Virtual Queues, Empty Rides, and a “Social Distancing Skunk Ape”

How amusement parks plan to keep visitors safe.

A roller coaster with only a few people on it with an arrow indicating the distance between the people.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bradley Pisney on Unsplash.

This article is part of Reopenings, a series about how businesses and other institutions are operating during the pandemic.

Two friends walk through a Florida amusement park, shoulder to shoulder, pointing and sharing their excitement about a nearby attraction. Suddenly, a huge, hairy beast appears behind them and hurls the visitors apart, sending them flying through the air. “I feel much safer!” says one parkgoer, stuck headfirst in a bush. “Thank you, Social Distancing Skunk Ape!” says the other, dangling upside down from a tree.

Social Distancing Skunk Ape is a new character at Orlando’s Gatorland theme park. Skunk Ape, according to the park’s website, is “insistent that you stay distant,” and is also “all about keeping your hands clean and sanitizing regularly!” Repurposed by two employees from a costume the park used last Halloween, and based on the legendary Bigfoot-esque creature said to roam the swamps of Florida, Skunk Ape has been making regular appearances on the park’s YouTube channel and Facebook morning show.

This past Memorial Day weekend, Skunk Ape roamed the just-reopened Gatorland, using his 6-foot wingspan to remind guests to stay apart. Gatorland creative director Dan Carro, who created Skunk Ape along with the park’s social media head Savannah Boan, accompanied Skunk Ape around the park, translating the creature’s grunts into helpful recitations of the park’s new rules and regulations. (It’s Carro’s son John Michael inside the suit.) “People love him!” said Gatorland’s CEO Mark McHugh. “People were doing selfies. From a safe distance, of course. He wouldn’t touch anyone.”

Skunk Ape is a lighthearted attempt to address the serious questions facing the $22 billion U.S. theme park industry during this pandemic: How do you safely reopen crowded attractions known for long lines, packed roller coasters, and live entertainment? How do you prepare visitors for safety-related changes to an environment that’s always promised danger and excitement? And what do you do if the visitors refuse to play along?

Across the country, theme parks are approaching their reopenings in very different ways. Some parks have determined they won’t be able to operate safely (or profitably) and have declared themselves closed for the summer. (The website of Denver’s Water World, closed until 2021, features a crying walrus wearing a bathing suit and face mask.) However, some smaller parks in states further along in the reopening process welcomed guests over Memorial Day weekend, usually with substantial changes to health and safety policies. Lagoon in Farmington, Utah, for example, published a long list of rules that reflects the general industry consensus on how amusement parks will try to keep visitors healthy. Other parks, particularly the large corporate-owned ones, are moving more slowly: Legoland Florida will open June 1, while Legoland California has not announced a timeline. Six Flags will reopen its first park, Oklahoma City’s Frontier City, on June 5. Disney, the titan of the industry, is eyeing a July opening for its Florida parks.

All these attractions have spent months figuring out the safest ways to reopen, weighing sometimes-conflicting advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local authorities, and applying it to an environment that depends on a lot of close interaction between guests and staff. “We’ve had to pull apart every single part of our operation, assess the relative risk, and rebuild it as we need to,” said Kurt Stocks, general manager at Legoland California. Many parks will check temperatures at the gate. Many more will require visitors to wear masks. (If you’re short a mask for Disney World, don’t worry, Disney has a Baby Yoda face mask you’ll just love.)

It’s going to be a lot less crowded at most parks, even on peak days, as parks are requiring reservations to enter and limiting capacity to significantly below typical levels. When Legoland California reopens, for example, the park has proposed to operate at about 40 percent of its usual capacity. Utah’s Lagoon is capping its attendance even lower, at 15 percent, according to spokesperson Adam Leishman.

A less crowded park might mean shorter lines for rides, especially if parks move toward “virtual queueing,” where visitors check in at a ride and receive a time to return later in the day. (Disney superfans noticed when the Disneyland app added a virtual queueing tab earlier this month.) But if your favorite park doesn’t employ this technology, your wait might be long—and very different. Queue areas will incorporate 6-foot social distancing through decals and signs applied directly to the pavement. The traditional “snake” line, weaving back and forth to pack a lot of people into a little space, will be replaced by longer straight lines stretching far from the ride.

And social distancing will be enforced on the rides themselves as well; expect to see a lot of empty chairs on roller coasters as groups are seated one or two cars away from one another. Most tragically, for roller coaster aficionados: “You probably won’t be able to choose your seat on the coaster,” said Erik Beard of the amusement park consulting company International Ride Training. “Those days are over. You’re gonna see groupers on the entrance to the platforms who are going to administer hand sanitizer and specifically assign seats.”

As for that hand sanitizer: Expect plenty of it, says Beard, who says that guests should expect to be offered sanitizer at the beginning of every queue and after every ride is over. Six Flags, in its promotional video announcing reopening procedures, made a point of showing employees washing door handles, coaster restraints, and handrails in ride queues. Attractions that can’t be sanitized properly are likely to remain closed. “We have a pit full of bricks where kids can jump in and play,” said Legoland’s Stock. “We’ve had to identify that as something that we would close in a first phase.” The same goes for activities that encourage crowds or one-on-one interaction: Disney’s reopening proposal eliminates parades, fireworks, and meet-and-greets with characters (helpfully, this lets the company avoid photos of, say, a masked Elsa unable to hug a crying tot).

