Beat the crowds: How to improve your attraction’s operational efficiency

Looking to beat those long lines this summer? Neil Wilson is an author and expert in driving operational efficiency at visitor attractions. Find out his top tips for busting queues below.
Neil Wilson
June 2023

There are six things you can do to reduce queuing at theme parks, and attractions: 

  1. You can distribute guests more evenly between days, so people visit on quieter days instead of busier ones.      
  2. You can re-distribute the visitors around the park, moving guests from busier areas to quieter ones.      
  3. You can spread visitors more evenly through the day, so the park is equally busy from opening until close, rather than visitors bunching up in the middle of the day.
  4. You can increase the throughputs on each activity (e.g. rides, restaurants etc). 
  5. You can add more activities. 
  6. Finally, you can increase attraction availability, so activities spend more time open and less time closed. 

Of course, every park has a finite budget, and part of the challenge is working out where to prioritize investment.

The extent to which each of these levers will have an impact will vary from park to park and each warrants its own deep dive. In this post, we’re going to be diving into strategy number two: spreading people more evenly around your park.  

What causes crowding on-park?    

theme park large queue at entrance

Common causes of an uneven spread of guests include:

  • Large sites where people slowly work their way towards the back from the turnstiles.
  • Confusing layouts where some areas are difficult to find.
  • Popular rides clustered together.
  • Restaurants draw people to a certain area around meal times.   
  • Large shows cause a crowd surge when it empties out.
  • Ride downtime pushes people away from a certain area.
  • Inclement weather pushes people towards a certain kind of attraction.

So, how do we solve it? When it comes to spreading people more evenly around the site, you have several choices. Some solutions have bigger capital costs, and others have bigger operational or resource-based costs. But, they’re more about forward planning than spending money. In the remainder of this article, we’re going to walk you through the options available for beating the crowds at your park, whether it's your first season or your fiftieth.

Tactic 1 : Think tactically when planning ride locations

It might seem obvious but it's surprisingly overlooked – ride placement is key to crowd control and if you're in the process of building a new park or themed area, you have the luxury of planning guest flow ahead of time. Aim to separate ‘hero’ rides and rides in the same category for maximum distribution. For example, if all the water rides are clustered together, then when it’s cold this area of the park could become a dead zone, including any shops, restaurants and infrastructure around it. In the early days of Six Flags Great Adventure, they deliberately placed the two big water rides at opposite ends of the site to spread the crowds out.

Similarly, if all of your indoor rides are close together, this area could become congested when it’s wet. If you’re building a haunt/scare maze for Halloween and you put it next to your ghost train, it’s in an area that’s already going to be busy. If you’re going to cluster most of your eateries together in a food court, it makes sense to place it somewhere central. If you offer live entertainment, consider having multiple exits that disperse guests into different sections of the park, for example, an exit on each side of the theatre that leads into different lands. Hollywood Studios does this brilliantly with the theatre for Fantasmic, and the ice show at Europa Park also has an exit on each side leading into different lands.

heat map tool for theme parks

If you’re unsure about where your bottlenecks lie, a heat mapping tool can help you to identify crowded areas. 

Tactic 2: Invest in real-time wait updates

Advertising waiting times, either using a mobile app or screens around the park, helps people to make informed choices. Waiting times are the currency that people use to decide which rides to wait for. Many parks colour code their waiting times (green, amber or red), depending on how long they are to help guests make a quick choice.

People can move towards the areas where the waiting times are the shortest. Of course, it only works if the waiting times are accurate. Otherwise, it could be counterproductive. Waiting times are more likely to be accurate on rides that have higher throughputs (so that anomalies average themselves out), rides where you can fill most of the seats (it’s easier to do this with moulded seats rather than bench seating), rides with simple loading processes (where there’s less opportunity for delays), rides where most of the guests board from the same queue, rides where the operators can adjust the waiting times themselves, and rides where the operators have a good view of the queue.  

theme park queue board and mobile app

Tactic 3: Communication is key

If you know that certain areas of your park get busy at specific times of day, you can communicate this to guests via digital signage, through your companion app or via your experience platform. 

Attractions using the Attractions.io platform could send a popup message letting guests know that the water rides are particularly busy between 11am-4pm for example. At Halloween, a spooky attraction might get disproportionately busy after it’s got dark. The app could recommend experiencing it earlier in the day. Tips for avoiding the worst queues can also be printed on paper maps, or promoted on social media. 

push notification explaining that the water rides are getting busier

Tactic 4: Maximise ride throughput with virtual queuing

If rides are unavailable, it often causes a surge at attractions nearby. For example, in my first job at Alton Towers the queue for Corkscrew could go from 15 minutes to an hour when Rita, the coaster next to it, broke down. You can pre-empt this, by adjusting waiting times quickly, and potentially getting an employee to stand at the entrance to the line of the ride that most people are diverting to, and letting guests know that the wait’s going to be longer than normal. This is sometimes called ‘queue busting’. If a ride is getting slammed because a nearby one is unavailable, you could move some entertainers into this area to add some extra capacity.

If there’s a ride near the entrance that gets particularly busy when the park first opens, you could also use a queue-busting approach, encouraging people to come back later in the day. Alternatively, you could set up a virtual queue for a ride that gets a particularly long queue when people pass it in the mornings. Europa Park introduced a virtual queue for Voletarium, their flying theatre but they didn’t issue time slots for the first or last 90 minutes of the day to give guests a chance to ride on the fly.

Europa Park theme park rides

Virtual queues can generally spread people out around the site, by encouraging people to use attractions with surplus capacity while they’re waiting for a ride with a long wait. This could include rides, but it might also include shows, shops and eateries. The Thinkwell Group estimates that the average Disney guest spends 15% of their day shopping.

Key Takeaways     

People don’t make random decisions, so if you leave things to chance, a lot of guests will end up in the same place. Good interactive wayfinding, clear information about what each attraction does, and accurate information about the waiting times, help guests to avoid the worst queues. Remember, not every guest will know what a ride is, just from seeing the name. An interactive map that helps guests identify the attractions that suit their thrill level will help to improve navigation and reduce crowding.

These things might sound obvious, but when parks are master planning, there are a lot of people with their own concerns and interests. There can be a tendency to place too much emphasis on marketing departments, who don’t always understand the operational issues. They might be more interested in placing rides depending on which themes they want to use, rather than where it’ll be good for guest flow. Whilst there are lots of things to think about, an operational mindset and good forward planning, is guaranteed to make it easier to beat the queues.

To learn more about busting queues and improving operational efficiency, purchase Neil’s book ‘Absolute Efficiency: Book One: A Guide to Operational Efficiency in the Theme Park Industry’ from Waterstones or Amazon.

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Neil Wilson

A theme park and comedy enthusiast, who loves finding ways to make queues shorter.
June 2023

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