March 10th, 2020. It wasn’t any special day, just an ordinary Tuesday I had off work, so I decided to spend it at Disneyland. I checked out DCA’s Food and Wine Festival, got my second ride on Rise of the Resistance, and did a number of other attractions, but ended up calling it a day early. I already had plans to return a couple weeks later, so doing everything wasn’t of major importance.
The next day, COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. By the end of the week, life had changed so radically it was barely recognizable. Work had been suspended…we would begin online instruction a couple weeks later. Businesses were closing as governors ordered the population to remain in their homes except for essential outings. All travel plans I had through the end of June were completely cancelled, with those beyond placed on tentative status. I hoped that what we were in would be temporary, that it would give elected officials a couple months to work out a sustainable plan and get everything in order, then we could return to something resembling normal. But my hopes were wrong. In the weeks that followed, the situation only got worse and worse, and to complicate matters my personal life began to collapse around me. Work became more frustrating, with longer hours and more taxing tasks due to the difficulties of teaching math and science in a virtual world. I became disengaged from many of my hobbies as depression crept in, spurred on by the lack of social interaction in the real world. California’s governor, Gavin Newsom, laid out a solid plan to return post-COVID, but then botched elements of it so badly this state will likely go from one of the strongest in the recovery effort to one of the most devastated. And, topping it all off, we had a house fire in mid-June that forced a relocation to an AirBNB for over a month while repair work was completed. I was at my breaking point. I had to escape, even if just temporarily, and I was prepared to resort to extreme measures to do it.
Fortunately, right around this time many states began a phased reopening, and with them came tourist attractions such as theme parks. I made the decision that whatever the risk, I was going to do some sort of trip in July, for my mental well-being was far more at risk than the likely physical danger should I contract the virus. I received mixed responses from friends when I pitched the idea, but actually had a couple interested in joining for portions of the trip (none ended up making it, but my Dad came along for the ride). Despite the risks, despite the dangers, despite the strong opinions of some friends, there was nothing legally preventing me from doing so. Therefore, last month, I went…
Coastering in the Time of COVID
My name is AJ Hummel. For those of you that are new around here, I’ve spent the better part of the last decade traveling around the United States in an attempt to visit every decently sized amusement park in the country. Many of my adventures have been chronicled here on Theme Park Insider, but after last year’s expeditions conquered the last untouched areas of the country and left only scattered parks to visit, I announced that my trip reports would be going on hiatus until I could start covering parks beyond the borders of the US. However, with current circumstances limiting the opportunity many have for travel, and with a lot of questions raised as to what visiting a park now is really like, I’ve decided to write one more US only report to answer these questions and provide some new content to theme park fans out there. After all, it’s not like there’s anything better to do with my time off right now.
This report will be a bit different from previous reports, however. Instead of a chronological day-by-day account of my travels, I will be breaking it up into four parts (one published each Sunday of August) based on theme.
Part 1: The Park Experience…Visiting During COVID (you’re reading this part now)
Part 2: Three Remote Small Parks…Wonderland, Frontier City & Magic Springs
Part 3: Beyond the Parks…Other Safe Outdoor Activities for Travelers
Part 4: New For 2020…A Review of Mystic River Falls & Texas Stingray
So, without further ado, here we go…
Part 1: The Park Experience…Visiting During COVID
COVID has altered life as we know it right now, and for the present we need to accept that is reality. These alterations extend to every facet and every activity, so naturally theme parks are no exception. As such, I began planning my trip on one basic principle: Focus on parks where a diminished experience is acceptable. What does that mean? For starters, parks needed to be places that I’d either visited before, places directly along the route, or places that I’d have no qualms returning to in the future. Secondly, as much as possible, I should focus on parks covered by my existing annual passes (Cedar Fair, SeaWorld, and Six Flags) to minimize paying for a subpar experience.
