Virginia's Reopening Plan Might Leave Theme Parks Closed

June 24, 2020, 11:56 AM · The state of Virginia has cleared its theme parks to reopen - but the conditions the state is imposing might just keep those parks closed.

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam yesterday said that the state will enter its Phase 3 of reopening on July 1. That would allow theme parks to operate at up to 50 percent capacity or 1,000 people - whichever is greater.

For big parks such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Kings Dominion - which have capacities far in excess of 2,000 people - that means a hard 1,000-person cap on daily attendance. That's not going to allow those parks to make enough income to justify reopening, which is why Busch Gardens has said that it will not reopen until the state relaxes the attendance rule.

"We are extremely disappointed in this guidance," Busch Gardens Williamsburg President Kevin Lembke told the James City County Board of Supervisors last night. "Our parks are largely outdoor facilities spread across hundreds of acres but we continue to be lumped in with unrelated models like bowling alleys and skating rinks."

Busch Gardens' sister parks in Florida and Texas - SeaWorld Orlando, Busch Gardens Tampa, and SeaWorld San Antonio - have reopened under what has become an industry standard for Covid-19 mitigation, including lower capacities to promote safe physical distancing, enhanced cleaning and sanitation, suspension of some activities, promotion of contactless payment, and the use of facemasks. But even with lower capacities, those parks are admitting more than 1,000 people per day.

The Williamsburg park had proposed opening with a capacity limit of 5,000 to 7,000 visitors a day, which would range between 20-30 percent of the park's capacity of 24,000 people per day.

Before the pandemic closed parks across the world, Busch Gardens Williamsburg had planned to open a new Intamin Blitz coaster, Pantheon, for the 2020 season. But now parent company SeaWorld has cut its capital spending and management has said that it might delay 2020 projects into next year.

Replies (4)

June 24, 2020 at 12:27 PM

I sympathize with the parks, but I think the 50%/1,000 person rule is sensible barring an intensive effort from the Commonwealth to set specific limits for each individual industry/venue. 50% capacity in a restaurant or large church is a lot different than 50% of a racetrack, stadium/arena, or concert venue (like Jiffy Lube Live in Bristow, VA), which can accommodate 20k+ people, hence the 1,000 max. However, each facility has its own specific situation that would require an independent evaluation to determine a "safe" capacity. Theme parks are incredibly complicated with mixes of indoor and outdoor spaces (most critically restrooms). I actually think the Commonwealth is doing the parks a favor here by forcing them to wait until they can operate profitably - let's face it, it will cost the parks a lot of money just to staff up to open with even a capacity of 5k-7k people that would take months before a profit is turned, with the potential of having to close down again if the spread of the virus increases in the region.

June 24, 2020 at 12:56 PM

One point to consider when comparing an amusement park to a concert venue or sporting arena: In the latter group, people are sitting in one spot for an extended period of time, while in an amusement park, people are continuously moving around. Hence why state senators and representatives in Virginia are imploring the governor to raise the cap specifically for amusement parks.

June 24, 2020 at 1:05 PM

Illinois is interesting as about to start Stage 4 as well and our governor was far stricter about this than others (shelter orders mid-March not raised until last weekend of May). Which means Six Flags Great America is also hit by this "cap" so it's now sounding like they may have to wait to reopen.

It's tricky given rises in cases in states and even in the only one that met all criteria for reopening, concerns how it'll work.

June 24, 2020 at 7:29 PM

A 1000 person cap is both unsustainable and an inappropriate rule for a theme park. It isn’t a single building. We are talking about a couple of hundred acre outdoor venue with a lot of rides and people movers. There should be an exception for a business like this.

Sorry, I just don’t participate in the fear. The virus is real, but the vast majority of cases are either asymptomatic or mild, and more testing equals more cases. If people want to stay home, that’s perfectly fine and I understand. If others want to wash their hands, social distance, and responsibly venture out, let them go. Rides can be sanitized, temperatures can be checked, ride capacities can be reduced and reservation systems can be used. We have to get past this.

That said if Busch Gardens opens with a 1000 person capacity, I’m there. Short lines are a thing of beauty.

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