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Photograph: Courtesy Christian Thompson/Disneyland Resort

Disneyland and Universal won’t be able to reopen until their counties reach California’s least-restrictive reopening tier

But small theme parks can reopen outdoor operations a bit earlier.

Michael Juliano
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Michael Juliano
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California has released reopening guidelines for restaurants, bars, museums, zoos, movie theaters and shopping malls, among other sectors. Cobble all of those together and you have something that looks sort of like a theme park—but the state had yet to actually release sector-specific guidelines that would allow spots like Disneyland to reopen. That is, until today.

Theme parks in California can reopen at 25 percent capacity only if the counties in which they reside can reach the least restrictive tiers of the state’s reopening plans, as announced today by California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly. 

Under the new guidelines, large theme parks won’t be able to reopen until their county has hit the yellow tier, at which point they can resume operations at 25% capacity. Los Angeles County, home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain, is currently stuck in the state’s most-restrictive purple tier. And Orange County, where you’ll find Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm, has moved forward one step into the red tier. That puts reopenings for SoCal’s major theme parks many weeks if not months away, even in a best case scenario.

Theme park guidelines
Courtesy CA Public Health

Smaller theme parks (considered a capacity of 15,000 people or fewer) may resume operations in the orange tier, which no SoCal county has currently achieved. Capacity is limited to 25 percent or 500 people, whichever is fewer—which effectively limits that to small boardwalk parks. They’ll be given the go ahead to open outdoor attractions only and ticket sales are limited to visitors in the same county. Ghaly explained that smaller parks’ more local reach and outdoor-based setup allows them to open ahead of their larger counterparts. But for both large and small parks, advance reservations and symptom screenings will be required, as will face coverings.

In the same press conference, the state announced that sports stadiums could welcome fans again as early as the orange tier, with 20% capacity and ticket sales limited to customers within a 120 mile radius. In explaining the difference between stadium and theme park guidance, Ghaly said that due to tens of thousands of visitors from all over the map randomly congregating and touching things, the state considers theme parks high risk. Comparatively, they consider outdoor stadiums significantly lower risk because of factors like a limited geographic base, operating hours and offering pre-assigned seating.

Stadium guidelines
Courtesy CA Public Health

It’s been—pun totally intended—a roller-coaster ride to get to these sector guidelines. Back in the middle of March, theme parks shut their gates for what they all assumed would just be for the rest of the month. By early June, much of California began to reopen, and even though theme park guidelines had yet to be released, Disneyland announced that it would reopen in July pending government approval. Cut to only a few weeks later and those plans were delayed indefinitely as cases climbed and California paused its reopening plans with no intention to move forward “anytime soon.”

When California finally announced its new four-tier reopening framework in late August, theme parks were notably absent from its sector guidance (which led Knott’s Berry Farm to get creative with a food fest in its park). Cue a series of back and forths between theme park unions and the state government that grew considerably uglier when a statement from Disney about the 28,000 layoffs in its parks, experiences and products segment were “exacerbated in California by the state’s unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen.” Around the same time, the state had repeatedly said its theme park guidelines were imminent, to the point that Ghaly said they’d be released “as soon as possible”—only for Governor Gavin Newsom to say the very next day that he was in “no hurry” to reopen them. Meanwhile, behind the scenes theme parks were pushing back against initial draft guidelines from the state that, according to the Orange County Register, would’ve prevented theme parks from reopening until they reached the least-restrictive yellow tier, at which point they would have been limited to 25% capacity and visitors from within a 120-mile radius. As it turns out, not much has changed from those initial guidelines.

UPDATE: In a response to the guidelines, Disneyland Resort president Ken Potrock called them “unworkable” and said that they hold theme parks to “a standard vastly different from other reopened businesses and state-operated facilities.”

Meanwhile, Universal went with a much cheekier public response.

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