The second principle I added to my trip planning was this: Maintain an abort option at all times. To comply with this, I ruled out anything on the east coast as a flight would be required. By driving, the route can be altered at will, and should anyone become ill, you can immediately abandon the rest of the journey and make a beeline directly for home. Fortunately, this was not necessary on the trip, but there was a certain security to knowing we were within a 20 hour drive of So Cal for pretty much the entirety of the trip.
The third principle is one I made a post about at the beginning of summer: Support smaller independent parks. Many parks have been very public about the difficulties they’re facing, and it is likely as many as half of those that are independently owned and were unable to operate this year (or operated on a very reduced schedule) may not survive the pandemic. Therefore, if it wasn’t a part of a chain I had a pass to, I searched for smaller parks to weave into the trip, even if they weren’t parks I’d go out of the way for otherwise.
The last principle was this: Keep the trip flexible. All hotels booked were free cancellation in case changing conditions rendered the trip unfeasible. Tickets weren’t purchased until immediately before departure in case of closure. Reservations that couldn’t be changed were made at the last minute. This proved incredibly valuable, as one of the attractions we planned to visit cancelled their reopening just days before the trip (actually the day before I was going to buy tickets), and mid-trip one of the parks modified their operating calendar, forcing us to shift several days around. We also had one attraction that had gone into more limited hours with fewer rides opened, but we didn’t know about it until arrival (we opted not to enter and were just out the parking fee).
With all these put together, the trip became thus:
The first two days were driving to get from Orange County, California to Amarillo, Texas. There, we visited Palo Duro Canyon as well as Wonderland Amusement Park before heading onward to Oklahoma City. The park here was Frontier City, the last Six Flags park in the US I needed to check off. We then proceeded to Branson for a return visit to Silver Dollar City after weather compromised last year’s visit. Our route then turned south, stopping in Arkansas for Hot Springs National Park and Magic Springs Theme and Water Park, before looping through Texas to revisit several locations I enjoyed on a previous trip in spring 2019. It was then two more days of driving back to California. While much of this region I had visited previously, all of this was new to my Dad, whose only experience with the southwest was visiting the Grand Canyon in Arizona and a couple trips to Houston for work. All in all, it was a wonderful adventure just shy of two weeks and with 4,600 miles of driving.
I’ll talk about the individual destinations themselves in later segments, but for today we’re going to talk about COVID and what it means for those planning to venture out to a theme park at any point before next spring.
Like state responses, COVID precautions vary from park to park. Some have more rules than others, and some do a better job of enforcing those rules. However, the rules generally fall into one of a few categories.
Masks: Quite simply, are masks required? Most major theme parks require masks at all times unless guests are eating or drinking, with the exception of designated relief areas. However, at a handful of parks (mostly independent), they are merely recommended unless a state mandate is in place. Masks were required for employees at every park I visited.
Distancing: Distancing means keeping guests six feet away from each other. Most commonly, this is through markers in queue lines indicating where to stand and leaving empty seats on attractions. Procedures varied widely, so I’ll detail those differences below.
Hand Sanitizer: All parks had sanitizer stations scattered throughout the park that were available to guests, but not all mandated its use. Some would simply have a dispenser at the entrance and exit of each attractions, while at others the ride attendant would come by and squirt it directly into your hands.
Disinfecting and Cleaning: Are rides closed periodically for cleaning? Are handrails wiped down in the queue line? Are there extra employees roaming the park specifically to clean highly touched surfaces?
Health Check: Do guests need to undergo a temperature screening prior to entering the park? The major parks required this, though each used a different procedure. Smaller parks did not, simply posting signs asking guests not to visit if they’d experienced any symptom of COVID in the past two weeks.
Reservations: Just as it says, are reservations required to visit the park? This is a measure used to control capacity and was only seen at the major parks.
I’ll go into more details below, but first here’s a handy chart summarizing procedures by park. On this chart, green means it was required and enforced, yellow means it was required but enforcement was spotty or it was only required in certain situations, and red means it was not required anywhere within the park.
