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It's time to rethink theme parks. Creative ways to reopen while social distancing

Todd Martens, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Travel News

LOS ANGELES -- Knott's Berry Farm recently felt more like a national park than a theme park. Reopening for a Knott's-designed food event dubbed Taste of Calico, the Southern California park's famed ghost town was clear for roaming on an early Friday afternoon. And though there was an air of trepidation among the guests seeking boysenberry-fueled delectables, maintaining at least 10 or 15 feet distance from another human was relatively easy -- just the way this pandemic-wary mind likes it.

Western characters traversed the second story of the ghost town's frontier buildings, keeping alive from a distance the theme park's pre-pandemic tomfoolery -- including the shock and concern expressed at the very sight of any piece of modern technology held by a guest.

In Florida, theme parks from Disney and Universal have reopened to much debate and health-related concerns amid still raging COVID-19 numbers, while Los Angeles and Orange County theme parks here remain on pause. Knott's, unable to offer any rides, attractions or shows during its 100th year, has essentially shape-shifted into a large alfresco dining locale. The carved rocks and perfectly centered waterfalls of the Calico Mine Ride provided, at long last, a bit of nature to this dweller of downtown Los Angeles, where my surrounding streets are still overcrowded with the unmasked.

When Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World parks reopened in recent weeks, much of the focus, as it was when international parks returned to business, was on social distancing markers, Plexiglas, temperature checks and even some creative use of characters -- where they are seen amid the park's surroundings rather than mingling with guests.

Health, right now, is the primary concern, but it seems increasingly apparent that the effects of 2020 will be with us for some time to come, even if we receive good news on COVID-19 treatments or technology that allows us to quickly screen for the virus.

In turn, the near future of theme parks experiences could begin to look very different. There is already a very real financial toll with the constant threat of furloughs and layoffs -- Universal parent Comcast reported another round of theme park cuts in its recent earnings report -- and upcoming projects are being delayed and reevaluated, with some no doubt at risk of being canceled altogether. With uncertainties surrounding travel and the long-term spending power of consumers, large investments in infrastructure will have to wait.


And yet there are still creative opportunities to be had. Knott's Taste of Calico, for instance, is expanding on weekends beginning Aug. 21 as the Taste of Knott's to use more of the park.

It's easy to imagine many areas of a theme park resort being refashioned into a special-event space. I've been holding out hope that the outdoor grounds of the Disneyland Hotel would be utilized for a food and drink event featuring the talents of the staff at its tiki bar Trader Sam's.

But this is also a chance to re-imagine the theme park space, to view the entire grounds as something akin to a game board. Those who have been to Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom or used the Play Disney Parks app at Galaxy's Edge have seen how games such as "Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom" and the Star Wars: Datapad can be used to keep crowds moving and get people to interact with areas of the park beyond a ride or a shop.

Over the years there have been other experiments, the live-action, role-playing game "Legends of Frontierland" or Disneyland's Adventureland Trading Company, which provided physical rewards for light scavenger hunting. It also succeeded in getting me to spend more than half of a day in Adventureland, keeping me out of lines and looking at an area of Disneyland in a new light, the exact sort of activities that are significantly more appealing than indoor ride vehicles in an era of social distancing.


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