Theme parks are back, kinda
The country is still taking its time reopening after months of closings due to Covid 19. Though each state is still deciding on its own timeline for letting people get back to their lives, and large group outings are still shunned in much of the country, theme parks are beginning phased reopenings after shutting in March. Obviously, things will not be going back to normal yet, so it will be interesting to see what things look like in this new, coronavirus, world. Here then is an update on the country's most popular parks, and what you need to know before you and your family decide to plan a visit.
©Robert Noel de Tilly/Shutterstock
Let’s start with the Happiest Place on Earth. Depending on the location, Disney’s many parks have different opening dates, rules, and regulations. For instance, limited shops and restaurants in Orlando’s Disney Springs began opening on May 20, and Universal Orlando opened on June 5—albeit accompanied by a warning on their websites. Disney Springs includes this, “An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can lead to severe illness and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, senior citizens and Guests with underlying medical conditions are especially vulnerable. By visiting Disney Springs you voluntarily assume all risks related to COVID-19. Help keep each other healthy.” Not exactly the usual warm and fuzzy we expect from Disney.
Disney World, also in Orlando, will begin opening on July 11, with Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios delayed until July 15. The Top Things You Should Know section of https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/experience-updates/ outlines important health precautions, like required face coverings for anyone over the age of 2, random temperature screenings and physical distancing (that means you parades, shows and fireworks).
In California, Governor Gavin Newsom will not allow Anaheim’s Disneyland parks to open until Stage 3 of the four-stage reopening road map—with no firm date in place.
UPDATE: Disney Land has announced that its reopening plans are postponed, and that it will no longer reopen to visitors on July 17 as planned.
Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (Including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) will open to the general public on Friday, June 5. The park has been outfitted with new social distancing markers directing park goers to new flows and lines. The park has also been updated for contactless payment to protect visitors and staff from direct interactions.
Attendees will be require to pass a temperature check when they enter the park, and people are encouraged to wear masks at all times.
Kings Island makes the largest amusement and waterpark in the Midwest. Located in Mason, OH, neither park has announced a firm date for reopening, though a message from Mike Koontz, VP and GM of Kings Island on its website is touting the opening of its newest Orion roller coaster, with a drop of 300 feet, as well as a promise to put the safety of its guests first. The park’s Grand Carnivale nighttime parade and its Summer Nights block party, are both being pushed back until 2021, as well as all 2020 Season Passes and add-on products.
Six Flags is the largest regional theme park company and the largest operator of water parks in North America—with 26 venues in all. Though kids all over the country are disappointed they won’t be able to freely ride the coasters and waterslides from coast to coast, the Oklahoma City-based Frontier City opened its doors on June 5, with a 3-day preview mode for Members and Season Pass Holders only. Attendance levels will gradually increase during the month and Six Flags President and CEO Mike Spanos believes the park can easily manage guest throughput for social distancing. Other health restrictions include thermal imaging for temperature checks, advanced security screening technology for touchless bag checks, and expanded mobile food ordering. In addition, guests over the age of 2 will have to don masks and all guests must make a reservation to attend the park at www.sixflags.com/reserve www.sixflags.com/reserve.
The only other Six Flags park open at this time is the Cream Ridge, NJ-based Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure. This too needs a reservation at the above website, and the COVID-19 rules include maintaining space between cars, a 5 mph speed limit and no bathrooms, food or gas availability. Stay tuned for more openings as the summer progresses.
Dolly Parton’s extravagant Dollywood park, set in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metroplex in Pigeon Forge, TN, will begin a phased reopening on June 17, while the DreamMore Resort & Spa opens on June 10.
The website’s “playsafe” message includes a similar warning to Disney, reminding customers of the danger of coronavirus and “By visiting Dollywood Parks & Resorts you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.” In addition, daily capacity will be limited and season passholders will be required to make reservations. Other health regulations include physical distancing, temperature screenings before entering the park, and face masks required for age 3 and up—though exceptions include water park rides.
