emotional experience that engages your spirit and mind in ways that you'll be reliving for years.Many theme park fans idolize designers — and that's wonderful. The creative minds who design theme park attractions deserve the adoration of fans for the experiences they develop. Great design work can elevate a theme park attraction from the relatively simple physical sensation of a carnival ride into an
But a great design does not ensure a great experience on a theme park attraction. For that, a ride or show needs effective operations. Without a well-trained, swift-thinking ops crew running the show, even the best attractions can provide a miserable experience for theme park guests.
Good ops teams provide the first line of response in protecting show quality, as they are the ones who see the attraction in operation on a daily basis. They ensure the safety of guests within an attraction. And they keep the line moving, putting as many people through the attraction as possible to keep wait times to their minimum.
Effective operations demand a team effort among designers, park managers, and the hourly employees who will staff the attraction. If designers are not thinking about effective operations when they create an experience, they will leave the ops team with logistical problems they cannot overcome. If managers are not scheduling enough ops cast or team members at the proper times — or not supporting their suggestions to improve the flow of guests through an attraction — the ops team won't be able to support a smoothly running show.
Asking the lowest-paid members of the organization to make up for the shortcomings of much-higher-paid designers and managers would represent the height of arrogance from a business' leaders. Great ops employees can work wonders for a theme park, but it never should be left to them alone to cover for others' oversights and mistakes.
Based on my experience working in theme park ops and observing theme park operations as a customer and reporter, here are my rules for an effectively-designed attraction operation. They include broad suggestions for queue design, load design, and staffing, all in the hope that parks can keep improving to provide an even better experience for their guests.
Queueing should be fair, not frustrating: If there is just one thing that everyone in this industry seems to agree upon, it's that people hate waiting in lines. But I would like to suggest that people hate feeling frustrated even more... and cheated, even worse. Theme parks in recent years have introduced several ways for people to avoid physically waiting in lines: ride reservation systems, front-of-line passes, and virtual queues. Unfortunately, the variety of choices have left many visitors confused, especially since an option that is free at one park might require payment at another. Don't leave it to the ops team to explain all this to your customers.
If a park is using anything other than traditional stand-by queues, it must try to educate its potential customers about the park's queueing options through its marketing and publicity outreach. To create a sense of fairness, if a park is using stand-by queues, it should have enough capacity within that queue so that its line does not spill outside the queue's entrance, even at its busiest. That way, people walking into the alternate entrance won't be bypassing a visible queue of waiting people, and people who have the alternate option won't be confused into waiting on a standby line on the street in front of the ride entrance. I understand that some parks like having a visible difference between the length of the standby and paid queues, in the belief that helps sell the paid option. It might convert a few fans, but I think such an approach leaves many more with a very sour taste in their mouths.
No doglegs or pinch points at load: People are the liquid that flow through a theme park attraction. But people are viscous and rarely flow smoothly. In an ideal attraction design, the queue would funnel people to the exact width of the boarding lane, so that they move straight into the ride vehicle or theater without clogging the entrance and slowing the flow. If you don't need a single file line at load, then don't make the queue a single file line. That's why theater pre-show areas should be as wide as the theater is deep, do you can slide one audience into the theater after the next, as if they were on a tray. Never place a dogleg or a turn near the loading point or in a pre-show area, either, as it is hard for people to flow around that smoothly. They should enjoy a straight-ahead approach into load.
Don't wait for stragglers: The key to high hourly capacity on theme park attractions lies in cycle time. It's like turning tables at a restaurant. The more units you send in an hour, the more people you an put through. The last thing an ops team should do is to hold a ride unit that's clear for dispatch to make sure it is completely filled. If people aren't yet at the load point, ready to go, let them wait for the next vehicle and send the one that's waiting. From personal experience at the Magic Kingdom, a load-and-go strategy beats a load-'til-filled approach by at least 10 percent higher capacity per hour.
Design for accessibility: Wheelchair transfers are the devil. Not wheelchair users, of course, but the often-frustrating requirement that people leave their chair in order to experience an attraction. Keeping with the load-and-go logic from the point above, you never want to hold a ride vehicle for the extra time it takes to accommodate a wheelchair transfer. Either design the attraction so that wheelchairs can roll on board as quickly as other guests can walk in (yes!), or take an approach such as Disneyland's Space Mountain, which pulls a ride vehicle off the line — without interruption — to allow wheelchair users the extra time they might need to get in and out of the vehicle. And don't get me started on designs where riders unload in a different place than where they boarded, forcing ops to pull someone just to move the wheelchair. Design for accessibility. Don't leave your ops team to have to hack it.
