This Week in Theme Park News: Indoor Masks Return as Covid Surges in OrlandoCastle photo courtesy of Disney; roller coaster photo courtesy of Carnival Cruise Line Travel Features theme parks
Maybe someday we’ll be able to talk about theme parks without talking about Covid. A few months ago it seemed like we were on the right track, but between stagnant vaccination rates and mutations like the Delta variant, we’re seeing an explosion of Covid that’s even bigger than last year in some states. And the heart of the current outbreak is Orange County, Florida—the home of Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and many of the other theme and amusement parks found around Orlando.
On Saturday Florida reported its highest daily total of new Covid cases for the entire pandemic. Like, stretching back to March of 2020, when this whole thing started. It’s literally worse in Florida, and especially Orlando, than it has ever been, almost 18 months after the initial shutdown. One in five people who tested for Covid in Orange County on Sunday were positive. The rate of infection in the county has increased almost tenfold in the last six weeks. It just set a new record for total Covid hospitalizations, over a year after its previous high. Florida’s awash with the virus right now, and nowhere more so than where most of the state’s theme parks are based.
As a result, parks are starting to revive some of the Covid precautions they put into place in 2020 and eased up on earlier this year. Employees are once again wearing masks at Disney World and Universal, and all Disney World guests now have to wear masks again while indoors, regardless of vaccination status. Universal, meanwhile, only encourages all guests to wear masks while indoors, a move echoed by Sea World. Given the unchecked spread of the virus, it might be time to go back to mandating masks in all parts of the parks, both in and outdoors.
Social distancing measures, meanwhile, have been almost fully retired at Disney and Universal parks. Masks and social distancing were key to preventing spread before the vaccine, and between these more transmittable variants and insufficient vaccination rates, both need to return to keep guests as safe as they can possibly be. It’d also probably be a smart idea to once again reduce the current daily park capacity, too, but that’s probably just as unlikely as Covid magically disappearing somehow.
Beyond masks Disney is taking one major step to protect its employees. The company has announced that all salaried and non-union employees must get the vaccine, throughout the entire company. This will no doubt be a politically controversial decision, but it shouldn’t be; the fact that the vaccine, and anti-Covid efforts in general, were politicized from the start is deplorable and one of the reasons we’re still in this mess. Disney is taking the prudent step in mandating the vaccine for its cast members. Perhaps it’s time to consider vaccine passports for guests, too?
Fortunately there is more to talk about this week than the unending spread of the virus. I’m talking about roller coasters, the kind of stuff you probably like reading about, and one coaster in particular that happens to be on a boat, of all places. This week Carnival Cruise Line launched the first ever roller coaster on a cruise ship, as their brand new vessel Mardi Gras set sail with Bolt on board. The “Ultimate Sea Coaster” is an electric ride with a motorcycle-style vehicle that circles around the upper deck of the Mardi Gras, promising a one-of-a-kind view of the ocean and a level of thrillpower previously unheard of at sea. It also lets the rider control its speed as it rockets above the ship. Built by German manufacturer Maurer Rides, Bolt sits 187 feet above the sea, with a total track length of over 700 feet and a top speed just over 35 miles per hour. It’s a coaster on a cruise ship, so obviously there’ll be some natural limitations that prevent it from getting as wild or thrilling as, say, the next coaster I’m about to talk about, but if you’re going on a cruise and happen to be a coaster fan you might as well try to book the only cruise ship that has one.
If you want the latest extreme in coasters, forget the ocean and head to Texas. Six Flags Fiesta in San Antonio has announced that the steepest dive found in any coaster in the world will be opening there in 2022. Dr. Diabolical’s Cliffhanger, which will open in time for the park’s 30th season, will suspend riders on the edge of a 95 degree drop into a 150-foot dive. Yep, 95 degrees is more than vertical, so instead of going straight down the track curves in just a little bit on its way down. That’s the ride’s most eye-catching feature, but the Bolliger & Mabillard has a lot more up its sleeve for anybody brave enough to hop aboard. It’ll have a second major drop after that first heart-stopper, along with an Immelman inversion, a high-speed spiral, copious amounts of airtime, and a 270-degree zero-g roll. It’s all wrapped up in an original story featuring the new character Dr. Diabolical and steampunk theming. Look for Dr. Diabolical’s Cliffhanger next year at Six Flags Fiesta, if you think you can handle it. I’m pretty sure I can’t. I know my limitations.
Something I am positive I can handle, and, indeed, absolutely can’t wait to experience, is the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. This immersive hotel experience will let you live the Star Wars life for two days and two nights when it opens in (a hopefully Covid-free) Orlando in 2022. On Friday Disney released a new video of Imagineers talking about the project, in the process releasing some previously unknown information. The video gives us a first glimpse at some of the exclusive food and drinks that’ll be available on the Starcruiser, along with the news that it’ll be all-inclusive, like a real cruise line. The Imagineers discuss the live musical show during the opening night dinner, some of the various story possibilities guests will be able to participate in, and also reveal a little bit about the “shore excursion” to Batuu at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. If you’ve been gobbling up every morsel of information about this extremely detailed (and, almost assuredly, extremely expensive) new hotel experience, this video will make for a tasty meal.
And that’s it for this week. If you work at a theme or amusement park and want to keep me and our readers updated on your latest news, feel free to reach out to me via email or on Twitter. And if you’re headed to any amusement parks this week, stay safe and have fun! And don’t forget your mask(s).
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.