Americans are getting frustrated with the pandemic and the rules it has forced upon us. Area residents have different ideas of how much exposure they can tolerate, and they have strong opinions on wearing masks and physical distancing. But when it comes to how venues handle protocols, the public needs to know when safety might be an issue.
Earlier in the summer, the Daily Press reported Six Flags Over Texas and Silver Dollar City had gone to great lengths to make guests feel safe. But a visit to SFOT last weekend revealed that may no longer be the case for those who are especially vulnerable to the virus, or who have physical disabilities.
SFOT has been taking advance park reservations, which at first meant a clear limit to crowd sizes. But a new ride reservation system has thrown a wrench into the works. For nine of the most popular rides, guests can no longer queue up; they must reserve times to get on those rides. The intent may have been to cut crowd sizes at attractions, but it had the opposite effect. Since guests couldn't get into line until their appointed times, hundreds were jammed in front of each ride, waiting to be let into the queues. This meant others had to push their way through the masses to get to the ride for their times, so physical distancing was impossible.
Only one reservation could be made at a time, and the shortest "wait" time last Saturday was just under two hours. Since attractions not among the nine also had lines of 1-1/2 to two hours, most guests could not take more than four rides all day. A guest could squeeze in more rides by paying fees of $3 to $15 each, or buy a Flash Pass to bypass the line on several rides. But that cost ranges $50 to $120 per person - exorbitant for families with jobs adversely affected by the pandemic.
The crowd last weekend was as big, if not more so, than usual in pre-pandemic days. Much of this was due to the fact that instead of in queues, guests were packed in walkways, or backed up against food vendors, bathrooms and other features. Even without the pandemic, this would have been an uncomfortable experience. But one-third of the visitors were either not wearing masks, or had them dangling from an ear or with noses exposed, begging the question of whether it could turn into a "superspreader" event. Employees did try to enforce compliance, but they were overwhelmed by sheer numbers, and by the shocking rudeness of some guests, several of whom were seen tossing paper masks - provided at the park entrance - into trash bins or onto the ground, or flipping the middle finger in defiance.
The most worrisome aspect of the ride reservation system is that SFOT effectively got rid of its handicap access policy - which had been among the best in the nation. Only three rides offered access Saturday, and those – the Shock Wave coaster among them – are so rough that most people with ailments like arthritis can't ride. Otherwise, disabled patrons had to use the reservation system like everyone else, and while waiting the two hours to board a ride, had to either stand in another line for two hours, or sit somewhere and wait it out. With temperatures in the 90s and such a large portion of the population unmasked, this wasn't feasible. A TDP staffer who visited last weekend - and only accessed two rides after five hours of waiting - talked to two people in wheelchairs and one with a cane. One wheelchair-bound woman was in tears because of the strain the system put on her and her two grandchildren.
If customers were warned in advance about ride reservations or truncated disabled access, they could have changed their plans. But the disability access was not mentioned on the website, and ride reservation notices came via email a day or two before guests arrived - far too late to make schedule adjustments.
If STOF and other parks want to impose sudden changes on clientele, they need to be upfront about it. They also need to do a better job of enforcing their rules. Otherwise, many customers will take their business elsewhere - like to Silver Dollar City, which last time we checked was still sticking to its protocols.