Queue Lines

Henry Corrado

Theme Parks and waiting lines

Queues lines are the pet peeve of visitors. The time spent waiting invariably comes at the top of the list of customer complaints. The Dutch even have a saying that goes "as long as a queue at the Efteling." As at the supermarket, queue lines are used to "park" visitors when an attraction’s capacity is exceeded.

It is curious that so little attention is paid to the management of queues in general, and at points of sale in particular. It is only recently that pioneers such as Whole Foods and Best Buy have redesigned their payment systems with this in mind, mainly by organizing a common queue for all clients, who are then sent to the first available cash out desk. This approach, which has been used for many years in banks or airports, organizes the queue line around displays that are incentives to impulse buying. Also, this distributed system avoids the frustration of waiting in queue behind a customer who takes a lot of time in paying his (more likely her) bill with small coins.

Parks are not supermarkets
Theme parks are quite different to supermarkets and airports, where the customers are just passing through. In a theme park, the visitors are on site and flexible for the duration of their visit. And they will certainly change their schedule and adapt in order to avoid queues. We will see later how technology can help operators to regulate the flow of visitors between shows and attractions.

Another feature is that most theme parks charge a fixed admission price that provides access to all attractions. Unlike the supermarket, what awaits the penitent is not a simple transaction, but a reward in the form of an experience he hopes will be unique. This effort / reward dynamic is fundamental. Without an entry price tag, it is the time spent waiting which defines the value of the show. According to research from Koo and Fisherback (1), followers in the queue define goal value, while those in front provide information about the effort required to achieve the goal. Amusement operators are unanimous on the different attitude of guests in off-peak season, when they just have to enter the attraction to participate. Those who do not experience the pride of having reached the Holy Grail. In other words, the relationship assumed between waiting time and customer satisfaction is not necessarily true in a theme park (3). However, the relationship between customer satisfaction and subsequent merchandise sales is proven. According to studies conducted at Universal Studios and other parks, visitors satisfied with their experience can spend almost twice as much in the shop following the attraction if they have found the experience positive (4).

Queues as a regulator
You do not build a church only for Easter Sunday. Similarly, parks are not designed for an attendance peak day, but for a "design day", based around the 90th percentile. In other words, 9 days out of 10 the capacity of the "entertainment units" (attractions, restaurants and shops) is greater than the actual attendance, leaving only one day out of ten where the capacity is exceeded. Designing a park around a peak day would not make economic sense and would not solve the problem: the distribution of visitors in different areas would not be regulated (5).

While specific measures can be taken to optimize guests flow in restaurants and shops (by optimizing the service, or for example by offering a "fast pass" to a nearby attraction valid only for a short time), it is not possible to double the attractions size for busy days. But simple measures can significantly optimize the flow: Attractions should be designed and programmed in such manner that their recycle time is optimized, and operators should be trained to load and unload quickly. In some cases, it is possible to program a short version of the attraction to increase its capacity.

Queues also stabilize the park's attendance. The actual capacity of an attraction is not only defined by its capacity, but by the combination of the number of people it can hold plus the number of guests waiting to experience it. The same applies to the time spent in the attraction. This is far from trivial, as the longer guests stay on site, the more likely they are to spend in food, beverage, merchandise and accommodation. It is interesting to know that the relation between money spent in the park and visit duration is not linear, but in steps. Each step represents the time interval between meals, nights, and the compulsive need to buy something (6).

Evaluate waiting time
The length of the queue line is used to inform visitors about their waiting time. This information is sometimes centralized and made available to the public through displays or smartphone applications. All means are good to assess the length of the queue: The rustic approach is to give a visitor an object that he will return before boarding the ride. Counting the number of people crossing turnstiles or passing through photocells at each end of the queue is another common method. The most elaborate schemes detect the quantity of mobile phones in the queue. Once weighted, it gives a good idea of the number of people waiting.

