CORONAVIRUS! COVID-19!

Okay, now that I have your attention (and my SEO keyword), let’s begin discussing the topic at hand…

But of course, not before discussing its history…

A full queue of guests at Magic Kingdom’s “it’s a small world”
image source: flickr user Michael Gray

I think it’s safe to say that most of my readers and followers remember the dark days of attraction queuing — waits of 30 minutes, 45 minutes, an hour, 2 hours! — with nothing for entertainment but an instrumental music loop ranging anywhere from 5 to 50 minutes, and maybe a mural to look at. In fact, some attractions, until the past decade or so, were still like that! An hour-long wait for Peter Pan’s Flight or Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was an hour of standing in switchbacks in the oppressive Florida heat and humidity (admittedly, less of an issue in the dryer, cooler Southern California climate).

In the ’60s, Walt’s Imagineers toyed with small improvements to Disneyland’s queuing systems. Themed indoor waiting areas gave guests something to look at, while pre-shows allowed for large groups of guests to be let into an attraction at once for a brief introduction to the main show. Pre-shows in particular give the wait a feeling of large and rapid progression followed by a momentary pause, rather than a long, slow crawl.

These methods were implemented with little consistency for the next couple of decades, but it was the beginning of a very welcome trend: entertaining the guests while they wait. In the ’80s, one of the first Eisner projects for the Disney Parks was Star Tours, the Star Wars-themed motion simulator ride. The queue for this attraction, which occupied the former load area of the extinct Omnimover attraction Adventures Thru Inner Space, had a giant projection screen showcasing several “possible” Star Tours destinations (there was only one in the actual attraction at the time), as well as Audio-Animatronic figures of C-3PO and R2-D2 bickering and commentating while they prep a Starspeeder ship for takeoff. The next room of the queue featured even more droids, unique to the attraction: repair and security droids who “talk to” guests as they walk by (with prerecorded dialog).

Suddenly, guests and Imagineers realized people didn’t have to be bored and tired while they waited in line. Queues continued to improve. Splash Mountain in both parks featured things to read and introductory character dialog. The Great Movie Ride displayed actual props from classic movies, as well as a continuous loop of actual theatrical trailers for many of the films featured therein. The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror took its time to fully immerse guests in the time and place of the attraction, complete with sound, scenery, and a pre-show.

Hm… should I?
image source: mouseplanet.com

All of this culminated in what was essentially a game-changer for queue entertainment: Indiana Jones and the Temple of the Forbidden Eye, a.k.a. Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland. IJA featured an indoor queue, an outdoor extended queue, music, sound, lighting, scenery, and interactive elements. Runes carved into the walls could be translated to tell guests things that enhanced the story. An all-too-enticing rope with a sign begging guests not to pull it does… something when the request is ignored.

1999 brought us a new innovation in attraction queuing: Disney’s FastPass. FastPass, in its original form, allowed guests to reserve a place in line for later in the day by scanning their park ticket and receiving a slip of paper with a one-hour time-span later in the day when they can return and experience the attraction with often a significantly shorter wait. FastPass was a blessing and a curse to longtime park guests. On one hand, it allowed guests to spend their wait time eating, shopping, relaxing, or experiencing other attractions; on the other hand, it gave the impression of entitlement, and longer waits, for guests waiting in the Standby queue. (In point of fact, wait times for Standby guests was no longer than it would have been if FastPass queuers had been in the Standby line with them.

Fast forward a decade or so, and fully interactive queues began popping up. Since the late aughts, Almost every new attraction, and several old attractions, have had queues full of games, toys, animations, and all sorts of interactive goodies. Since smartphones have become more commonplace, the Play Disney app has supplemented, and in some cases replaced, the interactive queues with even more complex interactivity, complete with progression and achievements.

When Disney’s classic Dumbo ride reopened as part of the Magic Kingdom’s New Fantasyland expansion, it introduced the first, and thus far only, virtual queue in a Disney theme park. When guests enter the queue, they are assigned a boarding group and estimated wait time. After that, they are free to play and explore the games and activities under the big top until their group is called to board. 

This, of course, leads the big question:

 When will Disney switch to all virtual queuing?

Let’s amend this, first of all, because obviously all queues can’t be (easily) converted to virtual — ride vehicle loads that follow preshows are pretty much unpreventable — but what if you could walk right up to The Haunted Mansion’s front (side? basement? secret?) door, be led into the foyer minutes later, and into a stretching gallery just a short spiel after that? It’s something we off-seasoners used to relish, but nowadays, it is usually an unattainable dream.

TapuTapu at Universal’s Volcano Bay
image source: orlandoinformer.com

How would virtual queuing work, exactly? Well, Universal has given us a pretty decent template to judge from, at their themed water park, Volcano Bay. Volcano Bay issues guest a wristband called (perhaps tastelessly) a “TapuTapu”. TapuTapu is basically a MagicBand, except it has a rudimentary LCD screen, and the guests are not supposed to take it home. To use it for virtual queuing, a guest taps the TapuTapu onto an NFC pad like one would tap a MagicBand to redeem a FastPass. The attraction will give the guest a return time, and they are free to do whatever and go wherever they want within the park until then.

