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When amusement parks reopen, what will it be like?

People and businesses around the world are getting creative to try to safely socialize. CNN asked a health expert to weigh in on how safe these methods really are.

Posted: May 28, 2020 7:01 AM
Updated: May 28, 2020 7:01 AM

Think back to your amusement park adventures in those heady days before the coronavirus pandemic.

You may hear screams of fear and joy coming from full roller coasters or see soaked riders giddily emerging from a splash ride. Perhaps your mind drifts to prancing cartoon characters delighting children or eateries full of tasty treats.

What do they have in common? People.

Hordes of people in very close proximity everywhere you go. In line to gain entry. In snaking queues for rides. On the rides themselves. In line for lemonade. Gosh, there's often a line just to get into a bathroom.

As travel spots such as hotels and restaurants take tentative steps in opening back up, amusement parks are facing special challenges.

It's one thing to come up with the best way spread out tables in a restaurant for social distancing. It's quite another challenge to figure out how many people to put onto a fixed object such as a roller coaster car.

So what will it be like to visit an amusement park when they open back up?

Limits on capacity

Parks are holding details of their plans close to the vest until they announce reopening dates. Disney World, Six Flags and the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) did not respond to or declined CNN Travel's requests for interviews on the specifics.

But in China, Shanghai Disneyland reopened on May 11. And it offers an intriguing glimpse of what might await the rest of us -- while realizing regulations and the severity of the pandemic will vary by nations and regions.

Unsurprisingly, the park limited the number of people who could enter on opening day to 30% of full capacity, and even fewer folks than that showed up.

That reflects the reduced-capacity thinking of the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force in Florida, which live streamed its guidelines and mandates for reopening the larger-sized theme parks in the Orlando area (that covers Disney as well as Universal and SeaWorld) a few weeks ago.

In Phase 1 of a reopening, parks are to operate at 50% capacity. Phase 2 would jump that up to 75%.

With fewer people in amusement parks, social distancing is easier to maintain. And your visit could feel more like a pre-pandemic, off-peak weekday visit during the school year.

While some folks may enjoy the elbow room, others thrive on the crowds' energy and would miss it.

"It just takes the fun out of it for me, and I personally wouldn't enjoy myself," says noted coaster enthusiast Patrick Lindich, who operates the YouTube channel CoasterFanatics. "For me, I think parks should stay closed until they can open with little to no limitations. Until that happens, you probably won't see me at any of the parks."

No casual entries

If other parks follow Shanghai Disneyland's lead, gone will be the days of last-minute decisions to visit a park and buy entry tickets in person.

Visitors must buy dated admission tickets for Shanghai Disneyland online before they arrive.

That falls in line with guidelines suggested by the IAAPA, which encourages online purchases and all-inclusive packages when possible. The nonprofit group, a resource for the attractions industry, also says parks should "consider a timed ticketing program that staggers arrivals."

Once guests arrive at Shanghai Disneyland's gates, they must maintain a social distance to enter, with big, bright markers showing where to stand. You must pass a temperature check before you enter.

And you should expect those temperature checks and other safety measures at US amusement parks, too.

John Sprouls, Universal Orlando chief executive officer, and Rich Costales, Universal Orlando executive vice president of resort operations, said Thursday that all guests will be required to go through temperature screenings to enter their parks.

Visitors will also be required to wear face masks. One disposable face mask will be provided for free to guests who did not bring their own. And parking spaces will be staggered to avoid close contact with others as you exit your vehicle.

Universal Orlando presented a plan on Thursday to the Orange County Task Force, which it approved, to begin a phased reopening of its theme parks on June 1 for team members, June 3-4 for guests such as annual passholders and the general public on June 5. The plan next goes to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demmings for consideration.

And in an earnings call on April 30, Six Flags CEO Michael Spanos said temperature checks would be part of "the new normal" for its 26 amusement and water parks in North America.

Character encounters

Character and mascot encounters are one of the real delights for children (and their parents, truth be told) at theme parks. Hugs, high-fives and group photos used to be part of the fun.

This highlight should still be possible, but with important modifications. Shanghai Disney shows what's likely ahead when other parks reopen -- encounters of the distancing time.

There, the Disney characters still made an appearance, but they were up on a slow-moving, open-air vehicle.

Sproul said that Universal characters will not be mingling with guests.

That mirrors IAAPA guidance that said parks should review meet-and-greet interactions with characters and should consider "drive-by" character experiences in vehicles or appearances on stages at a distance.

Let's go for a ride

Amusement parks have two challenges in the social distancing era when it comes to their main attractions -- coasters and other rides.

First they have to get you on them. And pre-pandemic, than meant snaking around aisles designed to pack a bunch of folks into as little space as possible.

Shanghai Disneyland is another likely harbinger of things to come. The park roped off every other aisle and put markers on the ground to aid people in line to keep their distance.

You might find distancing on the rides themselves with coasters and other rides going out at half capacity.

In Shanghai, riders had to sit one row apart on the Pirates of the Caribbean, according to website Quartz. It also said that "some rides also allow only one group of people per car to avoid having people sit with strangers."

Blooloop, a website for professionals in the attractions industry, also forecasts the need to space out on rides.

"As an extra safety procedure, theme parks may not fill rides to full capacity immediately after Covid-19. Riders could fill every other row for example," according to the site.

Lindich says "my guess is that most parks will still go with the staggered seating by appointment. I have actually seen pictures of roller coasters in Japan that used staggered seating on the ride."

While acknowledging the necessity, he's not necessarily looking forward to it.

