When Will California's Theme Parks Actually Reopen?

March 13, 2021, 1:17 PM · 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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Replies (10)

March 13, 2021 at 1:29 PM

If I handicapped these, Vegas-style, I'd put Magic Mountain as the /heavy/ favorite to open first (+1000 or more). Nearly no indoor attractions, monstrous capacity because of its spacious grounds and ... well, I'm doing my best to leave reputation out of it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the only theme park we already know a date for, and that's in no small part because of the county it lives in.

If I'm Universal, cynically, I stagger opening and unveiling the new attraction to go for a double-bump. I might even go for a triple-bump by mixing in a little soft opening during May and then firmly opening it around Memorial day or deeper into June. It wouldn't surprise me if that's the approach they go with.

March 13, 2021 at 1:50 PM

Magic Mountain will definitely open first. My sister got the call from her manager minutes after the reopening plans were announced to ask for her availability for retraining. The following day, she got an email to schedule a retraining and safety session within this week through the end of the month.

March 13, 2021 at 4:20 PM

Exciting! - LOL on SFMM’s “reputation” being left out, even as it appears likely to become the first park to return with rides. Knotts Season Pass means it’s my home park; not a festival food guy without rides in the mix. That said, hoping for best but expecting worst with regard to openings and tiers. As a professional with both teaching and clinical work in the mix, second vaccination soon makes a visit to parks with safety protocols in place a welcome respite from pandemic life. Thanks, Robert, for the terrific article; as always, so informative! And thanks for articles these past 13 months about a favorite topic - POVs + TPI (along with a few others) - kept me smiling. Hope parks have “most” rides open and 25% “might” mean shorter lines? Again, hoping for the best... ( ;

March 13, 2021 at 6:37 PM

Here's my guesses at this time...

Both Six Flags parks will probably open April 3rd. With both parks ending their events in the next couple weeks and Six Flags generally being aggressive about reopenings, I doubt they're going to sit on it any longer than they have to. For this reason, SFMM will almost certainly be the first park I visit in California this year, as I intend to go the first day I'm not working after they reopen.

SeaWorld will probably be the next to open rides. My understanding is that their operation is pretty much normal with no rides, so once the spring break period passes and crowd levels are low I see no reason for not turning the rides back on. I'm going to say April 17th for the rides to return here.

I'm betting on the last full week of April for the return of Disneyland and Universal, with Universal opening a few days ahead of Disney. Unlike Florida, USH has very few outdoor rides, so with California's restrictions it might be better for them to give LA as much time as possible to drop to Orange. I don't think they'll push it beyond the end of April because summer is going to be critical this year and parks need time to fine-tune their operation.

Legoland I have no guess for, but I assume it will likely be by mid May. I could see them curtailing their event to open rides in late April, but I think the most likely is to reopen with rides the weekend after it ends. Therefore, I'm going to say May 8th at the latest, with the possibility of opening sooner.

This leaves Cedar Fair. I'm going to predict that all three of California's Cedar Fair parks will reopen on May 22nd, as that seems to be the date for most parks in the chain. However, I'm also going to predict that Knott's and possibly CGA will have passholder preview weekends earlier in May to help ease demand and provide training and tweaking opportunities for employees and procedures.

March 13, 2021 at 9:03 PM

I'm guessing Magic Mountain first too but think they might wait a bit just in case of any Spring Break hiccups and such before putting out set dates and then have to change them again.

March 14, 2021 at 12:11 AM

I do wonder how Magic Mountain is going to handle their parking. Right now most of their paved parking lot (ie all of the parking lot closest to the park entrance) is being taken by the vaccination site. They could have people park on the dirt lot on the other side, just a long walk right past where the vaccinations are happening.

March 14, 2021 at 12:21 AM

@Matthew Ballard

Oh...that will be hilarious! Parking in the overflow dirt lot and walking a mile towards the entrance of the park. It will be glorious to watch.

March 14, 2021 at 1:26 PM

CGA based on proximity, with 6FDK likely for same reason. Our first trip or 2 to SoCal will probably be focused on using our passes at 6FMM and Knotts. Will hold off on Disney until Avengers campus opens.

March 15, 2021 at 1:02 PM

I don't really have much of a feel for the strategies these very different parks utilize, so it's anyone's guess as to which one is the first shoe to drop. However, if I was a betting man, I would put my money on the State of California or one of the local health authorities to pull an okie-doke on the parks and revise the guidance once again, placing reopening plans on indefinite hold.

Never bet against the incompetence or ineptitude of California's governance.

March 16, 2021 at 12:58 PM

Thank god for California's intelligent, compassionate governance, they have done a superlative job of protecting our citizens during this insane time. Can't say thank you enough to Gavin Newsom for his excellent leadership.

Meanwhile: the vaccines are flowing now, at least here in Frisco. Makes this opening news that much more exciting!

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