"There will be a gradual loosening of restrictions," the editor of Theme Park Insider says. "The last one will be masks."
As theme park season approaches, roller-coaster enthusiasts living through the pandemic most likely have questions, starting with: Is it still possible to scream with abandon while hurtling through the air at whiplash speeds if you're wearing a mask?
After a recent day at Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia, I can assure them that a piece of fabric does not muffle shrieks. I heard aahs on Griffon's 205-foot drop and whoas on Alpengeist's multiple inversions and even released a few oh jeezes of my own while free-falling on Verbolten.
After months of keeping quiet and still, we in the US have a lot of pent-up energy and suppressed howls to unleash. We aren't alone: Theme park operators have had a rough time, too, with many venues repeatedly opening and closing or remaining shuttered for more than a year.
According to a study by the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, the 360 theme parks in the United States lost $18 billion last year, a 40PC decrease from 2019.
However, the majority of parks survived the global health crisis and are preparing for a summer that we can all scream about.
"This year, everyone in the United States will be open and people will have options," said Robert Niles, editor of Theme Park Insider. "I think we will see the pre-pandemic experience return later in the summer."
As luck would have it, the risk level at theme parks is fairly low, especially if most attendees are vaccinated. The bulk of attractions are outside and in constant motion, so air is always flowing. Most high-adrenaline rides last mere minutes, which limits exposure to strangers. Plus, the likelihood of engaging in a long conversation while upside down is low.
Though queues can be lengthy - a few parks have suspended their fast-track programs, such as Disney World and Disneyland, but many have kept them - most boarding areas are open to the elements. Parks are capping attendance, but once they return to full capacity, you can check wait times on apps and dodge the crowds.
On a recent Friday afternoon, for instance, the Universal Orlando app was reporting a 15-minute wait at Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and a 65-minute slow march at Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
To stay safe, Sean O'Leary, vice chair of the committee on infectious diseases for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said unvaccinated thrill-seekers should limit their time indoors. Visitors should also check the positive case rate and prevalence of variants in the park's region. But otherwise, he said, "We should start doing things we didn't do last summer, and a theme park is a reasonable idea."
Visitors will face a few regulations, a combination of state and local laws plus house rules set by the park. Because of this patchwork of protocols, the directives will vary among theme parks that share the same parent company or home state.
For example, Disney World in Orlando has been welcoming traveLlers from all over the country since July, whereas Disneyland in Anaheim, which resumed operations last month, is accepting bookings only from California residents. Meanwhile, 30 miles away in Los Angeles County, Universal Studios Hollywood is allowing fully vaccinated out-of-state guests, including children 12 and older who are eligible for the vaccine, inside its gates.
Parks are also eliminating safety measures. In this month alone, Universal Orlando Resort and Disney World discontinued temperature screenings, and Universal shrank the social distancing length from six to three feet.
Disney World could follow suit. According to a message on its website, the park will "reduce physical distancing measures for Guests across many areas with a gradual, phased approach." However, it will maintain the six-foot buffer in select locations, such as restaurants and retail stores.
Hersheypark removed capacity limits on its rides, but the staff will accommodate guests who prefer a little breathing room between themselves and strangers.
"There will be a gradual loosening of restrictions," Niles said. "The last one will be masks."
Until recently, masks were the norm. However, some parks are tweaking their policies in response to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's announcement earlier this month that fully vaccinated individuals can forgo masks. At Hersheypark, fully vaccinated guests no longer have to wear masks or physically distance; unvaccinated visitors age two and older must still cover their faces, except when eating or drinking. The Pennsylvania park is not asking for proof of vaccination. Neither is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay and Williamsburg, or their water parks, which adopted the same position.
Universal Orlando Resort is more inclusive: All guests are free to remove their masks outside, except at the attractions - from queue to exit. At its Islands of Adventure, masks can come off during the water ride but must stay on in the boarding line. They are not allowed on the slides and in the pools at Volcano Bay, for entirely different safety reasons.
Disney World also modified its stance on the issue: Masks are "optional in outdoor common areas" but mandatory at the attractions and theatres and on transportation vehicles.
Cedar Point's more relaxed mask rule predates the CDC's news bulletin. "Face coverings are recommended on rides," said Tony Clark, a spokesman for the Ohio amusement park. "They are not required outdoors, as long as social distancing can be maintained." However, it added an amendment this week: Guests must wear face coverings indoors unless vaccinated.
