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U.S. Theme Parks Overhaul Protocols to Reopen Safely

By Nicole Antonio

Jul 14, 2020

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Rides such as the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom allow guests to enjoy their favorite attractions with new safety measures in place.

Photo by Matt Stroshane

Rides such as the Prince Charming Regal Carrousel at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom allow guests to enjoy their favorite attractions with new safety measures in place.

Theme parks are beginning to reopen with mixed success in the United States.

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On July 9, Walt Disney World in Florida began a phased reopening with exclusive preview days for annual passholders. For the most part, the new operations seemed to run smoothly: Guests respected the new sidewalk decals indicating proper spacing for social distancing, plexiglass barriers provided additional separation in labyrinthine ride queues, the vast majority of both guests and staff wore face masks (even in Orlando’s oppressive heat and humidity), and rides operated at staggered intervals to accommodate frequent cleanings.

But it was a very different story on July 11 when WDW’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom opened to the public. In spite of reduced park attendance that has been limited by a new rule mandating reservations for entry, dense morning crowds left some visitors feeling uncomfortable. Here’s what we know about when and how major U.S. theme parks are reopening with safety at front of mind.

What kinds of safety and social-distancing precautions should I expect from theme parks?

Screening and prevention support

Expect a temperature check along with a no-touch bag check before entering theme parks. Anyone with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or higher will not be allowed inside.

Physical distancing and capacity measures

Shanghai Disneyland reopened on May 11 with a maximum of 24,000 people—30 percent of its 80,000-person capacity—permitted entry. Exact attendance numbers have not been released for U.S. theme parks but are likely to see proportionally similar limitations, based on guidelines at the federal, state, and county levels. Decals placed on the ground at attractions and in high-traffic areas indicate where visitors should stand to maintain a safe distance from others.

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Disney Parks, Universal Orlando, and Six Flags are also expanding existing mobile order functions at dining establishments and experimenting with app-based virtual queues to minimize the need for guests to stand in line.

Additionally, parades, fireworks displays, and character meet and greets at Disney Parks have been temporarily suspended to further minimize large group gatherings and high-touch scenarios. Instead, costumed characters pop up throughout the day, waving from Cinderella’s Castle or dancing on a barge.

Cleanliness and sanitization

All guests two years and older in age are required to wear face coverings at all times in U.S. theme parks; exceptions are only allowed in designated dining areas. Disney is very specific in its guidelines, stating that “neck gaiters and open-chin triangle bandanas are not acceptable face coverings,” and all face coverings must:

  • Be made with at least two layers of breathable material.
  • Fully cover the nose and mouth and secure under the chin.
  • Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.
  • Be secured with ties or ear loops and allow the guest to remain hands-free.

In U.S. theme parks, touch-free hand sanitizer stations are placed at the entrances and exits of all attractions, as well as in high-traffic areas. At both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World, rides close every few hours to accommodate deep cleanings of the ride vehicles and facilities. Employees at Six Flags theme parks will wipe handrails and other high-touch parts of ride vehicles, trying to do so in a way that doesn’t increase wait times for guests.

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Theme parks in Japan are taking matters one step further: “Please scream inside your heart” was the message at the end of a thrilling roller-coaster video for Fuji-Q Highland, asking that riders avoid exclamations that could disburse “virus-carrying droplets.” Theme parks in the United States have not yet hinted at any scream restrictions.

Are Disneyland and Walt Disney World open?

Orlando’s Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom reopened on July 11; Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will follow on July 15. There are not yet reopening dates for the Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach water parks in Walt Disney World. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure (DCA) in Anaheim, CA, were scheduled to open their gates on July 17—the 65th anniversary of Disneyland’s original opening day in 1955—but on June 24, plans to reopen Disneyland and DCA were postponed. At the time of publication, no new date has been announced.

Are Disney Springs and Downtown Disney open?

Yes, both Disney Springs in Orlando and the Downtown Disney District in Anaheim are now open.

Are Universal Studios and Universal Orlando open?

Yes, the Universal Orlando Universal Studios (Florida) and theme parks reopened to the public on June 5 with a number of changes in place, including:

  • Limited capacity
  • Mandatory temperature checks and face coverings for all visitors and team members
  • Staggered parking spaces in the parking structure to promote social distancing
  • Floor markings indicating the appropriate six feet of separation
  • Increased “virtual line experiences” to reduce the number of people queued in close physical proximity
  • Hand sanitizer stations that guests will be required to use before boarding ride vehicles
  • Support for cashless payments such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet

Universal Orlando does not require advance reservations as Disney and Six Flags parks will, but Universal has warned that guests may be denied entrance if the property has reached its limited capacity.

At the time of publication, no opening date has been announced for Universal Studios Hollywood in California. 

What do the closures mean for annual passholders?

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Each theme park resort is handling annual passes differently. Disney has presented two options for those making monthly AP payments: Stop payments during park closures and allow the pass to expire, or postpone payments until the parks reopen and accept pass validity extended for the same amount of time the parks were closed. Passholders who paid in full will see their passes extended for the same number of days the parks are closed. 

Universal Studios is doing the same for those who have an annual or season pass. Knott’s Berry Farm Season Pass holders have seen their 2020 passes extended through December 31, 2021, with payments suspended from April 4, 2020, through the end of the park’s closure.

Will I need to reserve theme park tickets in advance?

In the case of Six Flags, Walt Disney World, and Disneyland, yes. According to a note on the Six Flags Magic Mountain site, “all visitors (including pass holders and members) must make advance reservations to visit the park.” 

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article. This article originally appeared online on May 11, 2020; it was updated on July 13, 2020, to include current information.

>>Next: How to Take Your Kids on a Disney Trip at Home

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