Large Parks in the Post-Pandemic World

By Chad Emerson

As I write this column, much of the United States (and, frankly, the world) remains under “Stay at Home” and other restrictive orders as governments attempt to combat the spread of COVID-19.  One result of the pandemic is that essentially all large parks and resorts are closed to visitors.

This is an unprecedented situation.

While parks have closed for natural disasters, terrorism concerns, and even other pandemics, none of these closures have essentially shut down the entire industry worldwide.  Even more unprecedented is that no one really knows when parks and resorts will re-open since this coronavirus appears especially easy to spread among individuals gathered closely together in large groups.  Which is basically the model that most theme parks are built around.

In this special edition of The Large Park Report, we explore when this industry-wide shutdown might end and what could a post-pandemic theme park look like.  Obviously, this is an extraordinarily complex situation that does not lend itself to conventional solutions.  Nevertheless, the theme park industry employees hundreds of thousands of individuals and generates billions of dollars in public and private revenue, so the importance of eventually re-opening weighs heavy on many people in many ways.

When Might the Shutdown End?

In order for individuals to gather again in large groups and close proximity, most experts agree that a high level of community immunity must be in place to mitigate the risks of COVID-19.  From this point of agreement, opinions begin to diverge. 

The most common theory is that this widespread immunity would come from a new vaccine.  Others look to therapeutic treatments (such as Tamiflu is for influenza) that would reduce the severity of the virus while others look to “herd immunity” where a large enough segment of the population naturally develops an immunity after contracting and recovering from COVID-19.

Whichever of these (and potentially other) approaches end up being the solution(s), it’s hard to imagine theme parks returning to full operations until, not only is a solution identified, but is able to be implemented on a large, international scale.  When the Large Park Report discussed this issue with several industry experts, the growing consensus is that many theme parks may not open again in 2020.  This has also been the initial guidance from some analysts in the financial world.

Needless to say, this scenario could be devastating to most theme parks around the world. 

At this point, most facilities should consider the maintenance effects of a shutdown that is longer than even seasonal ones.  Questions like “what type of skeleton staff needs to remain in place” and “what type of preventative maintenance is needed with long-term non-use of complex rides” will need answers if there is a prolonged shutdown.

The challenge for the large park industry is that, even if gradual reductions in restrictions occur, most parks thrive on large guest counts in high density spaces.  This does not lend itself well to social distancing and spacing. 

Even so, there may be parts of your resort that could re-open in safe and creative ways if operationally feasible.  The most likely area would be restaurants and lodging within your facility since those types of businesses will likely be opened (or have remained open) in non-theme park settings.  Obviously, the question of whether there would be demand for guests to eat at your restaurants and stay at your hotels if they couldn’t also enjoy your park is a critical one. 

Beyond these type uses though, it is challenging to envision a scenario where high through-put rides and shows will be able to operate a regular capacity until immunity or a powerful therapeutic treatment becomes widely available.

What Could the Post-PandemicTheme Park Experience Look Like?

It’s unlikely we will see a return to theme park operations to similar what we saw as recently as early 2020 for a decent length of time.  While many parks abruptly closed, we anticipate that the return to full operations will be much more gradual than abrupt.  This is largely for two reasons:  physical safety and psychological comfort.

For physical safety, any surface that is repeatedly touched by guests will be the focus of new safety protocols.  That is likely to include frequent sanitizing but will also likely include the consideration of what type materials does a virus survive on longest.  Research continues into this area, but some early results seem to indicate that this coronavirus survives longer on some surfaces (such as stainless steel) than others. 

The post-pandemic theme park is likely to see a large retrofitting of materials used on surfaces that the general public touches.  Everything from ride vehicles to queue line railings.  There is likely to be efforts to develop surfaces that are more easily sanitized as well as more resistant to virus and microbe particles.  These surfaces could be permanent or even temporary coverings on items like lap bars and railings—coverings that could be replaced after a certain number of uses.

Even with enhanced physical safety measures, the psychological impact of social distancing and quarantining measures will likely make people less comfortable in large crowds for a period of time.  This could include not only inside parks themselves but also the planes and other forms of mass transit that visitors use to get to their destination. 

Inside the parks, this is likely to lend itself to lower capacities and smaller mass gatherings in a single location (like an in-park show).  Instead of long, tightly compact lines, popular rides may use some type of reservation-type system where you pre-schedule your ride time and are admitted to the ride queue during a narrow reservation window.  Several large park operators like Disney are already moving in this direction with innovations like FastPass+.

Extensive signage outlining capacity restrictions as well as face-coverings and gloves for employees (and quite possibly guests) could become part of both the physical safety measures and psychological efforts to make visitors more comfortable.

Ultimately, the post-pandemic theme park will first have to create physically safe environments for guests to visit and will then have to reduce crowding to alleviate lingering socially-distancing psychological concerns.  This will likely be a phased process with gradually expanding operations as public health innovations allow the return to larger entertainment gatherings.

The photo shown is Cinderella’s Castle in Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., lit in blue lights during World Health Day in April 2020. The gesture was a salute to medical personnel. (Disney photo.)