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SYFY WIRE Theme Park News

What we know (and don't know) about when California theme parks will reopen

By Carlye Wisel
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad roller coaster careening around a corner

Welcome back to Theme Park News. We’re going to head westward this week, casting a gaze upon the future of Los Angeles and Anaheim’s famed theme parks as we lean into a major California update.

So let's all soak in the coastal spirit as we unpack the future state of West Coast theme parks during this coronavirus pandemic.


For a moment this summer, it looked like Disneyland would open on its iconic 65th birthday, with two of its hotels — Disney’s Grand Californian and Paradise Pier — welcoming back guests one week later. Those July 17 and July 23 dates would not come to fruition due to governmental-related delays, canceling the park's would-be quarantine birthday as the COVID-19 caseload in California became significantly worse.

It’s hard not to feel like there’s a cool breeze in the air, signaling the coming of fall and the possibility that the parks could, in fact, reopen in the coming months. This is partially conjecture, but it’s nonetheless fueled by something very, very real: that Orange County, California, has officially been removed from the state’s coronavirus watch list. If Orange County maintains its numbers for two weeks, according to the Orange County Register, it could lead to schools reopening with new distancing protocol — which easily infers that other measures could shift, including closure ordinances from July being lifted. (Knott’s Berry Farm, on the other hand, has explicitly mentioned being unsure if a full reopening is on the horizon for 2020.)

The first park to open will, unexpectedly, be SeaWorld San Diego, as it falls under the zoo reopening protocol and can return to operations this weekend. Indoor spaces, as well as attractions, will remain closed, so it’s a debut cloaked in technicalities — but the first step toward these parks’ eventual reopenings nonetheless.

Universal Studios Hollywood, located in Los Angeles County, was rumored to have its eyes on a June reopening date — which also got scrapped — but there’s little intel on when it may open again. Just like SeaWorld San Diego, the nearby Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association has also been granted approval to reopen with a reservation system. But while the city itself holds similar restrictions on indoor dining and businesses as Orange County, L.A. County proper hasn’t been knocked off the watchlist yet.

Furloughed Disney Parks employees at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World received an email yesterday indicating their furloughs could possibly last longer than six months. This notice doesn't signal toward Disneyland opening earlier or later than Monday, Oct. 19, the six-month mark from furloughs beginning April 19, but I'm pleased either way to hear employees will continue to receive company benefits and are eligible for unemployment benefits — and, above all, wish all Disney cast members and theme park employees safety and the best in this troubling time.

In the meantime, California's theme parks resorts have done their best to keep fans safe and satiated despite Halloween events that would have energized a post-summer crowd now being widely canceled. Knott's Berry Farm's Taste of Calico event and its subsequent Taste of Knott's outdoor mini food festival takes place on the park’s grounds as surrounding coasters remain at a standstill, while Legoland California is flexing its park muscle by allowing guests to walk the outdoor Miniland USA with a hotel stay, annual pass, or gift shop purchase minimum. Disneyland also expanded its Downtown Disney offerings earlier this week with a reservation-only shopping event this weekend offering exclusive merchandise and collectible pins. 


Another reason I’m hypothesizing California parks could open later this fall is from a recent photo set shared on Instagram by Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products:

When I toured Avengers Campus for SYFY WIRE days prior to the park’s pandemic shutdown, the land wasn’t far enough along yet to place the Quinjet atop the central structure. The jet's placement in this new picture signals that construction has progressed, even if the exterior isn't done. Furthermore, note that this isn’t a casual photo — it’s a pivotal point in the construction process that required a photographer and advanced scheduling to coordinate the schedules of Josh D’Amaro and Marvel’s Kevin Feige to make the images a reality.

This photo is only made public on D'Amaro's consumer-facing account because Disney wants us to see it — and, in my loose interpretation, remind fans that Avengers Campus is on its way so it doesn’t slip their mind or future vacation plans. Am I reading the tea leaves a bit too closely? Sure, but it’s a pandemic and my closest parks are closed. What else is there to do? I just think, all things considered, it’s worth noting that Avengers Campus could possibly be closer to completion than had previously been made public — especially since, right after I wrote this column, Disneyland posted job openings for Avengers Campus stunt performers.


Though crowd patterns can be different, there are some worthy comparisons between the California and Florida resorts. Even with capacity limitations, Universal and Disney's Orlando theme parks didn't hit reservation or full capacity at the start. (The Orlando Sentinel reported that Deutsche Bank evaluated Disney as operating at 80 percent less than last year, while Universal admission has picked up, but is still down over half of what it was in 2019.) This could differ on the West Coast, where audience patterns differ significantly, as parks are more regional and rely less on guests traveling from a far distance and staying overnight, but shows that some theme park fans are disinterested in visiting any park at the moment.

The Walt Disney World Park Pass reservation system, which has proved problematic for Annual Passholders, could be even trickier to navigate when likely put into place for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure. There are fewer locations to choose from, and as stated above, these parks rely more on a large, local audience, where visits can be a casual day trip and don't necessarily correlate with booking an entire vacation.

Orlando's theme parks have been resilient in adapting their COVID-19 protocols to guest behavior, and we hope some of those new processes will be utilized from day one when California's parks open. Social distance markers were recently added to Magic Kingdom's Main Street USA, empty spaces are being utilized to lessen crowding, and additional cast members and overhead announcements were added to remind guests to step to the side when eating — all of which weren't in place when Disney World first reopened. We'd love to see even more of these changes, including cast members directing traffic in pinch points like at the front of Diagon Alley or by the Odyssey Pavilion, which has become a main thoroughfare due to Epcot construction. Regardless, we're glad to see theme parks continue to be devoted to guest safety.


The comedic factor of Universal's Islands of Adventure building an entire roller coaster while pretending it's not happening reached a new apex (predator, heh heh) this week when, well, that situation was captured above.

It's the ultimate Christmastime hack of wrapping a bike and leaving it under the tree in hopes that no one will recognize what the gift is, only it's a whole DINOSAUR heading to the new Jurassic coaster because CLEARLY, IT IS A DINOSAUR.

Thankfully, Universal is in on the joke, but my sentiment remains:

I cannot choose!


- Absolutely cannot wait for this documentary on New Jersey's Action Park.

- The Halloween Horror Nights tribute store at Universal Studios Florida expanded even further last week, and the result is exceptional, as is the themed food.

- Cirque du Soleil's opening date has been pushed to February 2021.

- There’s a new luxury hotel at Disneyland and it looks nice.

- The basketball players have vacated Disney's Yacht Club, which is now open to the public.

- Dollywood's Homeschool Days, through Sept. 21, offers $37 student tickets and $47 adult tickets purchased in advance as well as $129 nightly DreamMore hotel rates (Sunday-Thursday, through Sept. 24) and a downloadable Science in the Park workbook to learn about velocity and momentum while having fun in the park.