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The new normal for theme parks post-coronavirus

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Hogwarts is seen in “Wizarding World of Harry Potter” theme park at Universal Studios Hollywood, in Los Angeles, USA on April 6, 2016.

Anadolu Agency

Theme parks are designed to have crowds. 

That’s the crux of the issues that theme parks big and small are facing in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, said Bill Coan, president and CEO of ITEC Entertainment.

The amusements business is built on crowds and communal experiences. Rides have been constructed to accommodate more riders. Parades and fireworks shows were created to entice people to congregate and remain in the park later in the day, and dining areas were designed to seat as many guests as possible.

Now, owners of national and regional parks are trying to rewrite the theme park playbook so they can reopen in the midst of Covid-19.

“Visitor attractions will feel and look like very different spaces when they reopen,” said Sabine Lehmann, founder and CEO of Curiositas, a consulting company specializing in attractions and tourism.

“We leave home in order to have shared experiences and it is precisely the sharing of the experience (whether in your group or with strangers) that will change,” she said.

Currently, Shanghai Disneyland is the only major theme park to reopen during the outbreak. While there are no plans for Disney to reopen any of its other international theme parks, the company will reopen Disney Springs, a shopping and entertainment center in Florida on Wednesday.

Universal has said its parks in Florida are expected to be closed until at least May 31; however, it has not provided a specific reopening date. Its shopping and entertainment area, CityWalk, in Orlando is set to partially reopen Thursday.

Regional parks such as Six Flags, Busch Gardens and Cedar Fair are also currently shuttered and awaiting state guidelines in order to be able to open their gates to the public.

The timeline for reopening these parks is up in the air. Some analysts have predicted that park doors will remain closed until 2021, while others see them opening as soon as June 1.

Here’s what theme parks could look like once they are able to reopen:

Opening the gates

To start, many changes will be clearly visible to the guest.

Health guidelines internationally and even state-to-state in the U.S. may vary. However, common Covid-19 measures have included 6-foot social distancing, the use of face masks, cleaning surfaces more often and checking people’s temperatures before admitting them to certain locations.

“How attractions are able to implement these without ‘sanitizing’ the whole experience will be interesting,” Lehmann said. “People want to be safe, but don’t want to sit in a cloud of disinfectant all day.”

Coan noted that many of these measures will be obvious to visitors. Parks are going to want guests to feel comfortable during their stay, so companies are going to go out of their way to show that areas are being cleaned regularly and will post plenty of signage for social distancing and sanitation stations.

Perception is going to be key for parks in gaining trust with parkgoers.

A worker wearing a protective mask sprays a nano-photocatalytic coat on a roller coaster train during a media tour at Ocean Park, temporarily closed due to the coronavirus, in Hong Kong, China, on Friday, May 8, 2020. The theme park has been temporarily closed since Jan. 26 due to the pandemic.

Bloomberg

Following the blueprint set by Shanghai Disneyland, expect parks in the U.S. to place a cap on the number of attendees. Disney’s Shanghai park is currently operating at less than 30% of its capacity.

Occupancy caps at other parks will be dependent on government guidelines in each country or state. For example, a Florida task force has suggested that theme parks reopen in the state with a 50% cap to start.

Rides, too, will have occupancy caps in order to maintain distance between passengers.

Parkgoers should expect to be asked to wear a mask and to have their temperature taken at the gate in addition to the standard security check. Folks will be permitted to remove their masks to eat, but it is unclear how parks plan on enforcing the use of masks throughout the day. 

Riders wearing face masks on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.

Tang Yanjun | China News Service | Getty Images

Guests who are permitted inside will have to purchase their tickets in advance, as parks are going to want to carefully control crowds. This will also remove the physical interaction of an employee handing out tickets to guests and guests handing tickets to other employees in order to enter the park. Some parks may not allow tickets to be purchased at the gate.

Similarly, many parks will offer cashless pay options, if those systems are not already in place, to help reduce the use of cash and physical touch between employees and guests. Mobile ordering at park restaurants will also likely become more prevalent.

