Universal Orlando Resort

Volcano Bay and the Psychology of the Queueless Theme Park

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The TouringPlans blog is pleased to welcome guest author Laurie Breen to share some insights about the psychology of the queueless theme park. 

Enjoying a theme park with no lines sounds like every theme park fan’s dream. But does the current iteration of the queueless theme park really translate into a better experience for the average park-goer?

With Universal Orlando’s new Volcano Bay water park, the global theme park giant launched its first “queueless” theme park. But did they miss the mark? It’s true, the lines are soooo long these days. As Jason Surrell, a creative director at Universal, explained to thestar.com, “We’ve known for years that waiting in line is one of the biggest dis-satisfiers in our guests’ day.” And of course, the pay-to-play line-cutting access offered by Express Pass goes against the egalitarian ideals upon which our great nation was founded. However, theme park queues serve many purposes within the operations of a theme park. By overlooking the psychological effects of standing in a line, as well as the way that people are accustomed to “touring” at a theme park, Universal may have thrown the cow out with the cattle pen.

Crowd Control vs. Chaos


Waiting in a queue may not be fun, but it is an orderly way to control crowds.

Queues act as crowd control, essentially designating a place for hundreds or thousands of guests to stand each hour as they progress through the line, waiting for their turn to ride on their chosen attraction. This takes crowd pressure off the walkways, stores, and restaurants, allowing the park to increase capacity while adding more fun attractions. Imagine that you are in a theme park store where 100 or 200 guests are shopping at one time, wandering around, slowly browsing what’s on offer — the store starts to feel very crowded and claustrophobic. But now imagine the Greenhouse at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey — in this space, each person is allotted a specific position to stand in and social norms dictate that people will line up in an orderly fashion. They (generally) maintain their place in line, they are all moving in the same direction, and they all keep a pretty consistent spacing between themselves and the next line-waiter. In this situation, a crowd of 100 or 200 people does not seem overwhelming at all.

Fair Wait vs. Unfair Wait


This brings us to another psychological benefit of the actual line — the concept that “unfair” waits seem longer than “fair” waits. When everyone is in a real live line, you can see who is first and who is next. Other virtual systems, such as Disney’s FastPass+ or Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon issue a specific window of time for guests to return, setting clear expectations for guests. With Volcano Bay’s TapuTapu, you “tap” into the queue at the entrance to the ride and you are given a wait time that counts down until the time when you are able to return and ride. However, the variables of the wait times are not transparent to the guest. Some guests, such as Nicola from the UK, had a positive experience — “we tapped into the aqua coaster when it had an 80 minute wait, but within 60 minutes it went to zero.” However, Michael from North Carolina was frustrated during his visit on June 14th. When Michael’s kids tapped in to two different rides, Ohyah showed a 35 minute wait, and Ohno showed a 40 minute wait. He figured his kids would be able to ride at roughly the same time. But once they tapped in, the time shown on the TapuTapu for the smaller slide went down quickly, but the larger slide’s wait went up to 45 minutes, then 50 minutes, and then dropped more quickly after that. By his estimate, one child waited 20 minutes and the other waited 50 minutes for their respective rides. Because it was not clear what position he held in the virtual queue, it wasn’t clear how many people were ahead of him, and he wasn’t given any information as to why his wait time increased. This was perceived as an “unfair” line, increasing his dissatisfaction with the system, despite the promise of not having to wait in an actual line.

Anticipation vs. Boredom


Here is a secret that any theme park super-fan will tell you: sure, waiting in line, in general, kind of sucks. But, sometimes, waiting in line doesn’t *completely* suck. The queue is where the story of the ride unfolds. It’s where the anticipation builds. It’s where you feel that nervous/excited pit in your stomach before you get on Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. The fact is, humans bond through shared experiences. Waiting in line alone always seems longer than a wait with friends because you are sharing that experience of being stuck in line, together. As William James, noted philosopher, observed, “Boredom results from being attentive to the passage of time itself.” Theme parks know this. They use this. All the interactive queues, dating back to 1995 and the Indiana Jones Adventure in Disneyland, are designed to entice guests into the line and keep them happy while they’re waiting. Although the creative team for Volcano Bay has developed a fascinating backstory complete with creation myths and made-up tribes, guests have noted that the story is not really evident in the park. It’s possible that without the line, there’s not as much space to tell the story inside the park.

