Keep Moving Forward

On my last trip to Walt Disney World, Alice and I rode the version of “it’s a small world” at the Magic Kingdom, and it was halfway through that attraction that I started thinking about this.

small world backup

Passengers wait their turn to disembark from "it's a small world"

Passengers wait their turn to disembark from "it's a small world"


This phrase, “Keep moving forward”, was at the heart of Disney’s movie Meet the Robinsons, and was itself originally attributed to Walt Disney.  The original quote, in its entirety, was:

“Around here, however, we don’t look backwards for very long. We keep moving forward, opening up new doors and doing new things… and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.”
–Walt Disney

He was speaking about the technology and industry of animation, but I find it applicable in two ways, which I will talk about.

Yes, on that visit to “it’s a small world”, our boat came to a halt about 3/4ths of the way through the attraction.  We had hit the back of the boat in front of us.  This attraction consists of a continuous trough of water, filled with underwater jets pushing the current perpetually forward.  There are no stops of any sort, other than the loading dock.  If we were stopped, that meant that there was a solid traffic jam of bumper-to-bumper boats covering a significant portion of the ride.  I knew that we would be there for a long time.

“it’s a small world” is a series of rooms through which you move slowly, with a steadily changing perspective and new information to delight the senses.  No one room, no one element, has much to say or show.  There’s not much additional reward from extra scrutiny.  And the music loop is quite short.  “Feast for the senses” quickly transformed into “assault on the senses”.

It was hell.

We, the customers, were not getting the experience that we expected.  And we were unable to do anything about it.  So here is the useful tidbit that I gathered from that experience:

it’s a small world” is bearable as long as the boats are moving.

Or, to try to make it into a more useful concept, I’ll call it The Trapped Traveler design problem.

This applies to any situation, actually, where there is supposed to be progress.  We sit on airplanes for hours at a time, and it’s fine, because while we sit there doing nothing, we are collectively moving towards our goal.  That’s progress. But the moment that the plane arrives at the gate, we cease to be moving towards our goal.  And, I suspect, everyone in front of us has forgotten how to remove luggage from overhead compartments and disembark.

Passengers wait to disembark.  Would it kill the airports to open a second exit on the plane?

Passengers wait to disembark. Would it kill the airports to open a second exit on the plane?

Or when we’re on a freeway, and traffic has stopped moving.  We are prevented from reaching our goal, but completely dependent upon the benevolence of strangers and external forces.  Not moving, and helplessness, are bad.

When we're trapped, our vehicles become jail cells.

When we're trapped, our vehicles become jail cells.

These are design issues.  They’re not hard.  But solving the Trapped Traveler’s problem is not a priority.  In the case of traffic congestion, there are years and years of research that I could discuss for quite some time, and I’ll bring some of it up later on in my notes on The Humble Queue.

But disembarking from an airplane? That’s easy.  Open more exits.  Direct people aft of the engines to use the rear exit, and suddenly the plane empties in half the time.  Airplanes are designed to be evacuated in 90 seconds or less.  Granted, those folks aren’t carrying their luggage or emptying the overhead compartments, but you get the picture.  Boarding a plane is another source of pain as everyone must wait for the person in front to struggle with their bags, oblivious to the 200 people behind them while standing in the aisle.  There has been lots of studies on how to mitigate that pain, too, but irate customers have already paid, so there’s not a lot of monetary incentive to fix that.

The ride “it’s a small world”, and all Disney attractions, get their budgets and life spans determined by throughput, which is the quantity of guests that they can put through an attraction on an hourly, and on a daily, rate.  The moment you are on the ride, you have been counted, and your satisfaction is assumed.

I bring this up because the problem of being stuck on that boat ride could have been easily solved.

The only reason that there would have been so many boats backed up is that there were some delays unloading or loading boats at the station.  Had the smooth flow and maximum enjoyment of the experience been the priority, then the Castmembers would have then sent additional empty boats through the ride, shaving off the time required to have new passengers embark and undergo basic safety checks.  I’m certain that this would irritate the people waiting to get on, especially if they were in a position to see the Castmember send the empty boats on.  They could me somewhat mollified if a Castmember explained that they did this to make the attraction itself as smooth and pleasant as possible, but that takes public relations finesse that might be beyond their training.

Another solution is to scale the entertainment to the current sensory throughput.

(What the hell did Andy just say?)

Imagine each guest on your attraction (or in your videogame) as holding a canister vacuum cleaner.  They are pointing the nozzle of this vacuum at everything around them in the experience, and sucking up sensory data–sights, sounds, smells, and so on–at a more or less fixed rate.

That’s sensory throughput.  As a designer, you need to make sure that there is always at least enough data to keep their personal vacuum cleaners humming along, or they will turn their nozzles where you don’t want them to: socializing, texting, interacting with your product in unintended ways.

For a fast-moving attraction, the details need to be broad and clear, to be processed quickly.  For a slower attraction, you must compensate for the nozzles sucking up more in a smaller area.  You can do this by expanding the breadth–provide more stuff to experience–or expanding the depth–increase the detail to handle added scrutiny and attention.

A breadth-wise solution is often what’s used in queue areas for attractions.  When the queue is full, Disney opens more switchbacks to move the guests out of congested traffic areas.  Your wait is longer, but you’re often getting additional content as a side benefit.  Doing it inside an attraction is more difficult, though.  On a boat ride, wouldn’t it be neat if the operator noted the congestion on the ride and diverted your boat into a second trough that leads you through more rooms–at the same sedate pace–full of new stuff?  Yeah, talk about turning a punishment into a reward, it would be difficult to do.

A depth-wise solution makes more sense.  It requires no additional space, just additional detail.  Also, it scales better as an attraction gets slower, and slower, and slower….and eventually stops.  At that point, you’re in the situation of having an attraction that has nozzles pointing at a single location for an indefinite period of time.  Not infinite, but indefinite.

And here’s where depth-wise really shines.  We’re all familiar with getting near infinite amounts of information from a single source.  We do it whenever we listen to the radio, or watch television, or a movie, or play a game.  We can provide a practically inexhaustible supply of sensory data in cases where physical forward progress has halted.

Yeah.  When a ride stops, show us a movie!  Not just any movie, though:

  • It would have to be long enough so that it didn’t loop while we were stuck in one place.
  • It would have to satisfy with any random subsection, not just in its entirety.
  • It would have to be interesting and well-crafted to integrate into the overall experience.
  • And it would have to be shown in an interesting way, some method other than how we would watch the same content at home.

Luckily, Disney has been all over projection technology, from Fantasmic, to Pirates of the Caribbean, to The Wonderful World of Color, even to The Three Amigos attraction at EPCOT.

Unfortunately, while these proposals solve problems and eliminate dissatisfied customers, there is no bottom-line justification for taking action.  On the freeway, you have to go where you have to do.  On the plane, you’re at your destination and they took your money weeks ago.  On the ride, there’s no additional revenue to be made by eliminating the backed-up toilet that is the Trapped Traveler problem.

So don’t be surprised when you’re on a ride that stops, and the dark lights up as everyone pulls out their cellphones to text their friends.  I’m serious.  I’ve seen it happen.


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