Safety a priority as Holiday World plans to open

Photos by Marlena Sloss/The Herald
Holiday World employees ride the Thunderbird roller coaster to test the new queuing system and new safety protocols at the theme park in Santa Claus on Thursday. Holiday World will open to the general public on June 17 with adaptations to encourage social distancing, an online reservation system designed to cut down on long lines for rides and other changes in response to COVID-19.


SANTA CLAUS — What will summer look like for Holiday World & Splashin’ Safari under the cloud of COVID-19?

The local amusement park is preparing for a mid-June opening, and Owner and Director of Communications Leah Koch pointed to Gov. Eric Holcomb’s “Back On Track Indiana” plan as a guide that she and her staff are using to get ready for summer. She said they considered trying to shoot for a June 14 opening, which lines up with stage four of the governor’s plan and allows “cultural, entertainment and tourism businesses” to open at 50% capacity. But further discussions led to an adjustment in plans.

“Once we got the order in from the governor, that helped us figure out how to narrow down our reopening plans,” she said. “We worked through different scenarios, but once we got that guidance, we started to narrow it down. What made the most sense was to make sure we scaled our opening.”

Holiday World will open to the general public on June 17, but the park will stagger openings for platinum season pass holders, season pass holders and summer fun card pass holders starting on June 14. Koch and the staff will treat June 14-16 as a test run to measure how the different operational procedures they developed work in a practical setting.

Holiday World Team Member Sarah Schlachter, left, Crew Leader Travis Brown and Team Member Jody Hubert spread out seating outside The Alamo restaurant to ensure 6 feet of separation between tables at the theme park in Santa Claus on Thursday.

“We tried to give ourselves a couple of days to make sure the processes we think are going to work are actually going to work,” said Koch, who added that there will also be a mock opening for employees and their families a week before June 14. “We know the season pass holders will let us know if something isn’t working. It felt natural. We hope the trial and error can be minimized so we can have a consistent experience for the guests.”

One of the big changes includes a new online reservation system that’s designed to cut down on long lines for rides. Called inLine Reservation, the system will be accessed from a website guests can log in to with their smartphones. Guests will be able to check a ride’s wait time, reserve a spot in the queue and receive a notification when it’s their time to hop on the ride.

“You don’t have to download anything,” said Koch, who noted that wristbands will be provided for those with no phone or weak batteries. “It’s a website [guests] will go to. It’s going to be geo-fence, so someone can’t check in from Evansville and they haven’t even departed from home. We want to make sure the people in line are the people at the park.”

Some of the other changes include adding markers around the park to encourage social distancing, maintaining a cleaning and sanitation schedule for high-touch areas and changing how orders are served at the park’s restaurants. Face masks will be mandatory for all team members. Additionally, guests who wear masks may be asked to take them off at certain rides as they are considered a “loose article” and could pose a safety hazard.

Holiday World supervisor Jax Matthews wipes down tables in preparation for the June 17 opening to the general public at the theme park in Santa Claus on Thursday.

“That conversation really evolved over time,” said Koch. “On a roller coaster, that’s a loose article, and that’s dangerous. That’s an existing rule we’ve had, and we’re not going to change because there are more people wearing face masks.”

There are still a lot of moving parts for a theme park that’s used to seeing about a million guests a year. A couple of the rides, such as the Lewis & Clark Trail, Rough Riders and Tippecanoes, won’t be open because they can’t be operated with the current social distancing guidelines. Splashin’ Safari, which is scheduled to open on July 4, presents another set of challenges that are separate from the park’s dry land counterpart.

Koch and her staff are working out contingency plans for possible cases of COVID-19 that originate at Holiday World.

“We’ve got a plan in place, but I’m not sure we’re ready to share that yet,” she said. “That is something we have discussed with the health department. We’re going to talk and work very closely with our local health department just to be sure we’re ready. They’ve been nothing but supportive this entire time.”

Koch said that this season will be very different for Holiday World. There’s never been a situation like this in its nearly 74-year history, but she’s hoping the park can still provide visitors a fulfilling experience while doing its part to flatten the curve.

“We’ve been trying to protect that theme park experience,” Koch said. “It doesn’t feel like home to us without guests in the park. We know it’s going to be different than anything we’ve ever had before. We want to make sure our guests are safe. We’re trying to find that balance, [but] safety has to be that first part.”

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