Hardly any queues and whole rows to yourself on rides – what's not to love?
Many times, over the last few months, have I reached for the word ‘rollercoaster’. It felt like an apt way to describe the knuckle-whitening, stomach-churning, head-spinning experience of pandemic life. My career, finances, emotional state: wooshing all over the place, up and down, the whole world turned on its head. Celebrating the easing of lockdown with a trip to a theme park, then, felt laughably allegorical – but empowering, too.
Because, after months of staying at home, it’s not pubs and restaurants I’ve been craving – it’s fun. Excitement! Speed! Colour! Laughter! In essence, all the brilliant bits of a rollercoaster: not that nauseating loop-the-loop of lockdown life, but a good old-fashioned thrill ride. Also, I was very intrigued: How do you social distance on a rollercoaster? Is screaming still allowed? Could it really be as exhilarating as before?
At 9.45am on July 4, a queue was already forming at the entrance gate of Thorpe Park: mostly groups of young people, but plenty of families and a few couples too – all standing dutifully on the socially-distant floor stickers. Tickets had sold out the night before, limited to just 2,000 per day – a drastic reduction on the usual 10,000+ for a usual summer Saturday. The mood was light, and staff were on fine form: taking temperatures and breaking up any non-bubble crowds with tact and gentle authority. It was almost like they’d been doing it for years.
Neil Poulter, Operations Director of Thorpe Park, was keeping a close eye. “We’ve been training for months for this,” he told me; “pretty much since the day lockdown started, in fact. We’ll take it one day at a time, but this feels like a really positive start.”
So, what’s new? There’s safety-focused signage throughout the park, two-metre stickers everywhere, hand sanitizer stations at every turn, tannoy announcements about social distancing – with staff wearing face shields, masks, goggle-glasses, you name it. If that all sounds rather alien, it didn’t feel so in practice: I found it very reassuring, a reminder that the theme park is taking everyone’s health seriously. And of course, it helps that everything is outdoors. I felt much safer, much more looked-after, than I had expected to.
We made a beeline, naturally, for Stealth: Thorpe’s monstrous posterboy. The UK’s fastest rollercoaster, it launches from 0-to-80 mph in 1.9 seconds – and then up, up, over a 62.5-metre loop (the country’s second tallest, after The Big One at Blackpool Pleasure Beach). With the park at a fifth of its regular capacity, the wait was a mere five minutes – unheard of! – and even the new cleaning routine, a disinfectant wipe-down every four or five runs, didn’t hold things up.
That’s now standard practice throughout the park: each ride is cleaned every few minutes, using sprays and cloths. And passengers are seated with their ‘bubble’ – with empty rows or seats between groups, according to each cab’s layout. So even if you’re riding alone, you might get the front two rows entirely to yourself.
This rather VIP-style experience was catnip for Gareth and George Evans, who’d come up from their home in Dorset that morning for a father-son day out – driving gleefully past the south-bound gridlock. “We’ve waited for this for months,” Gareth told me in the queue for Stealth; “It feels great to be here – I promised George we’d come as soon as we could. It’s brilliant to be out and about.”
Turns out, social distancing actually makes rollercoasters BETTER?!? No queues, lots of room, and everything super clean 👏 On a regular Saturday, @THORPEPARK would have over 10,000 guests - today it’s just 2,000. Feels like having a queue-jump ticket and we’re loving it pic.twitter.com/kPY06HVZbE— Hazel Plush (@hazelplush) July 4, 2020
Face masks are mandatory on every ride, which feels weird at first – but again, you quickly get used to it. Indeed, you’re not even allowed into the park without a face covering (though you can buy them on-site too). However, almost all visitors take their mask off the minute they leave the ride, only to put them back on again for the next one.
I couldn’t help fretting a little about the potential for cross-contamination, for transferring germs to – or from – your face every time you mask-up. But the park can’t nanny everybody: safety measures only work if the general public takes some responsibility, too. Choose your mask wisely, though: on Detonator, I screamed so hard that mine popped off over my nose.
But, my god, it felt great to yell from the rafters – to squeal and laugh and let go for a few precious moments. Utter catharsis. The New Normal, it turns out, has made rollercoasters even better than before.