New US travel report says unvaccinated families are more likely to visit theme and water parks

Sep 27, 2021

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Families unvaccinated against COVID-19 are more likely to visit theme and water parks than their vaccinated counterparts, according to a new report outlining U.S. family travel trends in 2021 and 2022.

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Walt Disney World Resort in 2020. (Photo by Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

“While these travel plans are generally similar for families who are fully vaccinated, partially vaccinated and unvaccinated, there is one trip type where there are differences,” says a recently released joint report from the Family Travel Association and the New York University School of Professional Studies, which found that 70% of unvaccinated families queried plan to visit theme and water parks in the next 12 months compared to 59% of partially vaccinated families and 50% of fully vaccinated families.

“Overall, 51% of families are planning to visit these attractions in the coming 12 months, however, if we just look at families where nobody has been vaccinated, that number rises to 70%,” said Dr. Lynn Minnaert, a professor at NYU’s Jonathan M. Tisch Center of Hospitality and co-author of the report surveying nearly 2,400 individuals from June 14 –July 26, 2021.

Most of the major theme parks in the U.S. reopened in summer 2020 after a brief closure at the start of the pandemic and are currently operating under enhanced health and safety protocols. Face masks are still required indoors at Disney World, Disneyland and Six Flags Magic Mountain, and both indoors and outdoors at Universal Studios Hollywood, regardless of vaccination status.

“Unvaccinated families are less likely to be deterred by crowds, which may play a role. They are also more likely to feel that health restrictions are unnecessary or overblown, and express frustrations over the many attraction closures COVID has caused,” Minnaert said via email. “It could be that they feel they are taking a stand by participating in activities that are seen by some as higher risk. In water parks, no masks can be worn, maybe that is appealing to some.”

Overall, more than half of survey respondents (51%) ranked theme and water parks third among types of trips they are planning on taking with their families in the next year, following travel to visit families and friends (62%) and beach vacations (61%).

“Disney, Universal and other companies have worked hard over the past 18 months to portray themselves as safe destinations during this pandemic,” Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, told me. “But if theme parks develop a reputation as a haven for brainwashed anti-vaxxers, that could be devastating to the industry’s future.”

Related: Theme parks in 2021: What’s open, what’s not and how the experience has changed

The findings puzzled the theme park industry experts I spoke to, all of whom observed a pro-vaccine attitude throughout the theme park community.

“Quite frankly, all of the theme parks support vaccination not only domestically, but globally. They’re putting out the message that vaccinations are highly important,” said Dennis Speigel, who is the founder and CEO of International Theme Park Services, a leisure development company based in Cincinnati. “Some are on the honor system, some ask for vaccination proof. As an industry, we definitely support vaccinations.”

“We encourage people to get vaccinated,” Walt Disney World says on its website, and the resort recently implemented a vaccination mandate for all its salaried and non-union hourly employees, in addition to many union workers.

Speigel added that the pro-vaccination sentiment runs across the industry, from “Disney to mom and pop” parks.

Matt Roseboom, publisher of Orlando-based Attractions Magazine, echoed Speigel.

“From what we have seen, most theme park fans who are active online, are vaccinated,” Roseboom told me via email. “I haven’t heard of anyone going to a water park or theme park that doesn’t require masks as a way to protest mask use. If it is happening, it’s a small number of people.”

Although representatives from Universal, SeaWorld, Disney, Six Flags, Hersheypark, Legoland California and Visit Florida declined to comment for this story, Rapids Water Park in Riviera Beach, Florida, confirmed the park does not require proof of vaccination, which is currently the case for major theme parks across the country.

Related: As California theme parks reopen, Disneyland announces reservation system

Universal Studios on June 5, 2020, in Orlando. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images.)

“All guests and staff, whether vaccinated or not, must wear a mask when indoors at the restrooms, retail store and other areas,” a spokesperson for Rapids Water Park said via email. “Signs are posted reminding park guests to adhere to social distancing.”

Starting next month, parkgoers at Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain will be required to show at least partial vaccination by Oct. 7 or a recent negative COVID-19 test, thanks to new requirements for outdoor “mega-events” with 10,000 or more people in Los Angeles County. Documentation of full vaccination is required beginning Nov. 4, setting the precedent for a potential theme park vaccination mandate.

“Our industry will at some point, if we stay on the same trend we’re on…we will probably enact some form of vaccination proof,” continued Speigel. “I think that’s possible. We’re not there yet but if it was necessary, I think the industry would step up.”

The financial implication of revenue loss may also encourage parks to implement a universal vaccination mandate or negative testing requirement while bearing in mind unvaccinated and vaccinated visitors alike.

“Destinations that cannot or will not take steps to protect their visitors consign themselves to chasing the small, diminishing and far less lucrative anti-vax segment of the marketplace,” said Niles. “As capital intensive businesses, often attached to huge entertainment brands, theme parks cannot afford to do that. They have to find ways to increase their appeal to potential visitors who are concerned about health and safety. ”

Read more: Unvaccinated? Think twice before booking trips to these 5 US cities

Featured photo of Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California, on May 3 by Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images.

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