Finally, let’s be real, is the queueless experience truly “queueless”?

Eventually, there is a line. It may be short. You may have done most of your waiting elsewhere. But you will end up in a line. Instead of having all slides use the TapuTapu, some of the slides, at certain times, are now directing guests to “Ride Now” rather than tap in to wait. What this really means is that guests are able to enter a traditional queue and just wait for their turn. This may be an attempt on Universal’s part to balance the goal of the queueless theme park with the reality that traditional queues serve an important function. As of yet, theme parks are not able to predict human movement down to the second. Until that happens (and I hope it never does, because at that stage we would likely be some sort of thrill-ride-loving human-cyborg creature), you are going to end up in lines at some time at theme parks.

Actually, I imagine cyborgs would be really good line-waiters.

Laurie Breen has a degree in Psychology from Smith College, and works as a freelance writer and research communicator.


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35 thoughts on “Volcano Bay and the Psychology of the Queueless Theme Park

  • You brought up a great point about how the ride’s story unfolds while you wait to ride it. I think as long as I have ways to keep my kids entertained while they wait in line then I will be fine. Because I don’t know if reading or watching a video about the ride is going to be enough.

  • I found the analysis of the psychology interesting. We attended Volcano Bay twice during opening weekend. I didn’t mind the idea of a queue-less line. I guess we understood what could factor into the wait time. I do have to fully disclose that we had Express Pass; however, we still waited in actual lines. I think once the queueing system has had a chance to “learn”, just like the queueing models that Touring Plans uses, once the crowds become normal, once the reliability of the rides is better, and once the final part of the park is open, I think the idea of the queueing system will be more pleasing to people. I am looking forward to seeing how much has changed since opening weekend, since we will be back at the end of July.

    • Definitely come back and let us know how your July trip compares! Should be interesting to see the changes and improvements.

  • So after reading this should I still go or not? Heading to Disney in 2 weeks with my 2 children aged 10 & 6. Worth the wait…?

    • Hi Mark,

      Are you planning to stay in the Universal area for some of your stay? Volcano Bay has still had pretty decent crowds in the morning before it opens, and there are days when it does hit capacity. Aside from that, how adventurous are your kids? My daughter (age 7) doesn’t do anything above mild water slides, so the cost of a ticket would be a waste for her — she’d rather use the water playground or a splash pad at a Disney resort. You’d also want to check the weather for the day you’re planning to go — right now, there’s thunderstorms in the area at 1:30 (which is early for a typical day, but not unheard of), so I’d wager much of Volcano Bay would need to close up for most of this afternoon. But if the kind of attractions look like it would be appealing to your kids, the weather is good, and you’re able to get there bright and early to make the most of your day, you might want to give it a try. It also wouldn’t hurt waiting a year or so for them to get some of the challenges worked out either, if you’re planning to make a trip to the Orlando area in the future. With the back of Volcano Bay still being an active construction site, it’s not going to be disappearing any time soon.

  • Laurie, as you said there will always be some small physical line as part of a virtual queue. Just as FastPass does not mean that you can get on the ride as soon as you arrive at the attraction.

    At the start of the day, all rides indicate Ride Now, as there is no one in line.

    How long do you think this short physical line would need to get before the queueless system would no longer indicate “Ride Now”?

    • Hi Eric, that’s a really good question. That would definitely be a question for the operations experts to answer, I don’t know what their exact protocol is in the parks.

      • Since you were writing a piece about psychology of the queueless park, I thought you might have some good input on what the customer would be willing to bear.

        You hinted that Universal is punting the ball because sometimes the status of an attraction is “Ride Now”. But if the line for a particular ride falls below a particular duration, it would make sense to change the status to “Ride Now”. I don’t see this an an indictment of the queueless system at all.

      • Hmm, well if I see “Ride Now” I would personally want to see less than 10-15 mins standing in line, since it does say “Ride Now” and not “Wait Now.” But there are so many variables, and VB’s idea of “ride now” might not be the same as mine. I got the impression that they were trying to balance having some open queues and the rest “virtual” but you’re right, after a certain time, with the park frequently reaching capacity, this might not be feasible. I don’t think they are “punting” so much as responding to guest feedback and situations where, like you said, a “ride now” makes more sense. I think it’s a good move, while pointing out that they can’t really claim the park is “queueless”.

