One of my favorite Disney enthusiasts, Lou Mongello of WDW Radio, always tells his listeners to “Look up, look down, and look around you because everything with Disney is based in story.”
These words are more than just accurate; they also tap into the very fabric of what Walt Disney wanted for his audience. No matter where you go in Walt Disney World, this is undeniable. You may have to add things up to figure it out or look at things from a different perspective, but the details all matter and are folded into a bigger story.
Take Main Street USA, for example. Do you know what day it is on Main Street every day? The answer is the Fourth of July. Why, you may ask? Well for one thing, all children are not in school. There is a parade. There are fireworks. It’s subtle, but it’s important to the story that Walt Disney wanted to tell. Most people wouldn’t notice, and sadly most people probably wouldn’t care.
These days, everyone is more concerned with rushing to one of the mountains or Peter Pan’s Flight than stopping and looking around at the story. Disney has realized this over the years and has slowly been adapting the parks themselves to provide the masses with distractions from the doldrums of the activity most people will be doing in the parks… and that is standing in line.
The queue lines of Walt Disney World are some of the most amazing places in the world. OK, I know it’s a line. You see the wait times and you groan when you think about standing, walking, and stopping again for upwards of two hours for your favorite attraction. It’s hot. Children get tired and make life miserable for everyone else. Your feet hurt. Disney gets that, and over the years many of the most popular attractions have been redone to accommodate some of the most interesting and story-driven queue lines to entertain their guests.
I wanted to mention a few of these because they have changed so much and there are reasons beyond just managing wait times as to why these changes are important. As a child going to the parks, I didn’t care as much about the lines… as most children wouldn’t. I wanted to get on the ride or see the show and move on to the next one. As I grew older, I began noticing more and more details that started to click in my head. Suddenly, the lines themselves became part of the ride. That was when I really began enjoying Walt Disney World from a whole new perspective.
Disney’s changes to their queue lines seem to fit into specific categories. In some cases, the wait times were so long that people would get rather irritable if they had to spend an hour going back and forth through a maze of ropes until they were able to board. In other cases, the changes to a queue could simply be a way to introduce new story elements to the attraction. Perhaps another reason is because little children needed to be distracted while they waited for an hour or two. The new Fastpass system has also caused Disney to reconfigure their queue lines to provide guests with a shorter wait time.
I wanted to highlight a few of my favorite changes just to shed some light on the bigger picture.
Aaron, in some of his posts, has mentioned his love for the two pirate skeletons playing a game of chess in the queue for Pirates of the Caribbean. This was also one of my favorite things to see as well. Back when I was a kid, there were two lines that you had an option of taking. One went through a wine cellar area and the other took you past the chess game. Either way, you ended up walking down a ramp past the open mouth of a cave where you could hear the distinct sounds of pirates chattering while digging for treasure. To accommodate details from the popular Pirates movies and to incorporate the Fastpass system, now you typically go through one line, past the chess game, and to the opposite side of the treasure digging cave area. They incorporated more influences of the movies in to the décor as well as the soundtrack you hear. This was all done when they added Jack Sparrow figures into the attraction itself. This is an example of how they changed the story of the attraction itself by featuring the movie aspects. If you have a Fastpass, you will still be led to the side of the waterway with the cave and the buried treasure.
Another big change is the recent Haunted Mansion queue update, which added so many new details to what was once a long winding maze of ropes under a green awning. This is an example of how Disney has seen the wait times becoming excessively long and needed to entertain the guests in a fun way that also adds to the story of the attraction itself. When it debuted, you could choose whether you wanted to take the scenic line through the graveyard or go straight through to the attraction (they generally took the same amount of time), though now Fastpass guests take a more direct route that bypasses the graveyard.
Some queue lines changed by simply adding interactive games to give guests a fun distraction from the wait times. Two of the biggest examples of this change are Space Mountain in Tomorrowland in the Magic Kingdom and Soarin’ at EPCOT. These attractions often have the longest lines in all of the four parks at any time of the day. Now as you wait in line, both thankfully indoors, you come to a point where you can play with up to three other people on an interactive game. Essentially these are all on large screens next to the line with a game control panel in front. In Space Mountain, you control a spaceship in an “Asteroids” type shooting game where you try to get the highest point. Soarin’ has similar games, but they also feature games with a more eco-friendly theme. It definitely helps when you are waiting for over an hour and it gives you and those around you a chance to root for your friends as they play.
