Friday, May 15, 2020

Tough Pandemic Times in the Amusement Park Industry: Some Thoughts Moving Forward

Water becoming aerosoled from the water dummies on RMC's newest coaster at Walibi World

I generally like to keep things light on our page. Unfortunately this is one of those times that we have to go more serious. In watching discussion around the hobby since the coronavirus situation began, I am reminded of a time at an event that a park was hosting for coaster enthusiasts where at the start of an ERT session (extra ride time) an enthusiast was yelling at and berating an entry gate height check operator about how the ride was not open right at the start of the ERT session. A number of us within our hobby of visiting amusement parks feel entitled and are demanding that the parks need to open right away and like normal, which is not an option right now due to the preservation of safety within the greater community. With some safety measures, there may come a time in the future where it is feasible to reopen the amusement parks, but we have not reached that point yet, as the death toll from the violent virus approaches 85,000 people, with strict measures in place to prevent its spread.
World War II motivational poster
This year, and possibly years going forward, are going to be very difficult for the amusement park industry, as with any recreational and non-essential industry in this country. Our country has bigger things on its plate right now in fighting against a virus that has killed roughly 85,000 people in America alone as of May 14th. Mass congregations of people as we know them will no longer be feasible in the foreseeable future, and when they are prudent to have, they will not likely look like anything we have seen before. Throughout the history of this country we have battled enemies and come out stronger after those battles. Conflicts that immediately come to mind include the Civil War, World War I, the 1918 Spanish Flu (a pandemic claimed half of my family that had emigrated here just before that point, along with millions of other Americans), and World War II.
An informational graphic from the 1919 Spanish Flu Epidemic that killed millions in this country

I mentioned World War II last because that is the first situation that comes to mind in when it comes to the shared sacrifice that the nation needed to make to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. More than 16 million young men were sent to fight. Those who stayed behind in the United States had no option but to focus their efforts upon building equipment for the war effort, rationing their food and materials to send to our troops fighting overseas, and shutting down businesses that distracted from this goal. This included sacrifices from non-essential businesses like amusement parks.

Rocky Point's "Short Turns" PTC Flying Turns Coaster. Photo courtesy of Amusement Parks and Beyond. This coaster was built in 1931 and PTC would not get a chance to build another Flying Turns until 1942 at Hersheypark, as the country was clawing out of the Great Depression. That project ended up being cancelled after the outbreak of World War II and the associated rationing and need to focus labor upon winning that battle. 

PTC built more than fifty coasters during the roaring 1920s and ended up building just 11 coasters through the 1930s as the Great Depression raged on, with many cancelled projects over the decade and into the 1940s when World War II began. As with everything though, the tough times passed and PTC built projects that were bigger and better than ever.

Hersheypark had planned to build a new Flying Turns coaster from the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1942, but the rationing from the war and need to focus those efforts upon winning the war were much more important at that time. We face a similar kind of enemy to Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with this horrendous virus. The tightening of our belts to fight this virus is similar to these efforts. While a PTC Flying Turns addition would have ended up being great, there is a strong chance that it would not still be with us today. After World War II was over, the park went big and added a brand new coaster in 1946 with the addition of Comet. We will come back bigger, better, and smarter after the conflict with this virus passes, just like we did after the Great Depression and World War II.

A look back to the Spanish Flu Pandemic in 1918 can give us some insights on what to do going forward. Lockdowns were put in place after the first wave of the pandemic killed a whopping 3-5 million people. Following reopening, a second wave ended up killing 20 million plus. Crowded cities and places of mass congregation are the pipeline of transmission for these infectious diseases.

The following essay from the NIH talks about measures that needed to be put in place and kept for the 1918 pandemic. Cities that jumped on board with these aggressive measures more quickly ended up losing much fewer lives than the cities that delayed and things ended up going back to normal sooner for them as well.
"To explain what made influenza so hard to control, public health commentators found the concept of a “crowd disease” increasingly useful. Of course, the idea that cities, crowding, and epidemics went together was by no means new in the early 1900s; for centuries, observers had noted that where many people packed in together, diseases often followed. Yet in size and complexity, the new industrial cities of the early 20th century posed an extreme challenge. The scale and scope of public gathering places increased dramatically between 1890 and 1918. The second industrial revolution directly or indirectly led to a vastly expanded public school system, huge factories and office buildings, extensive public entertainments (amusement parks, nickelodeons, dance halls), and, last but not least, mass transportation systems that connected all these elements together. By the early 1900s, the interlinking of public spaces created a vast highway along which the deadly germs could quickly travel.
The influenza pandemic underlined the difficulty of policing those public spaces. Influenza was a “crowd disease” as opposed to a “house disease” (an illness rooted in defective household plumbing or careless housekeeping). Although the term “crowd disease” did not become a familiar part of the public health lexicon until publication of Major Greenwood's Epidemics and Crowd Diseases in 1935, commentators routinely marked the association between population density and influenza's spread. From its outset, the pandemic was linked with crowded places, from troop ships to movie theaters. Although isolation of the sick was essential, quarantine measures had to be accompanied by broader measures aimed at regulating the congestion of public spaces.
For the full paper, “Destroyer and Teacher”: Managing the Masses During the 1918–1919 Influenza Pandemic by Dr. Nancy Tomes, visit this link.

