5 Things You Have to Keep in Mind As Theme Parks Reopen

I can’t think of a more complicated business to reopen than a theme park during these difficult times. No matter where you sit on the staying closed vs. reopening everything bandwagon, the public perception is what matters. Those waters are murky right now.

Movie theaters, restaurants, retail locations: they can all follow each other’s lead when it comes to best practices to reopen. However, a theme park has literally all of that to contend with and then some. They have to figure out how to safely reopen their quick and full-service dining, gift shops, theater attractions and rides.

We have narrowed the top 5 things theme parks should focus on when it comes to reopening. When will that happen? We have no idea. Each state is handling this differently and while we think some parks may not open for months, there are others that will definitely open June 2020 if not sooner. Here are a few things to think about.

#5 Consistency is Key

This may be the most difficult policy to stick to as things change so quickly, but your guests are going to cling to it. No matter what policies you roll out, they need to be as consistent as possible throughout your park. For example, if you’re creating queuing that allows 6 feet of space between groups? That needs to be clearly marked the same way in every queue. Use the same colors and symbols throughout the property so your guests know what to do in every situation without prompting them every time they go into a queue, gift shop or restaurant.

Communication is the number one priority. Start getting the message out online far before guests ever reach your property. Once they arrive, create pamphlets that show the new symbols and signage you intend to use throughout the park. You can also expect to see new signage and maybe informational videos playing to remind everyone of your new policies.

#4 Capacity Should Be in “Soft Open” Mode

One of the biggest concerns I see online is “if a park can operate at 50% capacity, that’s still too many to handle with new sanitation and social distancing!”. Those people aren’t wrong, but they also don’t understand how to soft open a theme park, which is what this should be considered as.

Let’s say a theme park capacity is normally 50k. Thus, under your new state mandate (every state is different), you can operate at 25k capacity and that’s how many people you allow in on your first day of operation, right? Wrong.

Anyone who has ever opened up a theme park knows you slowly build to a “maximum capacity”. Thus, if your “new” maximum capacity is 25k, you start off with a week of 10k. Then ramp up to 15k for the following week and so on. Theme parks may decide that they can only handle 35% capacity instead of 50%. Public perception of how a park operates could have ripple effects for years to come. Speaking of perception…

#3 Perception Is Reality

As you read this article, someone is typing up their response based on reading the headline alone. This is where we are in 2020. Many of your customers will read a headline and assume they know all they need to know. Regardless of how you may feel about it, their perception is their reality and to them, it’s not wrong.

Simply by reopening your business, no matter what policies you put in place or when, certain members of the public will be upset that you are opening at all. As much as possible, theme parks are going to have to drive home that their experiences are “as safe as possible” and stay away from language of being 100% safe from communicable diseases.

Because of the hysteria of COVID-19, people forget that a theme park is a place where you could be exposed to all kinds of germs. That isn’t a ding on the theme park business, those germs are in movie theaters, restaurants and grocery stores as well. The difference? Often times parks (I’m looking at you, Disney) often market themselves as magical or perfect. This leads to a public perception that they are totally immune to uncontrolable situations such as germs.

#2 Stop Focusing on Cleaning Ride Vehicles Between Each Cycle

We’ve seen it over and over. How can a theme park wipe down every touchable surface of a ride vehicle between each cycle? The reality is, most cannot without causing a backup and potentially bringing down the entire ride due to timing issues.

Any theme park that advertises (and even practices) wiping down every ride vehicle between uses is simply “sanitation theater”. The art of appearing to make sure the surfaces are clean before you sit down in them and thus, it makes the ride “safe”. This makes zero sense.

If a park is going to wipe down every ride vehicle between each use, shouldn’t they also be just as concerned with handrails? Think about it, before you board a vehicle, you’re often times in a small corral in a row waiting for gates to open. What do 90% of people do? They touch those rails and often times you need to in order to step into the vehicle safely. I’ve even seen small children put their mouth on handrails. Many many times.

Furthermore, there are handrails all over the park. Some keep guests from trampling all over your landscaping while others are used to make sure they don’t enter a ride envelope. Are those getting wiped down after every single person touches them?

Can we take it a step further? What about every time someone uses a toilet seat? How about every time someone gets up from a park bench? What if they are in a merchandise shop and pick up ten items (and the shelves they are attached to) and puts them back?

There is no way you can wipe down every surface that someone touches in any business on planet earth after it has been touched. Theme parks are far more complicated because there are so many more surfaces than an average business. This is not to say that ride vehicles (and toilet seats and handrails and benches) shouldn’t be wiped down at regular intervals.

However, there has to be some sort of reality check about how guests actually use a theme park versus how the public perceives they use them. Which leads us to the most important of all of our topics.

#1 Don’t Open Too Soon And Close Weeks Later

Everyone is ready for a vacation. Everyone is ready to get back to work. Everyone is looking forward to getting out of their house and having an escape from reality. However, as an operator, a theme park has to do their due diligence in order to open. Much of what the next few months or year holds is totally unknown, that is why it’s best to see how things go using certain indicators that are out there.

I call it “taking the (not literal) temperature of your guests”. Remember: perception is reality. If you are open, you are deemed as “safe”, if you open and then close – you as a park can be deemed “unsafe” in the eyes of the public. That can do damage for years that can not be undone. Whether it is justified or not.

What makes this tricky is states are handling this differently. Some are requiring masks in some establishments while others are not. Many have different capacity requirements. Nearly all have different required cleaning protocols and I’m willing to bet that none will have clear directions for theme parks due to their unique nature.

However, parks can (and will) reopen with careful and measured steps in order to keep the public as safe as they can. And that is the key phrase in all of this: as safe as we can. We may start to see new language come from businesses across the globe not saying that they are “safe” but “as safe as we can make it”.

These steps are being discussed in Zoom conferecnes all around the globe as we speak. The question is: how will theme parks handle it when it comes time to announce? How will the public perceive it? What are your thoughts? Will theme parks be able to overcome these hurdles? Would love to hear your ideas in the comments section.

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