It's been a long sixteen weeks since my last theme park trip, to Legoland Windsor on Duplo Dino Coaster's opening day.
Just over a week after that, the UK went into lockdown in response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
The few UK theme parks which had already opened for the season were forced to close their gates, and others such as Thorpe Park which had yet to welcome guests in 2020 were forced to abandon their grand opening plans.
Covid comes to Swarm Island
Finally, on 23 June 2020 Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced changes to lockdown measures, including that theme parks (along with other tourist attractions such as cinemas, playgrounds, art galleries and museums) could reopen from 4th July - providing they could show themselves to be "Covid-Secure".
Over the last few weeks, we as a country have had a whole bunch of new terminology thrown at us - "Covid-secure", "the two metre rule", "social distancing", "self isolation", "shielding", "track and trace", "one metre plus", "the new normal", "Barnard Castle"...
At times we've struggled with exactly what it all means to us in our (temporary) new way of life.
However, for theme park enthusiasts at least, BoJo's announcement gave us a much needed bit of clarity and hope in these terribly dark times.
Many parks including those owned by Merlin went into action immediately after the announcement.
In fact, the announcement had been widely anticipated and preparations for reopening had been taking place for weeks.
Within hours of the House of Commons speech, Thorpe Park had an online booking system up and running for annual pass holders: due to the lower capacity demanded by Covid restrictions, we'd have to reserve out spot.
While Merlin seem to have been quite careful not to reveal exactly how much they've reduced capacity by when questioned in media interviews, various figures have been bandied about suggesting perhaps 2000 people or perhaps 40% of a normal summer weekend were allowed into the park.
And so I raced half the UK's enthusiast population to click the reserve button and was able to book a couple of tickets, not for the glorious 4th July itself but for Sunday 5th.
Arriving at the car park, each car was greeted by a couple of staff members geared up in masks and face shields checking that guests had pre-booked
Pre-booked and ready
Hand sanitiser is available outside the entrance ... as it is all over the park!
Each guest has to have their temperature checked before entering the park.
It's a bit like being held at gunpoint by a very friendly smiley person threatening to shoot you in the head.
Well not much like that really, apart from the thermometer is like a plastic gun that gets pointed at your forehead to check your temperature.
But the staff are very friendly, smiley and reassuring, and the whole process takes a couple of seconds.
No adverts on the giant entrance screen this year, which has been taken over by more smiley people letting you know about the changes the park has implemented in response to the pandemic
Here's another smiley lady, showing you how to put on a mask.
You just can't see she's smiling because of the mask, obviously, but I bet she is.
The first Covid casualty: no maps this year. Sorry map collectors! (I am one of you and am sad too).
What the hell have they done to the entrance to The Dome? It looks horrible like we're about to enter some discount pound shop, and you can't blame that on Covid!
Yay! The smiley lady is back on one of The Dome screens to make me happy again! Thorpe can't run fastrack at the moment, and I guess they decided they still needed to upsell something at the beginning of the day so it might as well be a face mask.
In one door, and out the other.
A few months later than planned, we're back in the park! That's a great feeling, isn't it? But we mustn't dwell on it. The sign says so.
Several attractions are currently closed, including the indoor rides, all water rides and Rush.
People keep saying "we're living in extraordinary times" at the moment. I didn't realise just how extraordinary these times are until we decided (completely voluntarily) to make Colossus our first ride of the day.
Along with most rides at Thorpe, you now have to wear a mask to ride Colossus. (Only on the ride itself - you don't need to wear one in the queueline, although a few people were).
Talking of queuelines, there's been some changes to those too: yellow spots have been painted at regular intervals throughout each queueline to help with social distancing and keep visitors apart.
The yellow dots really spread out the queue, which was back to the tunnel when we joined.
Usually that would mean hours to wait, but in reality there weren't actually huge numbers of people in front of us ... just lots of people concentrating very hard at balancing on their yellow dots.