Waterparks offer a different set of challenges (masks aren’t meant to be worn in the water) but also an advantage: The CDC has advised that the virus doesn’t appear to survive and spread in chlorinated and treated water. Many waterparks plan to maintain 6-foot distancing in queues, and to require masks for visitors in nonwet parts of their grounds, such as restaurants and shops.

In general, amusement parks are banking on the fact that they are sprawling, free-flowing, and mostly outdoors to convince you that your local funland isn’t a “crowded gathering” the way, say, a sporting event is. Six Flags’ CEO Mike Spanos made this argument in the company’s release announcing the opening of the Oklahoma park: Six Flags attractions, Spanos said, pose “a significantly lower risk of exposure than indoor venues.” In a post on his industry blog, Beard made the same case: “Density is a critical issue to keep in mind when talking about mass gatherings,” he wrote. “Most parks have dozens, if not hundreds, of acres to spread people across.”

But all this reassurance—all these months of planning—depends on park visitors to comply with all these new social distancing and health regulations. Will they? Some observers are dubious. When one host of the Disney superfan podcast Monday Morning Monorail asked if visitors would follow Orlando’s guidelines for theme parks, a co-host cracked up. “No!” she exclaimed. “I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Florida …” Another host agreed: “Vacation brain,” he said.

Earlier this month, in a post on the official Disney parks blog, Disney took its first tentative steps toward reopening its U.S. theme parks. Announcing the phased opening of Disney Springs, a shopping and dining destination that’s part of Walt Disney World in Florida, Disney Springs’ Matt Simon noted that temperature checks and face masks would be mandatory.

As has happened in many discussions about safety precautions during the pandemic, the comments were soon overwhelmed by visitors who viewed safety precautions as an impingement on their personal liberty: “Masks?? Temperature readings before entering?? Sounds to me like you’re pushing New World order kind of things and I’m not here for it.” Some annual pass holders declared they were finished with Disney forever. Others swore they’d attend but proclaimed they wouldn’t be wearing face masks. Wrote one commenter: “I do care about other people and safety, the issue is that I care about freedom more.”

This comment blitz reflects a debate being waged all over the internet, as a vocal contingent of theme park fans reject the notion that their park experience should change as a result of the coronavirus. One Facebook group dedicated to Virginia’s Busch Gardens has recently seen discussions about reopening turn into flame wars, with anti-mask visitors shouting down members concerned about safety. (Busch Gardens, for what it’s worth, hasn’t even announced any reopening plan.) Many members have taken to declaring that once they’re through the gates, they’ll take their masks off, since any mask requirement would be, in the words of one group member, a “fake ass virus puss-out.”

“We all recognize that procedures are one thing and cooperation from the guest is another,” said Beard, whose company advises amusement parks on ride operations. “Every meeting I’ve been in, every conversation I’ve had, has really emphasized the need to communicate in advance, so there are as few surprises as possible when people arrive at the facility.” Hence Skunk Ape, Disney’s blog post, and Six Flags’ promotional video featuring taglines like “Do the Six” to encourage social distancing.

But that messaging isn’t received the same way by every prospective visitor. “You’ve got two groups of people,” said Myles McNutt, a media scholar at Old Dominion University who studies the culture of theme parks. “One group is coming in and saying, ‘I really need to be made to feel safe and I want more restrictions.’ And another group of people are attacking the parks for having any restrictions at all.” Yearly pass holders, in particular, seem to be angry about those restrictions. “In their view, they’ve already paid for their tickets. They have a certain kind of entitlement about how they can use the park,” said McNutt.

McNutt thinks it’s entirely likely that the kinds of real-world culture-war encounters we’ve already seen go viral will hit theme parks this summer. “You know, confrontations with employees about social distancing rules and people recording it thinking that they’re documenting their own victimization.” These days, any viral video in an amusement park will instantly be seized upon as a political talking point. “Parks want nothing to do with this,” McNutt said. “But now if they enforce these rules, they’ll be viewed as political actors, and if they don’t enforce rules, they’ll be viewed as political actors.” Beard, for his part, is hopeful that protests and confrontations will be minimal. “I’m kind of optimistic that a guest who’s being asked to pay between 60 and 100 dollars per ticket may not spend that just to make a scene,” he said. And if there are scenes? Theme park vets seem confident they can handle rabble-rousers the same way they handle everyday line-cutters and fence-jumpers. “If someone cannot or chooses not to follow guidelines of any kind, really, they are asked to comply or asked to leave,” said Lagoon’s Adam Leishman.  

I asked McNutt, who in addition to studying theme parks is an avid roller coaster fan with a yearly pass at Busch Gardens, if he’d return to his local park when it reopened. “I’m willing to go, to see how it works,” he said. But he suggested that visitors who are concerned with public health should exercise some caution. “Parks are built on the principle of making you safe in what feel like dangerous experiences. They have control over physical safety. But they don’t have control over guests who view making other people feel unsafe as exercising their rights,” he said. “I’m worried it’s going to be chaos, in an already chaotic space.”

According to Gatorland CEO Mark McHugh, at least, the park’s Memorial Day reopening had gone just fine. “People were wonderful in the park this weekend,” McHugh said. “They are really getting used to these new social norms, masks and distancing. They’re just happy to be out and able to do things again.”