I spent a day at socially distant Six Flags — and it felt pretty safe – NJ.com

As the rollercoaster slowly made its 230-foot ascent on Friday afternoon, I didn’t just feel excited and a little nervous. I felt alone.

This was Nitro, one of Six Flags Great Adventure’s crown jewel coasters. It’s 19 years old and still among the park’s most popular rides, and I had waited an hour to ride it. Yet the rows to my front and back, as well as the seats next to me, were empty. So I don’t know if anyone heard me scream as we hit 80 miles per hour, and not just because I was wearing a mask.

Welcome to socially distanced Six Flags.

New Jersey’s largest theme park opened its gates on Friday, three months later than normal due to the coronavirus pandemic, with countless safety precautions in place. And while those new protocols made for a slightly slower experience at times, it felt about as safe as a massive outdoor theme park can during a global pandemic.

The rollercoasters aren’t the only thing partially filled. The entire park’s capacity is currently capped at 25% — every guest needs to make a reservation to gain entry and time slots are assigned to manage the number of people arriving at any given time. That percentage will likely be upped to 50% eventually, but Six Flags wanted to take the opening weeks slow — Friday was a preview day for members, season pass-holders and media, while Saturday marks opening day for the general public.

Thrill-seekers walk through a tent on their way into the park where their temperature is taken without even needing to break stride. Six Flags staff members watch a monitor to see a green box appear on anyone with a normal temperature, while a red box indicates a potential fever.

Six Flags Great Adventure reopens

Guests walk through a tent with state-of-the-art temperature-reading technology at Six Flags Great Adventure.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Media for NJ.com

Guests then move onto a contact-free security check tent that also allows them to keep walking as they (and their bags) are screened. It was so fast that security guards had to tell people to keep moving. This is the kind of technology we could have used even before COVID hit. Here’s hoping it gets implemented at sporting events and concerts around the country.

Six Flags Great Adventure reopens

People walk through contact-free security scanners at Six Flags Great Adventure. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med

Hand sanitizer stations dot the park, giving guests the chance to clean their hands throughout the day. There’s even a “clean team” of staff members dedicated to sanitizing the park, patrolling the grounds to keep things clean as possible.

Six Flags Great Adventure reopens

People walk past a sign at Six Flags Great Adventure promoting the park’s SixSafe initiative. Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med

But the thing that felt safest about the park to me was the presence of masks. They are required at all times while on the grounds — yep, even on rides — with signage all over reminding guests to mask up. Not wearing one? A staff member will remind you. I saw hundreds of people on Friday and I don’t think a single one was without a mask — and only a handful of people had their masks down in improper positions.

I was hoping limited capacity would mean limited lines, but that isn’t quite the case. The social distancing measures enacted for the queues include markers every six feet to show people where to stand as well as skipped rows, and people seemed to be following the rules! That means the lines may appear longer than they actually are. But the limited capacity for the coasters also means the line moves slower than normal.

Great Adventure goes as far as to intermittently spray down cars and run them on the track completely devoid of riders to sanitize them. Super-Man: Ultimate Flight appeared to be running only one car as I waited on line, and things were so slow that I eventually gave up and went to another ride. But if that’s the price of safety, I’m willing to pay it.

Six Flags Great Adventure reopens

From left, Ian and Stephanie Bryers of the Bronx, load up on hand sanitizer before boarding “The Joker” thrill ride at Six Flags Great Adventure.Michael Mancuso | NJ Advance Med

There is no indoor dining at the park, but picnic tables are available for sitting, topped with social distance reminders.

Food lines were also long (as to be expected) but Six Flags has introduced mobile ordering through the park’s app. It didn’t go smoothly for me — the app said my order was still “being prepared” 10 minutes after it said it would be ready. When I went in to check on it, a staff member quickly prepared my order and apologized. Slightly annoying, but chalk it up to first day kinks in the system. Still better than waiting on a long line.

For the most part people appeared to be following the guidelines. While there were plenty of people at the park, it never felt overly crowded or claustrophobic like some of the outdoor bar scenes 25 miles east in Belmar. Great Adventure’s sprawling campus is big and spaced out enough to feel safe.

I was skeptical that Great Adventure could pull this off, and it remains to be seen how this will go when capacity limits are increased. But the lengths the park is going to in the name of safety are impressive, and I never felt unsafe. Luckily the scariest experience of the day was the drop on Nitro.

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Jeremy Schneider may be reached at jschneider@njadvancemedia.com. Tell us your coronavirus story or send a tip here.

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