As can be seen above, the most consistent thing I noticed was that almost all parks had some sort of enhanced cleaning procedures. Exactly how this was accomplished varied by park, but other than Wonderland Amusement Park there was a lot more cleaning going on than I’m used to seeing. Masks were also pretty common, with all parks at least recommending their use. In general, I’d say a vast majority of guests wore one when they were required, but few bothered if the masks were merely recommended. As I mentioned above, however, all staff were wearing them at all parks if they were in a position that has contact with guests.
The biggest point of diversion was on the use of hand sanitizer. Only three parks made hand sanitizer use mandatory for guests, with an attendant dispersing a squirt or spray of it into every rider’s hand before the boarding gates opened. At the other parks on the trip, sanitizer stations were positioned throughout the park, but it was up to guests to decide when and where to utilize them. Another large variance was on temperature checks, with all corporate parks having some sort of screening process while none of the independent parks bothered with such a thing.
Let’s look at a few specifics…
The incredibly sparse crowd at Magic Springs.
The park with the least restrictive policies was Magic Springs. Masks were optional at this park (unless indoors, where they were required), and the entire time there I don’t think I saw a single guest sporting one. All queue lines had distancing markers in them, but with no lines to speak of outside the waterpark these were mostly meaningless (distancing in the waterpark was largely ignored…more on that in my review next week). For sanitation, the grouper would disperse a spray of sanitizer to each rider, and the vehicles were wiped down each cycle. All seats were available, but unrelated parties were not grouped together in the same car. Additionally, there were hand sanitizer stations spread throughout the park. Of all the parks I visited, you felt the pandemic here the least, with the main reminder of it being incredibly light crowds and constant cleaning. Unfortunately, this park was also the most poorly staffed, with only about 1/3 of their attractions in operation.
Social distancing Silver Dollar City style
On the opposite end, the park with the most restrictions was Silver Dollar City. Here, your day starts with a screening at the tram station, where you not only receive a temperature scan but are also questioned about your health history. Once you pass, you are given a wristband that is required for admission to the park. Masks are required from the moment you get in line at the checkpoint to the moment you leave again, with the sole exceptions being while seated at a restaurant or on a water ride. Unlike the other parks, I do not recall this one having mask relief areas, and if they were present they were not particularly well marked. Hand sanitizer was mandatory, with a squirt dispersed to every guest by the grouper at every attraction, though there weren’t as many sanitizer stations elsewhere (mostly at restaurants). Distance markers were present in queue lines, but were primarily spaced linearly and didn’t account for lateral distancing in cattle pens. Rides were loaded one party per car, but all cars were in use. Sanitizing trains took place once every hour, but with a caveat…if a guest returned to the station without their mask on, that row was sanitized and sent empty the next cycle.
Honestly, Silver Dollar City is the park on the trip where COVID procedures most impacted enjoyment of the day. This was by far the busiest park on the trip, yet all coasters operated only a single train. Distancing seemed to be more of a guideline than a rule in the eyes of most guests, compounded by the fact that even if you followed the markers there would often be someone else within six feet of you diagonally. Because of the loading method, spacing on rides was inconsistent, and the need to constantly sanitize reduced an already limited capacity. When I visited the park last year, while I did see waits of up to 90 minutes, most rides were around 20. This year, due largely to COVID procedures, for much of the day you were looking at 40 minute waits for most major attractions despite what felt like half as many guests in the park. I have a feeling this was at least partially due to the lack of shows, which were limited in both number of productions and number of showtimes. Lastly, the lack of mask relief areas meant that more and more people were ignoring that rule as the day went on, and I will admit as someone who didn’t, it was definitely getting to me by the end of the day. It was fine as a return visit, but after two visits to this park I have yet to have a great one and don’t plan to go out of my way for another visit for some time. If you’re looking for somewhere new to check out this year, I’d steer clear of Silver Dollar City and its sister park, Dollywood, not because they aren’t great parks, but because the experience is so compromised.
Shows were filled every other row and emptied one section at a time.