All of Volcano Bay’s queues are virtual, and from what I’ve heard, it works pretty well…

…at a park with only a dozen or so attractions and where doing-nothing-in-or-around-the-pool is considered a worthwhile activity. 

So how would this method work in a Disney theme park? Well, Disney tried it recently with the new attraction at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Rise of the Resistance, and the results were — well, not so great, actually.

To get a spot on RotR, you need a Boarding Pass. You get a Boarding Pass by navigating to the Boarding Pass distribution page in the Disney World app or My Disney Experience site while you are within the vicinity of the park. You then register for a Boarding Pass, which will give you the approximate time you need to return to be allowed into the queue. You are then free to do whatever you want, wherever you want (including leaving the park) until your scheduled boarding time.

Sounds great, right?

Wrong!

Boarding Passes for the entire day typically run out within minutes of the park gates opening, and hardcore fans arrive and begin queuing hours before then. And unlike Pandora’s Flight of Passage, you can’t just jump in the line and wait the 200+ minutes, for RotR, if you miss that half-hour-or-so window at 7 in the morning, you’re not going on the ride.

Now, since the COVID-19 closings and subsequent retoolings of the parks, Disney has modified this so that there are a handful of windows during which you can register for a Boarding Pass, and once they’re out, you get another chance at the next window, but this is still not a perfect system.

But COVID-19 is here, and social distancing is a thing, so a lot of people have been assuming Disney would be implementing a similar system to the rest of their queues. Not waiting in line potentially means not being stuck next to people, which means staying safer, right? So why not do it?

It would certainly be practical for some attractions. The queues for “it’s a small world”, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh, and Jungle Cruise are nothing but a labyrinth of switchbacks in an open-air environment. Lots of people crammed into a small, hot space are certainly something we would want to avoid right now. Even indoor queues like Living with the Land, The Seas with Nemo & Friends, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway are little more than pools of people in a tiny space.

This solution seems like a no-brainer.

Why wouldn’t Disney do this?

I have actually already given you answer number one, in the first section of this essay, be fore “the big question”.

Disney has spent decades streamlining the  attraction queuing process, implementing preshows, in-line entertainment, and elaborate theming. I have no actual numbers to confirm this, but I would imagine that in the past 10 years or more, a sizeable chunk of an E-ticket attraction’s budget has gone into the queue. Look at the attractions in Pandora, and Galaxy’s Edge, even Expedition Everest from 2005. Every one of those queues is a sprawling, snaking, immersive journey into the world of the experience you are about to have. To lose this aspect of the attraction would be to lose about a third of what makes them amazing.

Impressive Avatar animatronic in the Flight of Passage queue
image source: blogmickey.com

For a prime example of what I mean, take a look at The Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom right now. The Foyer and Stretching Gallery have been disabled, and are now queuing space. Now, in Disneyland (and Disneyland Paris), the Stretching Rooms are a necessity, taking guests to a tunnel under the train tracks and into a show building outside the berm of the park. Because of this necessity, the Imagineers used the Gallery as a themed pre-show that introduces the unique blend of mischief and macabre the Mansion plays with throughout the main ride. Without the Stretching Room, however, much of the dark, forboding atmosphere is lost — as well as our introduction to our Ghost Host. We sit down in a pod-shaped ride vehicle, and this voice just starts talking to us, apropos of nothing.

All right, you say; so we keep the pre-shows (post-COVID) and just virtual queue everything else. That brings us to a more complicated problem…

Crowd control.

You may have wondered how the Disney Parks can continually increase capacities while the parks themselves never get significantly bigger. There are three ways they do this: eateries, attractions, and queues.

You see, every time Disney expands their offerings, they try to fit as many people as possible as safely as possible. This doesn’t usually involve making the parks themselves bigger, but rather utilizing available space more efficiently. This is why queues have gotten so much bigger and more elaborate over the years. Waiting in line has almost become part of the attraction experience, and the more people they can get in it, the more people they get out of the streets.

And that’s the real problem with virtual queuing. You may not have as many people in the queue, but now you have more people everywhere else. An attraction like Soarin’ has an hourly capacity of about 2000 guests. That means if there is an hour-long wait, there are approximately 2000 people on the ride and in the queue. Each theater has a full capacity of 87 guests, and there are three theaters. So of the 2000 guests in the attraction, only at most 261 of them are actually aboard the attraction. The rest are in the queue.

What happens to those 1700-1800 guests (or more, on busier days) if they aren’t waiting in line? They’re in the walkways and promenades, restaurants and gift shop, and generally in the way. EPCOT has a maximum park capacity somewhere around 90,000 (actual numbers are not publicly released, and fluctuate), and 14 medium-to-high capacity attractions in the range of 1000-2000/hr. If you take away queues entirely, that’s another 20,000 people on average meandering the park.

Crowded EPCOT walkway — image source: mouseplanet.com

Ironically, in this day and age, when we’re doing everything we can to prevent groups of people in a small place, well organized queues are actually safer than virtual queues — at least, if we don’t want Disney to restrict park capacity even more than they already have. On the plus side, thanks to the Imagineers’ foresight, we don’t have to be bored while waiting in our socially distanced queues!

Maybe someday virtual queuing will be a practical thing, but for the time being, we all get the share in the experience of waiting in line for a one-of-a-kind Disney Park experience!

(Yay…?)