They're the scourge of family trips. They always take too long. They make us shiver in the cold and sweat in the sun. They make us fidget and fume. They make us so edgy we snap at the kids, our significant other and, sometimes, even at strangers. We swear this is absolutely the last time.
But here we are again, waiting in line. Sometimes, it seems we spend the entire trip getting in one line after another. Even worse, we talk about them when we're not in them, devising strategies to avoid them even if that means getting up at dawn on vacation.
That's because they're everywhere at ski resorts on a busy weekend or a hot new traveling museum exhibit. You can count on them at theme parks or at buffets on cruise ships or resorts. You can't even escape them at historic sites. We waited more than an hour, breathing musty air, to climb the cramped stairs to the top of the Statue of Liberty.
"I'm a big baby about lines," admits Chicago pediatrician Jeffrey Fireman. "I think it's such a waste of time. I'm so angry by the time I get to the front that I can't enjoy the attraction."
Of course he does it anyway when his two kids insist. "Waiting in line," he jokes, "teaches an important life lesson: You can't always be first."
But you can make the decision whether or not to wait. Let the kids help decide, suggests child psychologist Don Wertlieb, chief of Tufts University's child development department.
"If they've bought into the decision to wait, they'll be more willing to endure the line," says Dr. Wertlieb. "They'll feel a lot better than if they were just dragged along."
You may not be thrilled with the kids' decision. "I find it amazing all of my kids think it's worth waiting 1 1/2 hours to ride Space Mountain for just a few minutes," says Dr. Wertlieb.
Other parents practice avoidance at all costs. "I just won't put myself in that situation," says Martha Melvoin, who lives in Los Angeles and has two sons. "It's one of my phobias."
She opts for Disneyland when it's raining and heads for movies a half hour before screen time. "And I absolutely won't go see anything on the first day."
The people who run these popular attractions, meanwhile, spend considerable time and resources studying ways to make the wait less onerous.
"There's a whole science to it, from the direction the lines go to how long people will wait. We know how they feel about the wait will directly impact their experience," says Linda Buckley, a spokesman for Universal Studios in Orlando.
Universal, like other theme parks, increasingly provides diversions to help keep those waiting from getting too exasperated.
It's called "pre-show entertainment" and ranges from videos that explain the attraction to visits from the characters to a mime performance. At Nickelodeon Studios in Orlando, kids can play free video games while they wait. When it's really hot, vendors make the rounds so those waiting can quench their thirst without losing their spot.
Parents with babies in tow usually can "swap" the kids at the head of the line at theme parks. That way, one can ride the attraction while the other baby-sits but they only wait once.
Those with older children say they frequently have one designated line-waiter in the group usually Mom or Dad. That way everyone's not stuck fidgeting and fuming for an hour.
Dr. Wertlieb suggests that parents use the time to tune in to the kids' lives.
"It's a great time to strike up a conversation," insists Dr. Wertlieb, who has waited in plenty of lines with his own three children. "Waiting in line is like driving the car pool. It's one of the few opportunities parents have to talk to the kids."
That's tough to do, he acknowledges, when the kids are toddlers. In that case, it's wise to go with a partner so that you can alternate waiting.
Young children won't last more than 10 or 15 minutes, advises Pat Shimm, associate director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and co-author of "Parenting Your Toddler" (Addison Wesley, $11). "Don't forget a stroller. If you're lucky, they might fall asleep on you, and a backpack will kill you."
Waiting with young children is even more difficult because their sense of time is different from an adult's, explains Michael Jellinek, chief of child psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital.
They may have trouble staying in one place or even understanding why it's necessary. That's why it's wise to have diversions on hand for kids of all ages, experienced line-waiters say. That might mean hand-held electronic games or tape players for the older set, crayons, paper and books for the younger crowd.
I won't go near a line without a bottle of water, a stash of snacks and knowing exactly where to find the nearest bathroom.
Chicagoan Wendy Carmichael kept her 5-year-old daughter Laura amused in line at Disney World recently singing all of the songs she had recently learned in preschool.
New Jersey graphic designer Ira Berkowitz tried to explain the wait in terms his daughter and son would understand: He likened it to eight episodes of their favorite TV show.
"While you're waiting, it's harder on the kids," said Mr. Berkowitz. "But once it's done, they don't remember the wait. They remember the attraction. You remember the wait." Send your questions and comments about family travel to Los Angeles Times Syndicate, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, Calif. 90053, or e-mail to eogintaol.com. While every letter cannot be answered, some of your stories may be used in future columns.
Pub Date: 3/17/96