Better By Design: Art, Narrative, and Creating Patience in Amusement Parks
Charlie Jensen on blogs how creative innovations in amusement park lines leverage creativity to foster happiness and profit.
I’m a bit of a roller coaster enthusiast, so living in the Los Angeles area means I’ll have access to a whole slew of rides and thrills that don’t involve the LA freeways.
When my partner Beau recently came to LA for a long visit, we spent a day flexing our season pass at a local amusement park. Beau is currently working through a degree program in scenic painting and scene design at the University of Arizona, so our conversation in the park kept coming back to queue design.
Obviously the biggest downside to riding roller coasters is the inherent time tradeoff between 90 minutes standing in line in exchange for (up to) two minutes of adventure and fear. When I was a kid, queues were bland and boring—simply metal handrails wound back and forth in a very small space, ensuring everyone would be disturbed by everyone else’s conversation and body odor.
But queue design, like coaster design, has significantly changed over the last twenty years. Our day in the park reminded me of the very first rollercoaster I rode that had a thoughtfully designed queue serving as a significant extension of the ride’s experience—Batman: The Ride at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago. A little research on the ride informed me Batman was the very first “inverted” coaster ever built, debuting in 1994. Inverted coasters have seats attached to the coaster’s wheel carriage like a traditional coaster, but the seats hang below the track with the riders’ feet hanging out. (An innovation that took almost 100 years of coaster development to discover, I might add, and probably when a creative person mused aloud, "What would happen if we put the coaster under the track?")
When riders reach the entrance to Batman, they’re greeted by an idyllic manicured park setting. Two deco-style sculptures flank either side of an arch with the words “Gotham City Park” on it. Riders then enter the queue and progress toward the coaster station. From the first moment, this queue is different—it strives to downplay its purpose and elevate its meaning. Rather than waist-high industrial handrails on slabs of concrete, riders walk a gently curving sidewalk bordered by two low railings that appear purely decorative in nature. Along the way, riders pass tall planted trees, manicured grass, and even a calming water fountain. Speakers disguised as rocks emit soothing bird song, making this queue a multisensory experience.
However, the queue also contains a narrative. As riders close in on the coaster station, the queue undergoes a radical environmental shift. From the beautifully managed gardens of Gotham Park, they enter a degraded urban landscape evocative of the crime against which Batman himself stands. Here the queue returns to the traditional industrial feel, but it has narrative relevance to the ride itself. A chain link fence prevents riders now from veering from the path, whereas the gardens—at least in theory—would have welcomed their meanderings. An abandoned police car slumps into a fire hydrant, its lights still flashing, sirens malfunctioning. Instead of calming birdsong, riders hear—or least they did in the 90s—Prince’s funk-rock soundtrack from the first Batman film.
The line moves into a giant drainpipe where an industrial fan spins in front of a light, flashing shadows. The only other light comes from an ominous red bulb plugged into the ceiling. From here, the queue straightens out and moves—perhaps with a sense of inevitability—as a single path around a corner, up some stairs, and into a very convincing reproduction of the Batcave.
While on the one hand, all of these design choices establish a stronger connection to the Batman film upon which the ride sought to draw some audience attraction, it remains itself a testament to the importance of the use of art and art-based thinking in unusual places. What for decades was a meaningless, enjoyment-less element of the amusement park experience has now become almost widely assumed to be an essential ride component. (Imagine, for example, queuing up for Six Flag’s Magic Mountain’s Superman without a very long trip through his Fortress of Solitude first.) The new philosophy of queue design soothes the anxious, frightened, bored, or impatient rider by crafting patience where once there was little to none. This patience is a testament to the importance of artistic practices in both building community (by removing emotional barriers to audience interaction like anger and frustration) and increasing revenues (happier riders stay longer and come back more often).
Other parks have embraced the queue as a creative opportunity to engage guests, but the work of accomplishing this first engages designers, visual artists, musicians, sound engineers, perhaps even set decorators, all of whom must effectively collaborate to create an experience larger than the sum of its parts. Beau’s perspective on this is a reminder that the lessons of arts education have practical commercial usage outside our field. More than that, these interesting queues are an important reminder to everyone that encounters with art and artistic expression have important functions in our daily lives.
Roller coaster photo credits, top to bottom: