Is Disney World's bad summer about to get worse?

August 2, 2016, 1:53 PM · It's not been a good summer for the Orlando area theme parks. By all reports, official and anecdotal, attendance is down this summer at the Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando resorts, compared with the same time last year. A strong US dollar has kept international visitors away from America, and domestic visitors haven't picked up the slack, as one-day ticket prices climbing over $100 have left American's dwindling middle class looking for better value at other vacation destinations — if they can afford to go on vacation at all.

The shooting at the Pulse nightclub in June traumatized the Orlando community, leading parks to cancel events planned to publicize their new attractions for the summer. Then a fatal alligator attack at Walt Disney World kept Disney's PR machine silent for a week. Add a bad exchange rate, a sluggish economy for many Americans, higher prices with minimal discounting, and a near complete lack of publicity and you end up with declining attendance.

But the flow of bad news might not be over for Orlando's theme parks. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that mosquitoes in the Miami area are carrying the dreaded Zika virus, which has moved into the states from Latin America. The Zika virus has been associated with some horrific birth defects when transmitted to pregnant women. As a result, the CDC is warning pregnant women not to travel to the Wynwood neighborhood in Miami, but the travel warnings likely will expand if Zika-carrying mosquitoes travel outside that small area of South Florida.

State and federal officials are working to contain the spread of these mosquitoes, but they also were working to keep Zika from spreading into the United States and that didn't work, so let's face it — the spread of this disease across parts of the United States might only be a matter of time.

The Orlando Sentinel checked with travel agents and found no one canceling Central Florida vacations over concerns about Zika — but it did find people looking to avoid Miami. If a Zika-infected mosquito is found anywhere near the theme parks in Orlando, watch out. The Orlando area then would be included in travel warnings, and families will start bailing on plans to visit Disney and Universal.

Obviously, everyone is rooting for the Zika virus to be contained to and then eradicated from the Miami area. But if the virus makes it way to Central Florida, an irony comes into play. Orlando might be better off then if the virus just keeps spreading, with infected mosquitoes claiming more and more territory across the country. If people already have Zika close to home, then there's no longer any point to avoiding Florida to try to stay away from it.

But until that point, if Zika makes its way to Central Florida, the Orlando-area theme parks will face the same challenges that Brazil and other Latin American destinations have faced ever since the Zika virus first was publicized as being there. I lost count a while back of how many athletes have pulled out of the Rio Olympics over "health concerns," which more often than not mean Zika. (For swimmers and sailors, there's the issue of virus-contaminated water, too. Talk about a literal sh-tshow.)

If you have any concern about Zika, I'd recommend visiting the CDC website and reading its page about Zika. It's got an overview of the virus, a list of things people need to know about it, and what the CDC is doing to try to contain and address the virus and its consequences.

Education helps. But so does a heap of bug spray. Florida natives know the importance of insect repellant — but they also knew about the dangers of alligators in the water, too. If the parks have learned anything this summer, it's that no one can expect visitors to have locals' knowledge about dealing with all the potential risks in the water and in the air. Someone needs to tell them when they get here.

But getting them here won't be easy if the news is filled with stories of Zika at Disney World. The local parks will need to fight back with blog posts, press releases, and social media posts talking about how they are working to protect guests and shield them from risk. (Of course, that also means that they will need to be prepared to actually do all of that.) No one can afford to take their PR presence silent for a week again.

