There were a lot of weird things about Summer 2020. I’m sure we don’t have to reach too far in the back of our minds to think of what went wrong, but let’s start with people’s summer vacations being out of reach since the global pandemic made travel inadvisable, and add to that the cancellation of summer festivals and fairs, as well as the fact that theme parks’ doors were shut during what should have been their most active time. Even though we could go outdoors, masked and socially distanced, the options once we got there were much different than normal. This year, though the pandemic is still definitely a factor, some of our regular summer options have returned.
Just weeks ago, we saw our first big sign of summer fun to come, when Six Flags Great America opening its gates to visitors for its full season after being shuttered for last year’s (though the park did host a drive through version of its popular Holiday in Lights this past December). We were on site and got a chance to see the park in action on opening weekend, and at the same time, were able to talk to Caitlin Kepple, Communications & Marketing Manager for Six Flags, about what Six Flags Great America is doing to keep people safe and help them get back to the thrills.
Read on for information you can use when you’re planning your trip, or for more information that will help you navigate what a theme park visit will look like this year, whether you’re hesitant to return or ready and waiting to run into those familiar gates.
Hi Caitlin! Thanks for inviting us to Six Flags Great America and for doing this interview! We’re glad to be able to talk to you about opening the park. Obviously, opening up during Covid-19 presents any business with a smorgasbord of challenges–can you tell us what the biggest challenges opening Six Flags may have been and how you have overcome them?
I think there have certainly been many challenges, as with, you know, many businesses opening in 2021, but we have learned so much from our sister parks who have opened before us and Six Flags works with epidemiologists and works closely with state and local officials here in Illinois to make sure that our guidelines exceed or meet the state or federal guidelines to make sure our guest’s safety is the top priority and that we could safely reopen.
What are some of the main differences that people will see when they come into the park in 2021, for people who are familiar with Six Flags Great America?
If you were a regular guest, or someone who frequented the park in 2019 who may not have visited when the water parks were open or come out for Holiday in the Park, the first thing you’ll notice is you’re going to be making a reservation. It’s not something we asked our guests to do in the past but it’s the number one thing we’re asking them to do now. [Reserving a visit] allows us to maintain a capacity control within the park as well as limit gathering and foster social distancing at the front gate.
Guests will also notice a number of health and safety protocols in place. All guests over age 2 will be required to wear masks and you’ll also notice all team members wearing masks within the park. As guests arrive for the reservations, they’ll notice our touchless thermal temperature and security screening system–everyone walks through the screening system at the front gates. It’s the same front gates that they know and love, but it looks a little different these days. Clean team are out in force and they’re dedicated clean teams different than our park service teams, making sure high touch areas, dining tables, benches, bathroom fixtures and things of that nature are frequently cleaned and sanitized throughout the park–you’ll see them out in force. Guests will see hand sanitization stations throughout the park, and they’ll see our signage.
So about every six feet, you’re gonna see a Do the Six sign, and that reminds people what we’re asking them to do–maintain your distance, wear your mask, make sure you’re washing your hands and sanitizing–but it also includes have fun, because we want our guests to come out and enjoy themselves. We’re in the business of fun and we’re so excited to be opening for the 2021 season and welcoming everyone back. We’ve missed our guests and we’re ready to make sure they can have a good time, safely!
What are the rules like in the water park, Hurricane Harbor?
Water protocols will be similar to what guests saw last season. Both Hurricane Harbor Chicago and Hurricane Harbor Rockford will open May 29, the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. The big difference between the theme park and water park is that in the theme park, masks are required at all times, unless you’re eating or drinking. In the water park due to safety guidelines, masks are required when you enter and exit the water park, when you’re in line at one of our dining locations, or if you’re in one of our changing facilities or restrooms. But, if you’re in transit to a water attraction, to one of our water slides, from your deck chair or between two attractions, masks are not required, because you’re moving from attraction to attraction or going from entering the water to exiting the water, and from a water safety standpoint, masks are not to be worn in the water.
Have you observed any pushback to these rules?
I think guests are so excited to be back in the theme park…and that we have been able to open our gates. They understand that we have guidelines in place for the safety of guests and team members and, ultimately…I think I’m overusing the word excited lately–we’re all just so excited–but from a guest standpoint the feedback has been so positive that we’ve opened our gates and I think there’s an understanding that the guidelines are in place for the safety of our guests and team members and our team members and that that’s always front of mind for Six Flags. Right now that includes these protocols in lace and thus far the feedback has just been very positive.
We’re open and we’re getting back to the thrills. People are getting back on their favorite coasters. Raging Bull is running and it’s almost summer here. I think too there’s an element of–when Six Flags Great America opens for the season–we’re a summer tradition– a summer staple. People start coming here when they’re children and then they bring their friends and there’s a moment when you’re old enough to eventually come to the park on yoru own and then you bring your own family and children. You create that cycle of memories and we’re excited to have another summer to create those memories.
