ride put through in an hour? It's all about the capacity. Get "The Number" up, and your rides' wait times go down. Let your number slide, and wait times explode -- as do customer complaints.
So what can an ops team do to increase the number of people it puts through a ride in any given hour? With just a handful of exceptions, operators don't control how long a ride lasts. That leaves most ride ops teams with two options:
1) Make sure that every seat is filled and you've crammed as many people on a ride vehicle as possible.
2) Minimize the amount of time that ride vehicles are stopped to load and unload passengers.
In short, keep 'em full and moving at all times. But spend a few shifts working a load position for a major theme park attraction, and you'll leave amazed at the huge number of factors that affect your ability to keep people moving swiftly onto your ride.
Let's take your basic iron-park roller coaster as an example. You've got one train on the track. When it's in the station, loading or unloading, the ride's stopped and that all-important hourly count gets frozen for the time it takes to unload and reload the ride.
So let's add a second train to the track. Now you can take your time unloading and reloading a train while the other one is out on the course. A train's moving on the track at all times now, perhaps doubling the number of people the ride's serving in a given hour.
If a second train helps move The Number in the right direction, how about adding a third train, as well? Sure, but what happens if you've got a relatively short track, one that can't accommodate two trains, safely spaced apart, while the third is unloading and reloading passengers? Then one of your two trains is stuck out on a block brake waiting to get into the station, allowing your visitors to broil in the sun while waiting for the train ahead of them to clear the station.
How many times has that happened to you?
And that train ahead better clear the station, because if it doesn't get out on time, and the train behind stays there on that block brake, you can't safely dispatch the train behind it over the final lift (or launch) on the track. That train needs a clear block brake in front of it before it can enter the final zone of track, unless you want to risk a collision, injuries, bad press, government fines, and lawsuits. You wouldn't do that, so your ride system will have to shut down the lift, which probably requires closing the ride so an op can go out there, check on the stranded passengers, then help restart the lift.
This is known as a "cascade stop," and it's the leading cause of downtimes on roller coasters. And when a ride is down, The Number's down, too.
So how do you help ensure that a ride keeps running, as you keep trying to increase its capacity? Well, have you ever noticed how Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at Disneyland and Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom has two stations, one to either side of the ramp (at the MK) or stairwell (at DL) you use to access the load platform?
With two stations, you give yourself up to double the time to load and unload a train, as a train can be loading on one side as another is leaving or coming into the station on the other. That allows you extra flexibility to run more trains on the same track without having to stretch the limits of how quickly your visitors can climb into and out of a roller coaster train seat. (Big Thunder Mountain can run up to five trains on its track.)
But now we run into another problem. Once you fine-tune a load operation to the point where it can accommodate thousands of guests per hour, you've got to have a queue that can deliver that volume of bodies into your loading area.
Consider your traditional, single-file, "serpentine" queue. It's the fairest way for people to line up for a ride -- first come, first served. But maintaining a single file queue creates a huge problem for ops staff at a high-capacity attraction. People just don't come out of a queue fast enough when they're coming out one at a time. What happens when a little kid tires out and stops moving until Daddy picks him up? Or someone stops to tie a shoe? Or visitors pay so much attention to their cell phones that they don't see the people ahead moving?
The line stops, and the ops team at dispatch faces a bad choice: Hold the ride, or send seats out empty until the line gets moving again. Either way, you're not keeping 'em full and moving. The Number suffers.
How many times have you been waiting in a queue and heard the announcement, "Please keep up with the party in front of you"? That's the ops team, trying to keep up The Number. Design teams have helped try to address this problem by creating loading platforms and preshow areas that group people into a mass that can move onto or into a ride vehicle or show theater at one time, instead of having to hold everything while people file in one at a time.
Moving sidewalks and load platforms provide a different approach -- maintain the single-file order, but put visitors on a moving platform so that you never need to stop the ride. Still, if a party needs some extra time to get in or out (wheelchair guests, crying children, texting teens), you've got to slow or stop the circuit anyway.
Queue design helps make or break The Number. Disney's been introducing "interactive" queues at many of its most popular rides in Orlando in an attempt to better entertain people while they wait. But interactive queues backfire when they slow or stop the line, and other visitors refuse to walk around those gawking at the interactive features. Recently, I've heard that ops staff at Big Thunder Mountain have sent a cast member up to the ride's new interactive queue to urge people to keep moving.
After all, the best way to alleviate the frustration of waiting in line is to reduce the amount of time you have to wait. That means improving The Number.
Please keep up with the party in front of you. And we'll see you in the comments.
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