You've got to feel sorry for the big families with the adults and kids all trying to fit themselves inside their custard coloured circle of protection, not daring to stray outside its boundaries in case they were immediately infected.
OK, as much as signs and paint blobs are mind-blowingly exciting, let's take a short break from them and look at some pictures of an actual ride.
Here's Colossus looking pretty in the sunshine.
Please share my amazement at how well this angle manages to hide all (well, most of) the rust.
Covid-19 may be attempting to turn everybody's world upside down, but its just a pretender to Colossus' crown as the King of inversions.
Arriving at the station, we masked up in anticipation of the ride, remaining on our separate yellow spots naturally.
I really love how my smile came out in this photo.
(Excuse the lockdown hair).
Colossus was briefly shut down for cleaning as we arrived in the station.
This process happens about once every half an hour, with staff cleaning restraints and other frequently touched surfaces and then sending the train out empty for a dry-off.
They're already pretty efficient at it, and it only adds a few minutes to the waiting time.
Socially distanced rollercoaster riding.
So what's it like riding a rollercoaster wearing a face mask, especially on a ride as rough as Colossus?
I'd been a bit apprehensive about it if I'm honest, but it turns out it's fine.
It moves around a bit but it stays on and you soon get used to the feeling.
Ignore what you've seen on TV in the last few days with overly-emotional news reporters "testing out" rollercoasters with their face masks flapping about and covering their eyes as they dramatically scream their way around the ride.
It's really nothing like that.
The magic of telly, huh?
Please exit through the gift shop.
One benefit of Thorpe's enhanced cleaning routines is the park has never been cleaner!
Staff all seem to be taking it very seriously and wiping down surfaces regularly.
Thorpe's new attraction for 2020 was supposed to be Black Mirror Labyrinth, a high tech mirror maze based on the Netflix show which would have been housed inside the X:\NWO pyramid in the area formerly occupied by the Living Nightmare scare maze during Fright Nights.
Unfortunately as its an indoor attraction, the launch has had to be postponed until 2021.
The sign board was (is) going to be huge!
Looks like they were just putting in the queueline fences when the work stopped.
There'll be blue skies over, the rollercoasters of Thorpe Park, Tomorrow, just you wait and see.
Yellow spots throughout the queueline.
Hey, Covid, you looking?
Here's another thing which turns people's world upside down way better than you do.
I think it's time for you to do one.
Sadly social distancing was almost non-existent in the cattlepen section of the Nemesis Inferno queue.
It was partly down to the attitude of some large groups around us, but people also seemed confused about the yellow spots through the cattlepen:
Thorpe had done their best to position the spots to keep a 2 metre separation between groups standing next to each other as well as in front and behind, but some people thought the "missing" spots to keep the necessary distance had just not been painted so went and stood in the gaps.
The ride staff didn't cover themselves in glory either, taking over an hour to make an announcement to remind people about the importance of social distancing and to make sure their group was standing on a spot and not in the space in-between.
It was the only time throughout the day where I didn't feel particularly safe or comfortable.
I think Thorpe really need to rethink how they can better handle crowds in cattlepen sections.
Despite the queuing issues, the ride itself was awesome:
due to the way they are having to space people out on the trains, I got the entire front row to myself!
It was lunchtime and we decided to eat in Finns, erm, I mean, the newly rethemed Infinity Bar and Kitchen.
Covid restrictions mean that space inside Infinity is limited, so we were asked to make a reservation and come back half an hour later.
That gave us time to take a look around the shop.
Everyone is made to take a basket and carry it around with them, even if they don't need it.
It's actually quite clever, as it's a way of limiting how many people are in the shop at one time: if there's no basket available then there's already the maximum number of people inside.
Thorpe Park had a real winner with their 40th anniversary merchandise last year, and are cashing in with a larger range of retro merch for the 2020 season.
Check out the cool Thorpe Park Rangers Club mug.
There are loads of new pin badges to collect too.
