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5 ways Florida’s theme parks will be different when they open again

Experts forecast what Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and others will do once they are allowed to reopen to visitors.

Temperature checks at turnstiles. Every other seat unoccupied. Workers with cleaning cloths wiping down surfaces all day long. These are some of the changes experts think Florida’s theme parks could implement when they reopen to visitors.

When that day will come is anyone’s guess. Theme parks have been closed since March 16, and two weeks later on March 31, Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a 30-day safer-at-home order for Florida. Some of the limits on that order begin lifting on Monday, though theme parks are not included in this initial round of businesses that can reopen.

Regardless, both small and large businesses alike are coming up with ways to keep their customers and workers safe when they are allowed to open their doors again.

Related: Florida will start lift stay-at-home order on Monday

The governor’s Re-Open Florida Task Force heard last week from key tourism and theme park leaders, who said theme parks will likely only have limited crowds when they reopen. And getting them fully open again could take time. At the moment, Walt Disney World isn’t taking reservations at any of its resorts until June 1, but that date could change as well.

Related: Governor expected to announced next steps in stay-at-home order

Nearly 85 million people visited theme parks in Orlando and Tampa in 2018, according to an annual report put out by the Themed Entertainment Association and engineering firm AECOM. Walt Disney World alone is the world’s most-visited tourist attraction.

In an earnings call Thursday with investors, Comcast, the parent company of Universal, said its theme park revenue fell 32 percent in the first quarter. They were also told there is no estimate yet for when the parks would reopen.

Theme parks were not included in the first phase of a three-phase plan Gov. DeSantis announced Thursday to reopen Florida. During a meeting of the governor’s committee focused on the state’s tourism and other key industries, Universal’s CEO of parks and resorts John Sprouls said the state’s theme parks will likely take a long time to get back to normal.

Here are some changes to expect:

At the gate

Expect workers with wands that check guests’ temperatures to be stationed next to the bag checks at theme park gates, which cropped up after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

A visitor taps her MagicBand and places her finger on the fingerprint scanner at Epcot on March 3. Touchless ticketing is among the recommendations for parks to reopen.
A visitor taps her MagicBand and places her finger on the fingerprint scanner at Epcot on March 3. Touchless ticketing is among the recommendations for parks to reopen. [ SHARON KENNEDY WYNNE | Times ]

Members of the governor’s task force said the availability of widespread testing is critical to getting Florida’s tourism-dependent economy back. Tourists will be expected to be tested before they arrive and again when they are ready to leave, said one of the task force members, Sen. Wilton Simpson, R-Trilby, the incoming Senate president.

“That will give the general public confidence.”

You might not even be able to get admission to some theme parks when they do reopen, since attractions are expected to limit their capacity.

Fantawild, the private theme park operator in China that opened its 18 attractions across the country this week, is capping daily attendance at 50 percent of its maximum capacity and has limited the number of people inside the park at any given time to 30 percent of maximum capacity. All guests have to make an advance appointment online using their name, and staggered entry times are assigned, according to Attractions Magazine.

Disneyland Shanghai hasn’t reopened since it closed in January, but it has opened a resort hotel, a shopping district and some character meals at the hotel. Customers and cast members are required to don masks and display a green Shanghai QR Code to enter. A green, yellow or red QR code is provided based on reported travel history, current symptoms and whether that person has had contact with a confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patient.

At Fantawild parks, all guests must wear face masks and are subject to a touchless temperature check at the park entrance.

Waiting in line

The typical experience at theme parks has revolved around deciding what ride is worth the wait. The most popular attractions in the parks can have wait times of an hour or more within minutes of the parks opening. There has been a five-hour wait on opening day for some of the newest attractions at places like Walt Disney World.

Expect virtual queues to become more common, in which guests have appointed ride times instead of waiting in a long line.

Related: Is Disney safe? Fans head to the parks with sanitizer

But there’s a catch. Where would the guests be elsewhere in the park while they’re waiting for their specified time? Even Florida’s largest theme parks were designed with those lines in mind, meaning there isn’t room for people throughout the park while they’re waiting for their ride time.

Dennis Speigel, founder of a Cincinnati attractions firm and the past president of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, said he expects theme parks to limit their capacity by half at least.

This 2011 photo shows riders on the  Cheetah Hunt roller coaster at Busch Gardens. Experts say theme parks are likely to put an empty seat next to each rider in the future or skip rows to allow for social distancing at the theme parks.
This 2011 photo shows riders on the Cheetah Hunt roller coaster at Busch Gardens. Experts say theme parks are likely to put an empty seat next to each rider in the future or skip rows to allow for social distancing at the theme parks. [ AP/Busch Gardens ]

“We have a formula that we’ve used in designing theme parks for over 50 years called ECUs, or Entertainment Capacity Units,” Speigel said. “It’s a formula that was developed to ensure that the guest didn’t wait in line too long and they didn’t leave too early. So it maximized their guest attraction experience and at the same time allowed them to stay in the park long enough to spend money internally. That ECU formula will likely be reduced by two-thirds to 50 percent.”

