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Here’s what you need to know about visiting theme parks during the Coronavirus outbreak

by Brooke Geiger McDonald

With confirmed cases of COVID-19, aka novel coronavirus, on the rise in the U.S. so quickly it’s impossible to report accurate numbers, and new reports of quarantines and event cancellations across the country breaking by the minute, many people — both locals and those with upcoming vacations planned — are wondering how the virus could or should impact their plans.

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If you have plans to visit a theme park, should you? And if you decide to go, how can you stay safe? Here are the answers to some of the most frequently asked questions about theme park travel during the coronavirus outbreak. But, many of the tips here about staying safe and healthy are good practice any time you visit:

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Photo by Matt Roseboom

Are the parks going to be open for my trip?

At the time of writing, all major US theme parks and resorts remain open despite the coronavirus outbreak. Official statements from most of the major theme parks are similar and more or less state that the resorts and parks are closely monitoring the situation, following official government recommendations, and implementing enhanced cleaning and sanitation practices.

Dr. Pamela Hymel, Chief Medical Officer for Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, said in a statement on the Disney Parks Blog that “Walt Disney World Resort and Disneyland Resort are open and welcoming guests and we continue to implement preventive measures in line with the recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), as well as state and local health agencies.”

Julie Estrada, Merlin Entertainments spokesperson said of Legoland Orlando, “The health and safety of our guests and our staff is always our top priority and we will take all necessary precautions to ensure their continued welfare […] Like many businesses, we continue to monitor the situation closely and are in regular contact with local authorities so we may respond quickly to any developments.”

With developments happening quickly, it’s difficult to say what the future will hold with regards to closures, but for now, they’re open.

Even if theme parks are open, should I avoid visiting them during the coronavirus outbreak?

Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer, say the experts.

“Visiting a theme park or partaking in any activity involving very large crowds always poses [a] risk of (any) infection transmission,” says Colleen Nash, MD, MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Rush University Children’s Hospital and Medical Director of the Pediatrics Antimicrobial Stewardship Program.

Nash says in order to make the best decision for you and your family, you should first consider the health of the members of your family and how illness could affect them. Even if they’re healthy, she recommends you consider “how coronavirus infection (if it were to happen) could impact your family and if that is a tolerable risk and potential time away from school, work, normal daily activities, say, if you had to undergo quarantine.”

If you’re comfortable with these possibilities, many experts and industry leaders aren’t currently recommending Americans cancel their travel plans.

I’m going. How can I stay safe while I’m there? 

On the plane:

“Meticulous handwashing and wiping down the immediate surfaces around your seat are always good ideas,” says Nash. This means armrests, tray tables, air vents, and really anything you think your kids might touch.

You know by now that 20 seconds of handwashing is recommended, and you probably also know how difficult it is to efficiently wash your hands in an airplane sink. Do your best, but have some alcohol-based (60 percent alcohol or more) hand sanitizer with you and use it.

In your hotel room:

This is a tough one, says Nash. Even in a “clean” hotel room, “the level of potential high-touch surface (e.g. remote controls, door handles, light switches) contamination is difficult to evaluate,” she says.

It’s always a good idea to practice the same hand hygiene you’re practicing outside the room, but, for an extra layer of protection, bring disinfectant wipes and wipe down high-touch surfaces when you first get into your room.

At restaurants:

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Photo by Matt Roseboom

“All meals should start and end with everyone washing their hands,” says Nash. This is especially important if you have young kids who are still eating with their hands.

Buffets can also bring an extra layer of danger, so approach with caution. “Buffets carry a baseline risk of potential contamination as one cannot control the cleanliness and habits of the previous users of high-touch items such as self-serving utensils,” says Nash. She recommends an additional round of handwashing after serving yourself at a buffet, but before eating.

In the parks:

Theme park spokespeople have been vocal about the additional sanitation measures they’re taking throughout the parks. A Disney FAQ page states that these measures include “frequent cleaning and disinfection of targeted areas,” and “easy access to handwashing facilities and hand sanitizers.”

Hand sanitizer stations are now visible throughout the Disney Parks and their locations have also been published online for guest reference. Here’s where you can find hand sanitizer stations at Disneyland and Walt Disney World.

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Today, portable handwashing stations have also begun appearing around Walt Disney World.

At Walt Disney World, guests typically scan their tickets or MagicBands then scan their fingerprint on a fingerprint scanner. Guests who don’t want to touch the fingerprint scanner are able to opt-out of this step but will need to carry a photo ID with them.

On March 12, Disney updated Walt Disney World’s My Disney Experience app and the Disneyland app to include hand sanitizer locations within the parks and resorts and locations where guests can go for more information about COVID-19.

In queues and on rides:

Parents, we know this one is tough. Kids are amazing at running their hands along every single rope and handrail in every ride queue. Nash says that handwashing and alcohol-based hand sanitizer will get you far here. She recommends washing hands or using hand sanitizer after every ride.

“Reminding kids not to touch their face — particularly putting their fingers in their mouth (something they all seem to love to do!) — is also important,” Nash says.

At kids’ play areas:

What about dedicated children’s play areas, like the playgrounds at the resorts, at Epcot’s Flower & Garden Festival, and elsewhere within the parks at places like The Boneyard at Disney’s Animal Kingdom?

Nash says while these areas that are more highly concentrated can always carry the risk of disease transmission, “depending on the environment,” she says, “it may not really be any different than kids being in the school setting or going to a group class, so avoidance of these areas may not be protective in the way people assume.”

It should also be noted that children have thus far been minimally affected by the coronavirus, a phenomenon that has doctors and scientists scratching their heads. Children can still contract and transmit the virus though, so taking the same precautions adults do is important.

Character meet-and-greets:

Infectious viruses can remain on clothing and be passed for up to a week, so of course, that’s got us thinking about character meet-and-greets and all the hugging and touching that goes on there.

Character meals can be a particularly messy ordeal when you consider that guests, particularly children, are eating and touching their mouths and then touching characters.

Still, “the likelihood of transmission from costumes is likely low,” says Nash, “unless there is recent direct contamination from, say, the previous child who just sneezed or coughed droplets onto the costume minutes before leaving behind a damp/soiled area that is then touched by another child.”

Currently, meet-and-greets are still taking place as normal, but if you want to take an extra layer of precaution, says Nash, “a wave and a side hold for pictures is a nice compromise to avoid face-to-face hugging and high surface-area contact, with handwashing and/or sanitizing before and after, of course.”

The takeaway:

If you do decide to keep your vacation plans in spite of the coronavirus outbreak, Nash urges everyone to simply keep these basic principles top of mind:

“I may sound like a broken record, but I cannot stress enough the importance of washing your hands (and doing it well, at least 20 seconds, with soap and water or using alcohol-based hand sanitizer) and not touching your face (eyes, nose, mouth),” she says. “This provides so much protection against many infectious diseases and cannot be overstated.”

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