Products you wouldn't have found at a theme park shop last year: Face masks and hand sanitiser, including a face mask with a custom Thorpe Park design.
A new setup for going to pay, with distance markers and screens to protect the cashiers.
Speaking of paying: many of the outlets have gone card-only, and guests are strongly encouraged to pay by contactless instead of with cash throughout the park.
(BTW, I know those things in the bottom left look like scratching posts for cats, but they're not: they're expensive arty "theming").
No, not an advert for condoms, but an encouragement from HB Leisure to use their hand sanitiser station before/after coming to play in their arcade.
Spot anything strange? Yes, social distancing has even been implemented on the coin pushers, with several positions left empty!
We managed to kill half an hour between the shop and the arcade (just realised that's the only shop apart from Tesco I've been inside in the last three months!), and it was time to head back to Infinity Bar & Kitchen for our lunch reservation.
There was a couple of minutes delay while they prepared a table for us.
The redesign has smartened the place up, but left it feeling a bit stark and lacking in character ...
... although this sign on the wall is cool.
They're serving an extremely limited menu at the moment, but orders are taken by a staff member at your table and everything is brought to you.
All served with a smile, behind a face mask of course.
Compared to the fight to get served at the bar in the old Finn's days, it's a massive improvement.
Some things (not many) are way better in the days of Covid!
My drink was served in a cool cup from last year's Fright Nights.
The food was decent quality: the burger relish was tasty with a hint of spice, and the chips were crispy on the outside but fluffy inside.
However, I would like to see some of the slightly healthier options such as last year's end-of-season salmon return as and when they ramp up the Infinity menu offering.
There are large signs scattered throughout the park reminding people how to stay safe.
First ride of the afternoon was Flying Fish.
Given that the queues for most of the other major rollercoasters were well over an hour, waiting five minutes for the Fish seemed like a bargain.
The ride was getting a bit of a clean as we joined the queueline.
Waiting for these kind of things will be something we'll get have to used to as part of the theme park experience over the next few months.
It wasn't long before the refreshed fish was ready to fly again.
Following our fishy adventure, we ventured onto Swarm Island.
The Swarm only had a ten minute queue, largely thanks to its spaced out seating which meant that trains could be almost filled to their usual capacity.
The station was nearly empty and the ride was walk-on.
It felt great to be able to take a flight on The Swarm again.
Along with the other water rides, Storm Surge is currently closed.
Saw: The Ride was shut today, so the only major rollercoaster left to ride was Stealth.
We had to wait a few minutes before we were allowed to join the queueline as it was having a few "issues".
It's good to know that Coronavirus hasn't changed everything in the world!
Queueline spots trailing off into the distance.
Stealth in the sunshine.
The Swarm looking spectacular in the background, with some equally spectacular socially distanced queueing going on in the Stealth queueline.
Stealth's launch really pushes your mask into your face.
It's short, but it's splendid.
We felt as if it was being cleaned especially for us!
Stopped off at the Megastore for an ice cream.
It's turned into Ikea inside, with a one-way single route through the store.
The final ride of the day: Quantum.
Socially distancing and queuing for donuts and coffee.
Apart from we only got donuts, because their coffee machine was broken. Again.
Coffee Shack came to the rescue just before home time!
As the new sign on the bridge says, Memories Made.
The massive changes throughout the park will make this visit unforgettable.
However, despite all the restrictions and modifications, it proved that a theme park trip is still a fun day out.
Thorpe have done a great job at preparing the park to be "Covid secure" and make everyone feel safe.
They've not got everything right - for example there are plentiful hand sanitiser stations at ride entrances, loading platforms and exits, but they were frequently empty.
But to be fair to them this was only day two in an environment that has changed radically and for a business which has had to make sweeping changes.
As enthusiasts we often criticise parks (sometimes constructively, sometimes not), and Thorpe Park comes in for its fair share.
But all credit to Merlin: they've (largely) made it work and allowed the park to open in by far the most challenging of circumstances it's faced in its forty-one year history.
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