NCL Free At Sea

Idea: Accurate Ride Wait Times Via Season Pass Crowdsourcing

By on 12/28/2014

If you’re like me, one of the biggest drawbacks to visiting theme parks is the long ride wait times. As much as I love the rides, especially roller coasters, I just don’t understand how people can stand in a slow moving line for 60, 90, or even 120 minutes for a two minute ride. I simply no longer have the patience for that. To make matters worse, you usually have no idea how long a line really is until after you’ve gotten in it and followed it to the end. It’s not like you can take a look at it and instantly know how long it’s going to take, especially when the parks intentionally hide the queues to prevent just that.

To help with this issue, some parks do post wait times at the entrance to the ride to let people know how long the current wait time is. Unfortunately, these are often horribly wrong and can trick you into getting in a line that is much longer than the posted wait time. There are a variety of methods they employ for this, but none of them are very accurate.

Photo © Amusement Buzz
Photo © Amusement Buzz

Some parks will periodically hand a guest at the ride entrance a piece of paper with the current time on it. When they get to the other end of the line, right before boarding the ride, the guest is supposed to hand it back to another employee who calculates the time difference and posts it as the new current wait time. This is an accurate wait time for that guest, but if nobody happened to get in line behind them then the actual wait time could be much shorter than they just posted. Conversely, if the line grew longer after the guest got in it, than the posted wait time will be less than the actual wait time. Until they send another piece of paper through the queue, the posted wait time may not be accurate. Another problem with this method is that not every guest remembers to return the piece of paper after getting through the line. If it was a long wait, they may have completely forgotten about it by the time they reach the end of the line and instead be thinking about finally boarding the ride.

In my opinion, the worst method some parks employ is a static sign that say something like “60 Minutes From This Point.” While that may be true under certain circumstances, there are way too many variables not being taken into consideration. Are they running 1, 2, or 3 trains? Is there somebody taking head counts and directing guests into specific air gates to fill every seat? Is the ride op crew hustling or taking their time? How many Fast Pass guests are slipping into the line ahead of you? Any one (or more) of these issues can severely affect ride operations, slowing down the line to a snail’s pace.

oped_waittime_1Most of these static signs have a number that can be changed. For example, I’ve seen an employee walk out and change the “45” to “60” minutes. How they knew the current wait time was 60 minutes was beyond me, as they weren’t using a piece of paper moving through the queue. I’ve seen these signs get updated only to have large groups of people immediately hop in line afterwards, but the sign doesn’t get changed again. I’ve also seen guests change these numbers as soon as the employee walked away, so you’re never really sure that they’re accurate anyway.

Now that we’re living in the future, and everyone has a smartphone on them at all times, there are a variety of apps that claim to accurately track ride wait times. The way they work is crowdsourcing. These apps give you the ability to enter how long you waited in a line for a particular ride. There are multiple problems with this method. First of all, not everybody is going to want to pull out their phone, open an app, and log a wait time. What’s in it for them? Second, those that do probably aren’t all using the same app, so the user pool is greatly diminished even more. Third, those who do are probably not very accurate in how long the wait actually was. It may have felt like they were in line for an hour, which is what they log, but it may have only been 40 minutes. Some people even log bogus times when they’re not even at the park, just to screw with people. You can typically launch one of these apps and look at a park during a day that it’s closed and see the wait times fluctuating, even though nobody is in the park. Not good. Lastly, whether they’re accurate or not, who actually sees these wait times? That’s right…only the people that are using that particular app. It does the rest of the 99+% of park guests absolutely no good whatsoever.

I think I’ve come up with a system that is not only highly accurate, but it’s also relatively inexpensive for parks to implement and there are benefits for both the park and the guests. The way it works is for a season pass holder to pass the barcode of their season pass under a fixed barcode reader mounted at the entrance to the ride as they enter. When they get to the other end of the line, they scan their pass again under another barcode reader right as they get to the air gates. A computer calculates the time between the two scans and updates the current wait time on a display back out at the entrance to the ride. Since there would presumably be many people doing this all day long, it would be virtually impossible for any one person, or a small group of people, to game the system. If a pass gets scanned at the front of the line, and never gets scanned on the other end, that entry would eventually be purged from the system after a number of passes that were scanned after it complete their second scan. Conversely, passes that are only scanned on the back end would not be used, as there wouldn’t be a scan from the entrance to calculate a time from.

