No one enjoys standing in line but, like it or not, it’s an integral part of the theme park experience. For decades, Disney and other parks have tried to find a way to make standing in line more enjoyable for its customers. Sometimes they have used a straight forward approach, filling the experience with details or interactivity for guests. Other times, waiting in line has been changed due to FastPass, Virtual Queues or guests using a pay to skip the line system. Where do theme parks go from here? In this post, we’ll take a look at the future of theme park queues, offering our commentary on what to expect by looking at how they’ve evolved.
Looking back to the first theme parks, waiting in line was more of an afterthought. In the Disney community, that would mean Disneyland but looking just a few miles northwest of there at Knott’s Berry Farm provides a similar insight. While queues have been expanded to meet current day demand, there isn’t much in terms of detail to look at. The focus was on the actual ride and, especially at the time, we wholeheartedly understand the approach. Storytelling in the way of a theme park ride was an evolving art and starting the story in the queue was likely an afterthought.
Fantasyland in Disneyland and most of Knott’s offer the very basic, wind back and forth lines. They are simple, if not claustrophobic at times. These still exist and are proof that if the ride is good enough then who really cares about the line? It’s hard to argue that and spits in the face of an attraction like Animal Kingdom’s Kali River Rapids where the illustrious queue sets up for a disappointing attraction. Why spend a ride’s budget on standing in line when it could be spent on the actual ride? I’m not suggesting that’s the right approach but it does make sense, especially back in the 50’s and 60’s.
This thought process began to evolve in the 70’s and 80’s after Walt Disney World opened. Blessed with more space, facades of attractions only grew bigger. 1959’s Matterhorn became more normal than the anomaly that it had been. In that case, a very simple line concept came about and with it came a different kind of queue. This idea is based around that if people see something large, an iconic piece of architecture or a mountain towering over the horizon, they are drawn to it and will look at that. Taking the Matterhorn, for example, guests get in a queue and are inching towards going into that mountain with every step in line. The anticipation continues to build until you get into the ride vehicle.
Really, the reality is the same as those winding back and forth lines of Fantasyland except this time there’s eye candy to look at and draw people toward. This is still the concept behind Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion, it’s a small world and pretty much any big roller coaster at any theme park.
As facades got bigger, so did the queue space. That led to more room for details and story to start before getting in a ride. The concept is never more apparent than comparing Pirates of the Caribbean at Disneyland to Magic Kingdom. Without getting into the actual ride at all because Disneyland’s is far superior, the queues are incredibly different. Disneyland’s is pretty thanks to the New Orleans Square architecture but there is nothing to the line aside from some amazing trees and winding back and forth.
Magic Kingdom’s version, which was built six years later, integrates guests into the story as soon as they step into the massive fort. There are cannonballs and jail cells, props to show that a battle is set to commence and we’re going to see it. I do not know if these elaborations led to a worse version of the actual ride, I doubt that they did. But those additions to the queue are very interesting, acting as thematic stepping stones to the eventual boat ride.
I wouldn’t call WDW’s Pirates the start of detailed queues but it is one of the first to the modern approach. Nowadays, if an attraction opened without some sort of detail in the queue instead opting for a simple line winding back and forth it would be questioned. We expect more of modern rides. This is best seen in Tower of Terror, Big Thunder Mountain as well as a host of new attractions like Flight of Passage and Rise of the Resistance.
Around a decade ago, give or take a few years, interactive queues had a short hey day. The thought being that if guests had something to do while in line they would enjoy it more. Strangely, most of these additions seemed to be at Magic Kingdom. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh brought these changes with varying degrees of success. Even Haunted Mansion got in on the act with a few touchable instruments amongst the graveyards.
A lot of these interactive queues feel like gags, for better or worse. That makes sense, as you can trace the lineage back to the “Don’t Pull the Rope!” sign in Disneyland Indiana Jones Adventure. Pulling the rope earns guests a funny character bit and some laughs, so why not make an entire queue full of these? Well, it hurts guests flow not to mention the germs floating around. Before the pandemic, I thought queues like this might have a chance to pop up now and then on new attractions. Now, I don’t think we’re likely to see one ever again.
Despite the surge in interactive queues, it could be argued that the hallmark for details while waiting in line came out around the same time. That can be seen in Universal’s Harry Potter & the Forbidden Journey. Guests take a stroll through Hogwarts before being swept away on the ride. I don’t think this queue has been matched in terms of beauty or detail. I’d walk through it even if there wasn’t a world class ride at the end of the line. It went to show that maybe the interactivity is a little overrated when you can just have beautiful things to stare at instead.
Moving forward to these last few years, virtual queues like what we’ve seen with Rise of the Resistance and WEB Slingers have come into effect. Really, they have been around for a while as FastPasses (Lightning Lane now) with return windows basically used the same system. Guests will want to go on an attraction, will receive a return window and then will wait in a significantly shorter line. It’s kind of like going to a restaurant and being given an ETA on when your table will be ready. You can go shopping for a new pair of shoes until the 45 minutes is up and then you can sit down and eat. That same principle is used with a virtual queue as guests are free to roam about the park until their spot is open.
It’s a system that will be continued to use in the future but I’d caution against getting swept up in virtual queues being the future of theme parks. I’m hoping this won’t come back to bite me, as our 4 loyal readers surely wouldn’t let me live this down 😉
The problem with virtual queues is that they clog every other queue up. If a guest is virtually in line for something and physically in line for something else then they are technically in two lines. Now, play that concept out if there are five virtual queues in a park. Theme parks are high capacity areas but guests being in two lines at the same time erodes at that capacity, not just clogging the wait times but also walking paths and restaurants. This is why I’m not all that upset with the addition of Genie+, assuming it’s not absurdly popular. It should limit the amount of virtual spot saving and could make for quicker standby lines.
If a theme park opened with only virtual queues, as had been talked about before, then common areas would be too crowded and the capacity of the park would have to shrink by a large percentage. While having one or two of these makes sense to some degree, a group of them will end up hurting the rest of the park too much.
A waiting area, like what we see in Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run or Magic Kingdom’s Dumbo makes far more sense, as guests are already gathered inside of the ride. There’s opportunity to mill around and explore the details instead of being herded like cattle but they also aren’t clogging up the rest of the park. If anything, I think these systems will be more commonplace in the future rather than virtual queues.
Looking back through the evolution of theme park queues leads me to believe that the detailed, story driven queues will remain the best and most popular option. Touching stuff is cool but icky. Virtual queues are nice when your spot is called but they make the entire experience a little more complicated than we realize at the time. But they don’t replicate walking through Hogwarts or into the lobby of the Hollywood Tower Hotel. Technology can and will be used to make the queue experience better, but the more things change the more they stay the same. Physical and practical storytelling and sets in queues remain unbeaten, much like they do when guests get on an actual ride.
What kind of queues do you like and what do you want to see in the future? Let us know your thoughts, along with any questions you might have, in the comments below! Planning a Disney trip? Check out our planning guides to get you started! If you enjoy what you are reading here on Wandering in Disney please share this post with your friends, as well as like our social media pages. You can also subscribe to the blog via WordPress or email. All of those links are on the right side of this page. Thank you for reading, we really appreciate it!