Use the wait
In our article on attraction storytelling, we saw that one of the designers’ challenges is to tell a coherent story in a few minutes. The time spent in the preshow and the queue can be used to set the scene and put the visitors in condition, especially if the queue line is well themed. During their wait, visitors are "prisoners" of the line and totally exposed. This is a great time to transport participants from the general atmosphere of the park to the ambiance of the show they are about to experience. Some designers succeed so well that their attraction’s waiting area is almost as famous as their main show itself. A good example of this is "Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye" in the Disney parks. In good designs such as this one, the queue, or at least part of it, is used as preshow. Of course, as the queue length is variable, elements that are vital to the comprehension of the show are given at the end of the line.

Performers, or bottled water vendors, are good ways to entertain guests. The only risk is to create a counterproductive accordion effect that will lengthen the waiting time. This is why installing kiosks or interactive elements that might prevent guests from moving is not a good idea. In warm areas, the wait outside is more bearable if misters are installed (koolfog.com).

Technology to beat the queues
To beat the queues by distributing guests between attractions, designers have a secret weapon: visitors are likely to be on site all day, and their time is hopefully flexible. Hence the idea of "an appointment" for the show. Universal was the first to offer an appointment at a fixed time for the tram tour of its studios in California. The "fast pass" from the Disney parks is based on the same principle: a ticket containing an appointment in a specific time frame is distributed by a kiosk. At the indicated time, visitors get direct access to the attraction by a separate, specially designed access. Each park operator has a way for granting this privilege. Some, like Disney, do not wish to play favourites among its clients. For others, the sale of priority access vouchers is an additional source of revenue. The prize goes to Universal where the price of the pass varies according to park attendance. It's only once in the park that customers discover the daily rate of this option, which can reach several hundred dollars on busy days.The use of a physical ticket is no longer necessary. Technology can replace actual customers in the queue, using one of the cell phones solutions available on the market. Visitors take an "appointment" on their phone. They will be reminded in time to move towards the attraction.
Possibilities are endless when mobile phones join the game. With global systems like Qendix (qendix.com). visitors can be notified by SMS, or check waiting times in real time with the excellent iPhone application developed for Disneyland Paris.
When used to favour certain groups of visitors, not just balance the attendance of the attractions in the park, queue bypass methods introduce a perception of unfairness amongst "normal" visitors. This injustice is clearly identified as a factor of dissatisfaction (2).
To avoid this feeling, Disney has repeatedly tested a system called "queue-less": a ticket is given to visitors, who instead of waiting in a queue can use arcade games and small attractions nearby. They must show up when the number of ticket appears on a display, a bit like the system used in the French administration services.
Another business model, still used by some parks (like Tivoli or Blackpool) is to charge per ride, instead of offering a flat an entrance fee. The ride price is depends on the show’s popularity. It is not unlikely that this system, used by Disney until 1982 will be considered again by some parks.
Many other options can be experienced, some very simple, like giving priority access to single riders.

Queuing psychology
Even on holiday, nobody likes to wait. But the appreciation of time spent waiting is subjective. A line that moves steadily towards an identified target is acceptable, especially if it contains interesting elements that occupy the visitors. This is why very large lengths are rarely used and that the line looks like it moves to a "focal point". It's only when that point is reached that visitors discover another part of the line, perhaps denser. They at least feel that they have reached a milestone. In contrast, a line that is not moving and in which nothing happens is invariably a source of frustration.

Queues are a necessary evil. They are a cornerstone of the parks culture and part of getting the adrenaline going. Indicator of the success of the attractions, operators can use them to set the scene of an attraction, while generating ancillary revenues. Modern means of communication can be used to balance attendance at attractions and optimize the waiting time for visitors.

1  - A Silver Lining of Standing in Line: Queuing Increases Value of Products (MINJUNG KOO and AYELET FISHBACH*)

2  - The impact of virtual queues for amusement parksT - Heather Lutz Syracuse University

3 -  Managing Capacity and Flow at Theme Parks - Reza H. Ahmadi -  2001

4 - Flow management to optimize retail profits at theme parks - Kumar Rajaram and Reza Ahmadi -  2003

5 - Numbers rule you world - Kaiser Fung - McGraw-Hill - 2010

6  - Service Management. n New York: Irwin/McGraw-Hill, 1998Fitzsimmons, J. A., and M. J. Fitzsimmons.


Tejix Lighting Cabinet
Disneyland poster for the 60s describing ticket books