Photo © Amusement Buzz

Photo © Amusement Buzz

The current wait time would always be displayed at the ride entrance via an electronic reader board that couldn’t be messed with by guests. All of the current ride times could also be grouped and displayed on reader boards all over the park and inside restaurants. Guests would constantly be heading to whatever rides have the shortest wait time, distributing the park crowds and evening out the queues all over the park. Additionally, a park could go even further and add these wait times to their park’s smartphone app, assuming they have one. These displays would also be a great place to advertise rides that are closed so that guests don’t hike halfway around the park only to find that their favorite ride has been unexpectedly closed.

In addition to the accurate wait times for park guests, a park could also easily incentivize the use of the system by tying it into a rewards program. For example, for every 20 complete scans, in and out of a ride line, you could get a free front of line pass. Or for every 50 scans you get a free meal. Passes, food, merchandise – there is a myriad of things a park could give away to motivate people to use the system. Everything could be tracked electronically and all of the rewards could be stored on the season pass.

So far, I’ve only talked about season pass holders, but the barcodes on the day tickets could work as well. They obviously wouldn’t get all the same rewards as a season pass holder, but kids would have fun scanning the tickets on each ride, further improving the accuracy of the system. The rewards program would serve as one more incentive for people to upgrade to a season pass. If the Marketing people were smart, they’d come up with a reason for day ticket holders to register their tickets online after the fact. Not only would this give the Marketing department contact information of previously unknown park guests to market to, but they could also provide discount coupons for future visits as a thank you for helping out or maybe a deal on an upgrade to a season pass.

The possibilities are endless and the barrier to entry is minimal. All it would cost a park is a couple of inexpensive barcode readers per ride, a simple time display, and some software programming. They could start small by testing it on a single ride to see how it performs and if people are willing to use it. That’s a relatively inexpensive system for the improvement it makes to the overall guest experience, the guest loyalty it will build, and the Marketing opportunities it provides.

I would very much like to see my local park, Six Flags Magic Mountain, implement something like this. Heck, I think the entire Six Flags chain would benefit from it! I already contacted Six Flags Corporate, saying I had an idea to share for them to greatly improve their guest experience, and asked who the appropriate contact would be. I didn’t tell them exactly what it was because I didn’t know if they had a policy against accepting unsolicited ideas or not. I got a very quick response saying that the appropriate person would get back to me shortly to discuss. That was back in July and I’m still waiting to hear from someone. Oh well. I honestly don’t care which park does something like this, but I would like to see it in action. I just hope somebody does actually do it and it’s close enough for me to go check it out in person.

What are your thoughts on this? Would you use it? What are the downsides I may be overlooking?


  1. George

    12/28/2014 at 9:56 am

    Great post Kurt, very valid point there, the amount of times I’ve based my days at Theme Parks on queue times only for them to be wrong is so frustrating, the new idea would be refreshing, plus the idea of a rewards system would be a great method of getting people to help the park as such. Love it!

  2. Marcus L.

    12/28/2014 at 10:55 am

    Wow such a great idea hope someone from six flags or any parks see this article

  3. Ryan

    12/28/2014 at 12:57 pm

    I think that’s a brilliant idea! Queuing is the worst part of the day. Worst case I’ve ever encountered was in china where a posted wait time of 90 mins turned into a 3hr wait due to very inefficient ride ops! I was only there for one day so stuck it out for the credit 🙂

    Your system sounds great, i like how its not:-)
    just specifical for ride times, but part of an overall rewards scheme….some thoughts..
    – if a ride line is massive as to spill out on the midway (tatsu, full throttle), where does the entry scanner go? would it need to be mobile?

    – if guests are being rewarded for scanning in queues, is that encouraging more people to get in the queue?

    – would there be any extra infrstructure at restaurants etc to know you had a reward and to redeem it? Or do they already scan passes anyway?

    Other than that, brilliant idea… should contact SFMM again!!

    • The Coaster Guy

      12/28/2014 at 8:21 pm

      Thanks, Ryan. With regards on how to deal with lines spilling beyond the main entrance, the only ideas I can think of are for either the sign to say “xx Minutes From This Point.” If the line was longer, obviously the wait would be longer, but that wouldn’t help those that were looking at a display across the park or on their phone. I thought about it adding a plus sign when the line gets longer, like “120+ Minutes,” but there’s no way for the system to know that the line has extended beyond the entrance.

      If people want to get in more lines just to get rewards, that’s totally fine. The ride wait times will increase, but they’ll also be more accurate.

