Here’s what visiting a theme park is like in the age of Covid-19

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Customers are socially distanced on rides like the Wonder Woman: Lasso of Truth at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey.

Kenneth Kiesnoski/CNBC

From backyard cookouts to days at the beach, people across the country have had to postpone or alter many beloved summer rituals this year amid the ongoing pandemic. One of the biggest disappointments for many has been the closure of theme parks across the country.

While what’s happening at Disney and Universal theme parks worldwide may get the biggest headlines, the parks many Americans regularly visit are largely local and regional — and Six Flags Entertainment Corp. runs many of them.

The Grand Prairie, Texas-based company operates 26 theme and water park properties in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, and in 2019 saw 32.8 million customers. At press time, 11— including Six Flags Great Adventure & Safari in Jackson, New Jersey — are open, at limited capacity, to those who make online reservations in advance.

As a Six Flags annual pass member who’d been subject to stringent New York-area lockdowns since mid-March, I jumped at the chance to do a self-drive through the safari portion of Great Adventure when the company reopened that attraction on May 30. Once it announced the theme park and its rides would reopen at 25% capacity starting July 3, I made sure I was logged on and ready to reserve a visit as soon as I could.

After a  few error messages and two hours of waiting in a virtual queue, I had an 11:45 a.m. spot reserved for opening day. 

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The actual real-world lines started before I even got to Great Adventure proper.

I sailed down the New Jersey Turnpike, and then I-195, from New York City to Jackson in just over an hour and 20 minutes but hit a three-lane wall of backed up traffic about a quarter mile down Monmouth Road from the park entrance. The caravan of cars then slowly snaked along Great Adventure Boulevard before splitting into separate queues for the theme park and the drive-through safari. Once past a security cordon, it was a quick drive to the parking lot.

All told, it took over an hour to drive into the park — almost as long as it had taken to motor from Brooklyn to central New Jersey. I had an 11:45 a.m. reservation but didn’t get to the park turnstiles till 1:15 p.m.

And before I actually got into the park proper, I had to go through Six Flags’ enhanced health-screening process. (Full details can be found by clicking here.)

A friendly park employee offered a squirt of hand sanitizer as I entered a new winding but quickly moving queue of masked and somewhat socially distanced parkgoers making their way in blazing sunshine to a tent for a body temperature scan. A booth midway through hawked superhero-themed face masks. Signage announced required best health practices for visitors and sported Six Flags’ “Together, we can Do The Six!” reopening motto.

Customers pass through a body temperature screening tent at Six Flags Great Adventure in Jackson, New Jersey.

Kenneth Kiesnoski/CNBC

Next up was a quick security screening, which felt faster than normal, and then a short wait on another line to have my park pass and reservation scanned. I was handed a souvenir Opening Day 2020 pin. Finally, I stepped onto Main Street, the park’s shop-lined entrance plaza.

The crowds were noticeably thinner than usual. The second thing I noticed was groups of Six Flags “Clean Team” workers walking around with sprayers and giant yellow tanks of disinfectant strapped to their backs, hosing down and wiping railings, benches and garbage cans.

I checked my Six Flags smartphone app to get a feel for ride availability and wait times. Of the 50 rides and attractions listed, 10 were closed — including (disappointingly, given the heat) water rides Congo Rapids and Saw Mill Long Flume, popular thrillers like the Kingda Ka coaster and Zumanjaro: Drop of Doom, and Safari Off Road Adventure. (The safari is now a separate, self-drive experience, much as it was when Great Adventure first opened way back in 1974.)

It’s the first day and everyone is just getting adjusted to these new rules.

Greg Barker

Six Flags Great Adventure customer

Considering the available options, I made a beeline for Nitro, a 230-foot-high, 1.64-mile-long steel hyper-coaster that is still one of Great Adventure’s top draws, despite being — at 19 years old — older than many of the people lining up for a ride. Still, I’ve never waited more than 15 minutes to ride the coaster, which reaches speeds of 80 mph, so it seemed like a safe bet. This day, however, the line began just the ride’s entrance sign, and I buckled down for a long, hot wait.

Stickers marking safe 6-foot distances for standing were affixed to the ground along the outdoor ride queue but people in line tended to pack in a little closer, more like 3 feet apart. They did, however, largely keep their masks on — which surprised me, given the 90-degree heat and blazing sun and their apparent average age of about 15 to 17. I found my faith in the future of humanity slightly restored. Clean Team staff regularly made their way through the crowd, wiping down handrails and advising mask laggards to readjust face coverings.

