Making Sense of California's New Theme Park Rules

March 6, 2021, 1:14 PM · What can fans expect when Disneyland and other theme parks reopen in California, perhaps as early as next month?

To answer that question, we need to understand the new rules that California Governor Gavin Newsom introduced yesterday. In short, California changed its entire "Blueprint for a Safer Economy." The system retains its four tiers that determine how various businesses can operate in each California county. But the new rules not only changed what businesses are allowed to do in each tier, they also changed the Covid case numbers that counties needed to reach to move into another tier.

And to make things even more confusing, those new case number standards are conditional. Right now, counties need to get the average number of new Covid cases a day per 100,000 residents under seven to move into the Red "Substantial" Tier 2, then under four to move into Orange "Moderate" Tier 3, and under one to get to Yellow "Minimal" Tier 1. Test positivity rates must drop below 8 percent to get into Red, 5 percent for Orange and 2 percent for Yellow.

The new rules create two conditions under which those numbers may change. California has a metric called the Healthy Places Index, which aggregates income and other data that correlate with community health. When California administers two million vaccines to communities ranking in the bottom 25 percent of the HPI, then the standard for assignment into the Red tier will change. At that point, counties will need only to get an average daily case rate of 10 per 100,000 residents to get into the Red tier.

California has administered 1.6 million doses to those targeted communities already, and the state expects to get to its goal of two million within the next two weeks - before the April 1 date when the new rules for theme parks take effect. With Los Angeles and Orange counties already having case rates around seven, their theme parks should be clear to reopen even without a further decline in case rates. San Diego County's case rate is slightly above 10 right now, so its number will need to come down by April 1 for parks to be able to reopen there.

Now when the state administers four million vaccines to communities in the bottom 25% of the HPI, the requirements to get into the Orange and Yellow tiers will change. At that point, counties will need to get their case rate under six to enter the Orange tier and two to enter Yellow.

Given the current vaccination rate in the state, it's reasonable to expect that California will reach the four million vaccinations goal by early May, if not sooner. Keep that in mind as we look at the new rules in each tier for California theme parks.

Under these rules - which take effect April 1 for the theme and amusement park industry - California parks may open at 15 percent capacity when their home county enters the Red tier. Visitors must buy their tickets in advance online, and only California residents may visit. Workers will need to be tested for Covid-19 weekly. No indoor dining will be permitted at the park, but indoor shops and attractions may open at 15 percent capacity, with time limits on how long people may remain inside. And only small groups may visit - with a maximum of 10 people per group, including people from no more than three households. Groups may not mix while inside the park.

In the Orange tier, capacity may rise to 25 percent. The "small groups" requirement goes away, as does the prohibition on indoor dining and online purchase requirement. Indoor capacity also rises to 25 percent, but retains the time restrictions. The weekly testing requirement for workers remains, as does the restriction on out-of-state visitors, and "other modifications" - which are as yet undefined - may be applied.

In the Yellow tier, park capacity rises to 35 percent, but otherwise everything else remains from the Orange tier. Indoor capacity remains at 25 percent.

So what should California theme park fans expect after April 1?

Remember that the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida waited for an entire month after rivals Universal Orlando and SeaWorld returned to reopen its theme parks. Given these rules, I expect Disneyland also to go slow on its reopening in California.

With fans having sold out the "A Touch of Disney" event in Disney California Adventure through April 19, why not wait until the state administers its four million vaccines to the HPI bottom quartile and Orange County's case rate drops below six, so that Disneyland and DCA can reopen with 25 percent capacity and the Orange tier rules? That also gives Disney more time to roll out its new ticket and pass programs.

Six Flags Magic Mountain, on the other hand, has only one indoor dining location and one indoor ride. It can operate under the Red tier's 15 percent rule much more easily than Disneyland. And Six Flags does not have Disney+ as a corporate sibling, making the company millions of dollars a day while the parks are closed. Look for Six Flags to reopen as soon as possible after April 1, with advance reservations required.

I expect Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott's Berry Farm and Legoland California to open somewhere in between Six Flags and Disney's reopening dates. Knott's has been selling tickets for its Taste of Boysenberry Festival through May 2, as has Legoland California for its Build 'N Play Days, but Universal's Taste of Universal event is only on the calendar through April 4.

It might actually be more profitable for local parks to keep running their outdoor dining events and retail at 25 percent capacity than it would be to open their rides and take capacity down to 15 percent. Especially when many visitors might then be coming in on old annual passes rather than the newly-bought individual tickets that the dining events require. Parks also could open indoor restaurants for their special events in the Red tier, but not if they reopen as theme parks then.

SeaWorld San Diego is currently selling tickets as a zoo, which are allowed to be open now. Zoos can operate at higher capacities in each tier than theme parks can, so it might be to SeaWorld's financial benefit to hold off on reopening its rides and officially returning as a theme park until California changes its rules again.