      All of the rewards would be tracked and redeemed directly from the season pass, just like they do with their eCoupons today. If they gave out front of line passes as a reward, they would need a hand scanner or something similar at the ride exit or Flash Pass entrance to verify and redeem the reward.

  4. benjamin

    12/28/2014 at 2:05 pm

    A few months ago I was sent an e-mail by Six Flags asking for my opinion about implementing a phone app for just that. It also talked about using your smart phone as a way to check ride times and to locate other family members inside the park. The park is also in the process of putting in the infrastructure for an internal park wi-fi system that can track guests per hour through the rides via the turnstyles so that all signs could be electronically updated.

    • The Coaster Guy

      12/28/2014 at 8:27 pm

      I’ve heard about the systems you are referring to, but they won’t help with accurate wait times. An in-park app is great for checking ride wait times, but where do those wait times come from? Not enough people are going to use their phones to log wait times. Even if they do, it’s too susceptible to human error and people entering bogus information to screw with the system. Every single person in the park will have either a season pass or a day ticket on them with a bar cade. A quick scan of that barcode is all that is required as they walk past the scanner. As far as the turnstiles go, those will measure the volume of guests through a ride, but not how long it actually takes them to make their way through the line.

      • benjamin

        12/29/2014 at 12:53 pm

        I have been thinking about this and one thing that could be done with the app is to utilize the phones gps and when a phone remains in a specific area for a certain amount of time it can determine what ride the guest is line for (as opposed to watching a show in a theatre or eating at a restaurant) This would account for slow load times and could define a wait in the main line vs single rider line vs flashpass line. Now I am no expert on tech, in fact my parents still have a VCR that is flashing 12:00 am.

        • Justin

          12/30/2014 at 9:15 am

          I wouldn’t want to leave my GPS enabled all day however as it consumes more battery (and data).

  5. Andrew

    12/28/2014 at 2:16 pm

    Disneyland does something similar, but they give me a card they scan at the queue entrance and at the end of the line. Season passes would work the same, if not better with a rewards program! Universal also posts wait times around the park, which helps a ton. With these two systems together, It could work great! Don’t give up on this idea. Bother Six Flags about it and after a while they’ll finally listen. This could be great!

  6. Andrew

    12/28/2014 at 2:30 pm

    You could do that, or…

    Use something similar to Disneyland’s method. Have an employee give every 25th (or some SET NUMBER) guest a scannable card at the entrance to a ride. It is scanned at the entrance and then given to the employee at the end of the line to scan it again.

    With only every 25th or whatever number guest getting a card, the computer can measure the time between scans. The ride’s approximate capacity can be determined and entered into the computer and then if 25 guests enter the queue faster than the ride can load 25 passengers, then the wait time will increase. If less, then it will decrease. You could even calculate this using the difference in the interval of the time between scans at the entrance and at the air gates. If it takes 3 minutes between scans at the air gates and only 30 seconds between scans at the entrance, then the computer can calculate the increase in wait time and post it accordingly. This is in addition to the computer measuring how long it takes for the card to go through the queue.

    This can make very accurate wait times.

    Disneyland hands out their red scannable cards based on TIME, not how many people. They will hand theirs out like say 1 every 5 minutes. This causes less accurate wait times, which is why you will see the posted wait time cut itself in half in 5 minutes, which I have seen many times before.

    I need to work at a theme park. Lol.

    • The Coaster Guy

      12/28/2014 at 8:41 pm

      You lost me when you started talking about ride capacity, queue volume, and having the computer calculate intervals between the two. The system I’m proposing is quite simple and does not require any park employees to be involved or any tickets to be handed out, both of which Six Flags will never do. A guest simply scans their season pass barcode at the ride entrance (which they already have on them, no ticket required), then they scan it again at the end of the line. That’s it, they’re done. If it was 17 minutes between scans, then the new ride wait time will be updated to show 17 minutes. If the person behind them only waited 16 minutes, then it gets updated again to show a 16 minute wait time. It’s extremely dynamic and constantly updating itself to show the most accurate wait time possible.

      • Andrew

        12/28/2014 at 9:41 pm

        Yeah, but let’s say this is X2’s line. Sure it will take the first couple hundred guests only 16-17 min or less to get through the queue, but after 16-17 minutes the actual line would have built up to 60+ min, and that is a big gap between the posted time and the actual time. The way to get around this and not have to hand out those little cards is just to require people to scan in order to enter the line. The computer could be programmed to account for the increased frequency of scans and adjust the wait time accordingly, taking into account data from both scanners.