As we inched closer to the boarding area, the crowd began to catch glimpses of another reason the wait was so long. Ride operators were spacing out passengers on the nine-car, 36-person trains, seating groups of two to three people on alternating sides of the train, using only every other row. So, at best, trains were being filled at only half speed. (Normally, capacity is some 1,800 riders per hour.)

A Six Flags Great Adventure “Clean Team” member disinfects handrails in the customer queue area for the Nitro roller coaster.

Kenneth Kiesnoski/CNBC

What really got some in the crowd groaning was the sight of the occasional empty train chugging its way up the first coaster hill. What I later learned was that staff sanitize each of the park’s functioning rides about every half-hour, spraying passenger cars and seats down thoroughly and then letting them run through at least one ride cycle to disinfect and dry. Better safe than sorry.

One hour and 15 minutes after getting on line, I finally boarded Nitro, the sole person in my four-seat row, for my 2-minute, 20-second ride. The coaster was as thrilling as ever, the only difference being that I made sure to hold my mask to my face to avoid having it blow off on the steep hills and sharp turns.

Still, the mask didn’t impede a good time. Other riders agreed. Richard Santos, 18, of Washington Township, New Jersey, described the experience as “a little different.”

“It’s still enjoyable, though,” he said, although he, too, was amazed at the wait. “Nitro was the longest line of the day,” Santos said. “I’ve never waited that long for that ride in my life.”

As it was way past my usual lunch time, I decided to head for the park’s Boardwalk section — filled with carnival games of chance — to grab a burger at the Garden State Grill. Six Flags has instituted mobile ordering by smartphone for pickup at most eateries and eliminated indoor seating. Ample outdoor dining spots were available during my visit, however.

As lines for in-person ordering were long at many restaurants and food stands, pre-ordering by mobile is a good idea. However, I did run into a hitch with the process. I placed an order for a burger-and-tater-tots combo and a medium soda on the Six Flags app and paid via PayPal but the order never appeared in the app queue — or in the restaurant system.

I checked my PayPal app, which showed that, for some reason, I was charged by Six Flags Frontier City in Oklahoma City and not Great Adventure — where I happened, very hungrily, to be. When I explained the problem to the Garden State Grill staff, and showed them my PayPal receipt, they filled my lunch order for me without any fuss.

In fact, staff throughout Great Adventure were friendly and helpful to a fault — despite the inevitable hiccups of a first day in operation under stringent and unfamiliar new guidelines. This did not go unnoticed by other customers. Greg Barker of Hillsborough, New Jersey, who was visiting with wife, Cheryl, and daughter, Kylie, said staff “is working hard to keep the park where it needs to be.”

Six Flags Great Adventure “Clean Team” members pass through the theme park disinfecting all public areas.

Kenneth Kiesnoski/CNBC

“It’s the first day and everyone is just getting adjusted to these new rules,” he added.

Rested and re-energized from lunch, I decided to avail myself of the free one-time “Skip The Line” ticket my annual pass entitles me to. That entailed standing on another rather long line, making me wonder if I shouldn’t just wait on an actual ride queue instead. Granted, it was a members-only day, so there were likely more people than usual waiting for passes. I stuck it out. The wait was about 20 minutes.

I passed the time chatting with Santos and his friend, Alyssa Connor, also 18 and from Washington Township. They were thrilled to be back at Great Adventure after months of Covid-19 lockdown.

“I was super-excited for it to open back up,” said Santos. “I was just waiting on it.”

My front-of-the-line ticket finally in hand, I headed to Great Adventure’s newest ride, the 170-foot-high Wonder Woman: Lasso of Truth, introduced last year as the world’s tallest pendulum ride. The FlashPass line was short but the wait was still long, about 30 minutes.

A Six Flags Great Adventure “Clean Team” crew member disinfects the Wonder Woman: Lasso of Truth ride every 30 minutes.

Kenneth Kiesnoski/CNBC

Riders were, again, spaced apart in twos around the frisbee-like seating portion of the ride, with three cordoned-off seats separating each pair. Observed while waiting below the riders whooshing past above me at 75 mph: Facial masks do little to muffle the delighted screams of passengers.

Disembarking my second and final ride of the day, I glanced at my watch and saw it was coming up on 6 p.m. Nearly five hours on site and I’d managed two rides, one lunch, a refreshing Italian ice and lots of walking, water — and waiting.

I’m a die-hard theme park fan who usually hits at least 10 rides per visit but I  had my fill. The Barkers, however, told me the long lines were worth it.

“We are having a good time,” Greg Barker said. “The lines are understandably long but weren’t too bad. And we got to go on some of the rides.”

(Disclosure: CNBC and Universal Parks & Resorts are both subsidiaries of NBCUniversal, owned by parent Comcast.)

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