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9 Things You May Not See in Theme Parks Anymore

Theme parks are open again, but you'll definitely notice some differences if you visit one right now.

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Theme park goers wear face masks as they ride a roller coaster
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Back to…normal?

From how we stay in hotels to how we fly to reach those destinations, life as we know it has changed forever due to the novel coronavirus—and in some ways, that’s a good thing. After shuttering completely for months and then reopening with slews of restrictions, major theme parks like Disney World and Universal seemed to be, for the most part, back in full swing this summer. But with the Delta variant causing frightening surges and once-promising vaccination rates lagging, are restrictions back in place? Well…it depends.

If you decide to visit theme parks, here are a few changes you may notice. It’s important to know that even with these new safety measures in place, theme parks can’t guarantee your safety—and the measures themselves are changing frequently as we adjust to the new surge and the regulations that come with it.

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Six Flags guests wearing face masks
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Unmasked visitors (indoors)

For a brief time, it seemed like the days of wearing face masks were over, at least for vaccinated people. But the Delta variant has complicated things significantly. At the moment, there are no mask mandates in California or Florida, which allows individual theme parks to make their own policies. They may need to adhere to local guidelines, which vary significantly and can override state guidelines; for instance, Universal Studios Hollywood must follow LA County’s mask mandate for indoors. Some theme parks are requiring or strongly recommending masks be worn indoors while relaxing rules for outdoors. Both U.S. Disney parks began requiring face masks indoors again in late July, regardless of vaccination status, for example. (Costume masks still aren’t allowed in Disney parks, though!) At Universal Orlando, meanwhile, masks are only required indoors for parkgoers who aren’t fully vaccinated; for vaccinated customers, they’re strongly encouraged indoors. Here are 25 photos that show face masks are part of the new normal.

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Disneyland employee wearing a facemark during reopening
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Unmasked employees

Many theme parks actually have different mask policies for their employees vs. their guests. At Disneyland, both vaccinated and unvaccinated Cast Members must wear masks, and some who have closer contact with guests must wear face shields as well. Likewise, at California’s LEGOLAND, employees are required to wear masks while guests are “strongly recommended” to while indoors. At LEGOLAND in Florida, meanwhile, employees must wear masks indoors, and unvaccinated employees must wear them at all times. Guests there only have a “recommendation” to wear masks indoors. Find out the things that are banned from Disney parks.

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Nurse preparing a cover 19 vaccine
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Unvaccinated employees

True, this isn’t something you can “see,” but it’s certainly a step some theme parks are taking. Employers throughout the United States are deciding whether to mandate vaccination for their employees, and theme parks are among them. “Today, more and more companies are requiring team members facing guests to be vaccinated with the hope…that the latest wave of COVID-19–related issues will reduce in the near future,” says Tim Murphy, CEO of Boomers Parks. In July, the Walt Disney Company as a whole announced that all of its salaried and non-union hourly employees would be required to be vaccinated by the end of September. In August, on the heels of the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, Disney announced that unionized Walt Disney World employees would also require vaccination by October 22. They’re even hosting vaccination sites at Disney World in hopes of getting all employees vaccinated.

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Packed crowds

This is a tough one. For better or worse, large crowds are certainly going to be a hallmark of theme parks again. After drastically limiting capacity immediately after reopening, theme parks nationwide are back at 100 percent capacity—but for how long? Even social distancing requirements have been lifted in most cases, but things may change due to the Delta variant, says Fix the Photo’s Kate Gross, a professional photographer & software engineer. “I do believe that social distancing will return as a precaution in theme parks,” she told Reader’s Digest. “Children, who are the majority of the crowd in a theme park, still aren’t eligible to be vaccinated. Hence, they are at a greater risk of the Delta variant. Vaccination rates may not be fully able to keep the new variant at bay, and we may see social distancing returning to theme parks.” Find out these 20 Disney World secrets you’ll want to know.

