Disney World draws excitement and incredulity as reopening nears

Brooks Barnes, The New York Times

Posted at Jul 09 2020 10:28 AM

Disney World draws excitement and incredulity as reopening nears 1
Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., on May 5, 2020. The mega-resort will welcome back visitors on Saturday, July 11, 2020, even as coronavirus cases in Florida remain high. Eve Edelheit, The New York Times/File

Walt Disney World near Orlando, Florida, will reopen Saturday, and Disney has been posting marketing videos online to highlight the safety procedures it has designed to protect visitors and employees.

“I feel safe because Disney has gone above and beyond what they needed to do,” an employee named Sam says in one of them while standing near Fantasyland.

Some of the 1,000-plus responses to that particular video were supportive. Others were incredulous, with people using words like “irresponsible” and “disappointing.” “Stay. Closed. Please,” one person wrote.

The pandemic has devastated Disney’s businesses, and reopening its signature tourist attraction — with restricted capacity and government approval — is a major part of the company’s comeback attempt. But in doing so Disney is stepping into a politicized debate surrounding the virus and efforts to keep people safe, where even the wearing of masks has become a point of bitter contention.

Complicating matters, Disney is allowing people to return to a modified Disney World while other parts of its empire remain closed. “Mulan” was supposed to arrive in movie theaters July 24, but Disney postponed the release to Aug. 21 because of surging coronavirus cases nationwide and the likely unavailability of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, recently slowed down the reopening of theme parks in California, including Disneyland, which had been scheduled to come back July 17.

The Florida Department of Health reported 9,989 new COVID-19 infections Wednesday, with 1,251 in the central part of the state, which includes Orlando. The statewide number is among the highest in the country, leading some to question whether Disney is being responsible in reopening Disney World.

“The world is changing around us, but we strongly believe that we can open safely and responsibly,” Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park chairman, said in an interview. “For those that might have questions or concerns, when they see how we are operating and the aggressive protocols that we have put in place, they will understand.

“This is our new normal. Our new reality,” he continued. “COVID is here, and we have a responsibility to figure out the best approach to safely operate in this new normal. Businesses across the country are open, whether it’s a local pizza shop in Orlando or an airline taking on new guests.”

D’Amaro said Disney’s 4 theme parks in Asia had reopened “without incident.” He declined to say how many people would be allowed into Disney’s Florida parks, although he said visitors should expect a “sparse” atmosphere, rather than the usual crowds. Shanghai Disneyland initially limited attendance to about 20 percent of its pre-outbreak capacity.

County and state officials have approved Disney World’s reopening plan. Unions representing roughly 48,000 Disney World employees have signed agreements with Disney to return to work under rigid safety protocols. Many fans are ready to visit. When Disney began taking park reservations June 24 — you can no longer walk up and buy a ticket, allowing the company to restrict capacity — the surge of interest crashed the booking system; some reservation blocks were gone within minutes.

And competing attractions resumed operations weeks ago. Universal reopened its three Orlando theme parks June 5, while SeaWorld Orlando brought back its rides and marine exhibits June 11. Legoland in Winter Haven and Busch Gardens in Tampa have also been selling tickets again. Legoland does not require masks.

But none of those places has the prominence of Disney World, which consists of 6 separately ticketed parks with a combined attendance of 93 million in 2019. The two most popular ones, the Magic Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom, will reopen Saturday. Disney World’s other major parks, Epcot and Hollywood Studios, are set to reopen next Wednesday. Two water parks will remain closed. Disney Springs, an outdoor shopping mall, reopened May 20. The National Basketball Association will restart its season July 30 at a Disney World sports facility.

For visitors, the Disney World experience will be drastically different. Parades, fireworks and most indoor shows have been suspended. There will be no opportunities to hug Mickey Mouse or other costumed characters. Fingerprint scanners will not be used at park entrances.

Disney, known for its militaristic style of theme park management, will require face coverings for all employees and visitors over the age of 2. Disney will also take temperatures, leave seats empty on rides and run loudspeaker announcements urging people to frequently wash their hands. Plexiglass partitions have been installed in shops and restaurants. Disney has added 4,000 hand-sanitizing stations.

“Disney’s approach seems reasonable,” said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious disease expert at Vanderbilt University who is part a group that will review vaccine data as advisers to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If Disney strictly enforces the safety procedures it has outlined — no exceptions — it will keep the risk very low for visitors and employees.”

Even so, he said, anyone over the age of 60 should postpone visiting.

Some Disney World employees have said they do not feel safe returning to work under the conditions that Disney has laid out. Actors’ Equity, which represents about 750 Disney World performers, has been sparring with the company over coronavirus testing. The union has refused to allow members to return to work until Disney provides regular tests. Company-orchestrated testing is not part of Disney’s back-to-work plan for any of its park employees. (Disney World employs roughly 75,000 people.)
That means some shows, such as the “Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular” at Hollywood Studios, may not be running. (Employees who appear in full-body costumes as Disney characters will be working. They are part of the Teamsters union.)

Disney — with its theme parks closed, Marvel movies postponed and ESPN cable channel without live sports to televise — has seen its business more directly affected by the pandemic than much of corporate America. Michael Nathanson, a media analyst, estimates that Disney lost more than $1 billion between the beginning of April and the end of June. (Disney will release financial data for that period Aug. 4.) To shore up its balance sheet, Disney furloughed about 100,000 workers, slashed executive salaries, suspended its investor dividend and lined up more than $13 billion in fresh credit.

The company’s nascent streaming service, Disney+, has benefited from home quarantining. It sizzled over the weekend as “Hamilton” fans logged in to watch a film version of the stage production. But Disney+ is not expected to turn a profit until 2024. Disney’s streaming division lost $812 million in the quarter that ended in March, with the rollout of Disney+ in Europe a big expense.

All of which heightens the pressure on Disney World to start generating revenue. Getting the 25,000-acre mega-resort up and running “is incredibly important to free cash flow,” Nathanson said. “It is the most important single asset from a near-term financial perspective.”

Local business owners are also counting on Disney World.

“We’re excited for Disney to reopen,” said Mark McHugh, chief executive of Gatorland near Kissimmee. “Disney is so big it lifts the entire area.” McHugh said Gatorland, which reopened May 23, has experienced a roughly 40 percent decline in business compared with last summer.

“It’s slow, but not as slow as I had feared,” he said. “People are still looking for activities, although we have found that we need to continuously police and remind them to wear their masks.”

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