I need to start this by making an admission. I’m really into theme parks and rollercoasters, and honestly, I wish TLDR Coasters could be a thing but for now, we’re going to stick to politics.
So when the news broke that venues like theme parks were going to be allowed to re-open I was simultaneously excited and very curious. As I say, I’m a big fan of theme parks so obviously I was excited to go back but as a journalist (if that’s what you call this) I was skeptical. Themeparks are – by there very nature – busy, crowded, and full of lines which doesn’t sound like the ideal place to re-opening during a pandemic.
Regardless I thought it would be interesting to visit and see what was really happening (I also wanted to get on the rides, I’m not going to pretend this was a fully journalistic endeavor). So I booked tickets to visit two of the UK’s biggest theme parks; Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
Before visiting I saw online that the parks were taking measures to ensure that social distancing could be maintained and transmission limited. They’d put markers on the floor to encourage people to keep their distance, they added hand sanitizer around the parks and capped the number of people who were allowed to visit each day. Upon arriving I was pleased to see that the measures were actually in place and the parks did seem to genuinely be trying to prevent the spread of COVID.
Unfortunately, this is where my experience at the two parks diverged. While both Alton Towers and Blackpool Pleasure Beach implemented social distancing markers, attendance caps, and hand sanitizing stations, the results were very very different.
It’s worth highlighting here that I only spent 3 days at these parks (2 days in Blackpool and 1 at Alton). It’s also worth noting that I visited Blackpool on Friday & Saturday when the weather was nicer – potentially making the park busier. Obviously I was only one person out of thousands at the parks. That obviously means that my experiences won’t be 100% representative of everyone on park, and if you visit, things may be very different. That being said, here’s what I experienced.
At Alton Towers, it seemed the park had a firm grasp on the issues. Queue lines had clear markers showing you where to stand, ensuring guests were always two meters apart. Hand sanitizing stations were dotted throughout the park. Staff reminded guests of the new rules and reprimanded those who weren’t following them as well as ensuring everyone wore a face-covering while on the rides. Broadly these moves were successful, and throughout my day at the resort, I never felt unsafe and only twice had two ask people to keep their distance (which they quickly did).
Blackpool Pleasure Beach appeared very similar on the surface. The queue markers were there, the staff ensured mask usage on rides and hand sanitizer was readily available (although it really didn’t smell good). However, the actual end results were far less successful. I would estimate that 90% of people at Alton Towers followed the rules and stayed socially distant when possible – at Blackpool you could flip that. In every single queue the person behind me was ignoring the social distancing markers and was right against my back – one even close enough to repeatedly hit me with their helium balloon.
I’m not qualified to tell you why these two parks’ success rates were so vastly different and I’m not even going to try, but it did make me think about a crucial question when it comes to unlocking. As a society do we have to allow businesses to re-open because of their economic productivity, or do these organizations have to earn and maintain our trust?
Blackpool Pleasure Beach followed government guidelines – not only that they also implemented almost exactly the same measures as Alton Towers (even going further moving their whole ticketing system online to prevent the need for wristband scanning). However, from my experience at least, I felt repeatedly felt unsafe in the park.
A Blackpool Pleasure Beach spokesperson responded to our experience by remarking:
“Blackpool Pleasure Beach wants to assure guests it has a comprehensive programme of COVID-19 protocols and procedures in place. As we enter our fifth week of operation since reopening on the 4th July we review and adapt these based upon government and health authority guidance plus guests behaviour across our 42 acre site. These are communicated to guests in advance of their visit via email, on our website and social media channels. When guests arrive and during their visit we have signage, voice announcements and ambassadors to assist and guide guests. Additional resources are being deployed to ensure guests observe our social distancing procedures and this Saturday the park will be open from 10 am until 10 pm giving guests a 12 hour period in which to enjoy a visit to the park.”
In response to our experience at Alton Towers a spokesperson commented:
“The health and wellbeing of our guests and staff is always our top priority. We are working incredibly hard to keep our guests and employees safe, and have a wide range of measures in place to ensure social distancing and good hygiene. We are continuously monitoring and adapting these measures in line with the changing government guidance and where we can see more needs to be done to protect our guests. For example, since re-opening we’ve introduced a dedicated team of Crowd Controllers to help prevent large groups gathering and to facilitate the movement of guests around the park. We’d like to thank all our guests for adhering to our guidelines and behaving in a respectful way towards our teams and each other.”
The problem is that I don’t think it being ‘hard’ is a good enough excuse. It might be hard to monitor the queues but it’s certainly not impossible. Staff members could man the queues ensureing social distancing or alternatively parks could utilise their existing CCTV and PA systems to great effect. If theme parks argued that it’s hard to keep people from walking on their manicured lawns I’d have some sympathy, but this isn’t just a preference, this is ultimately about public health.
In my view venues like these (as well as pubs, bars, cinemas, theatres, and others) have a duty to the public. They’re in no way essential, so if they want to re-open they have to ensure they can protect public health, actually enforcing rules rather than just papering over the cracks. It might be difficult to make sure guests are abiding by regulations but if you can’t, I’d really question why you are even open. If a theme park had dangerous rides and couldn’t keep people safe we rightly wouldn’t stand for it. So if parks can’t effectively limit the spread of COVID why do we ignore it?
In fact, it’s even worse than the dodgy rides example I gave a moment ago because any negligence related to COVID not only impacts guests is also affects the community around the park.
I understand that these are businesses that support local economies and employ thousands, but I don’t think that’s sufficient justification to re-open them right away. I’m also not trying to single out Blackpool Pleasure Beach. While Alton Towers was better in my experience, there were definitely areas of the park where the crowds became overwhelming and socially distancing wasn’t maintained. Even beyond the theme park industry, it’s important to consider the responsibility that businesses hold, and the duty they have to society. If they’re not willing or able to keep their guests and communities safe, I think we need to question why they were allowed to re-open in the first place.