Like other theme park operators around the country, SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment closed its attractions in mid-March due to the coronavirus crisis. 

Now that some of those theme parks have been reopened for several weeks, interim CEO Marc Swanson’s message for guests is that it is safe to return -- and, he said, “equally important, you can still have a good time.”

Speaking from the company’s SeaWorld Orlando property, Swanson acknowledged that there were new procedures in place, ranging from mandatory face coverings to social distancing measures, but said the theme park experience is still enjoyable.

“As a father of three, I brought my children here on the first day they could come,” Swanson said. “I wouldn’t bring them somewhere I didn’t think was safe.”

SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment operates a number of regional and destination theme parks around the country. Its Orlando parks — SeaWorld, Aquatica and Discovery Cove — reopened to the public June 11. Farther south in Florida, Busch Gardens Tampa and Adventure Island Tampa also reopened June 11. Earlier, the Aquatica water park in San Antonio, Texas, reopened June 6. 

Reopening dates had not been confirmed at press time for SeaWorld San Diego, Busch Gardens Williamsburg and Water Country USA in Virginia, or Sesame Place in Langhorne, Pa.

In order to begin reopening parks, new operating procedures and safety protocols had to be developed. 

“We obviously spent a lot of time working on the safety protocols,” Swanson said. “That included time learning from people in the medical community, epidemiologists, folks at the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention], governmental authorities, and then even others in the industry,” he said.

That included theme park operators such as the Walt Disney Co., Universal Parks & Resorts, Six Flags Entertainment Corp. and Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., according to Swanson. That is why they have many of the same new procedures in place, ranging from temperature checks at the parks’ entrances to face covering requirements and reduced capacity.

“I like to say there’s no monopoly on safety,” Swanson said. “We all want to do the right thing.”

Once safety protocols were developed, Swanson said SeaWorld then began to devise ways to inform guests of these new procedures, including signage throughout the parks, frequent announcements, descriptions and a video on SeaWorld’s website.

All SeaWorld Orlando employees and guests are required to wear face coverings.
All SeaWorld Orlando employees and guests are required to wear face coverings.

An important aspect of opening under new procedures has been the in-park teams whose sole focus is answering guests’ questions and encouraging them to comply with the rules, such as wearing face masks. At SeaWorld, that team is called the “sanitation squad.” At Busch Gardens, it’s the “clean team.”

Generally, guests seem to recognize that enhanced safety protocols are necessary in the era of Covid-19, Swanson said. They have been understanding so far.

“Having said that, there’s a little bit of a learning curve to coming to a theme park and having to wear a mask and stand 6 feet apart,” he said, which the in-park teams are helpful in addressing.

There are also designated areas where guests can safely remove their masks while remaining socially distant from others.

All theme parks that have reopened, or that plan to in the near future, have reduced capacity. Swanson said SeaWorld’s parks reopened with caps at about one-third their previous daily limits on capacity. That ensures social distancing can be achieved throughout the park.

Increasing capacity will be guided by state and local governments’ phases of reopening, Swanson said. 

“How long that takes, I don’t know,” he said. “We’ll ultimately follow the recommendations of the folks who are in charge of those things in the communities we serve.”

Though the number of Covid-19 cases in Florida was on the rise as of press time, Swanson said he was confident in the parks’ safety protocols and any changes in their ability to remain open would come from government authorities.

While the pandemic has affected revenue for all park operators, the interim CEO believes the attractions industry will come back strongly once the crisis passes.

“People are getting sick. Unfortunately, a lot of people are passing away,” he said. “I think it’s been a reminder to people of what’s important in life, if you will, and spending time with your family and friends and making memories. I think theme parks offer just a great ability to do that.”

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