Several proposals for reopening theme parks include requirements that parks operate at no more than some certain percentage of their capacity. Maybe it's 25 percent, or 50 percent, or 75. But what does "50 percent of capacity" even mean for theme parks?
Truth is that parks almost never operate at 100 percent of their physical capacity. The only time you see that at Disney parks is during Christmas week, when some parks have closed their gates to new guests. And sprawling parks such as Epcot never hit capacity. So "50 percent of capacity" at a big theme park can look a lot more like a typical summer day in the parks than the sparsely attended, socially distant experience that I believe that many people, including elected officials, are envisioning.
But what was a park's physical capacity before corona is going to change with new social distancing restrictions. If you can load only a fraction of a theater, that changes the capacity for that attraction in any given hour or on any given day. If park employees have to wipe down the restraints on a roller coaster between each load, that will slow its dispatch time and reduce the number of cycles per hour, reducing the coaster's capacity. Making people stand six feet apart in queues, waiting areas, and on streets and pathways further reduces the physical capacity of a theme park.
So when we talk about reopening a park at 25 percent or 50 percent of its capacity, are we walking about its old capacity or its new one?
Ultimately, it's all about keeping people safe and ensuring that they feel safe as well. The specific capacity number does not matter — it's the ability to support the necessary admission, spacing, and the sanitation procedures that will stop the transmission of the virus at the park. But communicating a capacity number can help the cause of helping people feel safe coming to the park. People can wrap their head around a park having only a half or a fourth as many people as they're used to seeing in that park.
But remember that those numbers are also different from 50 or 25 percent of "capacity." That's 50 or 25 percent of an average crowd. Again, there are so many questions, issues and challenges to work through here.
Fortunately, theme parks are represented on the task forces that are advising elected officials on the rules that states and local governments will enact to govern business reopenings. The Orange County task force in Central Florida includes representatives from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld. Disney Chairman Bob Iger is on California's task force. These executives have the opportunity to educate elected officials about the complexity of theme park operations and how new rules will affect those operations.
As I wrote yesterday, a government's criteria to reopen are just the first steps and not the final word. During this reopening process, parks will have to find effective ways to tell the public what they are doing to keep guests safe. So if part of that communication is that parks will be operating at a certain percentage of their capacity, park leaders will need to ensure that we in the public know exactly what that means and how it will affect us when we visit.Tweet
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