Spieling is a skill that demands training and support: If cast members spiel from load, and no one in the queue can hear it, did they actually say anything? Invest and test speaker tech, to ensure that information is audible wherever it needs to be heard. Then train your ops personnel to use microphones effectively, so that their words come through clearly. Ultimately, though, spieling ought to be the frosting on a cake. An attraction's queue design should make intuitive where people should go, encourage them to keep moving through a queue, and funnel them into the correct position at load. Test seats out front and signage in multiple languages and appropriate symbols should make boarding requirements clear. And there should be enough happening visually and sonically inside an attraction that a person can enjoy it even if they don't understand the language of the spieler. Don't rely on minimum wage, hourly ops employees to entertain your guests. They can help, but shouldn't be asked to carry the show... unless they are paid much more to do that.
Everyone should know where everything is: I don't like getting lost in a theme park. But I hate it when a cast or team member cannot tell me how to get to where I want to go. Every employee in the park should have its map committed to memory, and testing new hires on site locations within the park (toilets, restaurants, attractions, etc.) ought to be a standard and required part of training check-out. When I was at the media preview day for Volcano Bay, two Universal team members gave me different, yet incorrect, directions to the entrance for the Kala and Tai Nui Serpentine Body Slides. After I rode, when another visitor in the area asked another team member how to get to them, I had to jump in and correct the TM when he started to give a wrong answer. That shouldn't happen, even in a new park.
Rotate your cast and team members: Nothing destroyed my desire to work as an ops cast member like being frozen at one position for hours on end. I stayed much more alert, focused, and motivated when I rotated from position to position at an attraction. That also taught me to see the entire operation as one functioning unit, helping me to understand how everything we did at greeter, load, tower, and unload affected what everyone else was doing. I know that some pencil-pushing keyboard jockeys in management see the time that a bump takes to go through as a waste of company wages. They'd rather just swap out a person who needs a break rather than take the extra time to move everyone from one position to the next. But rotations improve cross-training, morale, and the efficiency of an operation. Want to maximize time savings? Then designers should consider ops rotations in the layout of a new attraction, to minimize the amount of time it takes a bump to go through. Don't sacrifice morale and experience for a few minutes of minimum-wage pay.
But let them specialize when demand is highest: While I endorse rotations, when you're choking under a rush of guests after a parade concludes or when you come up from a downtime, a good ops lead should know which people on their crew handle which jobs best. Like an AYSO coach managing substitutions to have his or her best line-up on the pitch in the fourth quarter, you want to place cast or team members in their best positions during a crowd rush. At Pirates of the Caribbean one summer, another CM and I would freeze ourselves at load for an hour during the post-3pm parade rush, as we could kill the line faster than anyone else on the crew. That's great for guests and takes the pressure off everyone on the crew.
Set a capacity standard: (*Added) Skilled, experience loaders can help an attraction approach its theoretical hourly capacity, but even the best ops in the world can't push an attraction beyond its designed limit. For major theme parks, if an attraction cannot reliably put through at least 500 people per hour, it needs to be an upsell, an age-restricted experience, or offered on a reservation-only basis. Or it needs to be closed in favor of something that can. Well-designed attractions should offer an hourly capacity in the range of 1,000-3,000 people per hour. If a proposed new ride can't do that, park managers should spare their ops team a huge headache and think hard about passing on the proposal.
Invest in experience: Great ops personnel see problems before they happen and prevent them. They see the child about to cry in a queue and comfort them before they cause the ride to go down. They know from watching it every day which part or show element is about to break and they call it in for replacement before it does. They see the bottleneck of guests developing and disperse it before anyone can get frustrated, then angry, about it. Great ops personnel collectively save companies millions of dollars in downtime, repair costs, legal settlements, and ill will from guests. But they cannot do any of these things without the time on the job to earn the experience necessary to see problems before they happen. And ops members can't afford to stay on the job that long if they're not earning a living wage.
You want minimum effort? Then pay minimum wage. And pay for that short-sightedness with higher repair expenses, costly legal cases, and guests telling their friends and social media followers about all those bad experiences they had in the park that wouldn't have happened with a more experienced ops team. Pay your ops crew now, or pay everyone else later.Tweet
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