Eliminating theme park queues: A waiting game

Dodgems at fairground

By Michael Mander

Queueing used to be a necessary evil in the attractions industry.

And I say ‘used to be’ with acceptance of the fact that, in the vast majority of cases, it still is.

With limited exceptions, creating a queue line is simply an exercise in squeezing as many bodies into as small a space as possible, through swirling pathways flanked by lightly themed fences. The most imaginative revolution to the UK queueing scene for a long time was TV screens throughout queues at today’s Merlin Entertainments attractions, often playing ads for sugary drinks or on-ride photos.

Dr Richard Larson, nicknamed “Dr Queue”, has dedicated his life to studying queueing. He’s estimated that the average American spends 17,520 hours of their life in a queue. For the most fanatical theme park enthusiasts, that number is no doubt quite a bit higher.

Common sense – but also plenty of research – tells us that people do not like spending time waiting. Time passes slower, we grow impatient and irritable – and for a theme park that makes its money on giving people positive experiences and happy memories, that is bad news.

Queuing people graphic

There are fundamentally three strategies for dealing with the issue of queueing: make the time feel faster, make the time actually faster (in other words, increase throughput), or eliminate queues entirely: the most radical solution.

Improving queues

Theme parks set out “to develop a taxonomy for reducing the negative impact of subjective perception of time” – that’s how a group of American researchers termed it. In other words: make the wait go quicker.

Their research made a number of proposals for keeping visitors happy in long queues: foster engagement with things like videos and games, maintain interest in the ride with strong thematic elements, steer clear of loud and repetitive music that will create negativity towards the queue rather than excitement for the ride. Those ideas are – you would think – common sense.

The research goes on to propose some more interesting ideas for making wait times feel shorter. Visually separating fast queues (such as FastPass or Single Rider) from slow queues, to reduce feelings of inequity from those in the long queue. Creating layouts that are conducive to social interaction, rather than cramming people in. Creating lines that actually give guests a sense of moving closer.

It’s hard to think of a queue line in the UK that doesn’t break at least one of these rules. And when we look at some of the worst offenders, it’s clear why this advice is helpful. Dragon’s Fury at Chessington World of Adventures, where, as you wait, you can watch the FastPass queue move at a faster pace. The Swarm at Thorpe Park, with all of its twisting and turning that makes it unclear if (or how) you’re getting closer to the ride.

Queuing at Thorpe Park's Swarm rollercoaster
Queuing at Thorpe Park’s Swarm rollercoaster

When we look to the US, we see theme parks that are clearly taking on the advice from this paper, no doubt combined with common sense observations about how to improve a queue.

Interventions can be small: Disney World added small games to many of its queue lines (including the Haunted Mansion – which was already an entertaining queue line as a result of being packed full of spooky puns). This doesn’t require any sort of big overhaul – instead just ‘plussing’ what is already there.

Then, of course, there are the insanely intricately themed queue lines that you’ll find at Disney and Universal alike: the faithful recreations of Hogwarts at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, the elaborate Nepalese museum that leads to Expedition Everest, even the expansive boarding areas of Star Tours.

The UK hasn’t cracked either of these strategies. Legoland Windsor, with its young audience, added some bricks to queues for its top-tier rides, and Alton Towers does have some ageing games in the Spinball Whizzer queue – or at least it did last time I was there. But beyond that, the theme park sector has a severe lack of queue entertainment, or immersively-created lines.

Eliminating queues

Earlier this month, RideRater revealed plans from Alton Towers to launch a virtual queueing option. This is an exciting development, and the only shame is that it seems to be a paid add-on, rather than a long-overdue overhaul of the queueing system as we know it. The queue-less theme park will become mainstream, one day. The water-based Volcano Bay in the US is pioneering this area with mixed success, but even in the UK we’re edging closer.

Universal's Volcano Bay, Orlando
The Volcano Bay water park issues virtual queuing wristbands called TapuTapu

Thorpe Park trialled a free Reserve n Ride system several times during 2014/15. In the face of the pandemic, Drayton Manor launched a virtual queueing system. There’s even a UK-based start-up making waves in this space.

The lesson from failed trials of virtual queueing to date, and plenty of research into the queueing experience is this: eliminating the queue must be done radically, or not at all. You can’t maintain a system where some people skip queues – either based on what they’re prepared to spend, how aware they come to the park, or an arbitrary allowance – while others don’t. Any effort to eliminate queueing must commit wholeheartedly.

Eliminating queues will happen, I’m fairly certain of it. Theme parks have the data, we certainly have the technology. Now, it’s just a waiting game.