Two of the biggest examples of Disney gearing their queues to keep children distracted are The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and the new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. As for Pooh, this was another attraction with ridiculous wait times and every kid HAD to go on it. I remember taking a trip with my nephew when he was very young and we had to go on the ride EVERY time we went near it. Those days, it was just a long windy line. Now, children can play games where they can hit different buttons to make Gopher jump out of the garden, move bumblebees over a track and through logs, and interact with large touch screens that look as if honey is pouring down. (Little tip: try to move the honey as much and as fast as you can. There are picture of your favorite Pooh characters hidden under the honey.) The new Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was also designed with this mindset. Knowing the ride would be a hit, Disney built the queue with several fun elements to keep you entertained. You can play a gem matching game on touch screens or spin barrels of gems to make kaleidoscopic patterns appear on the ceiling. (Another tip: get all of the barrels spinning and all of the dwarves appear on the ceiling with Snow White dancing in the middle.) There is also a trough with waterspouts carved like forest animals that drip water when you place your hands under them. Each plays a different musical note as the water pours, providing a chance to make your own melodies.
With children in mind, Disney also created a queue-less queue for another of their most popular attractions. Dumbo the Flying Elephant, a short ride where you control the up and down motions of your favorite pachyderm spinning around a central base, has historically been the most popular ride in the Magic Kingdom. When Disney expanded Fantasyland, they not only moved the attraction, but also doubled it to two rides in one. Rather than have you wait in the hot sun for hours, Disney changed everything. When you arrive at Dumbo, you are given a “Magic Feather” (think the kind of pager you get when you go to your favorite restaurant.) You then enter a large circus tent where your kids can run around and play in an indoor playground with slides and tunnels to explore. Bleacher seats are available for parents to watch. Think of it as a large McDonald’s play area, but with so much more. When it is your turn to ride the ride, your “Magic Feather” alerts you. This is the ultimate in kid distraction as they never even know how long they waited.
The last example I wanted to mention is the kind of queue with a very specific, story-driven setup. There are several examples of this, but two attractions really shine and they are right next to each other. In Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Kali River Rapids and Expedition: Everest are crowd magnets. On hot days, Kali River Rapids is always crowded. Everest is obviously very popular with thrill-seekers and also boasts long lines. While the two attractions also make use of the Fastpass system, I would recommend not using it at least once to get the most of the experience. Kali River Rapids is, at its heart, a whitewater raft ride where guests sit in a circular expedition raft and go on a trip down waterfalls and past geysers. Everyone gets drenched. The story of the attraction is what makes this more than just a ride to cool off: The rainforest is being destroyed by an illegal logging operation. The reason you are on the raft is because you are part of a rafting expedition through the rainforest. The queue line takes you through temples, jungles, and eventually the offices of the Kali River Expeditions Company. All the while, you see warnings and reports of illegal logging activities threatening the forest. You can see equipment and supplies for other expeditions all over the offices. You are truly immersed in another part of the world.
Everest is another story… literally. You are firmly placed in the middle of the “Himalayan Escapes” travel agency. You are travelling to the base camp at the bottom of what they call the Forbidden Mountain. As you progress through the queue, you go through the offices of the travel agency, mystic temples, and finally a museum devoted to the Yeti, the mysterious creature at the center of the ride itself. The details of the queue are astonishing, due in part to the over 8,000 artifacts brought to Florida from Nepal. You can see beautiful statues adorning the temples as well as expedition equipment from past trips to the mountain. There are tons of artifacts in the museum portion alone, including a cast of a Yeti footprint. What makes the Everest queue, as well as Kali River Rapids, so special, is that you are transported to another part of the world. Everything around you is devoted to furthering the story of the attraction itself. You almost forget you are waiting for over an hour because there is so much to see.
These have just been just some examples of how Disney adapts to making guests happy. I view this as a way to keep people entertained, distracted from playing with their phones, and maybe teaching them something. Why would you need to check Facebook when you can blow things up in the Big Thunder Mountain queue? Why would you need to text your friends when you could play with interactive crabs sorting human treasures in the Under the Sea: Journey of the Little Mermaid queue? Can’t Candy Crush Wait a bit longer if you could design and test your own car of the future at Test Track, or revel in the worlds of Star Wars by walking under an AT-AT and the Ewok Village or listen to the bantering of R2-D2 and C3PO?
More attractions will be receiving queue upgrades (such as Peter Pan’s Flight, which always has a considerable wait) but we will have to keep ourselves entertained until then.
I think, as a Disney fan, sometimes the best way to have a great vacation is to get a more fulfilling experience, rather than just run around trying to do as much as possible. There is just so much more to see and learn than any other theme park in the world. You just have to look up, look down, and look around you to see that you are no longer a park guest…you are part of the story.
written by Kevin C. Williams
photos and captions by Aaron “Doombug” Cohen