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Reopening Under COVID-19 Precautions, A Disney Theme Park Loses Its Magic

Disney World

Universal Studios will open its Orlando theme parks for business June 5, following a nearly three-month-long closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The move comes on the heels of the Walt Disney Company announcing it will reopen its Florida parks beginning July 11.

To some, the reopening of America’s two largest and best-known theme parks might signal a return to normalcy. But the news comes with several catches. For starters, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has signaled an unwillingness to let theme parks in his state reopen at present, such that Disney and Universal’s original parks — the Disneyland resort and Universal Studios Hollywood — will remain shuttered for the foreseeable future. Moreover, the logistical obstacles associated with the parks’ reopening could deter families contemplating a future vacation.

Masking Requirements

Some of the health and safety requirements imposed as part of the parks’ reopening seem comparatively simple and sensible. For instance, taking guests’ temperatures upon entry could create slight delays at the turnstiles, but visitors can plan accordingly.

On the other hand, the requirement that guests over age 2 wear masks at all times will present a constant reminder of the pandemic. As a practical matter, it will likely become uncomfortable for visitors in Florida’s hot, humid summer climate.

The parks will allow guests to remove masks while eating, but what parent wants to tell her kindergartner he has to put his mask back on after finishing his ice cream cone? Walking and standing for hours on end, stifling heat and humidity, and over-stimulation already make Florida theme parks the perfect storm for temper tantrums. Throw a mask into that equation, and the results may not be pretty.

As private companies, Disney and Universal have the right to require guests on their property to wear masks, but enforcing this requirement seems like a nightmare. A lack of enforcement could create liability concerns and encourage others to ignore the requirement. Enforcing it too strongly could prompt confrontations that generate viral moments on social media and bad publicity.

Disney recognized the problems inherent in the masking requirement when it proposed to local officials the concept of “relaxation zones,” where guests could remove their masks. Apart from the fact that these zones could get mobbed with guests, the idea raises an obvious contradiction: Shouldn’t all of one’s vacation be relaxing? Disney probably meant to describe an area with relaxed rules, but in so doing, it unwittingly admitted that this post-coronavirus world won’t provide many opportunities for guests to de-stress.

Reduced Service

Social distancing concerns mean theme parks will operate with reduced capacity. Guests will have to reserve their park attendance in advance, meaning locals can’t just show up on a given day because the weather looks nice. At present, Disney has suspended ticket sales and future hotel reservations, focusing on annual pass-holders and those with existing tickets and reservations.

While Universal said it will utilize virtual queuing — wherein guests get summoned to return to a ride when their “turn” arrives — Disney has suspended its FastPass ride reservation system through the end of the year. As a result, Disney World guests may have to line up the old-fashioned way, even if they do so in a more spaced-out, socially distanced manner.

In addition, the parks will also reduce service. Disney character meet-and-greets will become appearances from a distance, and major shows, parades, and evening fireworks won’t return when the theme parks do. Universal parks will close at 6 p.m., while Disney will suspend extended hours for hotel resort guests.

From a public health and safety perspective, the changes make sense. Eliminating meet-and-greets promotes social distancing, and the big shows and parades draw hordes of crowds and gawkers, with people jostling body-to-body around major nighttime events.

From an entertainment-value perspective, however, the changes take away much of the magic that defines a theme park vacation. Disney functions as the second-largest purchaser of explosives nationwide, behind only the Department of Defense, such that most guests’ trips seem incomplete without an evening fireworks extravaganza. Pity the parent of a child who has anticipated a theme park vacation for months, only to discover they won’t get a picture with, or an autograph from, Mickey Mouse while they’re there.

Economic Difficulties

I wrote last year about how major increases over the past several years have made the Disney parks overpriced. Now, the new restrictions make Disney and Universal an even more questionable value proposition.

Given the reduced service the parks will provide, visiting doesn’t seem worth either the money or the effort. If I lived in the Orlando area and had already purchased an annual pass, I might consider a visit to the reopened theme parks, just to escape quarantine and get some fresh air. But I wouldn’t pay the $159 maximum price for a one-day ticket (plus $25 for parking), let alone absorb the major expense a Florida vacation usually entails, for an experience reduced in both quality and quantity.

Disney and Universal, just like restaurants and other hospitality businesses, face an existential question: Can they turn a profit (or at least break even) with greatly reduced operating capacity? Suspending in-park entertainment can shave some costs, but the companies also face higher expenses for things like hand sanitizer and occasional deep cleanings.

Add more than 40 million unemployed Americans into the mix, most of whom will have to nix any thought of expensive travel, and the immediate future for theme parks seems bleak.

Granted, the ridiculously long lines when the World of Disney store reopened at Disney World show a committed core of fans may support the company regardless. But if I were contemplating a theme park vacation, I would save my money and wait until I could enjoy the entire experience — even if that meant waiting a year or two until we have fully adapted to the post-coronavirus world — rather than spending thousands of dollars on a sub-par vacation now.

Until a return to normalcy, the Universal and Disney experiences have lost a little of their magic.