"It's pretty effective, I guess, but once again, I fear that it just takes the fun out of the whole experience when you can't sit next to your friends and family members and enjoy the ride."

And certain water and misting elements might be missing on some rides.

"We're going to eliminate most water and mist elements on some of our rides," Universal's Sprouls said. "We do mist people at certain points, it's part of the expectation. We're going to reduce or eliminate those so that we don't create a situation where there could be some way of increasing the capacity of the virus to transmit."

The IAAPA said that parks may have to reduce capacity or close some attractions with little notice and ask guests to "please be patient and understanding with these necessary operational changes."

It said family members and groups in the same household should be OK riding together in the same vehicle if possible.

The association also encourages the use of masks while you're on rides, too. It advises that parks "evaluate the speed and other dynamics of each attraction to ensure masks [and] face coverings of various types can be safely worn and secured on rides."

You can also expect to see rides wiped down and sanitized frequently, if IAAPA suggestions are heeded.

Shows and entertainment venues

From music and animal shows to parades and fireworks, theme parks typically put on crowd-pleasin' spectacles that draw multitudes into tight spaces. If parks follow suggested guidelines from the IAAPA, you might see the following changes:

-- Various signs and taped areas to mark off distances.

-- More performances of certain shows since capacity might be decreased.

-- Shows that can't allow for physical distancing might be on hiatus when parks first open back up.

-- Longer times to safely enter and exit venues. People might file out by row or section.

-- Hand sanitizer at all entrances.

The IAAPA said venues that use VR headsets, 3D glasses, helmets or other accessories might have to allow time for extra cleanings.

As Universal Studios reopens, interactive play areas will be closed, Sproul said.

The IAAPA also advises parks to reconsider shows with interactions that might involve "pulling audience members up on stage if those interactions cannot be managed while physical distancing is maintained."

So depending on how you feel about those audience participation moments, this could be a bad or a good thing!

Eateries and shops

Food and drinks -- especially liquids on hot summer days -- are a major part of the amusement park experience.

As for how we'll be feasting in the parks, we can look at how reopened restaurants are handling things. A few examples:

-- You might be looking at menus on board or online and placing orders via your smartphone.

-- Say goodbye to self-serve salad bars and buffets.

-- Say hello to social distancing with tables farther apart and fewer people being seated in indoor spaces.

At Universal, mobile food ordering will be set up at all venues, and all menus will be single-use.

With growing evidence that transmission risks are lower outdoors, you could see amusement parks beef up their already large offerings of outdoor cafes, food carts and such.

Watch for souvenir and other shops to follow suit: More use of outdoor stalls, limits on how many people can be in an indoor shop and Plexiglas barriers between you and cashiers.

You may also find PPE for sale along with the typical items, the IAAPA said.

Partial reopenings

There might be instances where only a part of a park opens up instead of the whole shebang at once.

Case in point: At Walt Disney World Resort In Orlando, they reopened Disney Springs, a collection of retail shops and dining, on May 20. The rest of the resort, including the theme parks and hotels, will remained closed for now.

In a similar fashion, some venues at Universal Orlando's CityWalk opened up on May 14, including Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, the Universal Studios Store and Hollywood Drive-In Golf.

Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey, announced it will open its Safari adventure section to members and season pass holders on May 29 and the general public on May 30. Visitors will drive through in their own vehicles and will need to register using Six Flags' new online reservation system.

So for amusement and theme parks with special sections that are more easily adapted to coronavirus safety measures, you may see more of those open those up first ahead of the entire park.

Water parks

Water parks face many of the same challenges as their "dry" cousins. The good news for water park lovers: The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said you don't need to worry about virus transmission from the water itself.

"Proper operation and maintenance (including disinfection with chlorine and bromine) of these facilities should inactivate the virus in the water," the CDC said.

"In my opinion, pool water, fresh water in a lake or river, or seawater exposure would be extremely low transmission risk even without dilution (which would reduce risk further)," said Angela Rasmussen, a virologist at the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health, in an interview with the The New York Times.

"Probably the biggest risk for summer water recreation is crowds -- a crowded pool locker room. ... The most concentrated sources of virus in such an environment will be the people hanging out at the pool, not the pool itself."

The World Waterpark Association has an extensive list of considerations they suggest parks take before you enjoy the life aquatic.

Watch for many of same measures amusement parks take. You may find reduced guest capacity (50% or less), and the WWA said you might encounter wave pools, lazy rivers, activity pools and children's play structures with even stricter capacity rules than the overall park.

What about face masks in water?

Whether you wear a mask or face coverings depends on the attraction, the IAAPA said. Park operators will also have to consider whether a mask could present a loose-article hazard in places where your head typically goes underwater.

You might find locker rooms with closed off sections or lockers to allow for physical distancing where IAAPA standards are implemented.

Other safety efforts

Finally, you're likely to see parks and their employees hard at work to keep things as sanitary as possible.

Here are some things you might find in restroom areas if IAAPA suggestions to parks are put into place:

-- Every other toilet closed to ensure physical distancing protocols in restrooms.

-- Water fountains might be disabled if they can't be sanitized.

-- Some places might go back to paper towels for drying hands.

-- More sinks and toilets with touchless valves or flushing devices.

And in general, you'll likely enter a world full of wiping and washing and hand sanitizing stations galore. Anything that people touch.

As Spanos of Six Flags said in his conference call, "We're going to be wiping down rides throughout the day. We're going to have hand washing stations, free sanitizers, masks, sanitization of the parks each night.

"And we're going to have to enforce social distancing in all areas, starting from the parking lot, to the rides, the queue lines and the dining areas. And that's going to be the reality."

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