Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Third Queue

When I was young, most of my memories from Walt Disney World involved waiting in line. I can't speak for everybody, but I suspect most people would agree. I have stronger memories of the facade and queue of Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, for example, than anything that happened on the ride until about 1995 - I was totally fixated on those wooden cutouts of the Mr. Toad characters above the exit tunnels of the ride, and especially Mr. Winky, mostly because I had no idea who he was supposed to be. The Haunted Mansion, too, holds strong memories, for staring at the outside of that creepy old house wondering what could be inside is one of the most strongly inherited Walt Disney World memories for most children. And I'm fairly sure that five year old me remembered World of Motion more for the sweeping line of cars slowly ascending into the show building than for anything the ride was actually about.

Digital version of a childhood obsession, thanks to Spencer Cook

I bring all this up because the state of the themed queue - a Disney practice if there ever was one - seems to very much be in a state of flux right now. Less than a month ago (at the time of this writing) Walt Disney World opened her brand new "next generation" queue at the Winnie-the-Pooh attraction in Fantasyland. It is as fully accomplished as one could reasonably expect. Despite the small footprint, there is a very successful woodland atmosphere and some charming activities. Crawl through Pooh's house (much more fun than walking around it, by the way). Stomp on a circle and a gopher pops out of a hole. Turn a crank on a box filled with balls to make them jump around (while wondering what this has to do with the 100 Acre Wood). But honestly, it's all very nice.

Indeed the removal of the "Renaissance Festival" theme is more of a relief than expected and there's some very elaborate sculptural work to tie the facade into the nearby Round Table restaurant. A new undulating brick wall visually links the area to WED's 1971 handsome brick planters encircling the Mad Tea Party next door, a master planning detail that shows somebody attentive to meaningful detail was at the reins of this project. Imagine - a new addition designed to effectively blend with 40 year old details - if only the 90's Tomorrowland reboot had had such considerations!

But for all that, let's be honest - there's very little in Imagineering's brand new Winnie-the-Pooh queue that couldn't have been done by WED Enterprises in the 80s. Nothing in it seems much higher tech than what we could play with in the original Image Works back in 1983, several generations of ride design ago. And I don't mean this in a negative way - I think it's the secret to the new queue's success, why so many people who are ordinarily quite hard to please have lined up online to praise it, myself included. This is a brand new addition to the Magic Kingdom, a park in which newly designed rides sit alongside patently old-school theme park experiences like the Swiss Family Treehouse, or attractions which have been basically unchanged since opening day have been given a few new special effects to seem fresh again. A totally high-tech new queue would seem out of place sitting five feet away from the Mad Tea Party, which has been basically the same since 1972 and itself is descended from a Disneyland original from a half century ago.

But that doesn't exactly make a great case for this new fancy gee-whiz queue being very "next-gen", a word which is being bandied about wildly online (and, presumably, inside Disney) a lot these days. In the Indiana Jones Adventure, itself an attraction closing on fifteen years old now, there is a throw-away gag in the queue where you can pull on a rope and drop an unseen archeologist into a pit below. It's a very low-tech audio gag that Bob Gurr could have worked up in 1955 with a lever and a reel-to-reel tape, and really nothing in the new Pooh queue is much fancier than it. But that is just one moment in the long Indiana Jones adventure queue line which is more about shadows and atmosphere than interactive gags. This new Pooh queue is a different thing entirely - it's nothing but interactive gags, dozens of ropes and archeologists - it is a constant and uninterrupted playground. Of course this is placed in front of an attraction aimed at young children, so it may be too early to chalk Walt Disney world Next-Gen Queue initiative up to being Pooh's Playful Spot Due. But what is this brave new world of waiting in line that we're promised?

