SeaWorld, Legoland, Disneyland get new guidelines for reopening but it could be months away

Emperor roller coaster at SeaWorld.
Ironworkers seen earlier this year are high above the ground working on SeaWorld’s Emperor roller coaster that was supposed to debut this year. It has been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic.
(John Gibbins/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Larger parks cannot reopen until their home counties move into the least restrictive tier for COVID-19 risk, a condition that has California parks fuming


After seven months of being shut down due to COVID-19, California theme parks got word Tuesday that they will be allowed to resume operations under newly released guidelines, but for larger parks like SeaWorld, Legoland and Disneyland, a reopening of rides and attractions, even with capacity limits, could be months away.

The protocols announced Tuesday by California Health and Human Services secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly will allow a large park to reopen once coronavirus transmission in a county drops sharply enough to allow it move into what is known as Tier 4 — the least restrictive level of the state’s reopening guidance.

San Diego County currently falls within the tier identified as having the second-most restrictive “substantial” risk level, and it’s unknown how long it could be before transmission rates could drop enough for it to enter the least restrictive category. Los Angeles County, home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, is in the most restrictive tier, while Orange County — where Disneyland, Disney California Adventure Park and Knott’s Berry Farm are located — are in the same tier as San Diego.

“We don’t have a crystal ball,” Ghaly said during a Tuesday news conference. “I don’t’ know when Orange County or San Diego County will indeed enter yellow (the least restrictive tier), but I think there is lots of work we can do together, both state, local, business leaders, community leaders, individuals, to do what we can to reduce transmission throughout our counties, and there is a path forward there.

“We do not know when but we do know how. And I think we’ll continue to put in the hard work to get it us there, one county at a time.”

The continued uncertainty about a timeline for reopening prompted harsh words from Legoland California.

“The guidance issued today by the state is arbitrary and unacceptable to the industry,” said Kurt Stocks, president of the Carlsbad-based park, in a statement. “Not allowing theme parks to open until Tier 4 will destroy the industry in California and the economic impact to industries that rely heavily on theme parks will be catastrophic. The administration’s actions to this point have cost tens of thousands of jobs across the industry, and today’s announcement will all but confirm that thousands more will be lost. Legoland California Resort has developed a comprehensive and robust reopening plan, taking every precaution to meet and exceed guidelines given to other businesses and industries since voluntarily closing seven months ago.”

SeaWorld declined to comment, but the coalition of California theme parks that includes the marine park, was also strongly critical of the latest guidelines.

“Let me be unequivocal — the guidance issued by the Newsom administration will keep theme parks shuttered for the foreseeable future,” said Erin Guerrero, executive director of the California Attractions and Parks Association. “By forcing amusement parks to stay closed until their home county reaches Tier 4, the Governor has issued a ‘Keep Theme Parks Closed Indefinitely’ Plan, which will devastate California’s major theme park industry.”

Under the new state guidelines for large parks, which are defined as being able to normally accommodate more than 15,000 visitors, a capacity limit of 25 percent will be implemented, a reservation system for visiting parks will be required, along with advance screening of guests for symptoms, and face coverings will be mandatory except when eating or drinking.

The new state guidelines do distinguish between small and large theme parks, with a more rapid timeline for reopening smaller venues like Belmont Park in Mission Beach. Those parks can reopen in what is known as the moderate tier, the second least restrictive category. Capacity also will be limited to 25 percent or 500 visitors, whichever is fewer. In addition, only outdoor attractions can be open, and visitors will be restricted to those living in the same county.

Belmont Park General Manager Steve Thomas welcomed the news, while noting that the continued shutdown of the park’s rides like its Giant Dipper roller coaster, has “decimated” the business. The capacity of the amusement park portion of the 7-acre Belmont Park, not including restaurants, the swimming pool and the boardwalk area, is normally about 2,500 to 3,000 people, he said.

“We’re excited that we are being given the opportunity to be a tier closer to being able to reopen,” he said. “I’ll take the San Diego County-only (limitation on visitation), so in these shoulder seasons of fall and winter, we’ll be just fine.”

Closed since mid-March because of the widening pandemic, California theme parks are an anomaly, having remained shut down while parks in other parts of the country have been reopened for months. In Florida, SeaWorld Entertainment parks and Universal Orlando began reopening in June, followed by Walt Disney World in July, all with capacity limits, mask and temperature check requirements, and the elimination of events that draw people together such as parades and night-time fireworks shows.

Disneyland Paris, Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland also have all reopened. The New York Times recently reported that according to Florida public health officials and unions at Disney World, there have been no coronavirus outbreaks among workers or guests at the park.

Pressure on Gov. Gavin Newsom to allow parks to reopen has been building in recent weeks, with Disney officials and the mayors of Anaheim and adjacent cities speaking out about the financial effects of the closures.

California had in fact been poised to issue reopening guidelines earlier this month but backed away after theme parks voiced deep concerns about the proposed new rules. They were especially concerned about a restriction that would have limited their guests to those living within a 120-mile radius of the parks. That guideline is not included in the new regulations.

Just a week ago, Newsom announced what was seen as a more collaborative effort, saying he was sending a team of people to parks already open in other states, as well as to select parks in California in hopes of reframing reopening guidelines. While noting that he wanted to work with the parks in establishing health and safety protocols, he also said he remained concerned about the potential for virus transmission from visitors traveling to the state from other parts of the country and the world.

Ghaly noted Tuesday that while the recent visit to out-of-state theme parks had been helpful in framing the new guidelines, the parks are still considered higher risk settings than other types of venues.

“People may keep their guard up while they’re in, let’s say a theme park, but when milling around the community, their guard may go down, and that could be just enough to create outbreaks and transmission risks that California just doesn’t want to see,” Ghaly said.

In San Diego County, SeaWorld has been in the unique position of being able to partially reopen under state guidelines reserved for zoos and aquariums, which means limitations on the capacity for outdoor exhibits and animal shows. It did so in late August, and capacity has been limited to about 25 to 30 percent, SeaWorld San Diego President Marilyn Hannes said in an interview Monday about its current Halloween activities. Advance reservations are required, and rides remain closed.

Legoland as well is closed but has reopened its Sea Life Aquarium and one of its themed hotels. The Carlsbad park also has launched this month “Halloween in Miniland,” which is taking place each weekend in October. Legoland’s Miniland U.S.A has been transformed into a Halloween destination where families can come, dressed in costumes and participate in various activities.

The continued shutdown of California’s major theme parks will undoubtedly be financially devastating, says consultant Dennis Speigel, but he suspects that they will all survive. Disney already announced plans last month to lay off 28,000 employees at its parks, experiences and products division, a decision that Disney executives blamed in part on California’s unwillingness to allow parks to reopen.

“The parks will get through this, but it’s the most difficult thing our industry has ever had to deal with,” said Speigel, who heads Ohio-based International Theme Park Services. “I just think this decision by Gov. Newsom is really out of line with what’s happening to our industry in the United States and around the world. If you look at Orlando, Disney has done an amazing job of establishing these new policies for guests and employees. There have not been any outbreaks. If there were, they would have closed down.”

Los Angeles Times staff writer Hugo Martin contributed to this report.