This week in Orlando, I heard a spiel I had not heard in more than a year and, frankly, I had hoped never to hear again.
"Please move forward toward the people in front of you and fill in all available space."
So much for physical distancing. Crowded spaces are back. I recorded a couple of walk-around videos for Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure that I will post to our YouTube channel tomorrow. Spoiler alert: you're gonna see the backs of a lot of people's heads. It's summer vacation season again, and fans have returned to Central Florida's theme parks. So I suppose it was inevitable that the moment would come that I experienced in the preshow area for a full performance of The Bourne Stuntacular, when the dreaded "fill in" spiel returned.
Yes, we now have vaccines that can help save us from the continued spread of the still deadly Covid-19. With a majority of American adults now vaccinated, communities and business can begin to relax the strict physical distancing and mask requirements that helped save countless lives over the past year. That's why Universal Orlando now can throw open the gates and let people fill all the seats in Bourne's cavernous theater.
But one of the small silver linings of this past, terrible year has been the opportunity to enjoy the dignity of personal space. While I welcome being back with people in public again, I very much enjoyed not feeling stapled to people next to me in crowded queues for the past year.
There might be occasions when we welcome being slammed up front to back and shoulder to shoulder with strangers. A great concert. A packed dance floor. A rally for a cause we believe in deeply. But a queue ain't it. Not in a store, a grocery, or even a theme park. When I must wait, at least allow me the comfort of some space around me. It doesn't have to be six feet. But at least a foot or two allows me to feel like an individual who hasn't been subsumed into a giant mass of other people's flesh.
I understand why theme parks do this. Theme parks have been designed to create crowds, because crowds are efficient. Years working in operations taught me how a crowded preshow area can help cut load times for theater attractions, allowing you to run more shows and reduce waits. If you allow people to trickle in to a theater, it takes much longer to seat everyone - delays that add up over the course of a day to fewer shows run and longer waits for everyone.
On rides, a steady stream of people at load is essential for sending vehicles out full, allowing you to run at capacity and cut those waits. When people get strung out in lines, with too much space between them, you end up either holding dispatch or sending empty vehicles because no one's ready to go at load. Again, that means longer wait times.
Theme parks have traded your personal space for time saved. Before the pandemic, I think most of us probably never thought much about that deal, and if we did, we were probably okay with it. If a queue is moving quickly, we can deal with feeling crowded while waiting in it. We got used to the crowds, and accepted them as part of the price of visiting popular destinations, such as theme parks.
But the pandemic showed us life without crowds for a while, and... well, I enjoyed that.
Like many, I had hoped that the other side of this pandemic would bring not a return to the ways that things were before Covid struck, but a progression to something better. Better health care for all. More money for people who do the hardest work in cleaning, food service, education, and health care. Respecting that people who get sick should stay home, and not feel pressured to come in to work or school. Wearing masks when you are feeling unwell and must leave them house. And giving people more personal space in public.
The old ways were the old ways for a reason, however. And that reason is pretty much... money. If theme parks were to promote more spacing in their queues and waiting areas on a permanent basis, it would mean continuing to operate with lower effective attraction capacities. That means longer waits and fewer rides per day, giving fans less value for their admission payment.
The only way to bring balance back would be for parks to sell fewer tickets per day, which would almost assuredly lead to higher prices. Either way, fans pay.
But what if parks understood that people crave that dignity of personal space and challenged their designers to find new ways to accommodate that?
Some changes would be easy. Live shows, such as The Bourne Stuntacular, do not run unlimited back-to-back shows like movie and animatronic productions do. With 30 minutes to an hour or more between the end of one performance and start of the next, there's plenty of time to allow an audience to trickle in, negating the reason for a crowded preshow area. Just run the set-up video in a well-spaced queue for people to watch at their leisure. Or allow people to watch the preshow video on their mobile devices through the park's app. (I would love to see parks do this simply as a way to allow people to make more informed decisions about where to go next.)
Changes in queue design and loading procedures also could help ensure a steady stream of fully loaded vehicles on to a ride circuit, without having to mash people together in a crowded queue. Think of the way that trackless rides load multiple vehicles at once. That's essentially a pre-show loading area for a ride circuit. So long as there's always one fully loaded vehicle from that loading area ready to go when the ride circuit is ready for it, you don't have to slow that circuit. With single-file loading straight from the queue onto the circuit, you do. That's why ops spiel at people to keep up and fill in all available space.
We will not get to that better post-pandemic tomorrow right away, or even as soon as some of us might have hoped. But I believe we can get there, eventually. I believe that theme parks can design better ways to wait for and get into attractions, so that we all can enjoy a little bit more of that personal space than many of us crave.
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