“Parks are not getting rid of cash, but encouraging people not to use it,” said Dan Doyle, an amusement park safety expert with the Robson Forensic firm.

Like many retail locations currently in operation in the U.S., parks could use plexiglass barriers between cashiers and customers as an added safety measure.

Guests must maintain three feet of distance while in lines.

Hu Chengwei

Queues for attractions, restaurants and restrooms will have posted social distancing markers to keep parkgoers separated while they wait in line. 

“I know some [parks] may also institute a bypass,” Doyle said. “Instead of standing in line at a queue, you make a reservation for the coaster and when it’s your turn then you can come and ride the ride.”

Disney’s Magic Bands are a good example of how that company has been able to integrate cashless pay and fast passes with technology. The company also has an app just for its theme parks that guests can use to make reservations for rides, mobile order from restaurants and make purchases at gift shops.

Additionally, any live events that encourage parkgoers to congregate in large groups will be suspended temporarily. That includes daily parades and nightly fireworks shows. These can draw massive crowds, exactly what parks are trying to prevent.

However, these performances won’t be gone for long. Parks rely on fireworks, in particular, to keep guests at the park longer, so they will spend more money. Without those night shows, parkgoers will have less incentive to stick around. So, parks are going to try to devise a way to have these events in a safe manner.

A new normal

Eventually, parks will begin to raise attendance capacity. This could be because restrictions have lessened or because a vaccine has been approved and distributed.

At this point, technology will be more seamlessly integrated into theme park operations. Fewer people will use cash, and ticketing and ride reservations will be digitized.

“In the middle term, tech will start to replace all those things that people were doing,” Coan said.

Employees who were responsible for physically counting the number of people in queues for rides or the restroom will be replaced with automatic counters. Additionally, mobile ordering will become more ubiquitous, reducing the need for cashier labor. That labor can be redistributed to the kitchens.

“All touchpoints that are transactional in nature will move to no- or low- touch transactions,” Lehmann said. “This will initially be motivated by Covid-19 hygiene standards and soon become a new norm. This does not mean that human touchpoints will be eliminated; just that they will be reserved for those points that truly add value to the experience.”

Long term, parks will begin to design rides a bit differently, Coan said. Queuing and riding strategies that focused on packing people into close quarters will change. However, parks will have to get creative on how to maintain throughput and the guest experience.

“The demand will be there,” Coan said. “At first there will be some concerns, but ultimately people will go back to these parks.”

Disclosure: Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and CNBC.

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SoftBank Vision Fund boss Rajeev Misra sees pay double to $15 million

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Rajeev Misra, CEO of the SoftBank Investment Advisers.

SoftBank

The CEO of SoftBank‘s ailing Vision Fund, Rajeev Misra, is to be paid 1.61 billion Japanese yen ($15 million) this year, according to a notice SoftBank sent to its shareholders on Friday that was cited by multiple reports out of Japan. 

The total package is 113% more than Misra received in the last fiscal year, when he took home around $7 million.

Misra’s base pay for the year now stands at 1.42 billion yen ($13.2 million), with the remainder being described as “other” pay.

It means the former Deutsche Bank debt trader is the second-highest paid SoftBank employee, behind Marcelo Claure, the former chairman of U.S. telecoms firm Sprint, who is on $19.6 million. SoftBank’s billionaire founder and CEO Masayoshi Son has seen his pay fall 9% to $1.9 million. 

The surge in Misra’s pay contrasts with the financial performance of the tech investment company he heads up, which is aiming to deploy over $200 billion to fast-growing start-ups. 

The Vision Fund reported a record loss of $17.7 billion earlier this month after huge bets on companies like Uber and WeWork turned sour. SoftBank has written down WeWork’s valuation from $47 billion a year ago to $2.9 billion, while Uber’s valuation has also collapsed by over $10 billion in the last year.

Questions are now being asked on whether SoftBank’s $108 billion Vision Fund 2 will go ahead as planned. Son said that he won’t try to raise capital from other companies and individuals until companies in Vision Fund 1 start performing better. 

The notice to shareholders also provided an insight into the growth of the Vision Fund’s workforce, with staff numbers growing from 297 a year ago to 454. 

