If you’re a regular reader of Paste who actually pays attention to the names at the top of our articles, you might know that I love theme parks. I grew up going to them all the time, and as an adult fell in love with the care and artistry that goes into designing these spaces. I love ‘em so much that I was determined to make a trip to a theme park my first big outing as the pandemic started to wind down, despite being as hunkered down as anyone could possibly be since the quarantine hit in March. I don’t even go to the grocery store, but I was totally prepared to go to Disney World as soon as I could, and not just because I don’t want the money I spent on this annual pass to go to waste.
Disney World doesn’t open until next week, but I’ve already hit up a theme park that’s closer to home. Six Flags Over Georgia reopened for members and pass holders on June 15, and after weighing it over for a couple of days I decided to head down there on June 18. Based on what I saw there, and when considered alongside the second spike in COVID-19 cases in the weeks since, I was pretty much left with one single thought: there’s no way I’m going to one of these places until this pandemic is truly winding down. Like, I might have to wait for a vaccine.
Yes, Six Flags is taking precautions to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Their efforts are summed up in a campaign called Do the Six. Here are its six steps:
1. Wear your mask
2. Wash your hands
3. Cover your cough
4. Keep your space
5. Sanitize often
6. Have fun!
One of those steps really has nothing to do with avoiding an easily transmitted virus, but I get it: you want to end things on a light note. If you’re at a theme park, you’re there to have fun, obviously. The first five steps are important to staying safe, and if followed properly should help to prevent spread. And Six Flags did have employees checking to make sure guests were wearing masks as they entered, had distance markers on the ground throughout the park and ride queues, and had handwashing and sanitizer stations posted throughout the park.
The problem is that there was no enforcement of any of this past the front gate. Once I was inside the park I saw many guests walking around with their masks dangling from one ear or worn below their chin. The line for Monster Mansion, Six Flags Over Georgia’s beloved dark ride, had six foot markers on the ground, but none of the rows of the switchback queue were closed off. That means guests might have been standing six feet apart from the people in front of and behind them, but they were only a couple of feet away from guests on either of their sides. We were basically standing shoulder to shoulder.
Also, this might be a surprise, but putting a sticker on the ground isn’t always enough to compel people to keep their distance. I observed the six feet between me and the couple in front of me in the Monster Mansion line, but the two children who got in line behind me, and who were not accompanied by an adult, would regularly stand just a foot or two away from me. The group behind them made no attempt to distance or cover their faces once in line; it was a party of three adult women and four children, and all of them took their masks off once they got in line, and consistently stood right next to the kids behind me. I’m sure I looked like the biggest, grumpiest weirdo on the planet, standing in that line with my arms crossed, my chin tucked in against my chest, and facing a wall whenever I was able to.
To the park’s credit, they were limiting how many boats were going through the ride at one time. This turned a line that normally would’ve taken five minutes to get through into a 40 minute wait. Of course that meant standing in a poorly behaved line that refused to Do the Six for much longer than I expected, and that definitely wasn’t a way to have fun.
Once on the ride, things felt fine. Guests didn’t share a boat—you only rode with people in your party. And I never saw another boat the entire time I was on the ride, so they did a good job of distancing guests once they were onboard. I didn’t see any attempt to clean the vehicles during the whole time I was in line for it, though, and it was impossible to get on or off one of its boats without having to come in close contact with a Six Flags employee. At least the two I had to interact with were both wearing their masks, but given how many customers they’ll come in contact with during a shift, they’re putting both themselves and everybody they talk to at risk.
Monster Mansion was the only ride I tried. I honestly felt a little freaked out after it, and not just because I once again wound up going into the marsh and getting eaten like a stupid idiot. (Seriously, if you’ve never ridden Monster Mansion, you totally have to—it’s the best dark ride in America that’s not in a Disney park. Even better than Universal’s E.T. ride.) I was hyper alert around everybody else in the park after that queue experience, and even with capacity heavily limited and only open to pass holders who made advance reservations, it was still very difficult to simply walk around the place without other people getting too close to me. I would say almost half of the people I saw in the park past the entrance weren’t actually wearing their masks in the proper way, and I never saw a single employee telling any of them to fix it.
One thing theme parks have going for them is that they are mostly open air, outside of the attractions, shows and restaurants (or, as you might also know them, the things you’re there to experience). It’s less likely you’ll inhale somebody else’s respiratory droplets if you’re both outside. It’s far less likely that’ll happen if you’re both wearing masks and keeping your distance, and that’s where Six Flags’ “Do the Six” efforts fell apart. Once I was past the gate I stopped feeling safe, and after testing out that one ride I felt the need to get out of there. So I finished doing a lap around the park, went back out that same gate, and drove home. I was there for less than an hour and a half, total.
Let me remind you that this was a limited advance opening exclusively for passholders, and I was uncomfortable about how many people weren’t following the rules and how Six Flags did almost nothing to enforce them. The park opened to anybody who wants to buy a ticket the following week. Capacity is still limited, and advance reservations are still needed, but I’d imagine there are more people there now than when I went two weeks ago. If enforcement hasn’t gotten better since then, I don’t understand how anybody could feel safe there.
Even after that experience I was still on the fence about returning to Disney World when it reopens in July. Presumably Disney will be more rigorous about its precautions than Six Flags. Still, there’s no way any place as large as a theme park could make sure that every guest is strictly following the rules at all times. And with Florida becoming one of the worst hotbeds for the virus over the last month, I can’t see myself returning to Disney World without feeling frozen by stress and anxiety.
Again: I love theme parks, and have missed them greatly over the last four months. I was actually at Disney World the week before everything changed on March 11, and that was the fifth month in a row I had gone there. I go to these places a lot, and I can’t wait to return to them—whenever it feels safe to do so. Unfortunately now is not that time.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He really should’ve stayed out of the marsh. He shares stories and photos from his Disney journeys on Instagram at @garrett_goes_to_disney. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.