Which is probably inevitable. What some might dismiss as inconsistent, others might see as flexible. California has done better than most states, including Florida, on its per capita Covid-19 case and death rates. So its leaders probably deserve some slack, if not credit, for the state's often-changing Covid rules.

But I wanted to do what I can to help Theme Park Insider readers understand those rules - at least as they are defined right now. That way, fans might have a better idea what to expect when California theme parks begin announcing their reopening dates and rules in the weeks ahead.

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Replies (18)

March 6, 2021 at 9:56 PM

I can see Disneyland waiting a bit longer to open to get it all set. Remember, it's smaller and more packed in places than WDW is so they have to get the distancing rules, etc a bit different.

And Universal Studios is less a "theme park" than Florida so they don't have to go as full-on as there. It will be interesting to see the different dynamics in stuff and how that affects visitor experiences.

March 6, 2021 at 11:55 PM

I work at Universal Studios Hollywood and the 15% cap at the beginning will be fine for them since that’s the amount the park gets during the off-season on a weekday. Plus with only CA residents, it will be doable.

Disneyland will be fine at 15% too due to they axed their AP program(Thus all entries will be new ticket sales) and so many people are desperate to go back to the park.

Knott’s has always catered to locals(the outside the park Mrs. Knott’s Chicken Dinner Restaurant is very popular in the area) so they will have no issue either

March 7, 2021 at 2:10 AM

I am curious how open Newsom might be to small adjustments given the pressure currently on him from the recall and from many industries that feel they are being treated unfairly (both in comparison to others in the state and other states in the country). I wouldn't be surprised if some tweaks are made to fix the inconsistencies that remain in the coming weeks. If the guidelines hold as is, here's what the parks are up against (using estimated capacities and TEA's numbers from 2019):

Disneyland: Capacity - 80,000, Average Attendance - 51,000 (64%), Allowed - 12,000 to 28,000 (up to 55% of pre-Covid numbers)

DCA: Capacity - 40,000, Average Attendance - 27,000 (68%), Allowed - 6,000 to 14,000 (up to 52% of pre-Covid numbers)

USH: Capacity - 40,000, Average Attendance - 25,000 (63%), Allowed - 6,000 to 14,000 (up to 56% of pre-Covid numbers)

Knott's: Capacity - 20,000, Average Attendance - 12,000 (60%), Allowed - 3,000 to 7,000 (up to 58% of pre-Covid numbers)

SWSD: Capacity - 50,000, Average Attendance - 10,000 (20%), Allowed - 7,500 to 17,500 (up to 100% of pre-Covid numbers)

SFMM: Capacity - 40,000, Average Attendance - 10,000 (25%), Allowed - 6,000 to 14,000 (up to 100% of pre-Covid numbers)

Basically, SeaWorld and Magic Mountain will likely have minimal impacts from the capacity restrictions except on their busiest days, while the others are likely going to push to get theme parks a 50% allowance ASAP (which, if zoos, restaurants, and movie theaters are allowed that beginning in orange, theme parks should be too IMO), as even in yellow tier they're likely to be at or near their reduced capacity on a daily basis. Granted, Disney will probably be fine because a $100+ ticket with no pass option likely will cut demand significantly, but Universal and especially Knott's could suddenly become the hard reservation to get for summer 2021.

March 7, 2021 at 12:08 PM

Both Disney and Universal have decades of experience in theme park operations. More specifically, both park operators now have almost a year's worth of experience managing safety during the pandemic.

And by all accounts they have been successful.

Further, I guarantee, both of these companies have already started preparing their parks for implementing administrative and engineered safety controls. They already have plans that are specific for the configurations of the California parks.

They're ready. Just get Governor Dumbass out of the way.

March 7, 2021 at 11:25 AM

I remember my mother taking her grandkids to USH and surprised how light the crowds could be so as pointed out above, it should be able to control better. I'm sure all the parks have been working and prep, just have to handle the inevitable x-factors of guest behavior, etc. As the old military adage goes "no plan survives contact with the enemy" and the virus is an enemy.

So yes, USH likely not as affected as much as the other parks, Disneyland more of a challenge but am concerned a bit about Magic Mountain or Six Flags not being as strenuous. Again, it's different dynamics in California from park layouts to the climate of their usual guests so will be intriguing to see how it all works out but hopefully it does.

March 8, 2021 at 1:35 AM

It seems to me that Disney is in a very different situation than the other SoCal parks.

Knott's, USH, SFMM etc have lots of AP holders. (Please correct if I'm wrong.) With pent-up demand, these parks may operate at their limited capacities, yet barely make a dime.

Disney on the hand, will open its parks with zero APs. Every single guest will be paying full price ($120? 150?). Disney may do well financially even with limited capacity.

