Busch Gardens says reopening not ‘economically sustainable situation’ in phase 3

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JAMES CITY COUNTY, Va. (WAVY) — While Gov. Ralph Northam has announced that amusement parks in Virginia can reopen soon, Busch Gardens Williamsburg said Tuesday it was opting to stay closed.

According to park President Kevin Lembke, Busch Gardens and Water Country USA will remain closed because phase 3 guidelines would limit attendance to only 1,000 people inside the park.

Lembke went in front of the James City County Board of Supervisors Tuesday to explain the park’s decision, adding the patron limit is “not an economically sustainable situation for us” and express frustration the state didn’t create individual guidelines for them.

“Our parks are largely outdoor facilities spread across hundreds of acres,” Lembke said. “But we continue to be lumped in with businesses with unrelated models, like bowling alleys and skating rinks. This lack of nuance and detail to reopening guidance is unlike anything we’ve seen in other states in which our company operates.” 

At this rate, Lembke said Water Country USA is at risk of not opening at all this year, which he said would result in millions of dollars lost in York County taxes.

“It is absolutely imperative for the Historic Triangle economy that we get Busch Gardens open and we get it open with substantial attendance,” said state Sen. Tommy Norment (R-Williamsburg) who joined the work session by phone. “There are a number of property and restaurant owners that are hanging on right now (expecting) that Busch gardens will open up.”  

Recent data from Old Dominion University suggests the Williamsburg hotel market has suffered greater than any other in the state.

Norment, along with state Sen. Monty Mason, (D-Williamsburg), and Del. Mike Mullin, (D-Newport News), said they have been reaching out to the governor’s office to see if a change can be made to the phase 3 guidelines.

Mason and Norment are pushing for a 5,000 person cap per park. Mason, who also joined by phone, said he and Lembke came up with that number based on square footage, social distancing and the crowds needed to operate.

Or, as Norment put it: “Five times what those numbnuts in Richmond were suggesting.”

While Lembke said the park won’t open yet, he did say they have put together a reopening plan, which includes:

  • Requiring reservations ahead of time
  • Temperature screenings or a mask requirement for guests
  • 6 feet of distance required between people
  • Personal protective equipment for employees
  • Installing 300 hand sanitation stations

He explained that when the green light is given, it will take roughly two to three weeks to open. The parks have roughly 4,000 employees.

Several supervisors appeared to feel slighted by the news, especially after Northam made exceptions for Virginia Beach ahead of Memorial Day weekend.

“I have been frustrated by the situation in Virginia Beach,” said Supervisor Ruth Larson. “I do feel there is an un-equalness to the opening up of tourism that is going on here.”

Vice Chairman Michael Hipple said problems may be solved with the state if we “put more sand in Busch Gardens and call it a beach.”

The governor’s office has not yet returned WAVY-TV’s request for comment.

What to do with your 2020 ticket(s)

Busch Gardens Williamsburg, which is part of SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment, states on its website that tickets purchased for the 2020 season will be automatically extended through December 31, 2021. There is no action required by the customer. Also, any date specific in-park experiences scheduled during 2020 can be rescheduled through the end of 2021.

This also applies to annual pass members. Busch Gardens says it is automatically extending “all active Annual Passes and Membership products to SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and Aquatica for a period of at least as long as the temporary closure.”

Members who completed their initial term of their EZpay contract prior to park closure and did not defer payments, will have their payments after the re-opening of the park waived for a period of time equivalent to the length of closure. Active Pass Members will also receive additional perks automatically prior to the parks reopening. Get details here.

Click here to read the park’s health and safety frequently-asked questions list.


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