California Theme Parks Get Creative
Popular destinations like Disneyland Resort and Universal Studios Hollywood in California closed in March 2020, shuttered by strict reopening guidelines by Gov. Gavin Newsom. Now, California parks are preparing to reopen as the state recently issued more relaxed safety protocols, in which theme parks can open as early as April 1.
Before the parks in the Los Angeles area set their sights on opening in April and May, Disneyland and Universal previously announced limited-capacity ticketed events that opened in March. “A Touch of Disney” opened at Disney California Adventure on March 18, and “Taste of Universal” opened March 12.
“I’m expecting our experience to be a relaxing one,” says Andrew Orris, a Southern California theme park fan with tickets to Disneyland’s event and plans to visit “Knott’s Taste of Boysenberry Festival” at Knott’s Berry Farm. “If anything, walkways should not be overcrowded, people happy, but also sad to not see the attractions open.”
While the parks could open their gates, under the state mandate, rides and attractions could not welcome passengers.
Orris, who closed Disney California Adventure the last day it was operational last year, also recently attended the SeaWorld San Diego’s “Seven Seas Food Festival.”
Fans all but crashed Disney’s website the morning tickets went on sale, and the $75-per-person event sold out all available dates. Admission includes parking, a $25 gift card for food and nonalcoholic beverages, and unlimited downloads of Disney PhotoPass photos captured during the experience.
“‘A Touch of Disney’ offers some of the world-famous food and drinks from around the Disneyland Resort, plus a chance to see Disney characters, shop for the latest Disney merchandise and pop in at unique photo locations,” Disney said in a statement about the event, which runs select days until April 19.
The first weekend of the Universal event, which has a dynamic pricing schedule based on the day of attendance, quickly sold out. Tickets included five food and beverage tickets for adults and three for kids ages 3-9.
“This eagerly awaited experience will invite guests to once again feel the thrill of strolling along the park’s signature red carpet as they pass through its iconic gates to enjoy some of the theme park’s best culinary offerings and premium shopping options, along with physically distanced photo opportunities with some of their favorite characters,” Universal said describing the event in a statement.
Just the opportunity to get back inside the gates is enough for some fans, like Orris.
“I am very excited to see Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld finally jump on [limited-capacity park events],” says Orris. “But now with the parks being able to open with rides in the near future, that, well, it’s just even more exciting.”
In other parts of California, tourist destinations have done their best to also generate revenue and welcome guests by reopening in a limited capacity. Knott’s Berry Farm in Buena Park is currently holding its fifth ride-free event with a celebration of all things boysenberry. SeaWorld San Diego reopened in February following the state’s guidelines for zoos and aquariums, where guests could again view the park’s animals. Currently, SeaWorld San Diego, which requires reservations for admittance, is running its “Seven Seas Food Festival” on select dates through May 2.
“We are excited to bring back this popular fan-favorite event to San Diego, complete with new menu items, live music, and a safe, outdoor experience for the whole family,” says Marilyn Hannes, park president of SeaWorld San Diego and Aquatica. “In addition to our incredible outdoor animal exhibits and presentations, the return of ‘Seven Seas’ gives our guests more options to make new, lasting memories with family and friends.”
Exporting the Fun
The need for creative reopening strategies extended from California to the East Coast where leaders at Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari and Hurricane Harbor in New Jersey have spent the last year finding new ways to welcome guests while abiding by state rules and requirements.
In 2020, the park was forced to remain closed from April to late June and reopened in late July.
“The pandemic required us to pivot and explore new ways to entertain, which included bringing back something from our past with a new twist,” says Kristin Fitzgerald, the park’s marketing and public relations manager. “Innovation is in our DNA, and we’ve enjoyed the challenge of developing new entertainment programs with a special focus on safety, such as ‘Rockin’ Drive-In Laser Light Spectacular,’ ‘Holiday in the Park Drive-Thru Experience,’ ‘Hallowfest,’ a drive-in concert, and the return of ‘Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure.’”
The “Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure” was originally offered from 1974 to 2012 and revamped to be a guided truck tour. Following state guidelines, the self-guided tour was brought back in late May.
Fitzgerald says the pandemic pushed the Six Flags team in New Jersey with new challenges and opportunities. Beyond that, it’s given the park team some ideas for things to offer again in the future.
“Operating during the pandemic also provides us with an incredible learning experience,” she says. “We’re placing a large emphasis on research, gauging what new features resonate with our guests—and without question, some of our recent additions will remain after the pandemic has passed.”