One might think that an easy question to answer — "It's empty!" But in practice, an empty queue is an operational disaster. Let's take a look at why, and from that, get a better understanding of why major theme parks are doing what they do with the wait areas for their rides and shows.
Here's the irony — an empty queue doesn't always mean "no wait." Theme parks keep their overall waits to a minimum when its attractions are operating at peak capacity. That means fully-loaded ride vehicles dispatch with minimal load time, and fully-loaded theaters start their shows with minimal wait between performances.
To make that happen, attractions operators need to have a full load for the next ride vehicle (or the next theater) standing right where they will enter it, ready to go, as soon as it is time to load. That way, the full load of people can slide right in and the vehicle or show can get underway.
Ever hear a show attendant tell people to "move all the way to the end of the row, filling each and every available seat"? That person was trying to load a full theater in as little time as possible. Allowing people to walk around, choosing seats, slows the load time for that theater by minutes. Do that for every show all day long, and you've reduced the number of shows the park can fit into the day. Which, in turn, means longer waits for those shows.
That's why so many popular theme park shows have a pre-show area. The purpose of the pre-show area isn't to entertain you with a preview before the main show. It's to gather the next audience in a space from which they can easily and swiftly "slide" into the theater en massefor the next performance. The last thing that show operators want is a stream of people in single file entering the theater. When people enter a theater one at a time, they will naturally pause to wait for the rest of their group to enter, then they will stop to pick a row. Once in the row, without a mass of people pushing behind them, they might leave some empty seats between them and other parties, thinking that they are being courteous and allowing them their personal space. All this slows the flow of people into seats in the theater, and forces people to walk over others to get to remaining empty seats, slowing the load time ever more.
The same problem can happen on rides. When people are dribbling into the load area from an empty queue, operators typically end up holding ride vehicles at load, so that an entire party can catch up and get on the same vehicle. That lowers the ride's hourly capacity, as cars waiting at load are not cycling through the ride. Waiting "just a second" for someone to run to the train, when multiplied by hundreds of such incidents a day, can reduce an attraction's daily capacity by thousands.
When I worked at Tom Sawyer Island, we achieved a 50% increase in hourly capacity by moving around some boxes on the island-side dock, to create a "loading pen" with capacity equal to one raft. Everyone in that pen when the raft docked got go on — sliding onto the raft en masse once it was clear. Anyone outside the pen when the raft docked was asked to wait for the next raft. Without waiting for people to run to the dock, or to pack the raft beyond capacity, we could cycle more rafts — and more people — per hour. (Rafts could cross the river faster when they weren't overloaded, as well.)
So the perfect queue, from an operational perspective, is one that ensures a smooth, consistent flow of people at the load point, so that every vehicle can dispatch and show can start as close to immediately as physically possible, and at full capacity.
Now, where it gets more interesting is considering what should happen in a queue with more people in it that is minimally necessary to assure that smooth, consistent flow of guests at load. Ideally, you wouldn't put those extra people in a queue, but would allow them to be otherwise entertained elsewhere in the park.
This is where systems such as Fastpass come into play. Working perfectly, a ride reservation system fills a queue with just enough people at any given moment to ensure load efficiency... and no more. Everyone else gets to do something more interesting than waiting, elsewhere in the park. Fastpass+ takes this to the next level, enabling people to schedule multiple reservations at once, while allowing the park to steer people to less popular attractions that might struggle to maintain an efficiently loaded queue at all times. That redistribution allows those less popular attractions to increase their effective hourly capacity with more efficient loading, without reducing the capacity at more popular rides, which together increases the park's overall effective capacity.
So when Disney Parks executives talk about Fastpass+ increasing park capacity, this is what they mean.
Of course, parks have built some pretty big queues, which might be much larger than is needed to hold the minimum number of people needed for load efficiency. If there aren't enough attractions, parades, shows, restaurants and other things to accommodate all the people in a park at peak times, the park might need to "store" some of those extra visitors in those big queue spaces, even with a ride reservation system in place. In these cases, the park can improve the quest experience by essentially transforming those excess queue spaces into attractions themselves, adding interactive elements and other distractions that entertain people while they wait to enter the "core" queue area or preshow.
Where interactive queues fail is when they distract people when they should be preparing to board. That's why pre-show entertainment must end several moments before it is time to enter the theater. And that's why many Big Thunder Mountain Railroad cast members at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom complained when interactive elements in that queue began distracting and slowing people who should have been keeping up with the people in front of them as they approached the loading platform.
So the next time you are waiting in a theme park queue, think about it from an operational perspective. Obviously, many queues are far from perfect. But many are better designed than you might understand at first glance.Tweet
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