It is recieved wisdom that Disney invented the switch-back queue. There is no real reason to doubt this but no real way to prove it either, of course. As far back at the late 60s and early 70s one can find Marty Sklar talking about the innovate use of queues to make the wait in line go by faster, and one can define the very original, the very basic Disney queue as a long switchback working from front to back while approaching a painted wall where the load point is. The mural behind the loading area of course is as old as the dark ride itself, dating all the way back to the Pretzel Amusement Company's earliest efforts. In this way we can see an attraction like Snow White's Adventures as being directly descended from the classic midway Laff in the Dark, even while the Disney versions dramatically altered the way those later dark rides were built.

Disney's main innovation and departure in 1955 was to replace the traditional "back wall" with, in fact, no wall and a beautifully designed manufactured landscape. Trompe l'oeil becomes terrain, the "scenic switchback". The earliest example of this may be the Jungle Cruise, but I think the most beautiful one is the Matterhorn Bobsleds, which is an exciting, fascinating wait in line by virtue of... yodeling music and manufactered rocks.

But for all that, honestly, we don't think of Disney's best queues as being plain switchbacks, even if they secretly are. If we cut the roof off the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean queue and look in, we'll see that the switchbacks are unpredictable because they wrap behind walls and around scenes, they're actually pretty much just like what still graces the front of Snow White's Scary Adventures (see below). Even the beautifully linear Space Mountain and Indiana Jones Adventure queues eventually reach switchback areas, just not immediately or obviously. These queues, the "secret switchbacks", are a later innovation on the part of Disney and are what is generally thought of as the "themed queue", atmospheric treks which set up some component of place or atmosphere, indicators of an advanced state of themed design. In the context of Disney-designed attractions, this mode was more or less invented for the Florida Pirates of the Caribbean, although Disney did not always use it for every attraction. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, for example, is more or less a simple "scenic switchback" queue, at least in the original design of the attraction (built in Florida in 1979).

How themeing obscures function:
Left: Pirates queue top down view. Middle: Pirates queue with walls removed
Right: typical traditional switchback queue
(Red arrows indicate direction of pedestrian travel)

The ultimate example of the "secret switchback" is the Florida Space Mountain of 1975, which perhaps may be the single queue which most deserves the title of "pre-show". When WED designed the attraction they placed the loading point for the roller coaster at the far end of the Space Mountain show building, and the truly epic winding queue to get there is one of Walt Disney World's true glories. It was originally designed to serve as a product exposition of sorts for the RCA corporation, although a 1985 refurbishment (confusingly called "RYCA-1: Dream of a New World") removed much of the apparent reason behind all the windows and scenes. Still, as originally conceived, this is the only queue Disney ever built that I know of where guests were encouraged to enter just to see the pre-show RCA displays and post-show RCA Home of Future Living even if they did not wish to ride the roller coaster, and could do so without surrendering an E Ticket.

It's simply a beautiful, expertly executed experience, and the real world seems to fade away slowly as we descend into the perfect dream state. The surrender is so complete that nobody ever seems to notice several significant logic gaps which the queue sees no reason to explain, but rather leaves mysterious. How, for example, do we end up in outer space? It's just there, at the end of a hallway, as if outer space could be on the other side of any ordinary door. But the immersion into the dreamscape is so total that the neccesities of the typical approach become unnessicary, uninteresting. Think of the way Pirates of the Caribbean establishes (with a show facade or front) the ostensible location of the action of the attraction before it goes about slowly pulling you into the supernatural night-scape, slowly introduces the world you will be inhabiting. By comparison Space Mountain is the supreme act of confidence: are you in space, or are you not? The show never seems to decide, staging open windows into starscapes, weird "launch" rooms floating in the cosmos, and other eccentricities with expanded-consciousness 70s casual ease. Compare this to John Hench's earliest form of the Flight to the Moon attraction in 1955, which went to extreme lengths to make the illusion of boarding a flight into outer space convincing, including a "spaceport" holding area and a corridor simulating a telescoping tunnel into the rocket nosecone. Space Mountain may be all flash and flare, but what glorious misdirection it is.