March 8, 2021 at 10:50 AM

Thank god for Gavin Newsome and California's government. Were it not for their decisive action in controlling the virus things would have been far far worse here. Schools are still not open in most of the state, so it would be absurd to open theme parks before then.

Intelligent people, adults, people with critical reasoning appreciate what Newsome has done for the state. Mouth breathers who dispute science, not so much.

March 8, 2021 at 12:28 PM

Maybe you can use some of that intelligence to learn how to spell his name correctly. I wonder when his table at the French Laundry will be ready?

March 8, 2021 at 12:42 PM

If only Newsom appreciated the science last year. It took a potential recall for him to finally come around and learn a little bit about statistics and risk analysis. Holding Newsom up as some savant and being on the right side of the debate regarding COVID closures is about as foolish as it gets.

March 8, 2021 at 6:08 PM

"Holding Newsom up as some savant and being on the right side of the debate regarding COVID closures is about as foolish as it gets."

Sure, tell that to the tens of thousands of Californians who would be dead right now if California's death rate was as high as Mississippi, Texas or even Florida. If you're praising ignorant governors for opening early, you're cheering for the deaths of the people they helped kill.

But sure, Disneyland is more important that thousands of human lives. NewsomE is such an idiot for doing the right thing for his constituents.

March 9, 2021 at 7:26 AM

Again, Newsom's absolute failure was the product of hia stubbornness. Had he been a public servant, he would have engaged in a long term commitment to monitor the operations of the Central Florida attractions to see what works and how their operations and safety protocols were implemented and how they were modified over time.

Newsom didn't make that commitment. I am going to assume it is because he would then have to make a public statement about the positive actions taken by the parks.

Newsom is an idiot.

March 9, 2021 at 12:26 PM

thecolonel: "Sure, tell that to the tens of thousands of Californians who would be dead right now ..."

Me: Okay I will! Do you have their cell numbers?

March 9, 2021 at 1:49 PM

Over 54,000 Californians to date have deaths attributable to COVID of a total population of nearly 40 million (0.135% of the population). To date, over 3.6 million Californians have tested positive (9% of the population).

Over 45,000 Texans to date have deaths attributable to COVID of a total population of just under 30 million (0.15% of the population). To date over 2.7 million Texans have tested positive (9% of the population).

Nearly 32,000 Floridians to date have deaths attributable to COVID of a total population of just under 22 million (0.145% of the population). To date nearly 2 million Floridians have tested positive (9% of the population).

So let me get this straight, Newsom's strict lockdowns and hypocritical reopening policies somehow led to nearly the same results as Texas and Florida, 2 states routinely criticized for opening too fast and not doing enough to combat the pandemic. Can thecolonel please explain how what Newsom did was so good yet ended up with nearly identical data to states that did so much wrong?

March 9, 2021 at 2:22 PM

Your numbers are misrepresentative, see here:

In fact, on a per capita basis, California has done much better than Florida, and FAR better than Texas. That's despite that fact that Florida has avoided what other states faced because of its climate.

But look, you think Texas is doing better, having abandoned masks altogether now? Maybe take a trip down there are report back.

March 9, 2021 at 3:13 PM

You must have taken statistics from the same school as Newsom - perhaps that's why you lavish him with such praise...

You can certainly say that California overall has done better than both Florida and Texas (as the data I provided showed), but the difference between the 3 states is not very significant (delta of 16/100k). The gap between California and Texas is not "FAR" better (less than 2 hundredths of a percent of the total population), and across all 50 states California ranks 23rd, just ahead of Florida (24th) and 4 spots better than Texas (27th). A statistically significant improvement would be 10+ spots better or improvement of >10%.

What seems to be lost here is that California hasn't fared significantly better despite the strict lockdowns and restrictions compared to states where the virus was not taken as seriously. By extension, you can posit that the extreme measures used to combat the virus in California did not significantly reduce the toll compared to states that did very little. If Newsom's measures were so effective, California would have seen half the number of deaths per capita compared to Texas like Washington (where the first known cases in the US were reported) and Oregon, but that simply has not happened.

Even if you want to compare recent trends of both infections and deaths, Texas' numbers are decreasing faster than California.

March 9, 2021 at 5:11 PM

Can someone please help thecolonel up from the floor?


March 9, 2021 at 9:07 PM

TheColonel’s comments genuinely read like a propaganda piece

March 10, 2021 at 12:07 PM

Once again, Russell, you nailed it. California's draconian approach to the pandemic did not yield any significant advantage over states with a more open approach. I would have gone stark, raving mad over the past year if I lived in California. Goodness knows that I have NOT agreed with everything DeSantis has done since he's been in office (nor did I vote for him), but I very much appreciated his more calm, rational approach to shutdowns and re-openings. He's caught hell for it, but I'd argue that Florida's economy and the mental health of its residents will rebound a lot faster than that of other states because of his approach... and without a significantly higher infection and death rate.

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