Roller Coaster Wait Times - A Budgetary Necessity

by Nate Naversen

On a hot day in August, a family of 5 walks up to the hottest new "E-ticket" attraction and gets in line for a staggering 90 minute wait. At the end of the line is a new roller coaster, an experience that lasts just over 1 minute. Sometimes such long wait times are appropriate and can actually contribute to a positive guest experience. But more often, the need for a wait time is intentionally designed into attraction in order to preserve other elements of the ride or show experience.

Budget - A Balancing Act

If given a large enough capacity, any ride attraction will never have any wait time. A park guest will simply walk up to the front of the attraction, step on, and experience the attraction. But there are trade-offs involved when budgeting for theme park attraction capacity and several factors must be considered: Does one save money to create that extra show scene or mind-blowing special effect? Or does one add extra capacity? Often an owner-operator will choose to save budget by sacrificing ride capacity in favor of other factors like a longer ride experience, an extra show scene, more animation (audio-animatronics) or better special effects. Sacrificing ride capacity means one thing: Longer lines.

To use a typical example of how budget may limit the capacity of an attraction, let us use a roller coaster as an example: A two seat, side-by-side coaster may have a train composed of 8 cars. This means that given a dispatch interval of 1 minute (60 dispatches per hour): The ride has a THRC (theoretical hourly ride capacity) capacity of 2 x 8 x 60 = 960 riders per hour.

In order to increase this number, a park operator may decide to add 4 more trains from 8 to 12, increasing the THRC from 960 to 1,440, a 50% increase. But now the weight of the train is roughly 50% more than before, and to accommodate this, a larger number of columns will be required to support the track. But additionally, because the train is heavier, a stronger track system is also required. Now a stronger, triangular-truss tubular rail will be required instead of a double rail system. The additional weight from the heavier track means that even more steel support columns are now necessary. What's more, because the train is now 50% longer, a larger ride platform and larger storage barn must be built both to accommodate the larger trains. Effectively, the cost for the coaster has doubled. Because budgets are fixed, the only answer is to cut back in other areas. In order to balance the budget and save on steel cost, the owner decides to reduce the coaster experience from 1:30 seconds to 45 seconds as well as cut many of the nice special effects that were also planned for the ride.

A dual-rail system (left) associated with a lower capacity coaster is contrasted here with a more expensive system.

Of course, many owner-operators may opt for the opposite strategy: Control costs while simultaneously increasing the ride experience by reducing the ride capacity to an acceptable level. After all, rides will only operate at full capacity during certain times of the day and during peak times of the year anyway. For those days when the park is at capacity, the guests will have to deal with a longer wait time. But many times of the year, even with the smaller capacity, there are no lines. Thus, the wait time is designed into the attraction as part of the experience.

Arguably, a wait time will always be a design consideration when factoring in the cost of a new attraction, but there are changes happening: Will Weiss discusses alternatives to conventional wait times at theme park attractions in his article.


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