Introducing Robert's Rules of Theme Park Operations

June 26, 2017, 3:59 PM · 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 emotional experience that engages your spirit and mind in ways that you'll be reliving for years.

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.

Replies (16)

June 26, 2017 at 8:07 PM

A few more items in design.

Entertaining and interactive queues are great. But ensure the queue at interactive points are wide enough to bypass guests that spend excess time being entertained. Never place entertainment or interactive points in the line after the five minute wait point. Guests need to be focused on load and unload as much as ops staff.

Make the load process clear and obvious and train the staff to use the signage and signals at the load point. Use friendly barriers to avoid last second juggling of seating.

When designing the ride, build some alternate entertainment into the design for long delays. The 12 second bit when you ride by is great, but after you sit and watch it 20 consecutive times, it's just an annoyance. Build a few minutes of related backstory, audio clips from the related movie, alternate music, or other voice overs to fill in an extended delay. It costs a little bit, or just maybe being delayed for a few minutes could become a special treat.

Fast passes, food reservations, and similar are a great ops tool to distribute guests. But don't overbook. The standby line is also important to guest satisfaction.

June 27, 2017 at 6:32 AM

"it should have enough capacity within that queue so that its line does not spill outside the queue's entrance, even at its busiest"

I would agree with that in most situations, but sometimes the line spilling into the street is necessary to make people understand how long the queue is. While many parks have gotten really good at providing accurate wait times for their attractions and post them clearly outside the entrances, people sometimes need to see that physical line to deter them. The queue should be designed to handle about an hour's worth of guests that's hidden from view, but anything beyond that should be blatantly obvious to guests that are considering stepping into the standby line. If guests want to step into an outrageous line, that's fine, but they're going to be subjected to gawking and staring from passersby as they creep through an external overflow queue. If 2-hours of queue is hidden from guests, there's nothing aside from the posted wait time making guests consider walking over to another attraction with a shorter line. Overflow queues should also be void of theme and not as comfortable as the main queue area (i.e. outside in the elements).

"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"

I think this depends upon the type of attraction. Something like Haunted Mansion or other omni-mover style rides, the funnel effect helps to control the flow of guests onto the conveyor. The dogleg effect is sometimes necessary to create that "wow" moment before you get onto the ride. Hogwarts Express comes immediately to mind here where guests are apt to pause once stepping onto the 9 3/4 platform because of that "wow" moment. That's what attraction designers are trying to achieve, and the last thing you want is for guests to have that moment and then wait another 10-15 minutes to get onto the ride. It's a very delicate balance, but I think some attractions need that dogleg to set the scene and let guests know that they've transitioned from standing on line to entering the story.

My biggest queuing issue is where line avoiding guests join standby guests. As Robert noted, there's nothing worse for standby guests than to see a surge of "special" people walk past you to get on a ride you've waited over an hour to experience. I know it's not practical on many older attractions, but all new attractions should be designed with separate load platforms for line avoiding guests. These platforms should have about a third of the capacity of the main loading area, but should be segregated so line avoiding guests and standby guests don't mix until they're on the ride. It would certainly add more fail points to rides with additional transfer tracks and more ride ops, but if standby guests never see FP guests walking past them, it keeps the guest in the story instead of second guessing themselves for not getting that FP or paying for the express pass upcharge.

My final note would be to make sure high profile attraction queues are supplied with Wifi with sufficient bandwidth to handle the number of guests waiting in the queue. There should also be some type of signal or notice to guests as they reach the end of the main queue and transition to the boarding area to allow guests enough time to store their devices prior to entering the often chaotic loading area. There's nothing worse than a family scrambling at the last second trying to get all of their things together to board. It should be obvious where/when the boarding process begins so guests are not fumbling to get ready to load. Multiple pre-load areas get confusing to first time guests, and may seem efficient in theory, but in practice can actually make the process slower. If you put guests through too many pre-shows (standing on dots/circles/numbers), they're liable to pull their phone out when it's time to actually load the vehicle. Guests should not be directed to stand on a number/row/circle until just before it's time to step aboard.

I'm sure there's nothing more frustrating to CMs than to see a parent scrambling to put all their stuff away, getting an infant out of a back/chest carrier, etc... while an empty ride vehicle pulls away or is waiting on the platform for the slow moving guests. It's important to tell the story and to make sure guests are entertained while waiting in line while still giving them all the necessary instructions to ride, but when it's time to load, guests need to know and made clear that it's all business from that point until they're sitting down and secure in a ride vehicle.

June 27, 2017 at 6:32 AM

On my last trip to Disney World, I noticed that the Fast Pass lines were always emptied before the Standby were allowed to pass the merge point. At one attract we counted 64 fast pass riders passed the merge point and only 12 standby riders were allowed to enter before they went back to the past pass line. I appreciate when I have the fast pass, but i wouldn't mind a reasonable wait. Fast passes let you bypass most of the line, I really don't expect
to be walking right onto the ride.

