Taking a Roller Coaster Ride Through Covid-19

The Elitch Gardens theme park in Denver, Colorado. (Courthouse News photo / Amanda Pampuro)

(CN) — Whenever the teacups start spinning, there is always a risk that someone is going to get sick. But preventing the spread of an infectious coronavirus is a different challenge than cleaning up after dizzy thrill-seekers.

From Holiday World in Santa Clause, Indiana, to Lake Compounce in Bristol, Connecticut, hundreds of theme parks employing thousands of seasonal workers are eager to bring back millions of annual visitors for priceless summer fun.

While Universal Studios may be the first American theme park to reopen amid the Covid-19 pandemic, it will hardly be the last. On Thursday, the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force in Florida unanimously approved Universal Orlando’s plan to reopen in June. The entertainment company spent the previous week introducing 38,000 visitors to its new rules at the City Walk shopping center, including temperature checks, mandatory masks, and social distance between parties.

“Don’t assume that all guests are afraid to go,” said Dr. Martin Lewison, roller coaster connoisseur and a professor of business management at Farmingdale State College in New York. With his wife Cheryl, Lewison has buckled into more than 2,000 roller coasters around the world. “There’s definitely demand for theme parks to open.”

He added: “My wife is an ER doctor here in Queens in New York and we got hit really bad here. It’s an awful virus and it does all kinds of terrible things to you. The rest of the United States hasn’t really seen this. They’re frustrated about not being able to go to work, not being able to go get your hair done, being stuck in your house, losing income. It’s a very stressful, anxious period for a lot of people.”

(Photo courtesy Water World in Federal Heights, Colorado)

Now as much as ever, Lewison said, people want to have fun.

Lauralyn Johnson agrees.

“We go as often as possible so we’re looking forward to seeing another side of Disney,” said Johnson, a mother of five from Clay City, Kentucky. Her blog is Smart Moms Plan Disney.

“If people are concerned, they should stay home, but I don’t think there’s reason for that concern unless they are immunocompromised, or older,” Johnson added. “If this is your once-in-a-lifetime trip, I would also hold off. A six-month delay will probably see the parks much more normal than when they first open.”

The Disney Springs shopping center reopened in Orlando on May 20, but the company has not announced when parks will reopen.

“We want to return to work as soon as it’s safe to do so,” said Paul Cox, president of IATSE Local 631. The union is a member of the Disney Service Trades Council Union representing more than 42,000 workers, many of whom have been out of a job since March.

“Even if we had an end date for the furlough, it would be irresponsible both corporately and for the union socially to be pushing for things to open up before it was safe to do so,” Cox said.

Cox describes his work as an entertainment technician at the ESPN Sports Center as his dream job. In the months he’s been out of work, he made a long list of ideas for shows on Evernote and helped his fellow union members work through Florida’s notoriously laborious unemployment insurance system.

Even with masks and social distancing required on Main Street, Cox said backstage kinks still need to be rehearsed before shows can return.

“When we feel safe to go back to work and we have safe working conditions, it’s going to equate to a much safer place for the guests at the end of the day,” Cox said.

Some theme park season pass holders don’t feel safe going this year and just want their money back.

A small child contemplates the Mind Eraser, a roller coaster at Elitch Gardens in Denver, Colorado. (Courthouse News photo / Amanda Pampuro)

Tracy Chukwukere, 35, of Aurora, Colorado, has been visiting Denver’s Elitch Gardens Theme & Water Park with her family since she was 11. She bought season passes this year to reward her daughter for graduating from the fifth grade.

“I am saddened to say I don’t believe that they’re really taking their customers into consideration about this whole virus thing,” Chukwukere said. After several weeks of unanswered calls and emails, Chukwukere said the park finally agreed to consider refunding her passes when she said her daughter is immunocompromised.

“Besides my large family, how many other families are out of $200 or $400 or $1,500 that we spend every year,” she said. “Even a candy apple in the park is $7.”

Elitch Gardens typically hires 1,500 seasonal employs and is open in March through Halloween. The park has not announced its 2020 opening date.

“Season passes are nonrefundable as stated at purchase, as we still plan to open the park this season,” said the park’s marketing manager Jolie DuBois via email.

“When the park opens, we will have the most strict and detailed safety and sanitation protocols in place to help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and keep families safe. As our opening date gets closer, we will make these policies available to view on our website,” she added.

Many parks will not reopen, including the 70-acre Water World in Federal Heights, Colorado, north of Denver.

“We’re still in this Covid-19 pandemic. There’s no cure yet. There’s no vaccine yet. We don’t know how to safely operate the park in that environment,” said Joann Cortez, director of marketing for the Hyland Hills Park & Recreation District which owns Water World.

The closure put 800 seasonal employees, including 300 lifeguards, out of a job and cuts funding for the community recreation and athletic programs funded by park proceeds.

“Because we are such a unique model, we didn’t have enough guidance for our type of operation and given the shortness of our season and the employees that we had on hold, it’s the fair thing and the smart thing in terms of safety,” Cortez said of the decision to remain shuttered.

(Photo courtesy Water World in Federal Heights, Colorado)

Water World extended 2020 season passes through 2021 early on, but Cortez said refunds are also available.

“We are very guest-centric,” Cortez said. “Our guests’ safety and our employees’ safety is always paramount in any decision that we make.”

But Water World’s decisions aren’t universal: Whether or not tickets are refundable depends on the park and the ticket.

“It’s got to be a case by case basis,” said Chris Cole, co-chair of the advertising and media group for legal firm Crowell & Moring. “Part of it depends on the language of the contracts that they entered into. Part of it depends on whether there are alternatives to performance like rescheduling.”

“Best practice is to make disclosure of the limitations of what people are buying prior to purchase, because if you don’t, you’re creating a risk that you get sued down the line for deceptive advertising,” Cole said. Closed parks can also stop collecting payments on ticket installment plans and look for alternative options like extending season passes or offering additional amenities.

Overall, Cole urged pass holders to be patient. 

“Every large company is a major employer. They want to get their own people back to work. They want to start up as fast as they can, but they are very concerned with the safety of people who come,” Cole said. “They’re acting in good faith trying to try to manage a whole bunch of different legal, social and ethical risks, health risks, worker compliance risks.”

Rather than seeing better discounts, others say customers should expect price hikes. 

“Parks might raise their fees a little bit and have days when a limited number of people can come,” said Peter Ricci, director of hospitality management at Florida Atlantic University.

“Parks will have to work their new financial model based on those caps,” Ricci said. “It’s not ideal for the end consumer who might see prices go up, but as a consumer, I’d rather pay a lot more and ensure my safety and sanitation.”

But the question remains: is it worth the risk?

“We still have Covid-19 out there and we still have a very, very large population that is susceptible,” said Dr. Cindy Prins, an associate professor at the University of Florida specializing in epidemiology.

Still, spacious outdoor theme parks may be less risky than a crowded gym, Prins said — provided parks enforces the new rules.

“If the park employees are really empowered to get people to comply with the regulations and the cleaning is kept up with, if there is enough hand sanitizer, and if the park is kept at low capacity, then yes, I think that there can be an opportunity to reopen,” Prins said. “But people have to realize that anytime you go out and do something like that you are putting yourself at risk no matter what.”

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