3 Cool Facts About the Psychology of Amusement Parks

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Photo: Bobby Bank/WireImage

It's a good week for amusement parks. This weekend welcomed Coney Island’s new Thunderbolt roller coaster, 130 years after the first coaster in America opened there on June 16, 1884, and Thursday will see Six Flags Great Adventure's new Goliath ride claim the throne as the world’s fastest wooden coaster. To celebrate these new rides — and, you know, summer — here are three cool psychological facts about amusement parks, from the savvy ways ride designers heighten coasters' sense of danger to the surprising benefits of long lines.

1. For parkgoers, bigger may not always be better.
A 2010 study published in Marketing Science tracked the impact of new attractions on overall park attendance over a span of 25 years. Despite the evident buildup of thrill rides like Six Flag’s Kingda Ka coaster that aim for record-breaking height and speed, the study notes that park designers may overestimate the appeal of these new sky-high rides. “There are clear saturation effects,” the study reports. “Although new attractions tend to be increasingly expensive, they become less effective over time.”

Park visitors may in fact find a greater long-term allure in more understated rides; the study notes that Legoland California attained record growth in 2006 after the addition of the comparatively inexpensive Pirate Shore attraction. A roller-coaster fan-rating survey conducted by Time last year found that many of the visitors preferred rides boasting merely “good-but-not-extreme stats” when it came to speed and drops.

2. Forget the fast pass – you may actually want to wait in line.
Although long lines consistently rank as one of the worst aspects of theme parks, research shows that we may ultimately enjoy the ride even more after waiting for hours. A 2010 study in the Journal of Marketing Research posits that the “silver lining of standing in line” is that the value of a product tends to increase in our minds when other people line up behind us for the same experience.

3. Park engineers use psychological tricks to satisfy our taste for danger.

That wooden coaster creaks for a reason. A 2001 article in the Journal of Design History notes that early amusement park engineers discovered psychological deception could enhance the thrill and appeal of their attractions, incorporating ride elements that continue to frighten park visitors today. Features like beams and overhangs that appear to just miss your head serve to amplify your sensation of speed, and the purposeful design of a coaster to creak or sway builds tension and bolsters the illusion of a more pressing danger.

Travel and Leisure’s recent collection of the world’s most frightening coasters cites such fear factors as a “rickety chain” and “the illusion of fragility” that trick our psyches and contribute to the adrenaline and dopamine rush that attracts thrill-seekers today. We as riders are also quite literally kept in the dark about the reality of our experience, as engineers embrace the power of pitch-black tunnels to disorient riders and heighten the sense of risk involved in boarding the coaster.