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How Could Theme Parks Go “Mask Free” In The Near Future?

The current theme park experience can be summed up in two words: it sucks. Between temperature checks, wearing a mask and limited offerings, going to a theme park in 2020 is a shell of its former self. It doesn’t just suck for guests, operators like Disney, Universal and Six Flags also have to adjust to these new operating standards with more strain on their workforce, reduced offerings and profits are being obliterated.

What if theme parks could create a COVID-19 free “bubble”? Within that bubble, everyone who visits the park would be screened prior to entry, just like security screenings we have now. No masks, social distancing, no limited offerings and no anxiety that fellow guests may be asympotamic carriers. Through rapid testing, this may be possible within the near future.

Eddie Sotto, former Walt Disney Imagineer with 30 years experience within themed entertainment is championing this idea. His new concept is called Future Proof Experiences. The idea hit him when he was thinking about how September 11 changed the way we visit airports. Now, once everyone traveling has gone through security, passengers are in a safe “bubble” once they’ve been screened that gives them peace of mind.

Copyright: FutureProof Experiences

According to Sotto, unmasking the guest experience in a theme park isn’t far off science fiction. On his website, he showcases a company that takes a small sampling of saliva in a test tube. Within around 60 seconds, a machine can detect if there is COVID-19 in the sample.

“We are working directly with the screening equipment developer to craft the guest ‘experience’ around the breathalyzer test.  In parallel, we are looking at testing the tech outside the lab here in the USA at sports venues on an opt-in basis.  We are moving as fast as prudently possible.  We have to prove the solution in clinical testing and get government certification as well. It’s not smoke and mirrors; it works by directly sensing the virus,” says Sotto.

This isn’t the only method Eddie Sotto and his team are looking into either. “There are various test methods that have differing levels of viability, not to mention, something new coming out every day it seems. We are constantly looking at claims and our physicist and medical experts are “myth-busting” each solution. Since human life is involved, “first to market” is a risky motivation as you want to test more and in real situations. We compare all these new ideas against a metric. We look for speed of result which determines capacity, the highest degree of accuracy, and operational ease meaning “no hassle”. The latter to me is a big deal as who wants a swab in their nose or a nurse-driven experience? At some point, a guest decides not to go at all.  Terahertz sensing is a front runner for us so far although we are looking wider. There are antigen tests you can take and get a result in 20 minutes which can work and they are getting faster, but we are setting the bar super high and going for the premium solution which is near-instant, field reliable, highest accuracy, and does not require a medical staff to run it (although you have medical on hand if someone tests positive). We are thinking beyond Covid19 and futureproofing experiences for any future pandemic long term.

Keep in mind, futureproofing is what Eddie and his team are looking to do. The idea is to build themed screening locations that scream more theme park and less hospital. Here is an example of how a themed screening experience might play out.

“Imagine showing your ticket, leaving your personal belongings on a belt and entering a “Secret Cavern”. You are given a plastic tube to use with the machine. Once inside, you encounter what appears to be a multi nozzle steampunk contraption in the center of the cave, the “Great Bubble Scope” ( breathalyzer .) We are all invited to blow our best and bubbles. As we separate around the machine, we insert our tube to exhale into our own trumpet like nozzle, triggering the machine as ( projected ) “bubbles” rise up through a giant microscope and then stream out filling the upper vaults of the cave. The machine then draws in our tube. As we walk away, the “bubbles” knowingly seem to gather around us individually, dancing, swarming and hovering, leading us away from the machine toward the exit! We see within each emerald green bubble the molecular world the microscope “sees” in our breath, none of which shows the red virus it’s hunting for! As our screening concludes, each of our “bubbles” burst with a musical sparkle till all we are left with is a halo of shimmering sparkles in a human silhouette. We emerge at the exit to reclaim our cleared belongings. How fun was that? Safe and reassured as we saw what the microscope saw, we all simply enter the park with big smiles. Of course, the cavern has an alternate “cave” exit for those who do not pass and as their “bubbles” remain around them, they are discreetly removed to be retested.” – Eddie Sotto

The idea behind future-proofing goes beyond COVID-19 and even outside theme parks. Imagine being able to get on a cruise ship and have everyone screened for other easily transmittable diseases. Think about what kind of peace of mind that would give passengers.

Photo by Josh Young

When asked about what a test would cost, Sotto had this to say. “With volume, it all becomes even more accessible. The more places we use the test, of course, the more kits we make.  It also has to be compared to the cost of the experience, it’s all relative. If you are on a cruise ship, a small price of the ticket can go toward the “insurance” of being safe, no? How much would you pay in addition on a 3-day cruise to know the passengers were not contagious, versus one that had nothing. The kit is far cheaper than insurance. In volume, the economics of the testing machines themselves come down as well, allowing them to be in more places, even portable. Everything only gets better.”

While there are still questions to be answered and work to be done, could this “bubble” be the future of not only theme parks, but other large scale events and experiences? Would you be willing to pay a little extra (most likely factored into the cost) for peace of mind? Let me know in the comments section. Also thanks to Eddie Sotto for taking the time to go in-depth on this topic. Make sure to visit his website about this project: FutureProofExperiences.com!

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