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Fed up California theme parks demand to reopen

Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Six Flags and Legoland are fed up with the lack of reopening guidelines for California theme parks after six months of coronavirus closures.

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A trade organization representing all major theme parks in California has called on the state to issue reopening guidelines. Individual parks and the cities surrounding them have ratcheted up pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to end the six-month shutdown.

By Brady MacDonald

Newsom has said California is “getting closer” to issuing reopening guidelines “very, very shortly.” Theme parks have grown increasingly frustrated by the state’s inaction.

California theme parks shut their doors in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit the United States. Now, theme parks have reopened in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and more than half the states in the U.S. However, California has still not issued COVID-19 health and safety guidelines that would allow theme parks to reopen.

Reopening California’s theme parks

The California Attractions and Parks Association called on Newsom to reopen California theme parks. This Sacramento-based trade organization represents Disneyland, Universal Studios, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, SeaWorld San Diego, Legoland California, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and California’s Great America.

legoland california main entrance deep sea adventure

“California’s amusement parks urge the governor to issue amusement park guidelines expeditiously so these vital community attractions can reopen their doors in a responsible manner and get residents back to work,” California Attractions and Parks Association executive director Erin Guerrero said in a statement.

CAPA and the Newsom administration have also been working closely together on a reopening plan for California theme parks.

CAPA calls for parks to reopen

“Six months ago California’s amusement parks and attractions made the difficult decision to close voluntarily in response to COVID – and the impacts have been devastating,” Guerrero said in the statement.

“Tens of thousands of jobs have been weighing in the balance. Hundreds of millions of tax revenue that support critical local, state, and federal programs, lost. And local businesses that rely on amusement parks continue to struggle, with many closing permanently.”

Twisted-Colossus Six Flags Magic Mountain reopening california theme parks

In March and April, California theme parks issued proposed guidelines for safely reopening in the COVID-19 era. Those protocols included mandatory masks, increased sanitization, reduced attraction capacity, social distancing, contactless payments and employee training.

“Over those six months, parks crafted detailed plans to reopen – they include capacity reductions, face-covering requirements, robust health and safety protocols for both guests and employees, and significant modifications to support physical distancing,” Guerrero said in the statement.

“These practices will promote health and safety in ways that many activities Californians are currently engaging in won’t. However, in order to reopen, parks require guidance from the state and that guidance has not been forthcoming.”

Disneyland and COVID-19

Disneyland says that California’s lack of progress in reopening theme parks is disappointing.

“We are disappointed with the state’s lack of progress in providing the industry with guidance and clarity on reopening,” Disneyland resort president said Ken Potrock in a statement. “We have proven we can operate responsibly, with strict health and safety protocols at our properties around the world and at Downtown Disney in Anaheim.”

Disneyland called on the state to issue COVID-19 guidelines for safely reopening theme parks.

Downtown Disneyland COVID-19 solutions
Derek Lee/Disneyland Resort

“Once we have a clearer understanding of when theme parks can reopen from the State of California, we will be able to work with the state and Orange County Health Care Agency towards a reopening date,” according to Disney officials.

The Disneyland Resort is California’s largest private employer. It employs more than 32,000 people. In addition to this, Disney’s California theme parks support another 100,000 jobs across the region.

“Tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods depend on our ability to operate and we stand ready and willing to accelerate discussions with the Governor and his team to make ‘real progress’ toward our reopening and getting people back to work,” Disneyland’s Potrock said.

The case for reopening Disneyland

The six-month coronavirus closure has had a huge impact on city revenue in Disneyland’s hometown, according to Anaheim spokesperson Mike Lyster.

“What we need is guidance and an economic recovery roadmap so we know that we won’t go from coronavirus to a second great recession,” Lyster said.

Downtown Disney COVID-19 solutions
Derek Lee/Disneyland Resort

Revenues tied to businesses around Disneyland and the Anaheim Convention Center represent about half of the city’s general fund budget. The city faces a $100 million budget shortfall as a result of the closures, according to Lyster.

“Beaches are open, museums are open, zoos are open and most of SeaWorld in San Diego is open,” Lyster said. “There does not seem to be a lot of consistency there.”

The impact of Disneyland’s closure

Anaheim’s budget deficit has risen to $100 million. Furthermore, the city’s unemployment has risen to a historic high of 15% since Disneyland closed.