June 27, 2017 at 7:19 AM

This may be off-topic but if a theme park isn't going to allow riders to take ANYTHING on a ride with them, they shouldn't force the riders to PAY for a locker. There are a couple of theme parks I will NEVER go to again because they don't let you take ANYTHING on ANY ride and you have to PAY for a locker at each attraction.

June 27, 2017 at 7:27 AM

Queue lines are worse when they barely move. That's why I won't even wait for rides without Fastpass. The Standby wait times are time wasters. Even with a busy park, getting a few Fastpasses saves the day. Just tried the new Fastpass stations at Disneyland Resort. It works the same as the Magic Bands at Disney World. I like it a lot, but they force you to scan twice.

June 27, 2017 at 10:15 AM

I would like to add that, in the absence of a single rider line, all attraction workers be versed in how to fill empty seats. Very frustrating to be in a queue watching several seats per ride remain empty.

June 27, 2017 at 11:52 AM

Even with a single rider line, operators need to learn how to efficiently load ride vehicles. There should be clear standard procedures in place to maximize throughput, not CMs figuring out their own way and establishing their own rules for filling seats. If a ride is 3-across, it should be consistent how ops fill those seats (some will pull three singles to fill a row instead of looking down the standby line, while others will look far down the standby line in lieu of using single riders). Both the single rider and standby lines should know how fast the line will move. Gringott's is notorious for inconsistent single rider line operation. Some ops will pull 2 singles to pair with a 2-rider party, while other ops will only use single riders as a last resort, meaning the speed at which the single rider line moves fluctuates greatly. When the single rider queue is incredibly long (not necessarily in the number of people waiting, but the distance needed to reach the ride from the entrance), it's impossible for guests trying to use these lines to tell how much time they can save by bypassing the standby queue. The flow of a single rider line is always going to be intermittent, but at least it should be consistent. It's taken me between 5 minutes and 30 minutes to get from the bottom to the top of the spiral staircase on Gringott's, and it was all because of how ride ops were loading the trains.

Also, if you're going to have a policy of not placing single riders next to children, you should just do away with the single rider line, or at least load odd-numbered parties in such a way so children don't have to be placed next to single riders.

Ride vehicle diagrams should be clearly posted before guests reach the boarding area and again posted at the boarding area in case they missed it. Most guests are not complete idiots, and if you give them some basic information on how to arrange their party and how ride ops would optimally like to load vehicles, most guests will be in good shape when it's time to board, making it easier for the ops to sort.

June 27, 2017 at 11:49 AM

Good management of the loading area as well as the queue strikes me as key. While at Hersheypark on Sunday I couldn't help comparing the efficiency of ride operations to that at my home park, Great Adventure. At Hershey team members were letting only as many guests as could be accommodated on the next train through the queue to stand behind the air gates on Fahrenheit and Skyrush. At Great Adventure, the loading platforms on El Toro and Kingda Ka are a mess, with people milling about aimlessly so that you don't know which row they're waiting for and have to push past them to get to the row of your choice. Agreed that everyone should know everything. As often as I've been to Hershey, I still have a problem navigating my way to the entrance of Storm Runner and the 1st team member I asked gave me information which led me in the wrong direction.

June 27, 2017 at 12:08 PM

I sit on both sides of the station loading fence. In some situations, it's important to hold the line and queue guests to specific rows. However, there's something to be said about being able to select your desired row (even if it's not the very front or very back) and self-queue once you reach the station.

The obvious reason a park would prefer self-queuing would be because it takes another ride op to stand at the station entrance to direct guests to empty rows. However, a lot of the issues with self-queuing, predominantly one row of guests blocking guests with no seat preference entering the station from reaching empty rows, could be solved with better station design. Any station that dumps guests at the front or back of a load platform is just plain stupid. Lines should place guests in the middle of the station, allowing guests to chose front or back as they enter, instead of being at one end of a platform where you get stuck behind guests waiting for a highly coveted seat in the front or back. Also, stations should have enough space to accommodate 3 full vehicles' worth of guests - one waiting to board/boarding, one getting ready, and another group sorting themselves out and choosing a row. The problem at SFGAdv is that too many of the coaster stations can only accommodate 2 trains' worth of guests, meaning people are still sorting themselves out when they should be focusing on getting ready to load.

Having a ride op holding at the station entrance and queuing guests to specific rows is probably more efficient, especially when there are small stations and lines that dump at the front or back of the load platform. Disney has proven very adept at queuing this way with most of their roller coasters. However, there's something to be said about being able to pick where you want to sit on a roller coaster when you've waited an hour or more to ride. Disney will let you choose the front or back row if you're willing to wait one additional load cycle (unless there are guests in front of you also waiting for the front or back), but if you don't want the very front or very back, it ends up being the luck of the draw.

June 27, 2017 at 2:29 PM

I agree with pretty much everything said above, and would also add the following rules of my own:

-All queues should either have an accurate wait time posted at the entrance or be visible enough that guests can estimate how long they are. In addition, if a greeter is staffed they need to know about how long the wait will be in the event that guests ask. It is not fun to get in a queue that is posted for 15 minutes yet takes 45.