Midwesterners treasure their summers–we have such a small window where the weather is beautiful and we really like to take advantage of it, and it’s just such a sign once the theme park opens. Summer is on its way, and it’s a lot of feelings people have about that and they want the theme park open.
What did you miss most with the park being closed for the summer season last year?
I think the most exciting thing about working at a theme park is how excited our guests are every day to come in. During the summer when we’re open seven days a week, it’s not uncommon for me to find myself at the front gate when the gates open and there’s always such a buzz.
There’s just something special too about hearing the roller coasters going and hearing the guests on the coasters and all of the excitement and enjoyment, and knowing that as soon as those gates open there’s gonna be a group of teenagers who are gonna head right for Raging Bull in the back of the park. They know exactly where they’re headed and they’ve got their eyes on it and they’ve got their plan worked out and they’re gonna go for it. It’s just a very unique feeling and that was really something that came back over the opening weekend, to see all of our guests.
Will shows and indoor entertainment return?
We don’t have plans at this time to reintroduce our indoor shows to our indoor theaters, so there are no plans at this point as far as a timeline goes when they may be reintroduced but general entertainment (mascots, street performers) will be coming back to the park over the course of the summer.
Indoor shops, like the gift shops and arcades, are open though, is that right?
That’s correct, yes
What would you say to a guest who may still be uncertain about returning?
As always, the safety of our guests is at the forefront at Six Flags Great America, whether that is on one of our attractions or whether that is their health and safety literally in this scenario–and we have worked with epidemiologists to create guidelines across the brand as well as within Six Flags Great America to keep our guests and team members safe and those guidelines exceed not only meet but also exceed CDC and state and local guidelines
We also are an outdoor venue that has over 300 acres of outdoor space that allows guests to spread out, to socially distance, to be outdoors in the fresh air–they’re not confined in a building and within those 300 outdoor acres we’ve also implemented a number of sanitization measures. So we’re sanitizing our attractions frequently. We are seating guests on attractions in a socially distanced manner. We have placed sanitization stations so hand sanitizer is available throughout the park–so we have really implemented measures that allow for safety and put the guest safety really at the forefront and we want our guests to come back to this park and feel safe and also feel like they are able to have a really great time.
COVID-19 procedures and policies aside for the moment, what’s new for 2021?
So for 2021 at the theme park, while there’s not any new capital, we’re still really excited about Maxx Force, which debuted in 2019 over the Fourth of July weekend. Our guests haven’t had a lot of time with Maxx Force yet. It’s still a fan favorite and so we’re very excited to make sure everyone gets a full summer of Maxx Force.
This year for the first time, Hurricane Harbor Chicago is a standalone water park for the first time ever. It has a separate access gate so guests can for the first time purchase single day tickets for Hurricane Harbor Chicago.
Tsunami Surge will be debuting in Hurricane Harbor Chicago, too. It is the world’s tallest water coaster at 86 feet high. It has 3 gravity defying optical blasts, and it uses water jet propulsion technology to blast riders uphill, which makes it unique from a water slide. It’s pretty awesome. It also utilizes what’s called aqualucent technology–light technology that makes it feel like a rider is travelling at the speed of light when they go through the tubes. It’s gonna be really awesome, and we’re really excited to debut it.
We’re also debuting a new water slide at Hurricane Harbor Rockford. It’s called Tidal Wave and it will be the Midwest’s first tailspin water slide. It has a 43 foot swirling descent and it also has that aqualucent light reflection technology.
That sounds amazing. What’s required to make a reservation?
We do recommend guests try to plan in advance because we want to make sure that everyone can visit the days that they would like to. That being said, our hope is that there are reservations available same day or near same day, for if you wake up on Thursday and decide you want to come on Saturday for example, but certainly planning ahead is always a good idea.
Reservations can be made at sixflags.com/reserve or all three parks you can currently make a reservation for the water park for opening day if you like, so that’s available to our guests right now, you can make a reservation for Hurricane Harbor or Hurricane Harbor Rockford for May 29th, if you want to gamble and hope it’s 85 degrees…that being said always check back, too, because there’s potential that reservations will open up and you’ll be able to snag it.
Reservations are required for Six Flags members, season pass holders and single day ticket holders- so everyone is required to have a reservation. To make the reservation you’ll need your member or pass number or your ticket number and if you need to purchase a single day ticket you can make a purchase and a reservation in one online transaction.
You know what to do, coaster fanatics and theme park fans. Our visit to the park on opening weekend went swimmingly and we witnessed firsthand the safety procedures being put in place at the park. Capacity control means a less congested park, and things like mobile ordering at dining spots even add a little more convenience to the experience, which means, especially once vaccinated, we’re confident that you can have the same summer fun you’ve come to expect at Six Flags Great America there this year, and check out some of that crazy jet propulsion, aqualucent technology action at Hurricane Harbor when it opens its newly independent gates on the 29th, too. Just don’t forget to make a reservation, first!