Less than 10 minutes after Silverwood Theme Park reopened Saturday, dozens of children splashed in the wave pool at Boulder Beach, adults lay out on lounge chairs and no one in sight wore a mask.
Silverwood, which has been drawing thrill seekers to North Idaho for decades, is one of the first theme parks in the nation – and by far the largest – to open since the pandemic shut the industry down.
Hundreds waited for the gates to open, some crowding close together.
When the park did open at 11 a.m., it didn’t do so at full capacity and turnout was roughly a quarter the size of a normal season opening.
Jordan Carter, the park’s director of marketing, said Silverwood restricted ticket sales to leave room for social distancing, though he wouldn’t say by how much.
“Seeing it this empty on an opening day is just insane,” said Kailey Lieuallen, public relations manager for the park.
Silverwood administrators knew opening was a risk, but Carter said they had to consider the 1,300 people they employ and their local economic impact. Located in Athol, a rural town with 11,000 people, the park brings about $80 million into the local economy each year, according to estimates from the Idaho Tourism Council.
“Then people say, ‘Oh, you’re opening because of the money,’ but it’s so much more than that,” Carter said. “It’s a place where we like to think people can reconnect. They can put their devices away and really enjoy and laugh while doing some things they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Staff will do their part sanitizing the park, Carter said, but it’s up to guests to stay distanced.
While cast and crew wore masks and had them available for guests, all but a handful of visitors streamed through mask-free.
“We don’t wear masks anywhere. We’re not scared of coronavirus,” said park guest Jackie Covey, who drove from Post Falls for the opening. “We probably wouldn’t be here if masks were required. We’d ask for our money back.”
Lieuallen said she’s read three emails from season pass holders who said they’d want refunds if the park required masks. She hadn’t received a single email asking for stricter masking rules.
“I would expect the opposite,” Lieuallen said. “But we believe each person can choose for themselves. The last thing we want to do is be panic-inducing. You come to a theme park to escape reality on a psychological level, so we can just make it as safe as possible with our precautions.”
Those precautions include limiting ticket sales, providing hand sanitizer stations throughout the park, cleaning rides between each group of riders, using wristbands loaded with money to avoid cash transactions and painting bright yellow Sasquatch feet on the ground 6 feet apart in line areas.
Theme parks across the globe have had to introduce creative measures. Gatorland, which reopened May 23 in Florida, introduced the Social Distancing Skunk Ape – a giant mascot who threatens to tear people in close proximity apart.
Across the pacific, Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios Japan will ask visitors to avoid screaming and cheering on attractions, including roller coasters, while Disney World in Orlando, Florida, will require temperature checks to enter at their July reopening.
Silverwood has opted against using thermometers at the gate and guests didn’t miss them.
“No matter where you go, you’re gonna have some evidence of the virus just because people are going to try to stay safe,” Carter said. “But through it all the memories of your kids riding their first roller coaster, going down the slides together, that, I would say, trumps the fear of what the virus has done.”
Catie Clayburn, with her two children and a baby in tow, experienced just that when she brought her 11-month-old daughter on the flying elephants for her first amusement park ride.
The certified nursing assistant rated her day a 10 out of 10. She said she knew which precautions to take, but masks were never in the plan for her family.
“I don’t think people need to be as afraid as they’ve been told to be,” Clayburn said.
Jackie Covey came with her husband, two kids and her mother-in-law, Linda Covey, who is in her early 70s.
At the beginning, when scientists knew less about the virus, Linda said it made sense to shut businesses down.
“Now we know more,” Linda said. “It just doesn’t add up to the fear porn the media is putting out.”
Her daughter-in-law’s family buys season passes yearly. Since they heard the park would be reopening, her sons have been asking “Is it Silverwood day?” every day.
“I just wish the workers didn’t have to wear masks because it’s probably sweaty and hot,” Jackie said. “Don’t be scared, live your life, go back to normal and stop making these poor guys wear masks.”