How do Merlin’s reopening plans compare to Asia?

The Smiler, Alton Towers

by Michael Mander

Earlier in May, the UK’s largest operator of theme parks, Merlin Entertainments, laid out their plans to reopen safely once they are allowed to do so. A range of new measures have been put in place to safeguard guests and maintain social distancing.

But do the measures go far enough?

As the continent where coronavirus began – and arguably the continent that has handled the outbreak best – Asia is ahead of the curve when it comes to reopening society. Many theme parks across the continent are reopening, in China, Japan, Hong Kong and Korea. Here’s how Merlin’s planned measures stack up – and what’s missing.

Advance bookings and capped numbers

Controlling the number of guests inside a theme park seems to be a priority across the sector – and for many that means compulsory pre-bookings. The Fantawild chain of theme parks in China began reopening back in March, with advance ticket bookings a requirement. It remains in place even now, and visitor numbers are capped at just 30% of maximum capacity.

China's Fantawild parks began reopening in March
China’s Fantawild parks began reopening in March

Merlin Entertainments say they have “significantly reduced the daily ticketed capacity,” but have not indicated by how much. It may differ from park to park, with the narrower spaces of Thorpe Park having an even smaller limit than the open spaces and higher number of outdoor attractions in Alton Towers.

Their proposed measures include booking online (which seems to be encouraged but not required), and checking the website and social media before leaving home (a common instruction during peak times, in case parks hit capacity).

Entry checks

In Shanghai Disneyland, customers are required to present their Health QR code on their phone as a condition of entry. The government-issued app assigns citizens with a colour based on their health and travel history. Only those with a green rating are permitted to enter the park.

Merlin has not announced any plans to align with a government-issued app or tracing scheme as a condition of entry. Could that change when the NHS Track and Trace app is rolled out? And while Merlin’s conditions ask guests not to attend if they are displaying symptoms of coronavirus, they don’t make any mention of travel or contact history (although quarantines are imposed by the UK government).

However, Merlin has suggested they may issue temperature checks (and has already said it will at Alton Towers): “We may also require our guests to participate in such checks as a condition of entry. Any person who is displaying a high temperature associated with fever will not be permitted into the attraction.”

Thorpe Park entrance
Merlin has said that it will be introducing temperature checks in the UK

Temperature checks are also in place at many theme parks across Asia, including Happy Valley Wuhan.

Where there is some divergence is on the issue of face masks. Much like the non-committal messaging around face masks made by the UK government generally, Merlin has been much less clear on its rules around face masks compared to Asian counterparts. Happy Valley Wuhan, for example, requires face masks to be worn at all times as a condition of entry. Merlin raises face masks, but does appear to mandate them beyond what is required by local authorities: “If recommended or required by local health authorities, please bring a suitable face mask / covering.”

Safety in queues and on rides

In Disneyland Shanghai, social distancing has been enforced across the park. Yellow boxes guide visitors about where to stand in queue lines, 2 metres apart from one another. In theatrical shows, every other row is closed and the theatre is not filled to capacity. Each car is only half filled, and handles are disinfected between each ride. Parades and fireworks are cancelled.

Everland, in South Korea, is also enforcing social distancing in queues with floor markings.

Merlin is also planning to enforce social distancing in queues with markers and staff monitoring. They will leave empty rows and empty seats on rides, as part of “custom plans for the application of social distancing on our rides.”

The Swarm, Thorpe Park
There will be changes to the way guests queue for rides

What is interesting is that neither Merlin nor Asian theme parks have taken on technological solutions to the problem of queuing. It seems to be Paultons Park that is pioneering in this space, partnering with to offer a virtual queueing solution for social distancing.

But none of the parks go quite as far as the East Japan and West Japan Theme Park Associations, who have produced guidelines asking guests to refrain from screaming on rides. How exactly that will be enforceable is unclear.

Prepare for open and close

Merlin has been keen to open its theme parks – that much is clear. They had planned to open the theme parks as usual for the start of the season until the very last moment. Merlin attractions are already opening in China, Germany and New Zealand and, with the hope of a boom in ‘staycations’, the company will be keen to get guests through their doors again – having furloughed around 80% of staff and cut marketing budget to near zero.

But what we can learn from Asia is that theme parks reopening isn’t the end of the story. After attractions in Shanghai reopened in mid-March, many found themselves forced to close again on 30 March as concerns were raised of a second coronavirus spike. 

And it was the same story in Hong Kong, with venues reopening and then promptly re-closing as a second wave hit.

As the UK moves towards more localised management of the virus, it may be that theme parks are permitted to open in parts of the country but not others.

There are still months of uncertainty and complications ahead for the theme park industry, but Merlin and the entire UK sector can look to Asia to see what’s worked, and get an idea of what to expect next. And with the possibility of opening in time for summer still on the cards for Merlin, will there be more stringent measures to come to ensure guest and staff safety?