-If an express queue is present, it should be as hidden as possible. The entrance can be visible, but once inside guests in the express queue shouldn't be visible to those in the regular queue until they reach the merge point. Little is worse while waiting in a slow moving line than watching hundreds of other guests march past and enter before you. Likewise...

-Queue merging should be done at a 1:1 ratio. When both lines are moving at the same rate, guests tend to be a lot more understanding about the express pass option. I have seen attractions, however, that merge at an 8:1 ratio (or sometimes greater...Disney reportedly does up to 125:1 after extended downtime), and this leads to a lot of frustrated guests. Express queue should provide faster boarding, not necessarily immediate boarding.

-If there is a single rider line, it needs to be uninterrupted and used continuously. Disneyland has several rides with a multi-part single rider line where the line can be long yet seats are going empty because single riders haven't reached the station yet (Indiana Jones Adventure is the worst offender here). If a single rider line is occupied, there should be no empty seats on ride vehicles. Likewise, if the loading process makes it difficult/impossible to quickly fill single seats, single rider should not be offered on that attraction.

-On rides with open seating, the station should be designed to accommodate as many people as the ride can handle at one time. For example, if a roller coaster runs three trains, then the station should be large enough to hold three trains' worth of riders. Additionally, the queue should always enter the station in the middle of the platform to prevent congestion.

-If a ride uses assigned seating, guests should always be able to ride in a preferred seat upon request. Some parks (particularly Six Flags) assign seats and do not allow guests to wait an extra cycle for their seat of choice. This rule may be waived if there is a safety or operational issue, but if a park is fully loading trains guests shouldn't be forced into a specific seat if they're willing to wait a couple extra cycles to sit elsewhere.

-Loose article storage areas should be designed for speed and efficiency. Some parks will use a single bin on one end of the station, forcing some guests to walk the length of the train twice to deposit their items. It is much better to have several smaller bins along the length of the station. Additionally, parks should encourage guests to give all their items to one member of their party for makes no sense to have three people cross the train to put away a pair of sunglasses when one could easily take all three pairs.

June 27, 2017 at 3:47 PM

Good read Robert. I always liked how Space Mountain tackled the accessibility issue. All rides should have that option.

June 28, 2017 at 3:58 AM

Speaking of loose articles, some of the Merlin parks (Alton Towers, Thorpe Park) have a very cunning solution that I find to be preferable to off-ride lockers and ride station lockers.

The way it works is that they have a cloakroom-style building built near to the station, with two counters: one that is accessed from the queue (at least a few ride cycles before the station) and one that is accessed from the ride exit path.

As you pass it in the queue on the way to the station, you hand over your bags and loose items, and are given a stretchy numbered wristband. You can easily wear the wristband whilst riding, it is very unlikely to fall off your arm (and if it does, it'll cause far less injury or disruption than a phone etc. might). Then when you exit, you hand the wristband back and are given the contents that match the number (i.e. are given back your stuff).

- the process is really simple
- the ride can operate safely without loose items
- the ride can swiftly dispatch trains because nobody has to climb through the train to reach station bins
- you can hang on to your stuff for most of the queue to keep yourself entertained/fed/hydrated
- reduced risk of theft compared to the station bins
- if anybody gets confused and takes time to work out how to comply with the bag/loose article policy, it doesn't delay dispatch
- if you don't have any loose items or bags, you can just walk right past the cloakroom
- if somebody doesn't comply and brings loose items/bags into the station, they don't have to get sent too far back (compared to requiring lockers outside of the ride) - could be a negative depending on how mean you are feeling :)

- higher staffing costs for the park (you need at a minimum one person in the cloakroom on a quiet day, ideally 2 or 3 on a busy day)
- might be difficult to retrofit (you need the queue and exit path to get somewhat near to each other)

June 28, 2017 at 6:33 AM

The low pay is such a harsh reality about theme park ops. I managed to get hired in 2005 at Disney World full time at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and made $5.75 an hour. I was hired at Universal Orlando the following year at $6.25 an hour.

This is not a jab WDW compared to UO. The wages at both resorts are pathetic. But let's take a second to appreciate how amazing the experience is for guests at these resorts when every Cast or Team Member they interact with makes so little. We cannot say those great moments with the people working the parks are because "they pay them to be nice."

The issues for workers are more than just their pay. But I really appreciate how this article flows and ends. I believe talking about pay is a good starting point.

June 28, 2017 at 8:08 AM

Great list, Robert. The "no stragglers" one hits me every time I ride the railroad at Disney World. It's frustrating because the trains sit at the station forever. Adding an extra train would allow them to make the process flow more smoothly and not turn the ride into such a time suck.

June 28, 2017 at 2:00 PM

Thank you for mentioning accessibility. I really like the rides that have a separate loading area. It allows me to board the ride safely and without feeling rushed. I especially like the Toy Story accessible boarding area because it is private and I don't have to look up and see an entire line of people giving me the pity look because of my physical difficulties. I like to just get on the ride and have a great time like everybody else.

July 1, 2017 at 8:25 PM

I agree with everything you said but it's just unrealistic at most parks.

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