Theme parks and coronavirus

In our article ‘The Shape of Things to Come’ we attempted to peer into a crystal ball and consider how travel will change in the future. It’s a fluid scenario as more and more countries slowly release lockdown and in the coming weeks we’ll bring you updates as a ‘new normal’ begins to emerge for different aspects of travel.

At the time of writing theme parks in America, the UK and across Europe have no specific plans to re-open and attractions that usually welcome thousands of visitors each and every day face enormous challenges in the post-pandemic world.

In Asia some parks are back in action but with restrictions. In Taiwan the government has set a limit of of 50% of the normal attendance rates to prevent overcrowding and help social distancing and parks can only use half their car parking spaces.

Around the world theme parks, whose focus has always been on customer experience, now have to perform an intricate balancing act to ensure they allow healthy people to enjoy themselves whilst keeping everyone safe. Most importantly they will need to have a very good plan for what to do if anyone – staff or visitor – becomes ill on their site.

Parade at Disney Shanghai © Riku Lu, Flickr
How will social distancing affect parades at Disney Shanghai? © Riku Lu, Flickr

Disney’s planning to re-open its resort in Shanghai on Monday 11 May 2020, having already re-started trading at the adjacent food and retail area, Disneytown. To limit crowd density it’s only admitting 30% of its usual capacity, increasing slowly to a new limit of 24,000 people a day compared to its usual 80,000 visitors.

Only guests with pre-booked and dated admission tickets will be allowed in and Annual Pass holders must make a reservation through the resort’s official online channels. All guests will have to wear masks. Even with these restrictions, tickets sold out within minutes.

Disney’s also announced plans to re-open Disney Springs, its outdoor shopping, dining, and entertainment complex outside the Orlando based resorts from 20 May. It’s all part of the company’s plan to claw back some of the income it’s lost in the last six months and gives us a snapshot of what the future holds.

Why do theme parks matter?

To get an idea of scale, theme parks account for 42% of the tourism industry in North America, 18% across Europe and 36% of tourism in Asia. In 2018 more than 20 million people passed through the turnstiles of Magic Kingdom at Orlando’s Walt Disney World with a similar number heading for Universal’s complex in the same city.

Numbers in the UK are smaller with Alton Towers, Legoland and Thorpe Park regularly topping the attendance league tables with around 2 million visitors each year.

It’s easy to think that parks with lots of outdoor attractions and wide open spaces, like Puy du Fou in France, will fare better as the ‘new normal’ is established, but even they face logistical issues for every aspect of the business from ticket sales, seating plans, through catering and most importantly restoring public confidence. Not to mention the need to control customer behaviour in ways that were unthinkable a few short months ago.

Chariot racing - Gallo-Roman Stadium Puy du Fou Vendée France
The Roman Circus will be less crowded at Puy du Fou

In the UK Merlin Entertainment, which runs many of the biggest theme park attractions has already cancelled bookings up to 1st June and these closures could be extended.

But it’s not just the big attractions that matter. Paultons Park in Hampshire is consistently voted the UK’s best theme park with just over a million visitors in 2019 and local tourism depends on a host of smaller, more specialised parks like Yorkshire’s Flamingo Land and the even more niche Diggerland.

The Edge at Paultons Park © Paultons Park
The Edge © Paultons Park

The reality is the pressure on the economy is still trumped by the need to control the virus and all theme park operators are stressing they will follow the public health advice prevailing in each separate country.

And that means different opening dates, a variety of technological solutions and sometimes conflicting advice on social distancing and personal protection.

Here are 8 changes that you can expect to see from all major theme parks

Phased re-opening

Most parks with multiple attractions are planning a staggered re-opening, depending on readiness. Any park with animals is likely to be in a good state of preparedness as staff will have been continuing to work for the care of the livestock. Staff training will need to be updated and in place and that could also delay some parks’ opening dates.

Reduced capacity

Disney has already said it’s planning on reducing admission at all its parks by up to 50% initially, hoping to rise to around 75% of its usual numbers over time. The trade-off between safety and profit needs to be carefully managed to ensure everyone gets what they want.

The upside? Quieter parks mean more rides, less hanging around in between.

Rita Queen of Speed, Alton Towers © Uri Baruchin, Flickr
Rita Queen of Speed, Alton Towers © Uri Baruchin, Flickr

Health checks for staff and visitors

Essential maintenance and cleaning staff are still working at parks and are undergoing routine temperature checks at the start of their shifts. This is likely to continue as parks eventually open up.

