How Disney fools your brain to make lines feel magically short

Happily ever after you move through the queue.
Muti illustration
tk Muti

Waiting in line can test even the most patient person, but the happiest place on earth can make the longest of queues fly by. All it takes is these three tricks of the mind—no Disney magic necessary.

When you wait for Space Mountain, for example, walls separate riders and twist the queue back and forth. This stops you from grasping the true number of folks ahead, dampening the urge to bow out of a seemingly endless string of people.

Once you’re committed, Disney “Imagineers” distract you from counting the passing minutes. They turn the holding areas into their own experience with dazzling stories and decorations, says Richard Larson, a queueing expert at MIT. When you’re entertained, your wait time feels less important—that’s a phenomenon called the dual-task paradigm, where exciting surroundings up the brain’s workload.

The final mind-bender is a time warp. Signs en route advertise, for instance, a one-hour wait, but you’ll always reach the end before that. Larson calls this a “Machiavellian twist,” which makes us feel as if we’ve won back minutes when the journey is quicker than we anticipated. Plus, unlike a DMV line, this one ends with a high-speed rocket trip across the galaxy.

This story appeared in the Summer 2020, Play issue of Popular Science.