In 2010, a Disney-style "secret switchback" queue opened at the Islands of Adventure theme park in Orlando, and it is one of the very best ever. The queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is literally the best part of an already brilliant attraction, and has immediately required use of qualifiers in this article about Disney queuing spaces. It is so good that it makes the actual onride experience, which is a clever use of provident sets to link animated creature figures and projected images, seem much more real and tangible than it really is.

The Haunted Mansion, similarly, conjures up an ethereal "house" out of painted walls and suggestive darkness and so we think there's more there than there really is, but we believe the house is really there because we've seen its' exterior. It's hard to not be fooled into believing that there is a real interior inside a solid looking exterior house or facade, or a real room behind a solid-looking door. Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey achieves the same effect with a convincing miniature Hogwarts and an awe-inspiring, overachieving queue, and so can be seen as an important lesson in the effect a prudently-designed queue can have on the ride itself. But that queue is essentially a perfected version of the Disney model, similar in many ways to the texturally magnificent Indiana Jones Adventure, with much of the same sense of awe. Details peek from unexpected niches and magnificent, fleetingly glimpsed tableaux are tucked into obscure corners.

The only distraction is the convoluted plot being conveyed throughout, but this is of course a Disney offense as well. The keystone of the "secret switchback", the "themed queue" is that although these waiting areas disguise their true purpose with entertainment, atmosphere and mystery, they feel essentially linear although they are not. We feel lost in the Castillo del Morro or the Temple of Mara, we tour the various rooms and classrooms of Hogwarts, but the net total of the ground we've actually covered is very little. We twist and turn back and forth just like outside Snow White's Adventures, but the special accomplishment is a feeling of linearity.

This brings us all the way back to Pooh and Friends in the 100 Acre Wood. While there is nothing particularly special about the layout, theme or even conceptualization of Disney's new "third generation" queuing experience, the sense of distraction has now reached a zenith. There are constant amusements, from bizarre suction-cupped sunflowers that click when they are turned to unusual water features scattered throughout a well-themed landscaped terrace. It's foolish to compare this to richly realized special acomplishments like those queues at Tower of Terror or Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but it does indeed feel like something original being formed before our eyes. The issue of entertaining patrons while waiting in lines has existed for as long as there have been attractions, and early showmen used "Laughing Sals" or carnival barkers to draw attention and pass the time. It's unlikely that Leon Cassidy ever imagined children stomping on platforms to cause gophers to pop out of holes would ever grace the front of a dark ride, but in an era when patrons are more likely to look at handheld video game systems or cell phones than any measure of delicate and beautiful themeing, a compromise must be made. Disney is leading this charge.

In the queue of the future, everyone smiles a lot!!!!!

I shall call these "super switchbacks". The emphasis is not on illusion but distraction, constant amusement, limitless pleasure. You aren't just waiting in line to get on the attraction, the attraction is already happening to you as soon as you walk near it. The effect this will have on future themed design is difficult to gauge at this early point, but the effect on this particular ride, The Many Adventures of Winnie-the-Pooh, at the Magic Kingdom in Florida, is easy enough to assess. For the first time ever I had a good experience with the ride. The increased atmosphere outside obviously helps, but because I stomped on a circle to make a gopher pop up and turned a bizzare sunflower, the ride's many flaws - cheapness, tiny scale, general confusion - seemed less important than the cumulative effect of the entire experience, from door to door. This is a smaller scale version of the effect Universal Creative accomplished with Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, although of course the ingenuity of the two attractions is not comparable. If the "super switchback" can make me want to experience again a twelve year old attraction I'm inclined to dislike, how will it affect the experience of an already superior attraction? Will the hushed, funeral atmosphere of the outside of the Haunted Mansion suffer? Can such a concept encourage patrons to get into the screwy mood of the Jungle Cruise?

This could become a massive sea change in the way we experience theme parks. Disney is prepared to drop a billion and a half dollars to find out. As Margo Channing would doubtlessly advise, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

See also: The Long, Lonely March, The Case for the Florida Pirates, On Walking Attractions


Photo Credits: Virtual Toad, The Disney Blog/John Frost, Disneyland Postcards, Laff in the Dark, Lost EPCOT