Following the end of the pandemic crisis, amusement parks had one of their best decades of all time, with more roller coasters getting built in that time period than any time before or since. The core of what makes up Kennywood was built in the 1920s. Crises and the markets ebb and flow like tides. As a nation, we will rise back up when the time is right. If we do not take precautions to prevent the spread of this virus, things will only get worse instead of better. As with anything, it will pass and things will go back to normal in due time. 

Times are undoubtedly tough, and we are likely to have even tougher times ahead, especially for those of you grieving losses of loved ones from this virus, or those that will deal with that in the near future. I gained some perspective on this last week and do not wish it upon anyone. When parks do reopen, extra steps will be need to made to ensure that it is prudent, logical, and safe to operate. 
Here is a POV video of the new RMC coaster at Walibi Holland making test runs with their water dummies. Note the flow of the water and how that mimics the flow of germs and viruses that are transported as an aerosol directly from our mouths form in sneezes. If coasters are to open in this time where we have a violent respiratory virus going around, at a minimum, masks are going to have to be worn, likely tighter fitting ones that are supplied by the parks themselves that will stay intact during a coaster ride and will need to be immediately disposed of once off of the ride. Rows of seating will likely need to be blocked off, with the addition of possible windshield style protectors to keep potentially infected aerosol spray from other guests away from the rest. They will likely need to keep at least one or two rows between groups of riders, with plastic shielding, and use of a steam cleaner with disinfectant or some other disinfectant to clean the train between each ride cycle. Do parks have the staffing and resources to make this safe, logical, and profitable to carry out? Or will this season need to just be held off? The problem demonstrated in this video also shows us how much more will need to be done aside from having more hand washing stations, hand sanitizer kiosks, and mandating masks. 

I want the parks to open as soon as safely possible and with utmost attention paid towards ensuring that the spread does not happen at the parks. South Korea recently reopened their bars and nightclubs. One guy visited several clubs and bars and came into contact with thousands of people. That man went on to test positive a few days later and it has ended up with a new cluster of infected individuals that visited those bars and nightclubs. This is a situation that could easily occur within the confines of an amusement park, where there are similar close confines between guests. There are ways to go about doing business without having huge groups of people congregating together. Some developments that have been announced by Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and Disney regarding having reservations to enter the park, and then reservations for virtual queuing, additional hand washing facilities, use of masks, and more, show promise on being able to fight the spread of the virus, but if not done right, the potential for spread of the virus is still a huge risk. For parks in areas where infection rates are low, opening a park for tourists from other places where virus rates are high could lead to spread to these otherwise spared areas. If these parks are in more rural areas and the regions become coronavirus hotspots, can their small and often cash strapped rural hospitals be able to handle a rapid influx of cases? Rural hospitals have been closing at record numbers over the last few years. If a rural area that has largely been spared from the coronavirus so far ends up becoming a hot spot due to their local amusement park reopening, can their rural hospital systems handle a local outbreak? Is this risk necessary to take at this time?
Pennsylvania informational poster on how people could band together to fight World War II

I don't have the answers for this, and it hurts me and breaks my heart as someone who loves this industry and the people within it. We have to move forward in a prudent way and listen to the health and science experts. I am not an expert in the field of public health and microbiology, and it is likely that you are not either, so we should leave these decisions and points advice to the people that are. The business losses as a result of this situation are horrendous, but in the end, if we reopen everything too fast and either we die, or more vulnerable people end up dying because of this violent virus, is it worth the cost? Is that our choice to make? If you die from this virus, you will not have to worry about working or running your business anymore, and you will not have to worry about being able to visit amusement parks either. As with any tough situation that our country has faced, it too will pass. Take the necessary precautions to avoid passing along the spread of this virus and in due time, things will slowly work their way back to normal.

I trust that parks will make the right decisions when the time is right. Parks do not want to take actions that are not in their best interest when safety is on the line, especially in an industry in which safety has to be the number one priority. In due time, parks will reopen and you will be able to get your thrill fix back in. In the mean time, you can get your amusement park fix through watching some POVs on YouTube, checking out photos, and reading up on related stuff. It will also help if you can just find another hobby to take your mind off of things until these tough times pass. I wish good health to all of you and speedy recoveries for all of you that are afflicted. I wish strength and resiliency to all of you that have lost people in this pandemic. This all became real for me last week and the families of 85,000 others, as of May 15th, are dealing with the same thing. We are all in this together. Regardless of our beliefs, we all want things to get back to normal as quickly as is safely possible and want the people in our community to be safe.

Just after we published this article, DelGrosso's announced that they will defer opening this season and wait until next season. I suspect we will be hearing more plans like these coming up. Cedar Fair has also hinted that if needed, they have enough cash reserves to sit through two seasons. Tough times like these are the epitome of the necessity for saving money for rainy days.