Theme parks are eager to welcome back visitors, following a shortened or non-existent season in 2020. While a visit will look different from previous years, these destinations aren’t letting a pandemic put a damper on the fun. Along with implementing enhanced health and safety policies to make sure everyone enjoys the experience responsibly, many are launching new attractions to entice people back. Here’s what you can expect.
First thing’s first: Educate yourself to new park protocol ahead of your visit to maximize fun and prevent any “Oops, I didn’t know we needed to do that” moments. Listed below are just some of the changes you’ll find at most of the nation’s major amusement parks. These operational changes are based on guidance from health authorities, such as the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and local government agencies—all with the intent to keep everyone safe.
Reservations required. Advanced reservations for the day you wish to attend are now required at most parks. In other words: Don’t think you can just show up and buy a same-day ticket.
Reduced park capacity. Every park has reduced its daily visitor capacity, some by more than 50 percent. This is to foster a safe environment for adequate physical distancing. Anticipate lighter crowds and plenty of signage reminding guests of physical distancing.
Before entering the park there is a temperature screening, photo courtesy of Universal Orlando™ Resort
Temperature screenings. Be prepared for a temperature screening (and in some cases, a health assessment questionnaire) before entry. In most cases, anyone with a temperature over 100.4 Fahrenheit will be denied entry, along with anyone who shared the vehicle with that person.
Mask mandate. You will be expected to wear a face covering while visiting, and all park employees will be doing the same. Children under 2 years old are exempt from this requirement. Each park has specifications on what is an acceptable mask (as well as exceptions to this policy), so be sure to check the park website to make sure your face mask complies.
“Mask-free zones.” A handful of parks will have special areas where you may remove your face covering, so long as you continue to keep 6 feet apart from those not in your party. Guests can temporarily remove masks to take photos and while they are eating or drinking in designated areas, as well.
Contactless payment and check-ins. Many parks have made paying for food and merchandise, as well as checking into park-affiliated hotels and resorts, completely contactless. Be sure to download the theme park’s app ahead of your visit, if one exists, to utilize this feature for mobile food ordering, etc.
Reduced ride and theater capacity. Attractions will have designated empty seats so guests can keep a safe physical distance from others not in their party while on rides and in theaters.
Line capacity limitations. Parks will manage the number of people who can queue up for an attraction, with physical distancing stamps on the ground to designate where guests can stand. Plexiglass has been installed in some lines to help separate guests.
Virtual lines. In some cases, there will be no lines. That’s because parks with popular attractions will require guests to utilize its proprietary app to pre-book an available time to ride.
Some attractions on pause. In some cases, certain rides and entertainment where safe physical distancing cannot be met may be temporarily closed, at the park’s discretion.
“Self-Serve” stations are gone. Food at buffet-style restaurants will instead be served to you by park employees, and condiment stations will be empty. Instead, ketchup, salt, straws, etc., will be provided by the main counter by request.
Ready to meet Elisa from from Frozen, photo courtesy of Walt Disney World®
Redesigned character meet-and-greets. Some of the quintessential, up-close character encounters remain on pause until further notice. But that doesn’t mean you can’t see your favorite characters while in the park. At theme parks such as Disney World, for instance, characters ride on floats and trolleys through main thoroughfares and are kept at a safe distance for photo ops. In some cases, you may be able to “book” a character encounter in advance using the park-specific app.
Increased cleaning and sanitation. All parks have heightened this across rides, public areas, bathrooms, etc.
Portable handwashing and hand sanitizer stations. No need to seek out a bathroom to specifically wash your hands, as more of these hand-cleaning stations will be scattered throughout parks.
Some of what’s listed above is subject to change with federal, state and each park’s evolving regulations, so be sure to check the destination’s website when planning your trip.
THE NEW ATTRACTIONS
These 10 amusement parks and aquariums favored by AAA readers each boast new reasons to visit.
Walt Disney World Resorts, photo courtesy of Walt Disney World®
Walt Disney World Resort
A new attraction arrives at the France pavilion in EPCOT on Oct. 1: Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure. The ride’s launch kicks off Walt Disney World Resort’s 50th Anniversary celebration, an 18-month party across its parks appropriate called “The World’s Most Magical Celebration.” At Disney Springs, Cirque du Soleil’s new show, “Drawn to Life,” is a creative collaboration between Cirque du Soleil, Walt Disney Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering.
Family enjoying the theme park, photo courtesy of Universal Orlando™ Resort
Universal Studios Orlando
The Jurassic World VelociCoaster opens June 10 at Universal’s Islands of Adventure theme park. Inspired by the blockbuster film, the coaster will be Florida’s fastest and tallest launch coaster. Thrill-seekers can soar 155 feet in the air and catapult up to 70 mph alongside a Velociraptor pack. Universal has also announced the restart of “Halloween Horror Nights” (Sept. 3-Oct. 31), which features ten terrifying haunted houses.
Busch Gardens Williamsburg
Plan your trip around one of the park’s special events sprinkled into January 2022. Festivities and fireworks pegged to “Summer Nights” (June 25 – July 29), “Howl-O-Scream” (Sept. 12 – Oct. 31) and “Christmas Town” (Nov. 13 – Jan. 2) add to the thrilling rollercoasters and animal encounters found at this year-round amusement park.
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
Dollywood continues the tradition of hosting a different festival each season that accentuates its Smoky Mountain splendor, with new entertainment on tap—including a show featuring Dolly’s own family. During the summer, guests can be wowed by a new nighttime show that paints the sky with 3-D storytelling animation using drones.
Silver Dollar City
Take the plunge on Mystic River Falls, an elevated river-rafting journey that is 6 stories tall. It’s the newest ride at this 1880’s-themed amusement park nestled in the Ozarks. The park boasts more than 40 rides and attractions.
Meet PJ Masks, Peppa Pig, Pete the Cat, and Elmo during special Meet & Greets on select weekends throughout 2021. This is your littlest family member’s opportunity for physically distanced photos with their favorite cartoon heroes. This theme park is based on the beloved children’s show, “Sesame Street,” and is also the first theme park in the world to be designated as a Certified Autism Center.
Photo courtesy of Hersheypark
The sweet amusement park welcomes its 115th season by unveiling a $150 million-dollar expansion of Hershey’s Chocolatetown, home to the park’s biggest coaster, Candymonium. The expansion includes three new culinary experiences: Milton’s Ice Cream Parlor, The Sweeterie, and The Chocolatier, a full-service restaurant and bar with theme park views (opening on Memorial Day).
Home to some 20,000 animals, this aquarium resides on Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. It offers a handful of daily activities that you can pre-book, including a Private Dolphin Tour (eight participants max) and a Shark Catwalk Experience (six participants max).
Six Flags Great Adventure
Jackson, New Jersey
Ride the world’s tallest, fastest and longest single-rail coaster: The Jersey Devil Coaster. It debuts in 2021 and will send thrill-seekers soaring at speeds of 58 mph on over 3,000 feet of track. It includes a 180-degree stall and zero g-roll high above the trees.
Experience the aquarium’s newest exhibit, “Shipwreck: Realm of the Eels.” It opened in March of 2020, right as pandemic swept through the country and everything began shutting down. Now, as people come out of “COVID hibernation,” guests can experience this immersive exhibit for the first time. The attraction invites you to explore the ruins of long-ago sunken ship home to hundreds of eels and brightly colored fish.