Do We Have to Go Back to Crowded Theme Parks?

June 12, 2021, 3:27 PM · 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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Replies (17)

June 12, 2021 at 3:57 PM

Life goes back to normal, that is fine. Are you injected then you still will get sick, but probably not die or end up in the hospital. That has always been the way with regular flues and goes for the more aggressive covid variant.
Or live your life as a germaphobe and don't go out eating, see a movie or go to a theme park.

June 12, 2021 at 4:34 PM

For operational efficiency on rides, you only need to crowd people shortly before loading. I wish there was a way to implement this. Staff can of course direct people to keep up in the crucial last minute of queueing, but it's more difficult to get people to chill out and keep some distance before then.

Similarly, when Forbidden Journey has only a short wait, I would prefer walking through the queue slowly but steadily rather than rushing through it as fast as possible only to spend the last 10 minutes standing. But queue psychology doesn't seem to allow this, and there is relentless pressure from the party behind you to keep moving. It seems unintuitive to people that walking faster and keeping minimal space to the party in front will not get you on the ride quicker (unless the ride is currently running below capacity).

June 12, 2021 at 4:45 PM

I was bummed that Universal removed some of the U-Rest zones like empty theater that housed the unloved Sindbad show. IOA in particular is very cramped and adding a covered space for people to relax was great especially if you’re waiting for others going on the three big thrill rides near by. The other option is to take up seats and tables set up for food service which creates a new set of problems.

June 12, 2021 at 7:38 PM

I went last went to Disney in August/September when they had every covid protocol. It was such an amazing experience where the most I waited for anything was around an hour for Runaway Railway and that was only because they were cleaning the ride vehicles while we were in line. Needless to say I'd pay double maybe even triple to get that experience again. When we did MK our longest wait all day was 20 for the Mine Train. Epcot was around 30 for Test Track and lovely AK blessed us with 5-10 min waits all day

June 12, 2021 at 11:21 PM

Feels very weird reading this in Germany. We barely finished the more severe restrictions like private contact limits to one person, closed restaurants and shops, or outright leisure ravel ban* in the last weeks. Parks just opened this week, with most of the restrictions still in place in Bavaria, for example. Lower vaccination rates can only be a partial explanation for that. Business as usual was about to happen eventually and as far as theme park crowds are concerned, I’m ok with that to happen eventually. The timing albeit looks rather strange. To be more precise, I'm ok with returning to people standing relatively close**. Waiting times are a different story.

*that formulation is a simplification of the actual legal construct and people who absolutely wanted to do a leisure trip always had options to do so, still by large tourism was shut down.
** As long as they do not smoke in my face

June 13, 2021 at 12:21 AM

I've been visiting Disney way more now that they don't have Fastpass. Most of Disney's rides are capacity machines and there's nothing worse than waiting in a long line that barely moves at all for a ride that has great capacity. Enjoying this while I can then will probably stop going after FP comes back.

June 13, 2021 at 12:26 AM

Yeah, but if a shaded/indoor queue is stretched outside the entrance, I for one would appreciate it if everyone WAS as close to each other as possible to avoid waiting under a blistering sun or worse get drenched by rain.

June 13, 2021 at 5:07 AM

Being cramped is a necessary evil. In order for as many people as safely possible to enjoy a theme park, personal space is sacrificed. Although in the event of a fire or other emergency, I do think places like theme parks are a bit too crowded. Reducing the maximum capacity by 5-10% would not be a bad idea.

June 13, 2021 at 9:56 AM

Have Orlando attractions gone back to 100% capacity? If so, that seems premature.

June 13, 2021 at 10:43 AM

I haven't been to Florida recently but have been to Six Flags Great Adventure several times, twice since restrictions were lifted. Now that it's no longer necessary to make a reservation in order to enter the park and the park is operating at normal capacity, the crowds are such that enjoyment is vastly diminished. I went there on Memorial Day and traffic heading into the park was so heavy that it took about an hour just to get through the toll booth and from what I've seen online, this is becoming the new normal. The park itself was so crowded that being able to ride anything in the small time window I had was out of the question. So I left without doing anything other than having lunch. 52 miles is a long way to drive for nothing other than a black bean burger. I almost wish that reservations were still required. It seems that the only way to beat the crowds is to go on a weekday. On media day attendance was lighter than usual and once I was finished with Jersey Devil I discovered that nearby Nitro was a walk-on. I wonder how often this will happen.

June 13, 2021 at 3:59 PM

According to the AECOM/TEA 2019 estimate, the six WDW theme Parks (not including DSTP) welcomed an average od more than 172,000 guests a day.

June 13, 2021 at 5:00 PM

I am getting used to not wearing mask when outdoors although most spots by me in Illinois are still recommending masks inside (like library) even as Chicago opens up more. I do worry given rising variants in Florida and the fact some more resistant but sadly figured this was coming anyway.

And yes, I had thought some folks might remember the good things in 2020's "pause" but not at all surprised many are ready to ignore it and go back to how it was.

June 13, 2021 at 8:19 PM

Bobbie Butterfield, the largest park in the largest market in the country having a $60 season pass isn't helping things there. I visited Coney Island a few weeks ago and heard several families upset they were a Luna Park wristband was $40 when they can get an entire year at SFGADV for $60. Granted both parks are dumps but there is no question SFGADV is a much more substantial value.

June 13, 2021 at 11:33 PM

I’m just waiting for the day when USH Team Members are allowed to access the park again. I miss going to the park after work to chill for a bit.

June 14, 2021 at 1:33 PM

At some point the solution may be unavoidable. The interest is growing significantly post worst Covid times

June 14, 2021 at 5:22 PM

""Please move forward toward the people in front of you and fill in all available space.""
>> Really ?
If an organisation (whatever) would communicate such a thing here (Europe, Belgium) , they can expect to have their premises closed by law enforcement and the responsibles brought before the judge with emprisonment as most probable outcome.

June 17, 2021 at 12:35 AM

I don't think famous theme parks would allow people without completing the vaccination. But even if I am, I would wait a bit to see if there will be new spread. Be vigilant still. Regards, building companies hamilton.

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