Now that California's theme parks have approval to reopen, starting April 1, when will they actually start welcoming back guests?
Only one California theme park has announced an official reopening date at this point. But we can take very educated guesses about the rest. First, it is appearing unlikely that any California theme park will be cutting short their current special events to reopen their rides and other uniquely "theme park" operations. So looking at the closing dates for these events provides us our first clues about potential reopening dates.
Right now, all California counties with big theme parks - except San Diego County - are in the "Red" Tier 2 where theme parks can reopen at 15 percent capacity on April 1. And San Diego should be moving into that tier very soon. But if California can administer two million more Covid vaccine doses to residents in communities in the bottom 25 percent of the state's Healthy Places Index, the entry requirements for the Orange and Yellow tiers will change. Under those rules, Los Angeles County's average daily case rate is low enough already to place it in the Orange tier, where parks can operate at 25 percent capacity.
Moving from Red to Orange also eliminates small-group requirements, the ban on indoor dining at theme parks, and the requirement that parks only sell their tickets online.
Assuming that current trends continue, Los Angeles County - which is home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain - should be in Orange on April 1. And Orange County - home to Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm - should be close. That leaves San Diego County, but remember that SeaWorld is already open as a zoo. And the different capacity rules for zoos and theme parks in each tier likely affects SeaWorld's decision on when to make the switch and reopen its rides.
Six Flags Magic Mountain - The park's drive-in car show ends this weekend, so it's the one park that I see as being good to go for ride operations on April 1. That's a Thursday, so maybe the park waits until the next day to reopen, but I can't see Six Flags leaving money on the table by delaying its reopening longer than it legally must. I am not expecting any parks to reopen with all rides and attractions available, but Six Flags would love to have enough restaffed and running that it can get the spotlight to itself as the first major California theme park to reopen its rides. Guesstimated reopening date: Thursday, April 1 or Friday, April 2. Updated actual date: April 1 for members and passholders. April 3 for the rest of the public.
The new California rules for theme parks no longer require parks to demand advance reservations to visit. But I see Magic Mountain requiring advance reservations anyway, in keeping with Six Flags' recent practice chain-wide. Given the timing of LA County's move to the Orange tier, Six Flags likely will make reservations available at 15 percent capacity, but can open more slots when the county officially moves to Orange.
Which brings up a great point to keep in mind if you are planning to visit a California theme park this year. If a park "sells out" its advance reservations on a particular date, go back and check again for additional availability whenever that park's county moves into a different tier. Allowed capacity jumps from 15 to 25 percent when entering the Orange tier and from 25 to 35 percent when entering Yellow.
Magic Mountain's Bay Area-sibling, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, ends its current RenFaire event on March 28. Look for it to reopen soon after April 1 to try and pick up some Spring Break and weekend business, though the park likely will not resume daily operations until around Memorial Day. Updated opening date: April 1 for passholders, with daily operation starting Memorial Day weekend.
Universal Studios Hollywood - The park's Taste of Universal event ends April 11. With Disney CEO Bob Chapek saying that Disneyland is aiming for a "late April" reopening, I can see Universal wanting to grab some attention by returning ahead of Mickey and friends. Guesstimated reopening date: Friday, April 16. Updated actual date: April 16
The big question affecting Universal is what to do about its new The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash! dark ride. Six Flags doesn't have to worry about timing a new attraction debut along with its park's return, but other local parks do have to face that question.
What delivers the biggest promotional bang for the investment in a new attraction? Debut it with the park reopening, or wait until later when maybe you can get a second PR boost? Knott's Berry Farm has committed to opening its new ride with the park. Does Universal want to do the same?
Disneyland and Disney California Adventure - As we mentioned above, Chapek has said that the parks will return in "late April," after the A Touch of Disney event concludes at Disney California Adventure on April 18. These are California's two most popular theme parks, so restarting them is gonna take some time. Plus, Disneyland has wiped out its annual pass program, in addition to announcing that it will not offer Fastpass (and therefore, Maxpass) when its parks return. So it's probably going to introduce new ticketing and membership programs to the market before the parks return, which will take some time to do. That leaves me torn as to whether Disneyland will try to make it a relatively quick turnaround after Touch of Disney, or will push Chapek's estimate. Guesstimated reopening date: Thursday, April 22 or Thursday, April 29. Updated actual date: April 30
Knott's Berry Farm - Knott's has said that it will return in May, with the current Taste of Knott's Boysenberry Festival running through May 2. Early May is not traditionally big business for theme parks, but like Six Flags, Cedar Point does not have a Disney+ streaming service or a bunch of TV networks bringing in cash while its parks are closed. Look for a quick turnaround here, as Knott's does not want to give Disneyland too much of a head start on recapturing the Orange County theme park market. Guesstimated reopening date: Wednesday, May 5 (if it wants to throw a Cinco de Mayo reopening party) or Friday, May 7. Updated actual dates: May 6 for passholders and May 21 for the rest of the public.
Legoland California - Legoland's Build 'N Play Dats also runs through May 2, but the Carlsbad park is in San Diego County, which is behind its neighbors on Covid progress. And it's much more dependent upon the family market than Knott's. So I would not be surprised to see the park wait until closer to Memorial Day and the start of school vacations to resume daily operation. Guesstimated reopening date: Friday, May 21. Updated actual date: April 1 for previews. April 15 officially and May 20 for daily operation.
SeaWorld San Diego - Here's the one that I can't predict. SeaWorld is open now as a zoo, but the park would have to drop its capacity to 15 percent if it reopens as a theme park in the Red tier. If it remains a zoo, it can open its indoor exhibits at 25 percent capacity in Red and 50 percent in Orange. It's cheaper to operate the park as a zoo, too, since it would not be staffing and running its rides.
So this comes down to the number of tickets that SeaWorld is selling as a zoo. If that's equal to or greater than the capacity percentage that the park would be allowed in its current tier as a theme park, then there's no good business reason to switch. But as other parks reopen, I suspect that SeaWorld's appeal as "just" a zoo won't be enough to sustain those ticket sales and the park will decide to reopen its rides. My best guess is that happens sometime in May, but I don't feel strongly enough to guesstimate a date yet. Updated actual date: April 12, but only for one roller coaster and some kiddie rides.
Finally, we get to the one official California theme park reopening date that we know. California's Great America, in the Bay Area, has announced that it will open on May 22.
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