Theory and practice of queue design

Passport to Dreams's FoxxFur continues to write the most fascinating, erudite, insightful material about dark ride and theme-park design I've ever read; her latest post is about the new queue area for the Pooh ride at Walt Disney World, used as a jumping-off point for a fascinating essay on the theory and practice of queue design:
Disney's main innovation and departure in 1955 was to replace the traditional "back wall" with, in fact, no wall and a beautifully designed manufactured landscape. Trompe l'oeil becomes terrain, the "scenic switchback". The earliest example of this may be the Jungle Cruise, but I think the most beautiful one is the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which is an exciting, fascinating wait in line by virtue of... yodeling music and manufactered rocks.

But for all that, honestly, we don't think of Disney's best queues as being plain switchbacks, even if they secretly are. If we cut the roof off the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean queue and look in, we'll see that the switchbacks are unpredictable because they wrap behind walls and around scenes, they're actually pretty much just like what still graces the front of Snow White's Scary Adventures (see below). Even the beautifully linear Space Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure queues eventually reach switchback areas, just not immediately or obviously. These queues, the "secret switchbacks", are a later innovation on the part of Disney and are what is generally thought of as the "themed queue", atmospheric treks which set up some component of place or atmosphere, indicators of an advanced state of themed design. In the context of Disney-designed attractions, this mode was more or less invented for the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean, although Disney did not always use it for every attraction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, for example, is more or less a simple "scenic switchback" queue, at least in the original design of the attraction (built in Florida in 1979).

The Third Queue


  1. The Back to the Future Queue, at Universal Florida was excellent.

    Each little cluster of switchbacks had a story to tell.
    Missing the queue on low ride times, would diminish your experience.

  2. Queue design is a very important part of attraction design. Disney of course has done the lion’s share of the best of them, but I do believe that the credit for the first “hidden switchback” queue goes to Wendell “Bud” Hurlbut – designer of Knott’s Berry Farm’s Calico Mine Ride, which opened 1960. You could make a case for Pacific Ocean Park’s Banana Train ride as well – but that queue was still mostly visible from the entry point…

  3. Great article.. that someone can take the time to see this design from such a high level interactive process… thanks for the insight.. gave me a few great ideas! I do believe this sort of innovation can better enhance experiences for upcoming virtual environments.

  4. Isn’t this an applied example of what magicians have been doing for centuries — misdirected attention, only what designers are doing here is directing attention away from … boredom?

    Dennis D. McDonald
    Alexandria, Virginia

  5. Forgive my ignorance – I’ve never been to Disneyland, but why have these kind of queue at all? Couldn’t they use issue visitors with fobs when they enter the park that register their interest in a ride, and buzz when the ride is ready (taken into account transit distance from where they are now in the park, etc)?

    1. That’s essentially what the Fast Pass system does. You get a ticket which tells you to come back at a certain time and wait in a much smaller line.

      There’s simply far too many people and the park is far too big for any sort of reservation buzzer to work.

  6. Having never been to a theme park before, I had no idea there was this kind of thought put into people waiting in lines! Makes sense, I guess.

  7. Well like David Bowie sang, “Remember – everybody has to wait in line”:

    One day he’ll get his faculty together…

  8. I have been a fan of Foxxfur’s Passport 2 Dreams since its inception. Her insight is amazing and, arguably, she is writing the very best stuff on themed design in the blogging world. Her work helps to legitimize what the Imagineers have been doing for more than 50 years as well as framing their work in a historical and pop culture setting.

    I have been very fortunate to have her guide me through the parks and discuss themed design in relation to its environment. Talk about eye opening!

    1. I’m insanely jealous! I’d love to meet her someday (and, more importantly, so would my literary agent, whom I’ve turned on to her work and who would like to talk about a book project!)

  9. ah yes… went to Drayton Manor last year… all the queues were designed so that you couldn’t see how long they were when joining… some of them were half an hour long and it was very difficult to actually determine how close to the front you were while in the queue… some parents are getting very anxious with kids screaming to go to the toilets but they didn’t dare leave the queues…

  10. What fun!

    Waiting in interminable-but-artistically-designed queues in a sterile, expensive theme park to see Las Vegas-style amusements with cartoon characters.

    Bah, humbug.

    P.S. Orlando is a dump.

    1. Waaa! I am the enemy of fun! I hate fun! I am rational! Fun is not rational! I am cynical and this makes me better than sheeple!

      1. Waaa! I like fun! My idea of fun is not standing in line with thousands of other people! I don’t consider them sheeple just b/c they like this! I am not cynical, but not obvilious to manufactured inconveniences, either! I don’t consider myself better than other people, but if a person considers *themselves* to be a sheeple, we probably don’t have much in common!

  11. If you’re into erudite analyses of Disney theme parks, I heartily recommend Long-Forgotten, which is a blog that focuses primarily on Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion. The author, who is a biblical scholar in his day job, argues that the Haunted Mansion, unlike most Disney theme park attractions, rises to the level of High Art.

    (I know the biblical scholar part may turn some people off, but he’s a real scholar, not a fundamentalist.)

  12. I was hoping that someone would throw in the phrase that I heard about the Disney queue. The Waiting Adventure!

    I love that phrase. Turn something boring into and adventure!

  13. Given the choice between an unamusing queue, and one which at least tried to be entertaining, guess which I’d pick. BTW, many parks now implement the “XX minute wait (approximately) from this point” signage in the lines. I don’t know about leaving the line for a bio break, then trying to return, however; it might be viewed as line jumping.

    Craw, by all means, stay away from theme parks and leave them to people who like them.

    1. “Craw, by all means, stay away from theme parks and leave them to people who like them.” – Good advice.

      I also stay away from parades. They are boring beyond belief.

      But thanks, BB/Cory, for trying to make the subject interesting. I appreciate that much.

  14. It’s sad that, as a theme park aficionado but now disabled, I no longer get to enjoy the normal queues at Disney. Except on the newest rides, wheelchair using guests enter from the exit and/or wait in plain corridors. Don’t get me wrong, Disney has done more than most park operators to make all it’s areas accessible to wheelchair using guests, but in those areas where access has been added after the fact, it’s not the same experience a non-disabled guest gets.

    Disney does provide disabled guests with great maps of where wheelchair queues are for each attraction and whether or not the wheelchair can be accommodated on the ride itself or if the guest will be expected to transfer onto the ride.

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