Here's a Better Way to Wait for Theme Park Rides

July 3, 2020, 6:03 PM · What's the difference between a great theme park experience and a miserable one? Many times, it's the queues.

As much as we'd all love to spend the day in an empty park, experienced theme park fans understand that people need to wait their turn when parks get busy. But how parks manage those waits goes a long way in determining how much fans will enjoy their visits.

Disney figured this out decades ago when it started building themed queues - such as the fortress hallways in the Magic Kingdom's Pirates of the Caribbean - instead of the plain, rectangular switchback queues that parks and fairs had been using for ages. About 20 years ago, again led by Disney, parks started rolling out a variety of products that freed people from having to wait physically in attraction queues. Natalie and I talked about these products in a video blog a few years ago.

Now our friend Dave Cobb has proposed what I think is the most brilliant idea yet for how theme parks can manage guest wait times. In a white paper for his former employers at Thinkwell, Dave says to Keep the Preshow; Ditch the Queue. But his idea is actually much more sophisticated than that.

Dave points out the value that queues can deliver in setting up an attraction experience. He cites the tour through the ACME Corporation headquarters that serves as the queue for the AniMayhem ride at Warner Bros. Movie World in Abu Dhabi, which Dave's Thinkwell team designed and that Dave led me through at its press premiere.

Quality is ACME's number-one dream

But even a visually stunning queue fails if it does not serve its attraction's operational needs. A successful queue must deliver a flow of guests at the load point sufficient to allow that attraction to operate at maximum capacity. Even if a ride or show's capacity is reduced - as they almost all are now in this pandemic - ops should be able to load to safest maximum capacity allowed. And they need to be able to do that while running the maximum possible number of ride units or shows in an hour.

I told a story in my book, Stories from a Theme Park Insider, about how we found the right balance between load capacity and dispatch time to maximize the number of people we could put through on Disney's Tom Sawyer Island rafts in an hour. It turns out that waiting for stragglers to fill a boat or a train kills dispatch times, which in turn reduces hourly capacity and makes wait times longer.

That's why queues have to be designed to deliver a steady stream of guests at load. But once you've done that, there's no reason you have to restrict people to a physical queue while they await their turn to enter that pre-load funnel (or its physically distanced Corona-era equivalent).

Here's where Dave's idea kicks in. Instead of running people through a physical queue, or leaving them to mill around in over-crowded shops and pathways while they await a return time, Dave suggests using the entire theme park as a themed pre-show attraction.

Guests could reserve an attraction time, but rather than show up at the entrance for the attraction, their mobile device would send them on a point-to-point story adventure throughout the park, each node engaging them in a story point through embedded media, effects, or even cast member interactions. This could be a 30-60 minute experience that, in essence, becomes an attraction queue, ending up at the attraction in a carefully managed flow of people with less need to queue up in droves.

Think of Knott's Ghost Town Alive for an example of what fans could be directed to do, Dave writes.

The idea is to create a structured experience that distributes people more evenly and efficiently around the park, while providing a more engaging and rewarding experience.

It's brilliant.

I always have been frustrated trying to use Disney's Star Wars Datapad in the queue for Millennium Falcon Smugglers Run because I consistently have to abandon tasks to keep up with the people in front of me, as the line of guests moves. What I need instead is a "queue" that's really a series of stops, allowing me adequate time at each show point to complete a task. That's exactly the experience that Dave suggests.

As theme parks look for ways to manage crowds safely in the Covid and post-Covid areas, Dave's idea offers a valuable new approach. Virtual queues and ride reservation systems don't create positive experiences if they leave people packed into crowded shops and streets with nothing to do while they await a return time. A system such as Dave's can distribute people more uniformly throughout the park while entertaining them at all times.

To me, it sounds like a wonderful way to spend the day at a theme park.

Replies (9)

July 3, 2020 at 9:29 PM

Good write-up. I'm old enough to remember old-school Disney rides with rather dull and bland ques you were stuck in for almost an hour and admire how they shift them up today.