At Busch Gardens Williamsburg, I was constantly reminded about the mask rule - through signage, public announcements and gentle nudges by employees. Those moments are now vestiges of another era. If I had visited the park a week later, I would have felt the kiss of a 50-mile-per-hour roller coaster on my bare cheeks.
To discourage crowding and cross-pod contamination, some parks, such as Six Flags venues in New York and Chicago, are cordoning off tables and blocking off seats on select rides. Hersheypark has increased ride capacity to every row but will accommodate guests who request space between themselves and other riders. In a similar vein, the companies have suspended or modified activities and attractions that draw throngs of spectators. Most famously, Disney has paused its nightly Magic Kingdom parade and fireworks spectacle in California and Florida, and it no longer allows characters to embrace guests and sign autographs. Instead, visitors can wave their giant Mickey mitts from afar.
At Pennsylvania's Sesame Place, where Big Bird and his posse used to hug more babies than a politician, the Neighbourhood Street Party Parade plus two shows, including a musical starring Elmo, are on hiatus. Busch Gardens Williamsburg has suspended its grey wolf presentations, though you can still glimpse the floofy canines during the afternoon trainer talks held above their habitat, Wolf Haven.
The face-painting booths at Busch Gardens are operating, but the artists work behind a plexiglass barrier and use the sitter's forehead as their primary canvas. If you opt for a caricature, make room on the fireplace mantel for a cartoonish rendering of your masked face.
Theme park regulars accustomed to rolling up to the gate and buying a ticket that day will need to adjust their MO for the immediate future. Advance online reservations are required at many places. For Disney parks, you must purchase an admission ticket and make a theme park reservation for a specific day. Hersheypark requires reservations through the end of the month. Securing a spot at Busch Gardens was a snap, once I overcame some technical difficulties.
Niles recommends researching the status of the attractions beforehand, since some might not be running. The parks' websites usually list the ones that are available. At Busch Gardens, nearly a dozen roller coasters, attractions and splash-and-soak rides were closed, partly because of the pandemic and partly because I had visited too early in the season.
"We continue to ramp up attractions, culinary and merchandise offerings as demand increases heading into the peak summer season," a park spokesperson explained.
The global health crisis delayed the debuts of several highly anticipated attractions, including Venus Vortex, which Lake Compounce in Connecticut will open over Memorial Day weekend; Jurassic World VelociCoaster, which Universal Orlando will unveil on June 10; and Pantheon, which Busch Gardens Williamsburg vaguely says will be ready in 2021.
Riders who were counting down the days until they could try the Jersey Devil Coaster, the world's tallest, fastest and longest single rail coaster, at Six Flags Great Adventure in New Jersey and the Harley Quinn Spinsanity at Six Flags America in Maryland also had to wait a year.
Avengers Campus, which was slated to open last June at Disney California Adventure Park, will receive a heroes' welcome next month. The coronavirus also sabotaged the grand opening of Legoland New York Resort last July. The Hudson Valley theme park will open six of its seven themed lands for previews on May 29, with the final area (pirates) and 250-room hotel planned for later this summer.
Cedar Point had to postpone its sesquicentennial celebration till its 151st birthday, and Hersheypark has finally put the finishing touches on the 23-acre expansion of Hershey's Chocolatetown, which opened last July. The new region contains more than a dozen experiences, including Candymonium, the park's tallest and fastest coaster, and the Chocolatier Restaurant, Bar and Patio, which honors Milton Hershey, who founded the chocolate company.
For my theme park return, I chose Busch Gardens because it was the last venue I had visited before the world turned serious. Out of roller-coaster shape, I started slow, with a spin on the Kinder Karussel. At Alpengeist, I hung back with two kids whose parents were streaking overhead at nearly 70 miles per hour. I asked the brother and sister to recommend a gentler roller coaster; they directed me to Apollo's Chariot. En route to the ride, I stopped to listen to an Irish band and admire the flutist's mask: It had a hole in the side through which he slid his wind instrument.
"It's kind of weird," he admitted.
I passed Finnegan's Flyer, which had a wait time of 45 minutes, and Griffon, which was temporarily closed for repairs. I popped into the arcade, where Batman ate my tokens. I chickened out on Apollo's Chariot, which descends 210 feet at a 65-degree angle, but finally settled on Verbolten, which I had ridden years ago. The two-person German sports car vroomed across the cloudless blue sky before plunging into the pitch-dark Black Forest. I knew what was coming - a 16-foot drop - yet still I yelped.
My mask slipped, but I quickly fixed it, so no one could see my terrified but relieved expression.
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