As a child, Dolly Parton let her imagination run wild, and now, visitors to her theme park in the hills of the Smokies are reaping the benefits. Officially opened on May 10 and inspired by the iconic country singer’s youthful flights of fancy, Wildwood Grove is Dollywood’s (dollywood.com) first expansion since 2008—the largest and, with a price tag of $37 million, most expensive in the park’s history. We've got the scoop on what's new in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, from rides and attractions to characters, restaurants, and more. A Whole New World The Grove’s anchor is the Wildwood Tree, a massive spectacle with 600-plus colorful lighted butterflies, thousands of leaves, and a babbling brook that pools under its canopy. Beginning in June, the tree will play host to a series of night-time events that change with the seasons. The park’s attractions span the spectrum from kid-friendly to thrill-a-minute: On the less intense side, the Treetop Tower invites riders to take a seat in a giant acorn for a spin to the top of a sky-high oak tree, while animal lovers can mount friendly frogs and black bears for a lively jaunt through their respective habitats. Adrenaline junkies should head straight for the Dragonflier, a 1,486-foot-long suspended roller coaster, or the Mad Mockingbird, a flying scooter that zooms through the air at your command, thanks to a sail that allows riders to maneuver as they see fit. There’s also a 4,000-square-foot climate-controlled play area where the little ones can blow off steam, and a water-filled oasis with pop jets and splashing pools that provides some relief from the hot East Tennessee sun. Fresh Fare and Friendly Faces Adding to Dollywood’s cast of familiar faces are three new costumed characters: Flit and Flutter, a pair of graceful butterflies, and Benjamin Bear, an ursine ambassador with a big grin. Keep an eye out for them wandering the grounds, or pop by during a scheduled meet-and-greet to say hi. When it’s time to break for lunch, Till & Harvest serves up “Smoky Mountain Mexican flavors” across an array of entrees—think: burritos, salads, and the like, fully customizable with a variety of grilled meats and fresh veg. (Sit outside on the patio if you don’t want to step away from the action.) Looking for a souvenir to remember the day? New retailer Mountain Grove Merchants is on the premises with plenty of Wildwood-themed goods to offer.
Disney is introducing its new Disney Flex Annual Passport for $599 on May 21, which gives access to both the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks, in Anaheim, California, and comes with a set of benefits and a few rules. Defining “Flex” The Flex Annual Passport can be used with no restrictions from Monday through Thursday every week, when demand is usually lower. Then, during weekends and the high-demand months and holidays, Flex Pass holders must book a reservation via a Disneyland website or its smartphone app. With the Flex Pass, you can visit the theme parks all day or simply stop by for dinner or to take a quick spin on some favorite attractions. It also offers discounts on food, merchandise, special events and guided tours. Blackout Dates It’s worthwhile noting that the pass can’t be used at all during the two weeks around Christmas, and on other blockout dates. It also can’t be used if access to the theme parks, lands, and experiences is restricted or unavailable due to capacity. Prospective visitors should check the calendar of admission dates to see which dates are marked as “Good to Go” so no reservation is required, “Reservation Required” and “Blockout Dates,” where admission is not available. Reservations Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance, and each Disney Flex Passport can hold two reservations during a 30-day window. It is hoped that with the new pass, guests will have more flexibility in planning their trips to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and it will also let the theme parks have crowd control – which will be essential when the much-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens. For further information, please see the Disneyland website here. Get inspired to travel everyday by signing up to Lonely Planet's daily newsletter.
Batuu is a planet on the Outer Rim of a galaxy far, far away. Ask any Star Wars fan, and she’ll tell you that it’s home to Black Spire Outpost, a place where grifters, adventurers, traders, cheats, and runaways famously take shelter. And starting on May 31, you can get there easily from Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Then on August 29, it’ll be just as simple to get there from Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. To Use the Force, Use the App Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the newest addition to Disney's suite of theme parks, and it promises to be a fantasy land of its own—a wildly high-tech one, no less. The interactive theme park allows for full immersion, thanks in no small part to the Play Disney Parks mobile app, which lets you take part in a variety of escapades familiar to any Star Wars fan (i.e., joining the Resistance, pledging your loyalty to the First Order). Disney's iconic attractions—the whirling cups of Alice's Mad Tea Party, the whimsical boats that cruise through It's a Small World—will never lose their charm, but these new 14-acre lands are, according to the company's statement, “the largest and most technologically advanced single-themed land expansions ever in a Disney Park." Tomorrowland just might seem quaint by comparison. Both the California and Florida parks are opening in two phases. The grand opening will center on the unveiling of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, a life-size recreation of the renowned spacecraft. Onboard, intrepid visitors will play the part of gunners or flight engineers or even take a seat in the cockpit and steer the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy" as it rips through space. Later this year comes the second phase, the debut of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Guests will be given an active role in the Rebellion, and, thanks to high-tech tricks, come face-to-face with familiar characters. Take a Piece of the Distant Galaxy Home With You Galaxy's Edge will play host to an expansive marketplace featuring all sorts of merchant stalls and DIY activities. At the Droid Depot, you can select pieces from a conveyor belt to custom-build your own droid. Pre-built droids and droid-inspired products are also for sale. At Savi’s Workshop, you can design and craft your own Lightsaber. Elsewhere in the bustling marketplace is Toydarian Toymaker, a stall full of toys crafted by a Toydarian (the flying alien species first seen in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) and Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiques, which specializes in items from the many movies. Drinks to Quench an Intergalactic Thirst Food and drink are also on offer at both parks, including the highly anticipated bar Oga’s Cantina. Cocktails here promise to be out of this world, with creations like the Outer Rim, a jazzed up margarita with a black-salt rim, the Bespin Fizz, a bubbly exotic tipple made with rum and yuzu, and all sorts of spectacle-caliber drinks made with dry ice. Word to the wise: The space, complete with details you’ll recognize from the Cantina in the movie, is relatively small, so factor in time for the wait.
