Theme parks act to ease the queues for visitors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2011, 12:00am


For theme park visitors as much as their owners, the queue is the enemy. Long waits reduce the fun for customers, and they may not come back for more.

But with combined visitor numbers exceeding 10 million for the first time last year, Disneyland and Ocean Park are fighting an uphill battle.

To tackle the problem, Ocean Park launched a multimillion-dollar hi-tech command and control room, the nerve centre from which every corner of the park is monitored through a network of more than a thousand closed-circuit cameras.

The centre's operators work to spot queues and take steps to ease the waiting. But anticipating queues before they formed was a better approach, said Todd Hougland, the park's operations and entertainment executive director.

'We decided to invest in something more robust,' he said, comparing it with an older control room. 'You never want to make guests wait to park, pay or pee. These are the three Ps of theme parks,' he said. 'When they are standing in lines they're not spending money or enjoying themselves.'

The control centre, located in an office building with a commanding view of the attractions, went live in January and was part of the redevelopment project which saw the opening of Aqua City, billed as Asia's largest aquarium.

If gridlock begins to form at the Abyss Turbo Drop - a vertical rapid descent thrill ride - technicians in the control room will respond by alerting managers who will ensure the ride runs quicker, so long as safety allows. Meanwhile, managers will use the time to entertain people waiting in the line, for example, by playing live music, sending musicians, magicians, clowns and/or mascots there to hold people's attention.

One of the control room's most important tasks is to ease queues most likely to form at Aqua City, Hougland said. It is highly popular as it is new and also very close to the park's entrance.

Individual visitors usually arrive early in the day and tourists in groups in the afternoon. That means the park has the most people from 3pm to 4pm. The Waterfront - the lowland part where Aqua City is located - is usually more crowded than the Summit - the higher area - because most individual visitors finish touring the Summit and return to the Waterfront as group tourists flock in.

'This is a challenge we face,' Hougland said. 'I'd love to be able to assign different people to different places so we can have a perfect distribution of guests. But we never have a perfect distribution.'

Hougland says the new facility enables park visitors to enjoy at least two rides or attractions in an hour.

Park management has been studying visitors' movements to prepare for more attractions in coming years. A fast-queuing system, similar to Disneyland's Fastpass, is being looked at.

Disneyland does not have a control centre like Ocean Park. This is ironic, given that it was Disney's famed theme parks, among them Walt Disney World in Orlando, that pioneered a top-down, hi-tech control and command centre. At Hong Kong Disneyland, managers and staff on the ground call and send text messages to each other when they see an influx of visitors. To keep people entertained, they send performers.

Disneyland parades, which can draw up to 16,000 people, are a way to help crowd control. Held twice a day at times when the park has its most people, they divert visitors' attention so queues at attractions are eased, says Noble Coker, vice-president for park operations.

'We observe how people behave and figure out how to improve their experience. What we don't try to do is to change their behaviour,' he said.

Most people, after going along Main Street, turn right to Tomorrowland 'because they see this big thing spinning', he said. From there they go left to Fantasyland and Adventureland, and back to Main Street.

This makes attractions in Tomorrowland, such as the Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear Astro Blasters, prone to long queues. 'We can't fight behaviour. But people, especially those who are educated, will opt out if they see a long queue. And they will get a Fastpass,' he said.

Autopia, where people drive cars on enclosed tracks, has been more popular than expected. 'When we built it, we assumed that most people would want to go on to Buzz than Autopia,' he said.

But it takes about 45 minutes for a ride at Autopia. 'We've asked ourselves many times, 'What is it that draws people to Autopia?' What I'm guessing is that it is because driving is not as common in Hong Kong as the US or Canada,' he said.

An expansion due to be completed in 2014, is designed to entice people in the direction of Adventureland to balance crowd distribution.

Coker said his team was continually studying ways to ease queues, including installing Fastpass systems. 'If you can put one more person in each ride or show, then that person is a little bit happier. If you get to go on six rides, rather than five, then it's a better day.'