        Even better, you know those boarding passes that are handed out on days when there are long queues? Just modify the boarding pass and add a barcode to it. People scan in their boarding pass before they get in line, and then they scan it again in the station. The computer will then perform two checks: the first for collecting wait-time data and the second for checking that the boarding passes are sequenced in numerical order, stopping line cutting. This would kill two birds with one stone, and it would give the most accurate data as well, since it would also account for big groups of people getting into the queue.

        • The Coaster Guy

          12/28/2014 at 11:27 pm

          I’m not following your X2 example. As the line grows, so would the wait time, as there would be an increasingly wider margin of time between the first scan and the second scan.

          With regards to the boarding passes, what’s the difference between a barcode on those and the season pass barcode? They’re both unique numbers and the computer knows the sequence based on the order of the scans at the ride entrance. It would be a waste of resources for a park to have those made up when it’s unnecessary. They’re also not going to dedicate two resources to each ride just to hand out tickets and then collect them again. I also don’t see how this would prevent line cutting. It’s just an optional barcode reader to monitor times. There wouldn’t actually be an employee there to remove somebody from line if they didn’t have a ticket to scan. That’s a completely separate issue that needs to be addressed, but not by what I’m proposing.

          • Justin

            12/30/2014 at 9:39 am

            Kurt, I think in Andrew’s X2 example he is trying to describe a short line/wait scenario and a large in-rush of guests at once into the line. Your first scanner will update, but many of those guests won’t get the second scanner right away to update the longer line and wait time. Another guest walks up to see the short wait time and doesn’t know about that large in-rush until already having entered the line. Some programming might be able to add some wait time if a large quantity of guests enter at once without reaching the 2nd scanner in the appropriate time.

            I completely agree your solution is a great program, especially with the rewards. Otherwise you would likely force ALL guests to scan a ticket/pass in order to enter a queue, which would require them to keep it handy in a pocket and could lead to misplacing or losing it. The guests obviously have a ticket/pass on them but I could imagine many placing it into a less-accessible location so as to avoid losing it.

  7. Jarret

    12/28/2014 at 9:52 pm

    The one thing that I can see that would be weird and a trouble with this system is that there would be a line in front of the main queue just for scanning the passes. If the general public would take the same amount of time going through a scanner in front of a line entrance as they do at the main gate then there would be another line that would not be accounted for in the system. That’s my only concern with this system, other than that it seems i5 could benefit greatly theme parks everywhere.

    • The Coaster Guy

      12/28/2014 at 11:16 pm

      There wouldn’t actually be a line like there is at the main gate because there’s no finger scan involved. It’s a one second barcode scan. They almost wouldn’t even need to stop walking, just scan the barcode as they pass by.

  8. Bob E.

    12/29/2014 at 3:53 pm

    You’re right that something accurate needs to be implemented and I applaud your ideas. With the amount of rides I get at MM an awards system is very appealing, but to dig my season pass out of my wallet 15, 20, 30 times a day (or twice that if I have to scan it twice) is a bit tiresome (and I’d worry about losing it if it’s on a lanyard), but I’m willing if the rewards are decent. And I’m one of the few that don’t have a smart phone, nor do I fully trust the accuracy of most apps if they’re user-input (a friend I was with consulted one yesterday that said Apocalypse was closed but we looked up and saw it running – so if there are only 1 or 2 other people in the park updating it, it’s not going to be very accurate). I’ve also been there so often that I can look at a line and judging by the end determine if it’s worth the wait for me, with an approximate knowledge of the time – tho this won’t help the occasional guest.

    I think there may be a simpler solution, and if the colored flags I’ve been seeing in lines are any indication, the park may be headed in that direction. Pick a few spots in line (using Goliath as an example), such as the bottom of the stairs, by the elevator, by the soda machines, edge of the bamboo fence, and lockers. Over the course of a couple weeks, have someone (guests, ride ops, whoever) get in line at those spots and time the wait, averaging them over repeated runs to get an average wait time (balancing out slow & fast dispatches). Then, every 15 minutes have 1 ride op spot-check the line and say “ok, it’s at the green flag so it’s a 30 minute wait” – multiply by ~2.25 for 1-train operation. And if there’s an electronic board at the entrance (and a few scattered around the park), the ride op can also set it to 999 when the ride goes down temporarily.

