Apps help theme parks boost their COVID safety -- and collect data on you

Hugo Martín, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Business News

Heading to Six Flags Magic Mountain for some gut-twisting roller coasters? Prepare to walk past a thermal camera that automatically takes your temperature.

Want to enjoy a Dole Whip at Disneyland? Have your smartphone ready to order it on the park's app.

Trying to find your way to the Studio Tour ride at Universal Studios Hollywood? Open a map on your phone.

Theme parks have for years been relying on technology to better manage crowds, speed up the purchase of food and drinks, and eliminate gridlock around the most popular rides. Digital tickets have factored into that. So has the practice of tracking guests' locations within a park via a phone app.

Now, after a yearlong closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Southern California's theme parks are reopening with new safety protocols — many of which lean heavily on such technology. That's helping the parks lower the risk of spreading the coronavirus and, at the same time, collect more information about their visitors.

At theme parks, the biggest risk of spreading the virus is also the biggest headache: long waits in packed crowds. Technology such as touchless payment systems to order food and apps to schedule times to ride attractions or make dining reservations is meant to reduce both.


"In the past several months, our tech teams have accelerated our move to digital in a big way," Disneyland spokesperson Liz Jaeger said.

Industry experts say the trend is global, with theme parks in Asia and Europe also pushing the increased use of technology. China's Shanghai Haichang Ocean Park reopened last year accepting only cashless payments. Legoland in Carlsbad reopened April 1, also accepting only cashless payments.

"COVID forced this because people have been away from each other and are now back," said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services. "But now we are going to see more and more of it."

Privacy advocates say the trend also gives theme parks greater opportunity to use the visitors' information to upsell them on merchandise, food and drinks, among other purchases. They also worry that the personal and financial information collected from parkgoers can be leaked or shared in unexpected ways.


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