Physical distancing on amusement rides is counterproductive

Erik Beard is a managing member and general counsel to International Ride Training and the second vice president of NEAAPA. He has worked in the amusement industry for over 25 years.  What follows is a column he recently shared with the amusement industry.

Bottom line: Spacing riders out on rides is actually counterproductive to reducing potential exposure because ride capacity has an inverse relationship to line length. The fewer people you allow on your ride, the more people are waiting in your line and the longer they are waiting. 

The goal of social distancing and reduced capacities is to reduce the likelihood of “close contact” with individuals with COVID-19. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has defined “close contact” as being within six feet of an infected person for a cumulative time of 15 minutes or more over a 24 hour period. The State of New York, in its reopening guidance, has shortened the threshold time to 10 minutes. Keeping people spaced out on rides avoids close contact for the length of the ride cycle, but it dramatically increases the number of people waiting in the queue and the length of time they are waiting — which increases the likelihood of “close contact” in that location. Some numbers below illustrate the point:

•Average roller coaster cycle time (includes loading/unloading and ride time):  approximately 3.5-4 minutes
•Average flat ride cycle time (includes loading / unloading and ride time): approximately 5 minutes (flat rides tend to load / unload less quickly than coasters because there is typically less staffing at these rides and the ride units may be spread out over a larger area).

Thus, if we load every seat on the ride, without regard for social distancing, riders from separate travel groups will be within six feet of one another for an average of 3.5-5 minutes depending on the type of ride. Recall though that because of the number of people in the park, it is highly unlikely that the same groups of unrelated riders will be seated near one another on more than one ride per visit.  Assuming, therefore, that a rider is infected, it is unlikely that another guest will be in “close contact” (under either the NYS or CDC definition) with that rider by virtue of common participation on a ride.

Contrast this with the effect on the queue of spacing people out on the rides.  Imposing six foot social distancing on a roller coaster, for example, can easily cut capacity on the train by two-thirds. In other words, a train that is designed to accommodate 24 riders at a time may only be able to accommodate eight if required to socially distance. The effect this has on the line length & waiting time is significant.

Hourly throughput assuming full capacity:
•60 minutes in an hour / 4 minutes per cycle equals 15 cycles per hour
•15 cycles per hour x 24 riders per cycle equals 360 per hour (assumes single train operation)

Hourly throughput assuming 1/3 capacity due to social distancing
•60 minutes in an hour / 4 minutes per cycle equals 15 cycles per hour
•15 cycles per hour x 8 riders per cycle equals 120 per hour (assumes single train operation)

The 240 riders per hour that are not riding under the social distancing scenario are waiting in line — a line that is now moving 67% slower than a line for a ride operating at full capacity. So, a 10-minute wait for a roller coaster at full capacity becomes a 17-minute wait with social distancing. A 30-minute wait for a roller coaster at full capacity becomes a 50-minute wait with social distancing. Whereas filling a ride to capacity would be unlikely to bring riders within “close contact” of one another due to the duration of the ride, lowering capacity on the ride actually makes it more likely that guests will be in “close contact” with one another in the queue because of the dramatically increased waiting times.

Social distancing in the queue does not solve the problem. Experience in the summer of 2020 and with parks currently operating have shown that the shorter the waiting time, the more effective social distancing measures are. In essence, it is easier to get riders to maintain social distancing when the line is moving than when they are standing around for longer periods of time. The longer people wait in line the closer they tend to drift together despite efforts to maintain social distancing with ground markers and staffing. The key to maintaining distancing in the queues is to keep the line moving as much as possible and not let it stagnate.  

A couple of other points to consider
•Parks such as Disney World, Universal Studios, and the Cedar Fair parks have already begun fully loading their rides to keep line lengths to a minimum.  These properties have recognized that riding an amusement ride outdoors is significantly safer than such things as prolonged airplane, bus, or train travel — none of which are currently required to be socially distanced.

•The likelihood of viral exposure on an outdoor amusement ride is significantly reduced, even within six feet, because of the airflow around the vehicle and the rider. A recent Brown University study looked at viral exposure between the driver and opposite side, rear seat passenger in a car with all windows rolled down and the car moving at a speed of 50 mph. The study found that the rate of viral transmission between the two individuals was almost imperceptible. 

Outdoor amusement rides have even greater airflow than a car with all the windows rolled down since riders are surrounded by open air at all times.  If the rate of transmission in a vehicle is almost imperceptibly low, the rate of transmission on an outdoor, fast moving amusement ride must logically be no worse (and likely less).

—Erik Beard

This article appears in the JULY 2021 issue of Amusement Today.
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