Replies (15)

August 2, 2016 at 2:17 PM · I believe health authorities in the Uk have advised Pregnant Women not to travel to Florida.
August 2, 2016 at 2:21 PM · Ziki will be more of an issue at Rio for the Olympics. If Disney is afraid of lower attendance, blame the Olympics and also the construction of Star Wars Land and Avatar. I really don't think Disney has an attendance problem. There's nothing to worry about.
August 2, 2016 at 2:45 PM · News is worse than that on Zika: not just a concern for pregnant women. Also transmitted by infected men to female partners.
August 2, 2016 at 2:50 PM · If Disney's smart, they'll invest in anti-mosquito measures and then brag about them BEFORE this thing inevitably shows up in Orlando.
August 2, 2016 at 4:13 PM · Zika is a worry everywhere, even here in Nevada! We just layer on the bug spray! The CDC has approved Lemon Eucalyptus oil as a DEET free product that works well for Zika. Stock up....
August 2, 2016 at 4:51 PM · Actually, Eric, Disney should do nothing at all and let the governmental agencies handle the situation.

If Disney were to promote that they had a Zika-free zone around the resort and somebody caught Zika while on a Disney vacation or claimed they caught it on a vacation while at Disney, the trial lawyers would have a field day.

Then there's the environmental damage caused by the mosquito control. Disney would open itself up to environmental lawsuits from all quarters if they even tried to use a mild pesticide or other mosquito abatement measure.

It's best just to sit back and endure the storm till the situation has calmed down.

August 2, 2016 at 5:55 PM · They should not advertise that they are a free zone, but they could plant borders that repel mosquitos, such as lemon grass and other herbs that naturally repel the insect. And offer bug sprays organic and non organic product that way the guest have it available for purchase and they have the choice of Spray they choose to use.
August 2, 2016 at 7:55 PM · I'm not a pregnant woman, so I have nothing to worry about, right? Outside of the potential for birth defects, I've read it's pretty mild.

I just feel bad for all the little kids who are named Zika. There must be a few.

August 2, 2016 at 10:20 PM · How much of the attendance downturn is annual passes? I suspect the annual pass price increases pushed some of the unrestricted annual gold pass to the summer blackout silver pass and others to not buy at all. I know a lot of people did first because of price and second because of the horrid crowds. In practice, the crowd reduction was engineered by Disney, and I doubt they think they were too successful.

The huge annual pass price increase was in October. This means the vast majority of annual passes would have expired before summer started or at some point during the early summer.

Mr. Niles (October 4, 2015)
"The addition of the Signature and Gold passes at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, respectively, appear to be an attempt by Disney to entice annual passholders who do not want to pay a large price increase to accept new blockout dates during the parks' busiest period instead."

Further,attendance was already down in Q1.
Bob Iger (Orlando Sentinel May 10, 2016)
"We like the steps we've taken in terms of pricing," he said. "We've taken a number of steps … to essentially grow revenue, in some cases actually at the expense of some attendance."

August 3, 2016 at 3:39 AM · 500,000 people from literally every corner of the world are decending upon Rio, the epicenter for Zika. There literally isn't a quicker way to speed up transmission. Expect the travel warnings to expand ...
August 3, 2016 at 5:22 AM · Disney told us passholders to pay more or get out of the parks, so we left and haven't looked back.

I haven't spent $1 on anything Disney in 9 months, compared to the same time last year where I gave them more than $500 a month in passes, merchandise, and dining.

They don't seem to understand that you don't crap where you eat. Oh well.

August 3, 2016 at 8:53 AM · Add to all that... Brexit, providing economic uncertainty for some UK travelers wishing to make a trip to Central Florida. The poor economy/political turmoil in Brazil, another large international feeder market. And even the Summer Olympics, which for some might be an alternative to a U.S. theme park vacation.
August 3, 2016 at 1:56 PM · Minor point, but the spread of Zika is not from mosquitoes moving, but infected people traveling, then spreading it in a new area either by getting bitten by local bugs or possibly other means.
August 5, 2016 at 7:10 PM · Credit most of the downturn to the incredible and non-stop greed of Bob Iger. He has knocked out the middle class from visiting Disney US theme parks.
August 5, 2016 at 7:34 PM · I've never had a mosquito bite while at Disney. I don't know how they do it, but Disney does a great job of controlling the pest population. My guess is that they have a lot of insects and animals who eat mosquitos and their larvae.

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