SeaWorld San Antonio’s policies were virtually identical to those at Silver Dollar City minus the extra sanitization if a guest’s mask slips. However, this park was more consistent about ensuring an empty row between parties on rides and had a more efficient temperature check system (though the bag check that followed was the least efficient of the trip). That said, there are two main problems I encountered at SeaWorld that were unique from the rest of the parks. Firstly, other than Magic Springs, this park had the largest number of closed attractions, keeping most non-headliners down for the day and only performing each of their shows one time. Secondly, I saw the largest number of belligerent guests at this park. Many were clearly only begrudgingly following the rules, and it wasn’t uncommon to see those told off by an associate for not wearing their mask properly pull it back down the second they were out of sight. I also witnessed a couple incidents of guests being removed from rides for their refusal to wear a mask on the coaster, the worst of which resulted in a couple minutes of nasty arguing and the guest exiting down the ramp while flipping off everyone on the platform. I do not fault the park for the behavior of guests, but it was disappointing to see so many act this way. If you don’t agree with a park’s policies, that’s fine…I don’t like some of them either. However, if you’re going to visit, you need to play by the rules while you’re there.
One other note on SeaWorld…this park gave us the most trouble with their reservation system. Initially, when I went to purchase tickets their online system was having issues, so after trying a few times and failing my Dad was able to get it to work. Part way through the trip, we realized we needed to change dates around, and SeaWorld was one of the parks affected by the switch-up. Since there’s no way to change this online, my Dad had to call to get them switched. Following a problematic automated system, a long hold, and a conversation with a representative that was far more complicated than it needed to be, we were able to get them changed. In the time it took, however, I was able to switch both sets of Six Flags reservations, reschedule two of our hotel stays, cancel two others, and book replacement hotels. The cherry on top of all this is that when we got to the park our tickets wouldn’t scan at the gate since they were the originally issued tickets, so we had to go to the resolution center to get that sorted out. Fortunately, we were able to get in, but it was frustrating and definitely left me a bit sour on visiting more of the chain’s parks.
A common sight at Six Flags...queue lines well prepared for crowds that never came.
Lastly, we have Six Flags. I visited three of the chain’s parks on the trip (Frontier City, Fiesta Texas, Over Texas), and the policies were pretty consistent between them. Masks required, temperature checks, sanitizer stations, disinfecting trains hourly, only loading every other row, etc. However, a few things set Six Flags apart. Temperature scans and bag checks were touch-free and barely noticeable, conducted while guests walk between touchless scanners and through an air-conditioned tent containing thermal cameras. Unlike other parks, sanitizer was not mandatory, with bottles at the entrance and exit of every attraction for use if desired. Sanitizer was also present at every food and merchandise counter, as well as every map stand throughout the park and at other random locations. Mask relief areas were plentiful, often shaded, and well signposted. In queue lines, every other switchback was used to ensure proper distancing, and operators would make regular announcements when guests failed to heed the markings or removed their masks. Trains were not dispatched if anyone had their face covering on improperly, with a threat of a call to security should they return without it in place. Throughout the park, we constantly came across team members cleaning highly touched surfaces, and like elsewhere rides were sprayed down hourly. Indoor attractions were closed for safety, and some of the less popular attractions opened late or closed early, but unless there was a mechanical issue everything opened for part of the day. However, unlike any other park on the tour, Six Flags was actually operating two trains on all their coasters that could operate with multiple trains. This, combined with reduced capacity, meant that for the most part nothing was more than a 15 minute wait even on a summer weekend.
These were very much needed in the July heat of Texas.
Six Flags gets a lot of flak in the enthusiast community…some deserved, most not. However, in the time of COVID, Six Flags is absolutely the place to be among regional parks. I had excellent experiences at all three Six Flags properties, and felt the precautions were plenty safe enough without negatively impacting my visit. Now, I have not visited every park in the chain, and I haven’t visited any Cedar Fair properties this year to compare, but I will say this…if you’re going to venture to somewhere new this year, pick a Six Flags park. If you wouldn’t feel safe visiting a Six Flags park in 2020, you probably shouldn’t visit any theme park this year.
