Six Flags plans to open all of its amusement parks in 2021
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In this aerial view from a drone, rides sit idle at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom on April 15, 2020, in Vallejo, California. Amusement parks in California were closed as the state's residents were under a shelter-in-place order in an effort to slow the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Virtual queues, in which guests have appointed ride times instead of winding through a tedious line, won't work in current configurations "because there's literally not enough room to put people elsewhere in the park," says Brian Morrow, owner of B Morrow Productions, an Orlando-based design studio that works on projects for theme parks, resorts and museums.
"However, in the near future, I believe the parks will not be operating at their full capacity nor will there be demand for their full capacity," he says. "Then virtual queues may just be fine because you don't have as many people to deal with."
The large operators already are set up to do that, he says.
Current big-space queues, such as inside Fast & Furious: Supercharged at Universal Studios theme park, could be reconfigured to create staggered waiting rooms for virtual queuing. The setup for that park's Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, where folks can spread out over a wide, multiroom space, could be a model for others, he says.
But a chief concern will be ensuring that visitors feel safe, and that may mean the removal of newly discomforting elements, Morrow says. He thinks the pandemic could prompt the end of 3-D attractions and their reusable glasses. Going 2-D has been an industry trend anyway, he says.
"I think things like 3-D glasses are an easy grab where people are going to go 'Uhhhh, I'd rather not,' " Morrow says. "We know they've been clean. They've been clean all along ... but OK, great, I don't have to put it on my face, I'm ready to go."
Some attractions might be just as good without 3-D, Morrow says.
"You might find it not coming back."
There should be fewer admission sales at the attractions themselves, says Curtis Parks, managing partner at Icon Attractions, an entertainment-experience developer based in Maryland. In the industry, about 75% of tickets are purchased on property.
"There is going to be a large push to move everything online, have reservation-based systems at the parks," he says.
There is a lot of human contact in the current system, including having employees side-by-side to take payments.
"I think that's probably going to be what's most noticeable is that you're going to have this no-touch environment, and that's really going to reduce capacity in the parks as well," he says.
Talk of taking folks' temperatures before they enter probably will come to fruition, Parks says.
"I think that's going to become the new bag check," he says. "They are going to have delays getting to the properties because these larger operators are going to do temperature screenings, not only on their employees but also the guests coming into the facility as well."
Dining may have a different vibe, at least in the short term, says AJ Wolfe, who runs the Disney Food Blog, a website independent from Walt Disney Co.
"I think decision-makers are considering servers wearing masks and undergoing health screenings daily, upping the overall cleaning protocol and using disposable menus all while reducing capacity to 50% in dining rooms to encourage social distancing," she says.
Buffet-type restaurants could be switched to a la carte or family-style for a while, Wolfe says, but reservations could be easier to get if vacationing families are slow to return to Walt Disney World.
Character dining has returned to Shanghai Disneyland, which started a phased reopening in early March with social distancing and health screenings, Wolfe says.
"Disney was already modifying character meet-and-greet experience for safety before the parks closed, so we may see that continue with face characters," she says.
Cleanliness and communication about that cleanliness will be important for hoteliers going forward, says Jan Freitag, senior vice president of lodging insights for STR, a company that tracks analytics regarding the global hospitality industry.
"Obviously, cleaning will get much more intensified, and it's going to be interesting to see how hotels ... communicate that something happened that the guests can see," he says.
"Is it little fliers everywhere that's 'This was cleaned two hours ago' or is it when you check in you got an email that says every hard surface will be cleaned every two hours?" Freitag asks.
Keyless entry and remote check-in options should gain popularity, he says. Hotels may also consider leaving rooms empty for a couple of days after checkout and the ensuing cleaning. Larger resorts may reintroduce elevator operators to reduce the number of human fingers pressing the buttons, he says.
Convention hotels may have clients that question the value and the safety of gathering. A group could expand beyond its usual ballroom setting to meet social distancing guidelines, or it could choose to spread out further - inside or outside the resort.
"Does it make sense to put our 30 best salespeople into the same ballroom or is that too dangerous? Should we just have them ... connect online?" Freitag says.
An option for hoteliers could be rethinking uses for rooms, he says.
"Does it make sense for hotels to say, hey, what you need is a place away from your kids with Wi-Fi that's comfortable. And guess what? We have perfect offices for one person. They each have their own bathroom," Freitag says.
"Can we just reconfigure hotel rooms to be the new office space?"
There is pent-up international demand for an Orlando vacation, particularly in England, says Susan Veness, author of "Brits' Guide to Orlando" and "Walt Disney World Hacks."
"The Brits are pretty solid in their desire to have their Orlando vacation. You know, it's always been one of those things they would put off remodeling the kitchen or the bathroom or fixing the roof if it meant they couldn't have their Orlando vacation," she says. "And for the most part, that's still true."
Some British visitors have postponed their Orlando trips until October or later of this year, while others are pushing back for an entire year, she says.
"I would say probably 90% of the people that I'm hearing from are saying 'We cannot wait to get back to Orlando,' " Veness says.
Americans have more of a "restrained optimism," she says.
"A lot of the Americans we're talking to are very much, you know, I'm going to wait and see," Veness says.
Another hurdle for vacationers to get over is the thinking that bad things won't happen on vacation.
"Mickey is going to keep you safe. ... It's just this magical thinking," Veness says of that mindset.
"There is going to have to be a dose of reality to the Magic Kingdom and all the parks," she says. "You have to be an active participant in your own safety."
Six Flags Entertainment Corporation says it is planning to open all 26 of its amusement parks and water parks for the 2021 season, including five that were not able to operate last year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
The company said it worked with epidemiologists to develop a reopening plan that “meets or exceeds federal, state and local guidelines for sanitization, hygiene and social distancing protocols.”
Six Flags will limit the number of people in its parks, and guests will need to make reservations before their visits. Masks will be required for all workers and guests, who will also have to pass temperature checks, according to its website.
The company is also taking steps to encourage social distancing on rides, in lines and seating areas and other areas around its parks.
Six Flags (SIX) is hiring thousands of workers to operate its rides, restaurants and other attractions at its parks in the United States, Mexico and Canada, according to a news release.
“Our guests and team members are ready for the return of fun and signature Six Flags thrills in 2021,” Bonnie Weber, senior vice president of Park Operations, said in the release. “Last year, we set the standard for operating our parks safely, and entertained millions of guests in adherence to government, and CDC health guidelines at 21 of our 26 parks.”
Weber said the company is working with state and local officials to set firm reopening dates for its parks in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Mexico City and Canada.
Six Flags Over Texas in Dallas-Fort Worth and Six Flags Fiesta Texas in San Antonio had already opened on weekends in February, but had to close on Saturday and Sunday because of the devastating winter storm.
Many of the parks are set to open in the next few weeks, though some of the water parks and parks in northern cities will open later in the spring.
Only 4.6 million people visited the parks in the first nine months of 2020 — an 83% decrease from the 26.7 million who attended over the same period in 2019.
The company will release its fourth quarter and full year financial reports for 2020 on Wednesday.
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