  • I just signed in to say that Eric gets it and it’s why Volcano Bay is getting so many bad reviews is that most people don’t get it. Universal has done a poor job of messaging for Tapu-Tapu and this has contributed to giving “queueless” systems a bad name, it’s there advertising that’s causing so much trouble.

    • But that’s not how it works. When you tap in you might get a 5 hour wait, and THEN still have to wait 30 minutes. If there was just a physical line you wouldn’t have to wait five and a half hours. Not to mention if the question spots are taken already, you aren’t allowed to tap in. The end result is a modest reduction in the amount of time in a physical line at the cost of the ability to enjoy far fewer rides.

      • I think Eric is more correct than you. But I get your point. Here is my point, this a water park. When I go to a water park I want to relax and frolick with the kids. Your 5hr comment is super extreme, especially now. I would much rather hang out in the lazy river or at the kids area instead of 90 mins waiting in line, which oh by the way, means I will be completely dry and close to sunburnt. The slide will last for 2 mins and off to another queue?! Nah, how about lunch while my place in line is held. This has great potential when universal sorts it out.

      • It brings up an interesting question on value. If you paid $60-ish for a ticket, what would be the minimum amount of rides that you’d be comfortable with riding to feel you’ve got value? If you were able to ride 2 slides over the course of the day (so each slide is around $30 slide ride), and had to spend the rest of your day in the pool or lazy river (which you could do at many hotels included in the price of your stay), would you feel it was a worthwhile price or would you feel you got shortchanged?

      • Curious- which hotel has a wave pool?

      • None at Disney or Universal. There are some at “waterpark hotels.” Is there a Great Wolf Lodge in Orlando? On the other hand, I don’t like waves in wavepools, so regular pool all the time would be a bonus for me.

      • @Sarah
        I was being facetious. When Julia mentions “Pool or lazy river which you could do at many hotels included in the price of your stay” is factually incorrect.
        Two hotels have “lazy rivers” on property- one, if you want to call it that, is at beach club and the other is at Cabana Bay. Neither have torrent rivers. Neither have wave pools. It’s certainly not the same thing.

        Meanwhile, there are a number or interactive elements you could spend your time on- and if you have children under 48″- and incredible play area.
        That said, they do need more to do vs those- as they are overloaded when the park is at capacity.
        The expansion will need to address 2 things:
        1) Create more capacity for slides/waits.
        2) Create more capacity for when not on slides (interactive area, teen play area, an additional river, etc).

      • I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not a fan of lazy rivers — I don’t get the concept of sitting on hot plastic in the sun and out of the cool and refreshing water while you go around in circles. But there are quite a few good hotel lazy rivers in the area (and if proximity within WDW is a must, you’ve got lazy rivers at both the Four Seasons and Bonnet Creek within the boundaries of WDW).

        As I mentioned, almost every other hotel has pools. Not wave pools, but again it comes down to the price — how much dollar value is put on access to a wave pool versus a hotel pool? If I told you that you’d pay $30 for the wave pool and torrent river or “free” for a regular pool and lazy river, would it be worth it to pay the extra? What about $20? What about $50? For some people, it might. It’s why each person would need to figure out if they’re getting value from their ticket. But I do feel that from an operation standpoint, wave pools and lazy rivers are the “freebie” attractions, and slides and water coasters are the “pay” attractions.

      • When I spoke to the Universal media team, they were really wanting to emphasize the theming and overall experience of being at Volcano Bay rather than attributing value to how many rides you accomplished. This is a huge shift in mindset for someone like me who is used to “commando” touring from rope drop to close, bragging about how many rides I got on that day.

        I wondered if they were trying to recreate the affinity people have for Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley where guests want to go and just hang out, to soak in the atmosphere and the magic, and don’t really care that there is basically only one ride in Diagon Alley (2 if you count Hogwarts Express).

      • Lets all take a step back and remember, VB is barely a month old and if we are being honest, opened a little too soon.
        If a visitor is in jeopardy of only making it on to 2 slides in 2018, then we have a MAJOR problem. Additionally, your question presumes I will visit the park once. Did you consider the benefit of owning an annual pass & how it allows the pass holder to visit the park to ride whatever, whenever they like? In order for your question to be a valid concern it needs to be directed at folks who are paying $67 bucks and are not pass holders. Therefore this is either a single trip for them or very infrequent one. If this is the case, then I certainly would want to get more than 2 slides for $67 dollars.

