America’s Amusement Parks Open Amid Coronavirus Worries
By Collin Gwin
Summer is normally the time when families across the nation pile into the car and head to amusement parks. The screams of parents, kids and cousins mix with the rumble, roar and whoosh of the rides into one cohesive sound. Giant teacups spin at incredible speeds while cartoon characters stroll the grounds and children enjoy food they would never be allowed during the school year. From the first time a child wanders through a haunted house to when he sails into a hostile jungle peopled by animatronic natives, amusement parks for decades have offered a one-of-a-kind thrill.
Last year at Silver Dollar City, just outside Branson, MO, dozens of families waited in a dark cave, strapped in their seats while listening to voices of vigilantes burn an Ozark town. Suddenly, they heard “Fire in the Hole!” and were shot abruptly through the first drop of the ride. In Universal Studios’ Orlando Resort, a long line of people stretched through the Wizarding World of Harry Potter waiting to select one of six different types of butterbeer. At Knotts Berry Farm in Buena Park, CA, huge logs filled with families splashed down a 42-foot chute propelled by 24,000 gallons of recirculating water. In Jackson, NJ, at an amusement and safari park called Six Flags Great Adventure, roller coaster enthusiasts travelled from across the globe to experience the 128 mph speeds of the Kindga Ka.
At Six Flags Over Texas, a 212-acre amusement park located between Dallas and Ft. Worth and named after the six administrative sovereigns (Kingdom of Spain, Kingdom of France, Republic of Mexico, Republic of Texas, Confederate States of America and United States of America) in Texas history, the heat of 2019 didn’t seem to get in the way. Children ran into Boomtown to meet Bugs Bunny, as an engaged couple experienced their first fight deciding between dippin’ dots or funnel cake in Gotham City. One family picked up their photos on the way off the Texas Giant, only to get back in line and try to get a better picture. One mother spent her day ordering frozen margaritas at White Water Bay while her son spent his free time trying on sombreros at Casa de Six Flags in the Spanish area and then trying to win a hat for free at an arcade booth. During all of this, one man rode the Titan six times in a row.
Last summer, before the coronavirus changed our world, over 200,000 people a day often visited Walt Disney World. Six Flags Over Texas attracted more than 3,000,000 guests in just months. In 2018, a grand total of 271 million people paid to visit amusement parks in the U.S. This summer, however, things have changed. Disney parks, once visited annually by over 160 million visitors each, began the summer completely empty. Disney’s operating income for the parks dropped 58%, while their revenue for the first quarter decreased by 10%. In addition to North America’s largest theme park company, over 400 other amusement parks also experienced the same obstacle: Covid-19. Six Flags Over Texas made $26 million more during the first quarter of 2019 than in the first quarter of 2020, and there’s no doubt the reason behind the present 20% revenue drop.
Almost every park in the nation shut down amid the pandemic, and about half of them have yet to reopen. Frontier City in Oklahoma was the first large U.S. amusement park to reopen on June 5th, meaning the month of May brought zero attendance as parks across the country remained closed to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Recently, under pressure from government public health authorities, Hong Kong Disneyland closed for a second time after reopening in June.
While amusement and theme parks are starting to reopen now, analysts predict most parks, like the Disney attractions around the world, will experience revenue declines for the rest of the year, as social distancing forces lower attendance on top of ride closures. Mike Spanos, the CEO of Six Flags, says the company has been taking “actions to maximize our liquidity and reduce cash outflows” in preparation for a prolonged slump. “Because we have hundreds of acres, we can manage guests to achieve required social distancing, but this ‘new normal’ will be quite different in a lot of ways.”
Starting in late March after Six Flags was forced to close, employees began holding video conferences several times a day with the goal of adopting a plan to reopen the park. Guidelines put in place by the Centers for Disease Control and the local County Health Department provided a basis for discussion, but beyond frequent disinfection, masks, and social distancing there was no immediate consensus on how to enforce social distancing.
