WINTER HAVEN, Fla. ? For likely the first time in Legoland Florida’s history, the park was more popular than Walt Disney World.
The Winter Haven attraction on Monday became the only major theme park in the state open for business, ending its coronavirus pandemic shutdown.
“As a theme park junkie myself, I could not be more excited,” said Tyler Pellerin, a Legoland employee who helped customers whose vacations were disrupted by the shutdowns. “Two and a half months of my life have been working toward this.”
Just before 10 a.m., a crowd of about 100 people lined up, spaced 6 feet apart. First, a burst of pyrotechnics and some applause, then employees announced Legoland was indeed open again.
“Welcomepk彩票 back,” an employee greeted patrons past the turnstiles.
Some children, full of pent-up energy, skipped by their parents on their first Legoland visit since the shutdown in mid-March.
The first day appeared to go smoothly at the Polk County attraction, as the Orlando-area tourism industry slowly returns to life.
One major difference at Legoland is face masks are “strongly encouraged” but not a requirement, as they will be at Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld.
One family visiting from outside Knoxville, Tenn., listed the reasons why they weren’t wearing masks. It was a 90-degree day and there were no thick crowds surrounding them.
One member of the group dismissed the warnings from health experts that the coronavirus was more serious than the flu, calling that “fake news.”
What they wanted, said Brittany Wiesner, was a normal theme park experience for their 5-year-old son, Kash, who had missed his Legoland birthday party in April because of the pandemic. So Wiesner surprised her son with a trip Monday to celebrate his preschool graduation. He danced in anticipation.
“This was his dream to go to Legoland,” Wiesner said.
Legoland general manager Rex Jackson stressed the park is closely following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. The efforts are serious, he said, pointing to the park taking the extra step of giving out complimentary face masks.
The park posted playful signs that said ninjas and superheroes wear masks, so guests should, too.
Markers appeared throughout the park and the ride queues, reminding people how to stand 6 feet apart.
“We’re a large theme park. We have a lot of space for guests to spread out,” Jackson said. “We have a beautiful botanical garden.”
During Legoland’s first few hours of operation, the crowds were small: No traffic backups, no major lines to get inside, no long waits for rides.
Legoland intentionally opened on a Monday, which is normally slower, to give employees an opportunity to practice the new safety protocols for the upcoming weekend, Jackson said.
Employees at the Masters of Flight ride, which is similar to Epcot’s Soarin’ attraction, cleaned the seats every 30 minutes. They spaced out the riders, leaving four seats empty between two groups on a 10-seat ride vehicle.
Like many other tourism attractions, Legoland Florida furloughed most of its employees since closing mid-March. The company covered 100% of the employees’ health insurance during that time, Jackson said.
So far, about 800 or 900 employees are called back to work, Jackson said. But that’s still not as busy as a normal summer when Legoland employs 2,000 people.
But Jackson said he was optimistic more workers would return as attendance grows and more areas of the park reopened. Some restaurants and play areas were closed Monday.
Jackson declined to provide attendance figures but said the park was operating well under 50% capacity, which is 6,000 people. Summer hotel reservations were promising as Legoland’s Pirate Island Hotel held its grand opening Monday, Jackson said, although he declined to provide specific occupancy numbers.
Central Florida’s theme parks, the economic engine that powers the region, are reopening gradually over the next six weeks.
Universal Orlando’s two theme parks and water park open to the general public Friday while SeaWorld Orlando’s turn is June 11.
Walt Disney World’s four theme parks are staggered, opening to the general public starting either July 11 or July 15, depending on which park.
Annual passholders and employees could potentially get sneak previews before the official openings.
Many questions remain. Among them: Will theme parks fans immediately return? And will they follow the new safety rules?
What is certain is the theme park experience will be different, as the highly contagious virus has killed more than 100,000 Americans so far this year.
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