SoftBank did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment. 

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SoftBank leads $500 million investment in China’s Didi

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Chinese ride-hailing company Didi Chuxing shows off its autonomous vehicle fleet during the World Artificial Intelligence Conference in Shanghai, China in August 2019.

Didi

Chinese ride-sharing giant Didi Chuxing raised more than $500 million in funding for its autonomous driving division, in a round that was led by SoftBank’s Vision Fund 2.

The company announced Friday that its self-driving car business would use the mammoth investment to continue funding research and development and “accelerate” the launch of driverless vehicle services in China and abroad.

Didi plans to roll out a so-called “robo-taxi” service in Shanghai soon. Once the product is live, the idea is that users will be able to hail self-driving cars through the firm’s app. Tiger Qie, Didi’s vice president and chief technology officer of its ride-sharing unit, told CNBC back in November that the aim was to launch the new service “very soon.”

It’s noteworthy that the fresh capital comes from SoftBank’s second Vision Fund. The Japanese telecom giant is the only investor to have actually committed money to the fund, and there are fears that Vision Fund 2 could be in jeopardy due to the poor performance of its initial $100 billion investment vehicle.

Mubadala, Abu Dhabi’s sovereign wealth fund, was a backer of the Vision Fund but is now said to be in two minds over whether to commit to the second one. A source told CNBC last week that Mubadala is “super spooked” by the performance of SoftBank’s initial tech fund.

Didi President Jean Liu told CNBC at the start of the month that the company’s core ride-hailing business was still profitable despite concerns over the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. She added that the business has seen a pick-up in activity after the outbreak had died down in China.

Didi’s ambition is to launch fleets of driverless cars in a number of locations in China. The company gave a nod to Beijing’s ambition to build a “comprehensive digital infrastructure network” based on high-tech innovations like 5G mobile internet, artificial intelligence and the internet of things.

“Didi also plans to further deepen cooperation with global upstream and downstream auto industry partners towards mass production of autonomous driving vehicles, with the aim of advancing the transformation of the global automotive and transportation industries,” the company said in a statement Friday.

The firm added that it currently has licenses to test self-driving cars on the roads in Beijing, Shanghai and Suzhou in China, as well as California in the U.S.

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First flight for world’s ‘largest all electric commercial aircraft’

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The planet’s “largest all electric commercial aircraft” has completed its maiden flight, the latest example of a zero-emission form of transport taking to the skies.

The Cessna 208B Grand Caravan took off from an airport in Moses Lake, Washington, on Thursday and used a 750-horsepower all-electric motor developed by a Redmond-headquartered company called magniX. Work to convert the aircraft was undertaken by magniX and another firm called AeroTEC. 

“The iconic Caravan has been a workhorse of industry moving people and transporting goods on short routes for decades,” Roei Ganzarski, the CEO of magniX, said in a statement on Thursday.

“This first flight of the eCaravan is yet another step on the road to operating these middle-mile aircraft at a fraction of the cost, with zero emissions, from and to smaller airports,” Ganzarski added.

“These electric commercial aircraft will enable the offering of flying services of people and packages in a way previously not possible.”

Thursday’s flight represents another step forward for electric aircraft, albeit a small one. In December 2019, the world’s first fully-electric aircraft for commercial flight completed a test in Canada. The DHC-2 de Havilland Beaver seaplane used in that flight was also fitted with a motor from magniX.

According to the International Council on Clean Transportation, “commercial aviation accounts for about 2% of global carbon emissions.” For the transportation sector as a whole, its responsible for around 12% of all carbon dioxide emissions.

In a bid to reduce the environmental impact of aviation, some airlines, such as KLM, have used bio-fuels to power their planes. The last few years have also seen a number of innovative aircraft complete journeys. 

In 2016, the Solar Impulse 2, a manned aircraft powered by the sun, managed to circumnavigate the globe without using fuel. The trip was completed in 17 separate legs.

In 2018, an unmanned solar-powered aircraft from European aerospace giant Airbus completed a maiden flight lasting 25 days, 23 hours, and 57 minutes.

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