Confessions of a Theme Park Designer
Whether you love them, hate them, or love to hate them, theme park thrill rides are a fixture of the great American vacation. For everyone who’s ever asked themselves, “Is this thing safe?” as they make their ascent into the unknown, we chatted with Jonathan Smith, director of rides and engineering at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Virginia, for an insider’s view of the attractions that entertain, thrill, and transport theme park visitors. Q: How did you discover you were destined for this line of work? A: I knew I wanted to be a theme park engineer when I was a freshman in high school. I rode my first “big kid” coaster and was very impressed by the sheer magnitude of engineering ingenuity and planning it must have taken. Q: How did you make your dream career happen? A: I focused my high school studies on math and physics and pursued a college degree in mechanical engineering with a goal to design theme park attractions. I also spent a lot of my free time reading and learning about the technical systems of rides and theme parks and what makes them exciting. I also made sure to ride a lot of roller coasters! Visiting theme parks such as Busch Gardens Williamsburg stoked my curiosity. Q: What do you love about your job? A: I’m very passionate about my work. One of my favorite parts of my job is the opportunity to work with the smart, dedicated, and talented people at our theme parks. Providing families and friends the opportunity to spend time together, have fun, and laugh is a great feeling. Q: What is the most challenging thing about it? A: Every new project or attraction is unique. How can we embrace new technologies and stay ahead of the creative curve to deliver exciting experiences for our guests? Q: What’s a cool new attraction at Busch Gardens Williamsburg? A: I'm excited about our new immersive virtual-reality experience at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, Battle for Eire. This indoor attraction is the first virtual-reality ride at this park and will utilize 360-degree virtual-reality headsets combined with a motion-based theater simulator platform that will create an innovative ride experience unlike any other. Our guests will be completely immersed within the story and will also be able to see, hear and feel actions happening around them, both through the virtual-reality headsets and within the motions of the simulator base. We are looking forward to sharing it with our guests when it opens this spring. Q: What are the biggest surprises you’ve experienced? A: Technology is moving so fast and my position requires me to be up-to-date and even ahead of the technology evolution. What do guests want and expect from a theme park attraction now, but also what will they want five years from now? Being grounded in today while thinking about the future of the industry is a balancing act. Q: What is the weirdest project or situation you’ve been a part of? A: When opening up a new attraction, part of my job responsibility is to be one of the first individuals to test the ride and verify that the experience meets the high industry standards, as well as our own extensive safety requirements. The first time I participated in a test ride for a new attraction, I recall it feeling very strange but exhilarating. Q: Do you get a chance to observe theme park patrons on the rides you’ve designed? A: One of the best aspects of being a theme park engineer is the opportunity to interact with our guests, especially on an opening day for one of our new attractions. When we open a new ride or guest experience, I prefer to position myself near the exit or the queue in order to listen to guests describe their experience and to see their facial expressions, which show how much they enjoyed their ride. It really recharges your soul and gives you the drive to further create new experiences that matter for our guests. Q: Do you ever speak with park guests? A: Yes, I have the opportunity to speak directly to our guests and dedicated fans. Most are very interested in understanding how long our design team has been planning the new ride and some desire to go into detail of their favorite elements of the ride and want to know how or why we decided to place particular features into the ride. In spring of 2017, we released an exciting hybrid wood-steel coaster at Busch Gardens Williamsburg called InvadR, and our guests were very impressed with how the ride interacts with the beautiful wooded terrain and with other adjacent attractions such as the Le Scoot log flume and the Busch Gardens Railway. They tend to be very impressed with the amount of planning that is involved to getting everything to fit in properly.