“The corporate office hired an epidemiologist the first week of May to give us suggestions,” remembers park president Steve Martindale. Six Flags then invested over $150 million in improvements that included technology such as thermal imaging cameras and touchless ticket scanners. After closing for 13 weeks, Six Flags Over Texas finally reopened on June 19, according to Martindale, “with a heavier focus on the guest experience.”
The new technology allowed Six Flags to introduce a reservation only admission policy that eliminates long lines and creates an in-park seamlessness. Fewer people arriving at predetermined times makes social distancing easier, but strict enforcement of mask wearing and public health regulations still requires the parks pandemic friendly plan to be adjusted on the fly.
New Jersey’s Six Flags Great Adventure avoided the mask issue in the first place by turning their guided-tour safari into an open-air drive-thru experience. When roller coasters reopened over the July 4 weekend, masks returned. Not all Six Flag parks have been able to make the transition. Eight Six Flags parks still are closed because of local government strictures.
Many amusement parks unable to make the transition have closed. King’s Dominion north of Richmond in Doswell, VA, decided not to reopen after the state ordered it to reduce capacity by 50%. Allowing only 1,000 people to enter the park at one time reduced density to five people per acre and made the park economically unfeasible.
Will masks and social distancing be enough to ensure safety? In May when amusement parks began opening in Asia, several places in Japan, including Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan, banned screaming on roller coasters. In addition to wearing masks, Japan wants to eliminate the mere possibility of virus-carrying droplets spreading between passengers, even when holding on for dear life on a 230-foot drop.
Six Flags Over Texas hasn’t banned screaming yet but keeping its roller coasters profitable will be a challenge. Liability insurance alone for a roller coaster like the Texas Giant costs $1 million. Now that Six Flags Over Texas is operating at around 25% of its normal maximum capacity, seats on rides are being occupied by half or less of the normal passengers. The New Texas Giant would normally carry 24 guests at once and is capable of taking 1,600 guests each hour. Now, the ride carries 12 guests a time. Staffing, however, requires the same amount of people, if not more.
After each circuit around its track the ride is sanitized with what Six Flags calls a “low pressure backpack sprayer” and what Tim Baldwin, the editor of American Coaster Enthusiasts calls “The Exterminator.” Repeated cleaning slows down the ride, but the line can’t be huge anyway because of the reservation system required for social distancing. Reservations must be made for a certain day and time. If guests are late they may lose their spot and the money they paid for the reservation.
Having lost $84 million over the first quarter, Six Flags hopes families are punctual since stand by admission does not exist.
Keeping rides clean will be the biggest challenge of the summer. Places that are the most problematic are areas and rides that guests touch throughout the day. The slower family rides often have the most germs because of the high number of touch points. “The spinning teacups are a real challenge to keep clean because they never completely stop moving when kids jump off and on,” explains Baldwin.
Indeed, two of SFOT’s most popular family attractions – Runaway Mountain and Justice League: Battle for Metropolis – are not open because of their high number of touch points and the fact they are interior “dark rides” that lack the open air and sunshine epidemiologists believe minimize the spread of Covid-19.
The biggest changes in American amusement parks probably concern food service. At SFOT mobile food ordering is now the rule. Guests order food virtually and wait to pick it up in spaced out dining areas. Gone are self-service buffets along with anything else you might find at a cafe. No condiments, cutlery or napkins are anywhere to be found, but all will arrive with your food order if deemed necessary. Also eliminated is most personal interaction with employees. Theme parks of 2020 deliver food without touch points or physical transactions. The new dining system is a challenge but it’s definitely safer for visitors and employees alike.
Whether you plan on visiting a theme park soon, or want to wait until infections abate, you’ll discover once you arrive that the pandemic has forced many changes. But for now at least, guests at Six Flags still have the prerogative to scream on rides at their heart’s content – with a mask on, of course.