    I’m not sure if any system will really be spot-on, but to get within maybe 10-15% would be great for me.

    • The Coaster Guy

      12/29/2014 at 4:22 pm

      Call me a cynic, but I will never trust any system that relies on a guess based on how long the line is. Especially one that requires any sort of action by the employees. It needs to be automated and constant. The few ride ops they have wont be able to leave their station every 15 minutes to go check the line. It’ll never happen.

      • Justin

        12/30/2014 at 9:41 am

        Still requires human input and exposed to human error as you say!

      • Matthew

        03/12/2015 at 9:43 am

        Good points. Realistic view.

  9. Peter M

    12/29/2014 at 7:46 pm

    Great idea!

  10. JJJ

    01/01/2015 at 10:18 pm

    Hershey park shows wait times in their phone app and I found them to be generally reliable. Was an amazing experience being able to plan out my day.

    • The Coaster Guy

      01/01/2015 at 10:58 pm

      How do the people without smart phones, or perhaps those on another mobile platform, get the wait times?

      • JJJJ

        01/05/2015 at 9:45 am

        I cant remember what display they had at the lines as I only looked at my phone app.

  11. Zach G.

    01/24/2015 at 7:11 am

    First of all, won’t the little kids think it’s fun to swipe their cards repeatedly at the front, and repeatedly at the back? Will it just count those times, or confuse the system.

    Also, will the wait time sign keep the same time after a ride delays or closes, so people walk into a “short” queue line which is really delayed? Will the wait time sign read DELAYED or CLOSED?

    • The Coaster Guy

      01/24/2015 at 7:22 am

      That isn’t possible. The system will only allow one scan per card and won’t allow another scan until you reach the other scanner. If you don’t scan at the second scanner before all the people that came in behind you, or your card is scanned at another ride entrance, then your initial scan will be purged from the system.

      If a ride breaks down or is closed, they will need to display that on the reader board.

  12. Matthew

    03/12/2015 at 9:40 am

    My two rules of thumb when visiting Magic Mountain. 1) Always ask the attendant at the entrance of a ride if there are two trains running. 2) NEVER EVER get in line on a coaster running one train. If you follow my advice then be prepared to have the “best Magic Mountain trip ever” whenever you visit MM. I don’t have the patience to wait longer than 10 to 20 minutes for a ride and if I visit the park anytime during June, July, or August I buy a gold Flashpass.

  13. Sarah

    11/06/2016 at 7:51 am

    Went to Magic Mountain yesterday, extremely disappointed. Been going for over 28 years, was there the day of the riots, never wanted to go back but have taken my kids several times in the last 6 years since I moved back to Cali. My kids have been to Disney/California Adventure, Knott’s, Universal Studios, Sea World, and Magic Mountain. They are their mothers children who love thrill ride roller coasters. Unfortunately as their mother I am sick and disappointed with Magic Mountain and Knott’s. They have improved slightly over the last 3 years but not enough for me to buy season passes. I pay a fortune for those at Disney. The number one reason why? Cause I trust Disney to ensure their parks are clean, updated, and their rides are safe. They are constantly being checked and they don’t break multiple times when I’m in line, the “characters” are consistently friendly and helpful, way unlike the staff at MM. I pay more to get in, I drive further (over 2 hrs to Disney), because I want my kids safe. I don’t want to have to walk through metal detectors to use a dirty old bathroom. I don’t want to get on one of my favorite rides NINJA and see the metal corroding. Magic Mountain is over 90 miles from my house, but like I said, my kids are thrill ride enthusiasts, well minus my 11 yr old who had a scare with his seat belt a few years back on a ride, guess where?! Oh yea MM so I just barely got him back on them. My kids are the perfect age to get hooked on MM but if they don’t change something quickly and soon, they’re overprotective mother will make sure all her hard earned $ goes somewhere she knows is in the business of keeping them safe.
    I loved MM as a kid, my kids love the rides, I hate to see how bad it is, it seriously makes me sad and pisses me off. Comics is getting huge again, they need someone on their team with forethought on how to use that to their advantage and expand it. Also, it is absolute crap that the food is soooo expensive. $75 for 12 chicken strips, fries, one cheeseburger, 4 mini drinks with no lids, and one refillable bottle it takes 30 plus minutes in line to get filled. If you can’t get them to return a call or email then I’m afraid even my rant is falling on deaf ears… ugh

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