For that reason, expect the parks to set a limit on how many people can visit on any given day. There may not be high demand from consumers, anyway.

“I believe the parks will not be operating at their full capacity nor will there be demand for their full capacity,” said Brian Morrow, owner of B Morrow Productions, an Orlando-based design studio that works on projects for theme parks and attractions. "Virtual queues may just be fine because you don’t have as many people to deal with.”

Theme parks have already been rolling out these virtual lines in recent years. At Universal’s Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, guests check in for a ride time on the park’s app and then show up in what looks like 30 Rockefeller Plaza’s lobby before they are called for their ride time.

And at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the popular new Star Wars ride Rise of the Resistance has been using a boarding pass system where guests sign in on the park’s app and are given a number. They get a push alert on their phones and have two hours to show up when their number is called. The queue then has many rooms to explore before you reach the actual ride.

These kinds of multi-space waiting rooms that allow for visitors to keep their distance until their ride number is called could be a model going forward.

Constant cleaning

It’s not just that parks will increase the number of times they clean surfaces, they will make a more obvious show of it, Speigel said.

“You will see a more noticeable effort to wipe down rides, attractions and surfaces and that will help guests feel more comfortable,” he said. “Kind of like the way we didn’t resist bag checks after 9/11. It made us feel better.”

A mobile hand-washing station at the Gasparilla Music Festival in Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa on March 7, 2020 is likely to be a common site at attractions in the future experts say. A conspicuous show of wiping down surfaces and cleaning will also make guests feel more comfortable.
A mobile hand-washing station at the Gasparilla Music Festival in Curtis Hixon Park in Tampa on March 7, 2020 is likely to be a common site at attractions in the future experts say. A conspicuous show of wiping down surfaces and cleaning will also make guests feel more comfortable. [ JAY CRIDLIN | Tampa Bay Times ]

Throughout the Fantawild parks, employees are disinfecting seat arm rests and 3D glasses after each use, according to various reports. Restaurants are using disposable utensils and separating diners’ tables.

Among the recommendations from the governor’s task force: “Make cleaning visible to guests to help them feel safe.”

Staggered seating

Expect to have an empty seat next to you for attractions and shows, where theme parks will perhaps only fill every other seat or row, according to a recommendation from the task force.

“Let’s say you and I arrive at a roller coaster at the same time, we don’t know each other — there is going to be a different pairing system in the future,” Speigel said.

Bottom line: Going forward, you may be less likely to sit right next to a stranger on a ride.

Wearing masks

Overseas, theme parks have required both guests and park staff to wear masks. So far, Gov. DeSantis’s task force has only allowed for “encouraging face coverings for guests.”

This, like the conspicuous cleaning, might be a policy that would make guests and staff feel more comfortable, Speigel said.

Velma Mullen, right, wears a protective mask as she walks past a sign advising park users to keep physical space between them Monday, April 27, 2020, in Seattle. Florida's task force on reopening has so far only encouraged staff and customers to wear masks when the state's theme parks reopen.
Velma Mullen, right, wears a protective mask as she walks past a sign advising park users to keep physical space between them Monday, April 27, 2020, in Seattle. Florida's task force on reopening has so far only encouraged staff and customers to wear masks when the state's theme parks reopen. [ ELAINE THOMPSON | AP ]

When to return

The big question has been when it will be safe to open the turnstiles again. Some parks overseas opened but then had to close again due to an uptick in coronavirus cases.

As the world’s most-visited theme park, everyone’s eyes are on Walt Disney World. Experts are all over the map on opening date predictions. Some are suggesting Disney’s four Florida theme parks can open as early as June. Last week, John Hodulik at investment bank UBS downgraded Disney’s stock and suggested that the parks won’t be back in business until January 2021.

“The parks will open when the safeguards are in place to reasonably test visitors and employees on the way in, or at the very least contain the chances of spreading COVID-19 within the actual theme parks,” wrote Rick Munarriz of the investor site Motley Fool.

Speigel said he would be shocked if all the parks open at once. He expects small parks to test the ground by opening first. Disney and Universal may open one park at a time and observe crowd behavior before expanding.

“I think people are going to be cautious about coming back, simply because of the size of the crowds that we are used to seeing there," Speigel said.

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