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Theme Park Tech: The queue's blues

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Published: April 10, 2013 at 2:25 PM

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.

Loading platform at Paris' Space Mountain

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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Readers' Opinions

From 71.129.36.190 on April 10, 2013 at 9:12 PM
Thanks for the fascinating article. It's the kind of insight you wouldn't get except by actually working on an attraction at a theme/amusement park.
From Brandon Townsend on April 10, 2013 at 10:34 PM
Lines are for some the worst part of visiting an amusement park. My family has become spoiled with Universal Express, FastPass and similar line shortening features. Now we won't wait more than 20 minutes for an old familiar ride.

However, Disney does such an excellent job on some newer attractions (i.e. Expedition Everest) that I find myself wishing I could spend more time looking at the line dioramas as I speed through with my FastPass. Then there's the long, tedious slog through the Peter Pan queue to bring you back to reality.

It seems it would be easy to make all lines a little more palpable with technology and imagination. Why not let people use the ubiquitous cell phone to play Disney trivia about the ride and characters you are in line for? Or name that Disney tune? Or at Universal movie trivia and games? But maybe that would distract people and slow down the hourly ride count for the sweating masses?

From 68.58.202.10 on April 10, 2013 at 10:56 PM
Of all the major E-Ticket rides at Disney and Universal, what are the five best and five worst when it comes to average hourly ride capacity?

From Aaron McMahon on April 10, 2013 at 11:33 PM
I haven't been in any of the interactive queues but they seem a little counter-intuitive: if people are constantly moving through the line, how are they going to play in the activities?

I prefer the queue for the Simpsons Ride: play old episodes of the Simpsons with some snippets of the attractions plot but nothing you need to know before going to the pre show and attraction.

From 162.119.64.110 on April 11, 2013 at 9:09 AM
Good Article. I think this is one area that Six Flags is the worst! Countless time where lines are long and too many empty seats! Six flags does not offer the single rider line such as Universal or Disneyland. I'm all for picking your seats but when the majority of people want to sit in the front or back, it leads to a lot of empty seats in the middle.

Also, Six Flags is the worst when it comes to how many trains they run. Seriously, you only running two cars in the summer! I've been to a few Cedar Fair parks during the down season that run more trains than Six Flags.

Marco

From Robert Niles on April 11, 2013 at 10:23 AM
I think that interactive queues are fine -- so long as people learn to go around people who've stopped for an interactive feature. But given how ingrained the "don't cut" lesson is for most courteous theme park visitors, that's gonna be tough to get people to do.

Also, the highest capacity ride at the Magic Kingdom when I worked there was Pirates. I'll defer to other current and former ops readers on other attractions.

From Ray Schroeder on April 11, 2013 at 10:44 AM
It irks me whenever I see a ride leave with empty seats. Why don't all the E ticket rides have a single rider line? That way all the seats are filled.
From Aaron McMahon on April 11, 2013 at 2:52 PM
Duel loading stations and single rider lines are great though they require more staffing, management and maintenance than most regional parks have, especially compared to Disney and Universal.

One technique that I admired was at Hershey Park's Fahrenheit. The coaster is with trains that features three four person cars. Of course this is very low capacity for a new thrill ride.

To compensate they have one employee confidently and politely telling odd number groups move to the middle car and even groups to the front and back. This keeps the line moving steadily and trains leave without empty seats.

I've heard that the new Superman coaster at Discovery Kingdom uses this technique to beat low capacity.

From Anon Mouse on April 12, 2013 at 9:22 AM
Many stations seem to hold many train cars at the end of the ride. Aren't they out of the last zone before unloading? With one car at the incline, one car at the loading dock, there could be 2 or more cars waiting to be unloaded. If for any reason there is hesitation, all cars could be at the station to prevent a cascade stop.

One thing I hate about the high capacity rides and the switchbacks is the lines are constantly moving. The guest is constantly walking, yet we are NOT getting to the ride any faster. Last year, I had to wait 1 hour to get on the Universal Studios Hollywood tram ride despite a constantly moving queue line. I was exhausted by the time I got on the tram. They need a new way of moving the guests without having the guests to move.

From Eric G on April 14, 2013 at 11:04 AM
Anon Mouse- A moving queue line irks you? That's crazy. I love a line that keeps moving. It's so frustrating to stand in one place. Sounds to me like you need to get in shape if you tire from walking around like that.

Cascade stop may be the #1 cause of downtime on a few of Disney's roller coasters, but for the majority of the roller coasters in the world that is not true and it's a non-issue.

Big Thunder Mountain is one of the real exceptions since the block brakes reside at a low point below lifts B and C, so when there is a delay in dispatching at the station and those brakes are engaged then the trains that stop in that position have to be unloaded and winched to the lifts.

Space Mountain and Matterhorn resets are complicated because of the sheer number of trains cycling.

However, most roller coasters don't need to be reset when a train is stopped at a mid-course block. The computer brain will resume the motion of the trains when the block ahead is finally cleared.

I'm surprised there was no mention about seat belts and loading gates since both are real capacity killers.

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