I saw one guy complaining WDW's Haunted Mansion is "ruined" by its new queue but I like it better with fun stuff for folks. I guess it can come to personal tastes but a good queue is better today.

July 3, 2020 at 11:05 PM

Disney kind of does that with the Pirates game at Magic Kingdom. If you find two of the five treasures, you get Fastpasses for your party for the ride. It’s a lot more fun and usually quicker than waiting in the queue. Hopefully they do that again once they relaunch FP+.

July 4, 2020 at 11:58 AM

I remember reading your story about the Tom Sawyer Island Rafts and capacity. I think it was on this site, but as a fellow former cast member, I did just buy your book -- you've provided me with a lot of insight and analysis over the years that I wouldn't know from my own experience, so it's only right. I have very little free time and don't know when I'll get around to reading it, but I'm glad to now own a copy.

July 5, 2020 at 6:26 PM

I don't want to have to go on a scavenger hunt across the park to ride a ride, sorry.

I'd rather wait in a lobby or lounge.

July 6, 2020 at 10:18 AM

Love this idea. Send people on a mission for the Resistance, for example, before they can join up.

I often wondered what would haven if the apps could have Guests “earn” super desirable FastPass tickets by sending people to ride a few of the smaller rides first. It would seem that with all the data the parks collect, they could spread the crowds around more evenly. Much like the old ticket books used to. (I know in this day and age of immediate gratification nobody would go for it, but it’s an interesting thought experiment.)

July 6, 2020 at 10:37 AM

Disney already kind of does that Will. At MK, you can play A Pirate's Adventure, which is an interactive in-park scavenger hunt style experience similar to Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom. Guests are given a mission that requires them to find clues hidden around the area surrounding PotC. Once you've completed 2 missions, guests are given a FP for PotC. The experience is kind of similar to Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom except you get the payoff of a FP after about 20-30 minutes of play (depending on how crowded and busy it is). Granted, a FP to PotC is not very coveted these days (though standby lines typically exceed 30-45 minutes on an average day), but guests get the themed experience before getting on the attraction, which is an extension of the theme and increases the immersion of the attraction.

July 6, 2020 at 12:25 PM

True, Russell! I’d kinda forgotten about that, as I’m more of a Disneylander. I wonder how much the game and FastPass reward system has been crunched by Park Analytics.

With all the data and tracking capabilities the FP+ system has available, I can see the app saying, suddenly, “Hey! Do you want to take on a quest for Space Mountain FPS? Check in at the Treehouse on Tom Sawyer Island and ride the Little Mermaid ride! “ or something like that. Just to get people to move around to less crowded areas for a bit.

July 6, 2020 at 12:37 PM

Well, that's kind of how FP+ was supposed to work. The system knows your location, and it can preferentially feed you FP+ reservations for rides/attraction to artificially shift crowds around the park. I'm not sure how much control the system had on giving out FP+s or if it was strictly supply and demand, but I did notice on busier days that it was easier to get FP+s for attractions further away than ones I'm standing right in front of. Though the idea of performing quests like SotMK, Datapad in Galaxy's Edge, and A Pirate's Adventure add that extra level of fun and immersion that would generate valuable data, particularly on busy days when guests are looking for additional activities in lieu of standing in lines and while waiting for their next FP+.

July 9, 2020 at 12:19 PM

Good idea that relies completely on people having the required access via their personal devices. But not everybody has this access. So then it risks alienating or excluding some whilst engaging others. If it succeeds and makes immersive queuing redundant what then happens to people who can't or simply don't want to engage in it ?
I've actually always enjoyed being in a line waiting to ride an attraction. The anticipation shared with others adds to the ride itself. My first ever ride was the newly opened "Indiana Jones" at Disneyland in 1995. I'd never waited in line for anything outside of a sporting event. Boy was I not disappointed. Two whole hours enjoying the theming and the building excitement shared with a family from Texas. I wouldn't swap that experience for a fast pass. By the time we boarded the Jeeps we were all at fever pitch. Please don't ever consider doing away with a well themed wait in line.

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