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The Waiting Game

By Will Wiess

"We spent a whole afternoon and only rode two rides. I'm sure you can understand our disappointment."

"We paid close to $50 a person to wait in line for almost an hourI plan to urge others to avoid it (the park) at all costs."

"I'm tired of waiting hours in line for just a 2 sec. ride."

If you've ever wondered how wait times are affecting the major theme parks, pay close attention to some of the complaints registered with PlanetFeedback.com. With no existing research able to accurately monitor the impact, it is an issue long ignored by many park designers. In most cases, shortening those waits equate to increased costs for parks. It is argued, standing in line is an accepted by-product of any theme or amusement park.

But all that is starting to change.

At present, nine major U.S. park chains have, or will soon implement, various versions of the ride reservation system. Disney recently adopted their own, dubbed Fast Pass, for most of their theme parks. (Though some have credited them with pioneering the system, the idea isn't a new one; time tickets have been used successfully at World Fairs for years.) The concept is fairly simple. Guests insert their "passport" into an electronic turnstile, after which a receipt prints out their reserved time in which to board a specific attraction with a minimal wait. By evening the demand, they hope to decrease hourly wait times.

They must be doing something right; after nearly two years of testing, Universal launched their own system, known as Universal Express. Paramount and Busch are both following suit.

But it doesn't stop there. The future could very well be found in a few Six Flags owned properties, who recently introduced the Lo-Q System. While pagers issued to guests allow them to effectively plan their entire day of rides, they can also act as a locating device. (By the way, other Six Flags parks use a time ticket system called Fast Lane.)

So why the sudden change of heart? Exit surveys are becoming increasing filled with comments similar to those found on PlanetFeedback. The fact is, we live in a wired world where time has become a precious commodity. Guests are ever more irritated with paying exorbitant gate fees, only to stand in line for the average four-minute ride. In rare cases, outright violence is the end result. Not long ago, a Disneyland Cast Member was assaulted by an irate guest who had mistaken him for someone cutting in line.

But the benefits of line reduction programs go well beyond guest satisfaction. As customers waste somewhere around 25 per cent of their day in line, the parks are missing out on time (and money) spent in restaurants and shops. With an industry serving 316 million guests per year (according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions), the remuneration is potentially enormous.

There are countless ways at accomplishing this reduction, some more economically feasible than others. Let's take a quick look at just a few:

  • Increase hourly capacity. This is the obvious first choice, though probably not the most cost efficient one. For a major "E-Ticket" attraction, Disney shoots for somewhere around 1600 riders per hour. Increasing the capacity could mean anything from extra vehicles to a quicker experience. You can count on one thing, though: it's going to cost.

  • Effectively communicate attractions with shorter waits on a regular basis. Most of the major parks keep a time board, showing current waits for major attractions, near a central hub. Simply adding more of these around the park could result in a dramatic difference. Likewise, successfully advertising off-peak times to the general public could also prove beneficial.

  • Use a ride coupon system. A practice commonly used by fairs and carnivals, Disney also once utilized ride tickets. This is where the term "E-Ticket," now only a name reserved for their most expensive attractions, first came about. Instead of today's "passport," guests purchased coupon books with ride tickets marked A through E. The latter was reserved for the most popular attractions, like the Matterhorn Bobsleds or the Submarine Voyage. Again, the goal was to even the demand and encourage guests to experience each attraction. (It should be noted, however, that most customers tend to favor the perceived value of a single-priced pass.)

  • Leave out the queue altogether and opt for a large pre-show. While this is an idea that could dramatically affect capacity, it may not be feasible for all types of attractions.
  • Incorporate your park into a single, cohesive story. It seems feasible for future designers to create a park where guests are encouraged to experience each "chapter."

In the end, it will probably never be economically practical to fully eliminate the lines. Hundreds of millions of visitors will hit the turnstiles of worldwide parks this year, resulting in thousands of waiting hours. Therefore, when it comes to guest satisfaction and return, it's the details that become all the more important. Here are a few to keep in mind:

  • Create thematically related distractions. Numerous parks have incorporated show stories into their queuing areas, and many have added guest interaction. Good examples include Roger Rabbit's Cartoon Spin, The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man and Men In Black: Alien Attack.

  • Beware of spatial layout. The trick is to develop queues that encourage the perception of progress. Narrow, winding queues, similar to Disneyland's Indiana Jones Adventure, is one way to pull it off. Rarely is there a point where guests can see how long the line is ahead of them, allowing for the proverbial "light at the end of the tunnel."

  • Curb unused resources. Guests want to know that all personnel and equipment are being used to their full extent. Idle operators and unfilled ride vehicles will very quickly add to their frustration.

It's easy to see that there are a million things we can pay attention to when focusing on the reduction of lines. One thing is very clear: this is an issue that isn't going away anytime soon. Despite an uncertain economy, theme park attendance is on the rise. You can be certain that those with the least amount of waiting will win in more ways than one.

Will Wiess is a freelance writer for the themed entertainment industry.

   

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