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Theme Park News: How the CDC's new guidelines will shape your next visit

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May 18, 2021, 1:10 PM EDT

Welcome to Theme Park News! For many, the past few weeks felt like a return to normalcy — solid numbers of the nation's adults reaching fully-vaxxed status, friends and family safely reuniting, and at long last, all of America's main theme parks open once again for business. Then, last Thursday, like a launch coaster zooming out of the station, the CDC announced vaccinated people no longer have to wear masks indoors and outdoors, turbocharging a wave of changes at businesses nationwide like Starbucks, Costco, and Target, as well as at theme and amusement parks.

I myself learned of the news while leaving Las Vegas, literally, after visiting the new Meow Wolf outpost there. (More on that next week.) Since then, an avalanche of policy changes have been rolled out at parks across the country, which we'll be diving into and discussing in today's column.

We begin, of course, with Florida. Within 24 hours of the CDC's announcement, Universal Orlando issued an update, effective the following day. Later that evening — at 10 p.m. Eastern, when many of their morning-shift employees were likely to be asleep — Disney World followed suit.

According to new guidelines, Disney and Universal's Orlando theme parks no longer require masks while outdoors or entering the park. They will both continue to require masks from entry to exit on all attractions, inside theaters and indoor locations like stores and restaurants, and on transportation. (I'm told that in Disney's outdoor "overflow" queues, which extend beyond the official main attraction entrance, guests are able to continue eating or drinking while keeping their masks off.)

It's rather surprising that, following 10 months of being in lockstep with CDC guidelines, both parks would, for the second time in a month, interpret COVID-19 protocols to their own choosing. Back on May 5, Universal Orlando Resort announced it would be shortening social distancing to 3 feet — a metric used by the CDC for school classrooms, not theme parks, but greenlit by Mayor Demings — only for Disney to announce a "phased" approach to lessening social distancing, moving past 6-foot requirements in certain spaces, yet keeping the guidelines for merchandise and dining locations.

The new mask guidelines are not exactly in line with CDC recommendations either, which were exclusively issued for vaccinated people. (It's worth noting that weeks ago, Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill barring Florida businesses from the ability to use vaccine passports.) Though the science shows transmission outdoors is minimal, the CDC still recommends unvaccinated people wear masks while at outdoor events like live performances, parades, or sports events and even at small outdoor gatherings with unvaccinated people. Disney and Universal's decision to allow all guests to go maskless across outdoor spaces is somewhat bizarre when you consider, too, that these parks primarily cater to families, when few would yet have fully vaccinated children.

As I am not on the ground for a few more weeks, I'm unable to share what it's been like for guests and employees during the policy's first few days, but the effect on those who were blindsided by the change is well-documented. As reported by Gabrielle Russon at The Orlando Sentinel, some guests were shocked to hear of the change while packing or soon to be en route to the airport. Some heralded the choice in order to no longer wear a mask in Florida's extreme humidity, but for others, it feels like too much too soon. For juxtaposition, on Thursday, hours after the CDC's announcement, Bob Chapek went on CNBC and mentioned there would be "a lot more comfortable people this summer in Orlando." Less than two days later, guests would be able to enter the Magic Kingdom, maskless.

On the other coast, Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland are still tied to the state's stringent standards. As of yesterday, the state of California confirmed it would not change mask policies until its economy "reopens" on June 15. Orange County, where Disneyland is located, is expected to hit the yellow tier this week, which would grant Disneyland the ability to increase capacity to 35 percent; currently, Disneyland's two parks are restricted to 25 percent capacity.

Then there's the rest of the country. SeaWorld Orlando and SeaWorld San Antonio are no longer requiring vaccinated guests to wear masks — nor are they checking for vaccination status — while Six Flags Great America, in partnership with Gov. J.B. Pritzker, will offer free tickets to Illinois residents who get vaccinated. Over in Pennsylvania, Hersheypark announced that vaccinated guests would no longer be required to social distance or wear masks throughout the park, a curious turn of phrase considering, well, it's not so simple for guests to voluntarily opt in or out of social distance from others while waiting in a queue.

In a long, long road to reopening, things are still ever-changing. Be sure to check each location's website and guidelines prior to any future theme or amusement park visits.

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