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What Does the Perfect Theme Park Queue Look Like?

February 10, 2016, 10:46 AM · What would the perfect theme park queue look like?

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.

Replies (13)

February 10, 2016 at 12:10 PM · This is why many times one can hear that the worst enemy for attraction operations is lack and leisure. This can come in the form of too much interactive que line time, or simply people playing on their cell phones while not keeping up with the people in front of them (this is the worst kind in recent years). I feel like the interactive que for Space Mountain at MK is a perfect interactive game. However, this gets messed up all the time because that park tends to way oversell on the fast pass plus. I wish they could add a third track to that ride.
February 10, 2016 at 1:11 PM · One queue that I alwasy get frustrated on is the Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey queue. There are so many of the "Hologram scenes" (Ill call it that), that people tend to stop dead in their tracks to watch the entire scene, or move slowly along. As they are watching, the line is moving way ahead of them. As much as the queue for this ride is exciting to walk through, it goes along with what you said about distracting people. Unfortunately, with this queue, people dont just get distracted right before boarding, they are getting distracted throughout the entire line.
February 10, 2016 at 2:54 PM · But, the FJ queue is so good, it's really an attraction in itself, as is the Gringott's queue. All of the times I've been in those two lines, the people that want to watch the scenes, portraits or whatever, usually stand against the ropes while the remainder of the people pass by. I'd much rather have a great queue than an uninteresting Six Flags rope line. Myself, I won't rate a attraction in my top rides unless it has a good queue. Twilight Zone, Star Tours, Splash Mt., Pirates of the Caribbean etc. really enhance the ride experience.
February 11, 2016 at 4:44 AM · I don't think I've ever been to a theme park show where all the guests actually move all the way down to the end of the row. I always end up having to walk over someone. Probably my worst experience with this was in Shrek 4D. There was one time when the employee must have spent at least 2 minutes just trying to tell everyone to move all the way to the end of the row. You could really sense the irritation in the poor guy's voice.
February 11, 2016 at 5:05 AM · Star Tours, Gringotts and Forbidden Journey are my top three - with the odd complaint that Forbidden Journey is almost too good. Having spent so much time in Hogwarts in the books and movies, to be walking around in such a faithful recreation, has too many Easter eggs to keep walking by. You don't spend a lot of time in Gringotts in the books, so I felt less rushed.

Star Tours has a good set up - a line through the spaceport, full of things to look at, then at the end get sent off to a boarding line. The safety video keep you amused, doors open, old group out, new group in, and away we go. Pretty efficient, by my estimation.

February 11, 2016 at 5:49 AM · Agree with the above mentions. The Forbidden Journey is the pinnacle of the queue. I disagree that it adds to the wait, as it does show down once you near the sorting hat. One of the all time best, and may be what started it all is the Disneyland Haunted Mansion. I like it much, much better than the WDW version. I think it set all of this in motion. I will say that Star Tours, while fun, does need an overhaul. The safety video, while fun, has the production values of a made for TV movie, and the cast member costumes are woefully outdated. I hope it gets the spit and polish when the new land arrives. I think new vehicles are needed also. Here is hoping that all of these improvements are added to the Hulk and all the new rides. I am not sure the allotted footprint for the new Star Wars attractions can meet or beat Forbidden Journey, but I hope they give it their all.
February 11, 2016 at 1:22 PM · My top 3 would be Forbidden Journey, Star Tours and Pirates of the Caribbean. I like how the queue is designed to be part of the itself, with the exception of the first outdoor part of Pirates which I don't see how Disney can get around. I have not been to WDW since the queue for Peter Pan was redone but it has to be better then what it was. Amazing Spider Man queue isn't bad but to much of it is outside and last time I was there , 2013, it really needed to be refurbished. My youngest son has Asperger's Syndrome and a good queue that keeps him occupied is worth more then you could imagine.
February 11, 2016 at 2:35 PM · What about The haunted Mansion? that has a decent queue
February 11, 2016 at 7:29 PM · 1. Journey to the Center of the earth/Terravator scene. 2. Hogwarts express with the 9 and 3/4 platform disappearing entrance. 3. Tower of Terror Tokyo with the Disappearing Shiriki Utundu pre show.
February 11, 2016 at 11:39 PM · Indiana Jones has an awesome queue that is so immersive.
February 12, 2016 at 8:27 AM · Just a note that this article doesn't cover omnimover rides, where it doesn't matter because the ride just keeps moving.
February 14, 2016 at 12:58 AM · Unfortunately this Article does not speak about the Practice (for example at 6Flags) to run Coasters on less busy days not at ful capacity or doing the Checks ect very slow, resulting in the same or even longer wait times as in busy days.
February 14, 2016 at 7:48 PM · Roger Rabbit Cartoon Spin's queue is amazingly detailed and amazingly immersive. While the line is usually the longest in the park I usually don't mind a 30-50 minute wait in Roger Rabbit

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