Some parks are considering similar checks for visitors, but others believe that’s a step too far. But until there is some form of health screening in place for the public, entrance to mass attractions remains in doubt.

High visibility cleaning

Expect to see touch-free hand sanitiser dispensers on almost every corner and turnaround times will be much slower as technicians clean and possibly even disinfect carriers between each ride.

The use of personal protection will be more obvious amongst staff and some operators may insist on masks and gloves for visitors, as they have in Taiwan.

Design teams are no doubt already working on a range of branded materials!

New technology

Remote ticket purchases, tap-and-go payment options and contact-less barriers are all a possibility in future.

Some parks like Volcano Bay™ in Orlando already provide guests with wearable tech that operates lockers, facilitates cash-free payments and holds your place in a virtual queue for popular rides. Extensions of this technology may help solve the problem that all parks face – safe crowd management.

Tapu Tapu Wearable Tech © elisfkc, rosemaryandporkbelly
Tapu Tapu Wearable Tech © elisfkc, rosemaryandporkbelly

Socially distant queues

The space required for queues for rides at the big parks is already huge but with enforced distancing measures it’s going to be much harder. Parks are pretty good at keeping people entertained while waiting but some of the pre-ride displays that keep you corralled in one area will have to be modified or ditched altogether.

Separate entries and exits that avoid crossing paths will have to be worked up in much more detail than currently applies. Load times will be slower and we will all have to be a lot more patient.

Ride closures

Even if all the above issues can be resolved some elements may not be able to re-open until the health crisis is completely under control.

It’s hard to imagine how Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights – due to celebrate their 30th anniversary this autumn – can be adapted given the number of close encounters with character actors involved. Tickets are on sale but by now the company has usually posted information about what themed houses are in preparation. So far their site is bare of any such teasers and whoever heard of a horror house without jump-scares?

Zombie Boy at Thorpe Park Fright Night © Casey Gutteridge - CPG
Thorpe Park Fright Night © Casey Gutteridge – CPG

Meanwhile Thorpe Park is still advertising its ever-popular Fright Nights, due to start on Thursday 1 October, promising live action scare mazes and experiences.

The show must go on

Whilst roller-coasters and rapids are the major part of theme park fun, the amazing shows are an integral part of the experience, packing all the colour, costume and emotional punch of a Broadway musical into a scant 30 minutes. It should be possible with more socially distant seating for shows and spectaculars to re-start and creative teams are hard at work looking at ways to re-introduce the parades and firework displays that are a vital part of any theme park visit.

And whilst Europe and America are currently not setting re-opening dates, we’re pinning our hopes on autumn which is a great time to visit the Florida theme parks. And here in the UK we’re hoping for a golden September.

But in the long-term, with restrictions on visitor numbers and cautious customers, profits for even the biggest operators will suffer and parks may not fully open until 2021.

Future development in the sector may slow down too. Ambitious plans like those of The London Resort to create Paramount Park in Kent are at risk and may not meet their target opening date of 2024.

Artist drawing for new Theme Park, Kent UK  © London Resort
Artist drawing for new Theme Park, Kent UK © London Resort

How will we even get there?

Access to UK attractions may open up by the end of summer, although visitors are likely to choose only to go to their nearest park using their own transport.

As for the rest of the world – the UK Foreign Office is still advising against all travel from the UK and while the aviation industry is working hard to meet the challenges of providing safe travel during a pandemic it’s already seen casualties in terms of job losses and both BA and Virgin planning to leave Gatwick airport altogether.

The chief executive of Heathrow has gone on record to say that it’s ‘physically impossible’ to socially distance any volume of people in an airport and has proposed health screening for passengers before they enter the terminal.

And there’s the possibility of quarantine at either end of your journey.

So it looks like those of us in the UK will have to enjoy the thrills and spills of our own, homegrown theme parks and attractions this year.

Let’s hope the magic can restart soon.

More information

The picture is changing almost daily in the current worldwide health crisis so here are links to reliable sources where you can get the most up-to-date information:
News from the Civil Aviation Authority
UK Foreign Office travel advice
COVID-19 guidance from IAAPA – the Global Association for the Attractions Industry

Statista Amusement and Theme Parks – statistics and facts
Visit Britain 2020 tourism forecast
The London Resort plans for Paramount Park

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