What will it take to bring guests back to theme parks – and bring the parks back to life during and after COVID-19?
As of August 2020, Disney World attendance was down 80% – eighty-percent – over 2019, according to a report from Deutsch Bank.1 Even after reopening in July, Disney soon cut back its hours due to the simple fact that people were too concerned about the virus to attend.2 And while there were encouraging signs over the traditionally-busy Labor Day weekend, when both Disney World and Orlando-area neighbor Universal studios reached their capacity limits, those may still have been up 80% less than normal attendance, as Disney executives projected reopening at just 20-30% of normal capacity.2
Other, smaller parks are faring no better. Cedar Fair Entertainment, which operates 13 parks, mostly in the South, opened only half of its properties, leaving key locations like Kings Dominion and Carowinds closed for the season.
Theme park hygiene is the healthiest response to COVID uncertainty
With the control of the coronavirus still uncertain, and crucial states like California keeping its parks closed for the foreseeable future, theme park management could be forgiven for throwing their hands up in frustration.
A better solution, however, is to double down on the recommendations from one of the industry’s leading association, the IAAPA. Its report, COVID-19 Reopening Guidance: Considerations for the Global Attractions Industry, identified the most important measures parks should take, and two are of particular note:
- Frequent handwashing is essential and is the responsibility of all employees and guests. Facilities should remind everyone of the importance of frequently washing their hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
- Provide additional handwashing or hand sanitizer hygiene stations throughout facilities: on entry, in key walkways, at all attractions, in food and beverage locations, in merchandise shops, at attraction exits, etc. These should also be provided behind the scenes in maintenance areas, workshops, offices, and break areas.3
Do your employees really know how to effectively wash their hands?
The advice to have employees and guests wash their hands may seem like an inevitable conclusion, but multiple studies over the years has repeatedly shown that workers, as well as the general populace, often forego handwashing. For instance, one study from the Center for Disease Control reported that just 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using a public restroom.4
Education and constant encouragement are called for. Parks should consider using handwashing posters that illustrate exactly how, and how long, to wash hands – and place them at key locations throughout the park, not just in restrooms. This will not only help improve compliance but should provide added assurance to guests that every precaution is being taken for their health and safety. Handwashing posters, and customizable templates for printing, are available for complimentary download from industry leaders.
When you can’t wash hands, sanitize
Especially in an environment as fast-paced as a theme park, it’s not practical to wash one’s hands after every contact with a potentially contaminated surface. Hand sanitizing stations – dispensers on portable stands or in fixed wall mounts – should be placed prominently in the many locations mentioned above in the IAAPA report. Alongside the stations, be sure to post hand sanitizing instructions. People do not always understand the amount of sanitizer to use, how long to rub their hands together, how much of their hands to cover, etcetera. Fortunately, there are also readily-available posters about hand sanitizing for free download.
Hand hygiene isn’t the only key to reviving theme parks – but it is essential
Beyond handwashing and hand sanitizing, the IAAPA report lists a variety of other essential measures, such as:
- Data–driven cleaning – facility management software provides real-time information to direct cleaning teams to where they are needed most and when
- Touch-free options – from payment systems to the dispensing of paper towels for hand drying, to opening doors, many common activities need not require a touch
- Stagger reservations and opening times – reduce guest contact, and simplify social distancing, by adjusting times for individual arrivals as well as park opening and closing
- Face Masks – ideally to be worn at all times by both employees and guests ages 2 and up
- Reduced face-to-face interactions – apps can be employed to purchase tickets, gain entry, and provide customer service in the park, all without guests needing to personally engage with park employees
- Encourage social distancing – Mark where people should stand to reinforce social distancing with footprint decals
The steps Disney World is taking in hand hygiene and other counter-COVID measures
Walt Disney World is a good example of needing to plan, prepare and evolve. It reopened in July anticipating an early surge in pent-up demand and attendance. When that did not happen, management adjusted hours of operation to better fit attendance levels.
Throughout it all, however, they are reported to have maintained rigorous health, safety and hygiene protocols. In addition to the essential measures listed above, Walt Disney
- Required temperature screenings
- Enhanced cleaning
- Added hand-sanitizing stations throughout the park
- Clearly communicated physical distancing requirements throughout the parks
- Utilized no-contact apps
- Introduced no-hugging policies for cast members and characters2
Health is the most important part of the new theme park experience
Even with the most stringent efforts, parks are likely to end up offering an “amended” experience for some time to come. When Six Flags reopened in New Jersey, 10 of its 50 rides were not available to guests, and some of those had longer waits due to extra cleaning (e.g., rollercoaster cars are disinfected every half hour, then allowed to run one cycle to dry off).5 One park in Japan went so far as to prohibit rollercoaster riders from screaming, out of fear of producing a coronaviral “spray” effect (well, at least they tried to prohibit the screams).
Of course, the most important component of any guest experience is their health and safety. To help shape your own health and hygiene plans for employees and visitors, turn to expert resources like the Back to Business toolkits developed by global hygiene leader Tork. Even in the face of unprecedented challenges, your attraction, large or small, need not lose the battle with COVID-19 – that outcome is literally in your hands.
1 Forbes: Disney, Universal Hit Capacity Over Labor Day Weekend, But Theme Parks Still Face Tough Fall
2 Washington Post: Disney World to cut hours after reopening to smaller-than-expected crowds during the pandemic Washington Post
3 IAAPA: Reopening Guidance: Considerations for the Global Attractions Industry
4 CDC: Handwashing: A Corporate Activity
5 CNBC: Here’s what visiting a theme park is lie in the age of coronavirus
6 CNN: No screaming please: Japan amusement parks new COVID-19 guidelines