“The time to issue reopening guidelines for theme parks is now,” Anaheim mayor Harry Sidhu said during a press conference across from Disneyland. “We are confident in their ability to reopen safely and responsibly in Anaheim and the time is right.”

disneyland resort

The closure of Disneyland has devastated small businesses in the areas immediately surrounding the theme park.

“It is absolutely imperative for the health of our community that Gov. Newsom issued guidelines so that the Disneyland resort can reopen,” Garden Grove mayor Steve Jones said during the press conference. “They’re ready and they know how to do it without adverse impacts. They can respond to whatever guidelines the governor’s office comes up with. He just needs to issue them. There is no time to waste.”

The Disneyland resort generates $162 million for Anaheim’s annual budget. This is according to Cal State Fullerton’s Woods Center for Economic Analysis and Forecasting. The Disneyland resort generates $8.5 billion in total economic activity in Southern California, according to the study.

Reopening Universal Studios Hollywood in California

Universal Studios Hollywood is “absolutely ready to reopen” once California issues guidelines.

“Universal Studios Hollywood continues to work closely with the L.A. County Health Dept and government officials towards the successful reopening of our theme park,” according to Universal Studios Hollywood officials.

“We have prepared a comprehensive program that benefits from the experience we have gained reopening our other theme parks in the United States and around the world and we are absolutely ready to reopen with enhanced health and safety protocols.”

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Universal Studios has reopened theme parks in Japan, Singapore and Florida after extended COVID-19 closures.

Universal Studios theme parks saw a 94% decrease in second-quarter revenue due to COVID-19 closures. The theme park division of Comcast saw revenue drop from $1.5 billion in 2019 to $87 million this year.

Reopening Knott’s Berry Farm theme park

Knott’s Berry Farm has partially reopened for a series of food, beer and wine festivals while its rides remain closed.

“Knott’s Berry Farm is prepared to work with the State of California and the Orange County Health Care Agency to meet and exceed the necessary guidelines and requirements for reopening our theme park,” according to Knott’s officials.

knotts berry farm cedar fair reopening California theme parks

“Cedar Fair Entertainment Company has implemented robust health and safety protocols for our guests and associates informed by our in-house, industry and local government experts, along with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control across all of its parks.”

Cedar Fair has reopened theme parks in Michigan, Missouri, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas without incident, according to Knott’s officials.

Buena Park officials are confident Knott’s can meet the state’s COVID-19 reopening guidelines once they’re issued.

“Keeping the theme parks closed hurts families who cannot go back to work,” Buena Park mayor Fred Smith said. “It hurt small businesses that depend on tourism and conventions. It hurts cities like Buena Park that depend on hotel and sales revenues to care for our residents.”

A devastating impact

The six-month closure has been “devastating” for Knott’s hometown of Buena Park.

“Tourism is a big part of Buena Park’s economy,” Smith said. “Knott’s Berry Farm is the largest employer in our city. It is the largest source of tax revenue, drawing visitors from all the way around the world.”

Knott’s drives spending at Buena Park hotels, restaurants and businesses. Revenue from Buena Park’s hotel bed tax has dropped 92% during the pandemic, according to Smith:

“I would ask governor Newsom to please do the right thing and let us reopen now. We’re actually down about $15 million due to the coronavirus.”


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A coalition of Southern California leaders has also launched a new website. This seeks to pressure Newsom to reopen Knott’s, Disneyland and other California theme parks.

“With our economy and community struggling, we can’t let our theme parks get left behind,” according to the website. “It’s been nearly six months since theme parks were shut down. It is time to get people back to the jobs they love and make sure our city can reopen safely.”

Calls to reopen Legoland California theme park

Legoland California was the first California theme park to call on Newsom to reopen the tourist destinations.

“We don’t expect to open today. But we just need some sort of indicator as to where things stand,” Legoland California president Kurt Stocks said in August. “We have been asking for many months now for the state to issue us guidance.”

LEGOLAND California theme park reopening

Legoland California has rethought every attraction in the park from a COVID-19 standpoint. From social distancing and ride sanitization to the queue line and load station.