Now that I’ve experienced some theme park operations first-hand, I’ve had a chance to observe what seems to work well, what seems to need tweaking, and what should probably just go away. Based on my observations, here’s what I’d say:
-Distancing is absolutely the key to safe operation of theme parks at this time, and I’m glad to see so many parks going to great lengths to enforce it. While I’m not sure it’s as necessary on rides, it definitely needs to be considered in queue lines, restaurants, stores, auditoriums, and in the park as a whole. Capacity should be limited so that crowd density is low (I’d say 100 per acre would probably be safe yet profitable), and any areas that tend to bottleneck should be one way if possible. Honestly, if a park did nothing but enforce distancing, I’d probably feel safe going.
-Face masks…not a fan, and not convinced they’re being implemented well. While they’re fine for a couple hours, by about hour four you start to notice them, by hour six they’ve become gross with sweat, and by hour seven they’re just so uncomfortable you’re pretty much forced to call it a day. The way the parks are now, guests are wearing them at all times, yet most of the time they’re constantly in motion in an outdoor environment at a crowd density where the risk of transmission is infinitesimally low. Because of this, by mid-afternoon most guests start skirting the rules due to discomfort and a feeling that the masks are useless. The areas were guests are allowed to officially demask is where they’re sitting still and in closer proximity to other unmasked patrons (or at least in a denser crowd), which quite frankly doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. A better idea would be this: You must have a mask to enter, you must wear it inside any buildings, while waiting in a line, while seated at a show venue, or while interacting with staff but you don’t need to have it on when you’re just wandering the park or able to distance appropriately outdoors.
-Temperature scanners are a good idea if they can be implemented without causing a hindrance, as they may be able to catch some potential COVID cases. However, since most symptomatic guests are unlikely to visit and asymptomatic guests won’t register, I feel they’re more for looks than for actual safety.
-Sanitizer should be available, but I don’t know that it should be mandatory on every attraction. If you’re on an interactive attraction where you’re touching a number of surfaces, it makes sense to have everyone sanitize. On most attractions, however, having a bottle before boarding and one on the exit ramp for guests to use if desired is probably sufficient. Using it too much does leave a bit of a gross feeling, and I’m not sure it’s good for the vehicles to be constantly covered in the stuff. Shutting down rides to sanitize trains also seems like overkill to me, especially for a virus that doesn’t really transmit through surface contact.
So, now for the big question: “Is it safe to visit a theme park during the pandemic?” Like so many things in life, the answer to that question is “Maybe.” If safe to you means there is no chance you’ll possibly contract COVID, then I don’t know if it will ever be safe to visit a theme park again. However, if safe means that the risk is smaller than it would be for activities generally deemed essential, I would say the answer is yes. Even at the parks with less stringent restrictions, I had no qualms about safety at any point during any of my visits, and 90% of the time I felt far less at risk than at 90% of the places I’ve visited while in California. My Dad even said he thought the parks were the safest places he’d been outside his home since the pandemic started. I see no reason that theme parks should remain closed at this time as long as they follow proper protocols, especially in places that allow other types of outdoor recreational businesses to be open (such as zoos, waterparks, or outdoor malls). They are absolutely not mass gatherings, contrary to popular belief, and I’d say the crowd density inside a busy Costco is higher than anywhere I visited.
Now, whether or not you should visit a park right now is a personal choice. If you are in one of the higher risk groups, or you live with someone who is at higher risk, it’s probably not the best idea at this time. If you’ll be offended by others not following the rules, steer clear as well…you’ll never get 100% compliance. However, if you don’t fit into either of the above, your local park is open, and you’ve got a pass to visit, I’d recommend giving it a try. Of all the recreational businesses out there, theme parks may be the safest that is not purely nature (like a National Park), and just getting out and doing something enjoyable is the best cure to the ailments we’re all currently experiencing.
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