      • Have you been to Volcano Bay? 5 hours is not extreme. 360 minute wait for the red tube slide in the volcano, followed by a 30 minute wait in line and then it was closed for maintenance. 6 hours of frolicking and eating does not require me to pay $70 for a ticket.

      • Was waiting 7 hrs to get into Hogwarts extreme? I think that turned out quite well for Universal. By the way, people spend tons more money to do nothing for 6 hrs… Take a cruise for example. I know folks who drop a few hundred just to go drinking and dancing…! Never visit a port, just poolside and barside!

  • Let’s say a customer had two options at Volcano Bay. They could either physically stand in line for attractions (upwards of 1-2 hours) or they could use a piece of technology that would tell them when they could return (meanwhile they are relaxing or eating). In both cases they are waiting the same amount of time. I can’t imagine anyone would say they’d rather wait in a physical line. This works at a waterpark because they have a place to chill while waiting (cabanas, lounge chairs, etc.).

    Now, I read in some user reviews of Volcano Bay that they thought the Tapu-Tapu system means there are no lines at all. This is not true, though the customer is not standing in a physical line. Universal has done a poor job of messaging for Tapu-Tapu and this has contributed to giving “queueless” systems a bad name.

    • Yeah- the only negatives I could see are more crowds in the “non-ride” areas like wave pool, lazy river, stores, sidewalks, food areas. Otherwise, folks should be complaining that there are hour waits for a 2 minute slide, not that the queueless system is broken.

      • One thought that I’ve had is that what Volcano Bay needs more of is non-queue-based people eaters. I don’t know too many people who would spend 2-4 hours in a lazy river or a wave pool, even at a water park. But if you had a dozen non-queue-based things to eat up your time instead of 3-4, it wouldn’t seem as bad.

  • Is Express Pass offered or will it be offered for Volcano Bay?

    • My understanding is that ExpressPass was initially available for purchase to use at Volcano Bay but is not currently available to buy. So some guests will have it in the parks, but it’s not clear if/when they will make it available again.

    • People Do pay the patrons in line for cutting them. They pay them by subsidizing the price of a standard ticket that doesn’t get to line jump.

      • That’s an interesting way to look at it. You could also say that I’m subsidizing the express-passers when I buy a $12 hot dog. 😉

      • You are. And me complaining that I didn’t get a hot dog if I didn’t elect to pay for one makes as much sense as complaining that I don’t get into the shorter line without paying for it 😉

      • Qu’ils mangent de le hot dog! 🙂

  • It is a good point about fairness. You earn your place in the queue / line by spending your precious time. It is a pretty egalitarian system where people shouldn’t be able to pay to cut in – or maybe they should pay the people behind them, not the theme park owners. People who line jump deserve a lot of flak even if they only add 30 seconds to your time in line, because they are cheating and stealing 30 seconds from everybody behind them in the line. With virtual lines, you don’t know if people are cutting in front of you – maybe they are paying to only have a 10 minutes line, not an hour but you will never know.

    I hate the Q-Bot lines at LEGOLAND where people pay to cut in. At least with Fastpass+ everybody gets the ability to have 3 free ones, and there are some rides where you can’t buy an advantage.

  • What an interesting article! I had never thought of lines as being anything but negative. Although now that I’m thinking about it, it’s almost a shame to have too short of a line (or a FastPass) for the Peter Pan ride since the queue is so magical.

    • Thank you! Some of the queues are so amazing these days, I think it’s important to know that in some cases you are missing part of the attraction when you use FastPass, Single Rider or the Express Queue at the different theme parks.

  • Just want to add one more: the electronic device we become a slave to attached to our wrist is not very freeing. Yes, disney has their fast pass system which is essentially the same thing, but its use is quite limited and there is no screen to scream at me and remind me that I’m just an accessory to a larger system. It doesn’t need me, but I need it.

    • That’s a good point – is the technology helpful or hurtful? I do like the way that the Volcano Bay screen can be used as a communication tool, and I know that Universal is looking to do this more. For example, when a storm moves into the area the TapuTapu can alert guests that attractions will be closing for safety. There are always pros and cons.


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