“I call on the state to recognize the level of detailed planning undertaken by San Diego attractions to ready our operations to ensure the safety of our guests and our staff,” Stocks said during the press conference. “Allow San Diego attractions to open in safe outdoor settings, allow our staff to return to work and allow us to go back to doing what we do best. Which is putting smiles on the faces of San Diego families every day.”

Demand builds for California theme parks ahead of reopening

Legoland also renewed its call in mid-September for state officials to issue guidelines for California theme parks to safely reopen.

“We have taken every precaution with our proposed health and safety plan to meet and exceed guidelines given to other businesses and industries,” according to Legoland officials. “We are now calling on the State of California to recognize the level of detailed planning undertaken so we can work towards reopening with guidance from both the state and county.”

Legoland california theme parks reopening

It would take Legoland two to three weeks to recall its workers and prepare the park to reopen.

“We don’t just flick the switch and start up again,” Stocks said. “We need time to bring staff back to train them in the new protocols and to get our resort ready to welcome guests back safely.”

Merlin Entertainments has reopened Legoland theme parks in Florida, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.

“We’ve opened all our other Legoland resorts all around the world with no reported outbreaks,” Stocks said.

San Diego government leaders from cities surrounding Legoland also joined the park in calling on the state to allow California theme parks to reopen with COVID-19 health and safety protocols.

Newson’s response to reopening pressure

Newsom has said California is making ‘a lot of progress’ toward reopening theme parks. This is under his four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy.

“We will be making announcements soon as it relates to theme parks and amusement parks,” Newsom said during the press conference in mid-September. “Making announcements soon as it relates to some areas, industries as well as sectors and putting out additional guidelines in those spaces very very shortly.”

seaworld san diego reopening California theme parks

Newsom did not announce a timeframe for making the announcement on fully reopening theme parks.

“I’m not here today to make that presentation, but want folks to know we are actively working in a number of sectors. We’ll be making public the fruits of those negotiations and those efforts very very shortly,” Newsom said.

However, the time to reopen California theme parks is well overdue, according to International Theme Park Services CEO Dennis Speigel.

“Enough is enough,” said Speigel. “Businesses are opening and southern California needs these economic drivers. The California theme parks should open now.”

The financial impact of closures

The extended coronavirus closures have had a devastating impact on California theme parks. The closures have stretched from weeks to months and now half a year. Thousands of employees have been furloughed and laid off. Major players like SeaWorld and Six Flags have lost tens of millions. Financial losses have reached the billions for industry leaders like Disney and Universal.

California theme parks originally set proposed reopening dates in July. But this was when it looked like they were going to emerge from the coronavirus closures. So, those plans ended following a spike in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in California. Since then, the gates of Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and other California theme parks remain stubbornly closed.

california's great america reopening California theme parks

A few California theme parks have found a way to operate during the pandemic. Knott’s Berry Farm, SeaWorld San Diego and Six Flags Discovery Kingdom have partially reopened. But this is only for limited-time special events without roller coasters, rides and attractions.

Legoland’s indoor aquarium is now open, whereas its theme park remains closed. Outdoor malls next to Disneyland, Universal Studios and Knott’s have reopened for shopping and dining. California’s Great America gave up hope and closed for the rest of the year.

A lost year

The closures that have spoiled the summer and wrecked Halloween events are now also threatening Christmas events as well.

Financial analysts are already predicting a “lost year” for theme parks in 2021 with a full recovery lagging until 2023. However, there is a silver lining. Many expect the resilient theme park industry to strongly rebound. This is once a COVID-19 vaccine is widely available and travel returns to normal.

Disneyland Castle reopening California theme parks

There have been no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks at Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Legoland parks in the U.S. This is according to state health agencies and theme park officials. Furthermore, the largest Six Flags and Cedar Fair in Texas, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and Michigan have had no reports of COVID-19 outbreaks

“As evidenced by the many open amusement parks in the United States and around the world, visiting an attraction will not look the same as before COVID, but California’s amusement parks are ready to responsibly reopen,” CAPA’s Guerrero said.

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brady mcdonald

Brady MacDonald

Brady MacDonald is a freelance writer based in California. He wrote the Funland theme park blog for the Los Angeles Times for a decade. His work has appeared in the Chicago Tribune, New York Newsday, Philadelphia Inquirer, Seattle Times, Orlando Sentinel and Orange County Register.

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