We asked a pediatric infectious disease expert what you need to know before you go to a water park during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as families who've experienced them firsthand.

By Brooke Geiger McDonald
February 17, 2021
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Spring break is just around the corner and with it comes the chance to return to a few major water parks. Universal Orlando Resort's Volcano Bay Water Park reopens on February 27 after a seasonal closure for annual maintenance, and Walt Disney World's Blizzard Beach Water Park, which has been closed for nearly a year due to the pandemic, reopens on March 7.

When it comes to theme parks during the pandemic, strict health and safety protocols have enabled destinations like Disney World and Universal Orlando to reopen successfully, with most families reporting positive experiences. But, what about a water park, where it's not possible to wear a mask all the time?

Here's what parents need to know about visiting a water park during the pandemic.

Disney water park
Credit: Disney

How Safe Is It to Visit a Water Park Right Now?

Here's some good news to start: The water itself is safe. According to the CDC, "There is no evidence that the virus that causes COVID-19 can be spread to people through the water in pools, hot tubs, or water playgrounds."

You probably know by now that COVID-19 is spread mainly by close contact between people who are physically near each other (within 6 feet). And while masks do a lot to mitigate the spread, when they get wet, they aren't effective and make it difficult to breathe, and therefore aren't permitted while in the water and on water slides.

This is where capacity limits and strict distancing guidelines at a water park become extremely important, says Colleen Nash, M.D., assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at Rush University Children's Hospital.

"If you can truly maintain at least 6 feet—if not more—of distance outside, while not wearing a mask—then theoretically, that environment is not going to be the most risky," says Dr. Nash. But, she cautions, it's the increased potential for unmasked exposure at a closer distance that makes a water park—even with safeguards in place—of greater concern.

"This is why the distancing piece is so critical here," says Dr. Nash. "If that cannot 100 percent be maintained, then I am not comfortable with the scenario."

The New Water Park Rules

The same zero-tolerance approach to enforcing health and safety protocols at theme parks is being extended to the reopened water parks. Precautionary measures include temperature screening, capacity limits, distance markers, and masks required everywhere—except in the water and on slides. But, says Dr. Nash, while the steps a facility takes to keep guests safe are critical, parents need to be proactive about their role in maintaining their family's safety.

"There should be supervision on the facility's part, but if you are signing your family up for being in a scenario like this, it is your personal responsibility to make sure that your entire group follows these rules," she says.

Parents should clearly explain the rules to kids ahead of time, emphasizing the importance of keeping 6 feet of distance from others, and make sure they're able to follow them. The CDC describes the recommended 6 feet as "a few inches longer than a typical pool noodle." Try practicing with one at home to give kids a clearer sense of how far away they will need to stay from others.

Dr. Nash also emphasizes that parents still need to supervise their children—even older kids—at all times and says they should have a plan in advance for handling situations where safety could be compromised, such as if another guest gets too close when an employee isn't nearby.

"Ask yourself, 'What am I going to do if my child does X? What am I going to do if another child does Y?'" she recommends, noting that parents might need to be more assertive than they'd normally be. "Plan to approach any issues in a way that's not going to start a conflict, but also have an unwavering goal of keeping everyone safe."

Lessons from Families Who've Visited Water Parks During COVID

Although Disney World has waited nearly a year to reopen the first of its two water parks (the second, Typhoon Lagoon, will remain closed for the time being), less than 20 minutes down the road, Universal Orlando Resort had reopened Universal's Volcano Bay Water Park in June.

Jen Filling visited Volcano Bay over the summer with her 8-year-old nephew and says safety compliance was very good among guests. She says very low crowds made it easy to maintain distance, with one exception—the lazy river.

"They have restricted the entrances and a team member was there to help guide people so that they kept their distance, but floating along it was a free for all," she says. "It didn't make me uncomfortable at all because I felt I could just push away if need be."

Jean Diaz had taken his two nephews, ages 5 and 6, to Volcano Bay twice after it reopened. He agrees that the lazy river posed the only significant challenge to distancing. "You can't control the current so at times it would be hard to keep away from others, but we would try our best," he says.

The Bottom Line

Water parks pose more risk than theme parks during the pandemic since masks are not required at all times and some experiences may make distancing difficult. If you choose to visit a water park with your family, you should ensure all children and adults follow park protocol and skip any experiences where social distancing is not possible.