The Secret Objectives of Queues

I won’t belabor the obvious.  A typical guest experience at Disneyland, or at any of its relatives, involves lots of standing and trudging in lines.  The higher the attendance and more popular the attraction, the longer the line.  The more efficient the throughput is on the attraction, in terms of guests moved per hour, the faster the line moves.

In the absence of reservations, the queue is the de facto method for fairly and impartially giving every guest who wishes to go somewhere an opportunity to do so.  There are a couple of variants out there, which are getting plenty of coverage in popular Disney-centric blogs, so I’ll get into those later.

BUT! At a theme park, the queue serves other purposes of which you may not be consciously aware.

  • It reaffirms a sense of fairness in the world.  First come, first serve is inherently egalitarian.  A guest’s position in line is a direct and transparent consequence of when they chose to get in line.  “Fairness” is not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but it’s something that many people incorporate into their mental model of the world.  Issues of impatience aside, reaffirming that can instill a sense of well-being.
  • It reaffirms the guest’s choice of attraction.  If a line for a non-mandatory process is long, then everyone in front of the guest must agree that the attraction is a desirable experience.
  • It controls the perceived population of the park. Here’s a simple but surprising observation: If a guest is spending more than half their time either in line for, or on, attractions, then that must mean that less than half of the park’s population is actually visible in publicly accessible areas.  As an example, an aerial photograph of Disneyland might show 15,000 people in the park on a day when there are 35,000 guests.
  • It controls the perceived popularity of an attraction.  Call this the blockbuster effect.  Movie theaters and themed attractions play a game with guests, balancing the need to keep paths open and safe against the desire to flaunt the popularity of an attraction.  The perception of the length of a queue can be controlled by opening and closing additional switchbacks either in highly visible areas, or in regions not seen by guests outside of the attraction queue.
  • It distributes an attraction’s features over a broader area.  The theming, pre-show, props, set dressing, mood lighting and ambient sounds can spill out from an attraction and be distributed over a larger footprint, to be absorbed in a less dense concentration.  The senses can be filled at a lighter pace than during the main show.
  • It builds anticipation by exposing the exit.  In addition to having attractions exit into a retail area, many more recent attractions place their exits somewhere highly visible to guests who have not yet embarked.  The idea here is to see the excitement, the afterglow in the facial expressions and body language of disembarked guests.  We are biologically wired to read and respond to cues in the faces and posture of others.  In effect, we “sip” some excitement from the pleased folks walking by.
  • It lets guests see how wet they will get. VERY important.  I could spend a blog entry on this one all by itself, and how it changes from country to country.
  • It allows special sightlines into the attraction.  Some attractions are completely out in the open, where their every twist and turn are visible to the public.  Others can tease, offering only glimpses into the interior.  The best way to make someone want to see something is to conspicuously hide it.  An attraction that offers you no glimpses into its interior until you make a commitment by getting in line? Very sexy.
  • It gradually immerses the guest in an internally consistent universe.Lights, cameras, roll sound, and….action! A gradual reshaping of the world over the course of several minutes gently and steadily suspends a guest’s disbelief, leaving them receptive to absorb the tenets of a new, internally consistent reality.  An attention to detail here allows information to be absorbed consciously and unconsciously.  Like the magician’s unspoken pact with an audience, this is how the covenant between attraction and guest is sealed: The attraction says “I will entertain you within this illusion” and the guest says “I will accept this deception in order to be entertained.”
  • It presents backstory at a more leisurely pace.  The high-throughput main show will necessarily have a high concentration of sensory information and story, either offering a summary experience or just the climax of a narrative, or some combination of the two.  Moving the backstory into the queue, like setting the stage, reduces the sensory load and informational prerequisites for guests.  They can learn what they need to know beforehand in order to better appreciate the main show.
  • It presents safety information. It informs guests of any safety regulations, policies, or limitations on how they enjoy the attraction, and warns of any risks or items that for whatever reason, a guest will find the experience unpleasant or potentially hazardous.
  • It presents embarking instructions. A queue is a great place to train guests how to help keep the line moving, so that they can enjoy the attraction sooner.  The assumption, too, is that everyone in front of the guest has been made aware of the same information, so that they all made the same commitment to an efficient queue that the guest has made.
  • It commits guests to the attraction. Look at the line at Starbucks.  There is a lesson–and a trick–here.  Starbucks’ baristas and cashiers are trained to take your order long before they will have an opportunity to make your beverage or ring up your transaction.  Ordering ahead does not in any way speed up the process by more than a second or two.  But the act of taking your order is enough to deter you from deciding to take your business somewhere with a shorter line, or no line at all.  Likewise, getting in line for an attraction establishes a covenant.
  • It triggers the loss-aversion behavior.  As soon as other people line up behind a guest, their position in line takes on value. That position increases in value somewhat as the people ahead of the guest embark on the attraction, but more significantly as more people queue behind the guest, because that position has just become desirable to a larger number of people.  Demand effectively increases.  Getting out of line would remove the perceived value to the guest without offering anything of equal value back.  Instead, the value is passed on to everyone behind the guest.  Smarter guests can do a conversion between the value of their place in line and the value of their time, but it’s a highly subjective one, affected by other events, time left in the day, quality of company in line, entertainment value in the queue itself, and missed opportunities (i.e. I’m hungry, or there’s a parade somewhere else that I could be watching)
  • It offers the perception of advancement and progress. The passive act of waiting is transformed into the active act of advancing in line.  Long lines that move are much more satisfying and life-affirming than short lines that don’t move.

Stuck in a line at a theme park and feel like nothing’s happening? Remember this list, and realize that a whole lot is going on.

Just not a lot of walking.

6 responses to “The Secret Objectives of Queues

  1. Great stuff. Keep up the good work. Have you noticed what Disney has been trying with some of the waiting areas in Florida? I haven’t seen these experiments in person.

  2. Hi Ken. I’m so very glad that you are part of this conversation! I hope to engage you in a great many dialogues.

    I haven’t seen the experiments either, although I have been following articles about them with great interest. The experiments with Winnie-The-Pooh and Soarin’ are part of what prompted this essay, as I was attempting to identify the objectives that any alternative to classical queues would have to either meet or somehow render obsolete.

    The airline industry has similarly sunk lots of resources into exploring more efficient passenger throughput systems, and I’d like to talk about how the two industries could learn from each other.

  3. Fascinating post, thanks for sharing. 🙂

  4. Pingback: Michael Moretti | Information Architecture | UX Design » What’s in a line?

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