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Masked guests at Disney world enjoying a parade
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Photos with some Disney characters

Meet-and-greets were another of the first things to go when Disney parks returned in the midst of the pandemic. Though they’re technically back, Murphy thinks guests may approach them with a grain of salt, and it will depend on the character. “Characters that are completely covered can wear face masks underneath the character costumes to help prevent any transmission of COVID-19 and other potential sicknesses,” he told Reader’s Digest. And even if they don’t, those costumes themselves function as somewhat of a face covering. But you don’t want to see a mask on your favorite princess, which may reduce the allure of getting up close and personal even if the performer is vaccinated. “Risk needs to be weighed going forward, but I do believe we will see less smiling and taking pictures with princesses and princes but will continue to take pictures with those characters completely covered with costumes and masks as time progresses,” Murphy continues, adding that the full-body costumes can be easily cleaned as well. However, he says, “Although hugging and touching a character in a costume could change in different ways to help prevent transmission of COVID-19, I do not feel all character greeting will go away.” Here are 25 facts you didn’t know about your favorite Disney characters.

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Contactless payment at an amusement park
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Cash transactions

Theme parks like LEGOLAND have gone cashless to help decrease physical touch between theme park employees and guests. Mobile ordering in theme parks will become more common at restaurants and in gift shops as well. “There are many more amusement parks and companies willing to forgo receiving cash due to the pandemic effects of disease transmission,” Murphy says. “At Boomers Parks, we see depending on the geographic location that credit and debit cards make up 65-90 percent of all transactions. As with many companies, we have and will explore eliminating accepting cash transactions as time progresses.” He does add, though, that in some states, it’s illegal for businesses to completely eliminate cash as a form of payment.

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Cropped Hand Pressing Faucet Button Of Drinking Fountain
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Water fountains

During a long day of walking around a park in intense heat, when you’d stop to take a drink at a water fountain, you might need to think twice. Many public places have placed their water fountains off-limits during the pandemic, and theme parks like Boomers Parks are no exception. “We have shut off all water fountains at our Boomers Parks to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19,” Murphy says. “The time to clean [them] after every use to protect the guest is cost-prohibitive…and nearly impossible to [assign] a team member due to the increasing cost of labor to clean a water fountain after each use.” But, of course, not having water fountains accessible is less than ideal in hot theme parks, and Murphy acknowledges that. “What amusement parks need [is] to make sure [to] provide guests with water if they need any water in some form, free of charge.”

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Facade of a beautiful theater inside of the Walt Disney's...
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Concert halls and theaters

Though large-scale events like concerts are continuing for now, it’s unclear how the future of the pandemic could affect how theme parks handle events like these—in particular, the spaces that hold them, according to Murphy. Murphy even speculates that theme parks could close their concert venues if consistently filling them is not a reasonable possibility in the near future. “If concert halls and theaters have been built before the pandemic but now we need to space guests out more in these theaters…then the buildings that were built will take much longer to pay for,” he says. “Maybe, in some cases, [this] could prevent amusement parks from operating these theaters altogether as it costs more to run them now.” This could especially hurt smaller theme parks for whom concerts and shows are a large part of their draw, he adds. Do you know about these differences between Disneyland and Disney World?

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Masked people separated on a running roller coaster
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Single-rider lines

Some parks, including Universal Orlando, nixed single-rider lines (used for people flying solo to fill in seats when incomplete parties join the queue) upon reopening to decrease interaction between guests in different parties. “I can see single-rider lines elimination continuing for the foreseeable future, especially at the smaller amusement parks when parks are operating at the busiest times,” says Murphy.


Madeline Wahl
Madeline Wahl is a former associate editor and writer at RD.com whose work has appeared on HuffPost, Red Magazine, McSweeney's, Pink Pangea, The Mighty, Golf Channel and Yahoo Lifestyle, among others. More of her writing can be found on her website, madelinehwahl.com.
Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.