Roller coasters anyone? Legoland, Belmont Park among first California theme parks to reopen

 Technic Coaster ride at Legoland reopening.
Michelle Donar and her brother Curtis Donar ride the Technic Coaster ride at Legoland in Carlsbad during the reopening of the park Thursday.
(Bill Wechter/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

New guidelines for theme parks limit capacity to 15 percent for counties in the red tier of the state’s COVID-19 reopening blueprint


For the past year, Mira Mesa resident Francoise Brana has had to tell her sons that they couldn’t go to their favorite theme park. That hasn’t gone over well with her boys, ages 2 and 4.

“My child says, ‘I hate coronavirus’ every time I tell them that Legoland is closed,” Brana said. “It’s just become this broken record — they’re sick of the answer, and I’m sick of having to answer that way.”

That all changed on Thursday, when Brana took her sons to the first day of the Carlsbad park’s reopening. But while watching them cheerfully zipping around a track in miniature cars, a new thought dawned on her.

“I might not be able to get them out of (here).”

Amid squeals of delight and screams from youngsters, Legoland, along with the smaller Belmont Park in Mission Beach, marked a milestone in the pandemic — the state-sanctioned reopening of California theme parks, which have been closed for more than a year.

A recent change in guidance from the state Department of Public Health allowed amusement parks to reopen as of Thursday, but at much-reduced capacities — 15 percent in San Diego’s red-tier status — and only with visitors from California. Under newly released rules, the parks must also queue up visitors outdoors and require that they and the workers wear face coverings, except when eating and drinking.

Among California’s larger parks, just Legoland California and Six Flags Magic Mountain in Valencia opened Thursday. Legoland is offering what it calls Park Preview Days until April 12. During that time, certain rides and attractions will be open to hotel guests, annual pass holders and those who had previously purchased tickets but were unable to visit due to the closure. By April 15, the park will reopen fully, including its Chima Water Park and Sea Life Aquarium.

Disneyland and Disney California Adventure Park plan to open April 30, and Universal Studios Hollywood will resume operations April 16. SeaWorld San Diego has been open under more relaxed rules for zoos and aquariums but it has yet to reopen its rides. It expects to transition to rides sometime this spring.

It wasn’t quite a return to business as usual at Legoland. Masks, temperature checks, floor markers spaced 6 feet apart and hand sanitizer pumps at seemingly every corner served as reminders of the ongoing pandemic.

Heather Vazquez thought that was a good thing. Vazquez, who lives near Palmdale, about an hour north of Los Angeles, typically visits the park four times a year with her two daughters. On Thursday, they spent some of their time at Fairy Tale Brook, a leisurely boat ride that takes guests through Lego sets depicting classic fairy tales such as Cinderella, The Three Little Pigs and Little Red Riding Hood.

“I was worried about people maybe not respecting each other’s space,” Vazquez said. “It seems so far that it’s really not packed enough for people to be on top of each other, and everybody is wearing their masks.”

Riders line up for the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster.
Riders line up to ride the Giant Dipper Roller Coaster on the first day that rides reopen at Belmont Park.
(Eduardo Contreras / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Belmont Park, which falls into the category of smaller amusement parks, has been open for business for some time, but except for a brief period in June when it erroneously reopened some of its rides, those attractions have been off limits for a year.

Park general manager Steve Thomas said he wasn’t sure if it was the sunny weather, Easter week or attractions like the Giant Dipper roller coaster that was drawing slightly larger than normal crowds Thursday.

“Our business model is based on impulse type of purchasing,” he said, surveying the park as people indulged in generous scoops of ice cream and lined up to buy tickets. “We’re right next to the beach, so that’s how we’ve always thrived, and there’s parking here. I sure hope there’s a little bit of a pent-up demand. But this is a little more than I expected today.”

As at Legoland, some of the visitors to Belmont Park were from out of town, making a special trip because they heard the news that rides were finally operating again.

“We do enjoy coming here so we’re super excited about today,” said Diane Collins, who was visiting San Diego with her husband and two children from their home in Fresno. She and her daughter had just gotten off the wooden roller coaster.

“I told my mom we are going to go on again, and she said you’re going on by yourself,” interjected her daughter Remmi, who is 7.

“She’s a thrill-seeker,” Collins said, smiling. “We have Six Flags passes and annual passes for here so yeah, we like roller coasters. We came here a few days ago and heard it was going to open back up on April 1 so we made sure we came back for the big day.”

Collins, who is now fully vaccinated, said she felt safe at the park and had noticed how the workers were regularly sanitizing the seats on the coaster cars as soon as the passengers stepped off the ride. To maintain proper distancing, the park is keeping every other car in the seven-car coaster train empty.

Enrique de la Rosa, at the park with his two children, ages 8 and 10, also had made a trip to Mission Beach specifically because of the reopening of rides, he said. Belmont Park, he said, is not normally a place his family visits.

“We typically go to Legoland and SeaWorld. We came here earlier in the week and a few things were closed and they let us know everything would open Thursday,” said de la Rosa, who lives in the UTC area. “The kids were excited, everything is going to open up, so we said we gotta go. This was their first time on the coaster. They’ve been on it now four times.”

In anticipation of the rides reopening and the approaching spring and summer seasons, Thomas said he brought in 120 new employees over the last five weeks.

“Staffing has been one of our biggest challenges so far,” he said. “I guess employees were getting more money with unemployment than working here. We also realized that when restaurants were allowed to reopen, they were all fighting for chefs and sous chefs and dishwashers so there was a huge influx of jobs at the same time.”

At Legoland, where about 1,200 workers were furloughed when the park closed last March, the excitement in the air was palpable and extended to the park’s staff — including Carlsbad resident Laurie Shaw. She teaches robotics classes at the park and serves as an usher for live entertainment shows. It’s an ideal job for a former teacher, she says, and one she couldn’t wait to get back to.

“It’s the best. After being locked down for so long, being around people is wonderful and seeing the kids enjoy themselves is absolutely my favorite thing,” Shaw said. “It’s why I work here.”