Answering questions about the global theme park shutdown

March 14, 2020, 1:14 PM · Okay, now that the theme parkalypse is upon us, many fans have questions about how this global two-week (at least) closure will affect us, the parks, and the future of this industry.

Fortunately, we already are beginning to get answers to what seemed to be the top questions from theme park fans after parks began announcing their Covid-19 novel coronavirus-related closures: Can I get a refund, and what about my annual pass?

Both Disney and Universal have announced that they will extend their annual passholders' passes by the number of non-blocked days the parks are closed. Disney has said that monthly payments will continue as scheduled until the pass is paid in full. But with their extensions, fans will get some "extra" time in the parks to replace the days they missed, without additional payments.

Disney and Universal also are extending the valid use period for unused days on multi-day tickets and allowing fans to get refunds on unused tickets or to apply their value to new ticket purchases. You can find the resort's specific ticket, annual pass and hotel reservation policies at these links:

The next big question that I and many others have had is, will theme park employees be paid during this shutdown? Having worked for a few years as an in-park cast member at Walt Disney World, I know that most hourly theme park employees live paycheck to paycheck. Losing a couple of weeks pay not only would be devastating to those employees, it would hurt their communities, as the businesses lose their income from theme park employees' spending.

Fortunately, Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld have said that they will pay their employees during the closures. However, the devil lives in the details of how that will happen. SeaWorld said that it will pay its full-time employees, but part-timers at SeaWorld and Busch Gardens outnumber full-timers among in-park employees, according to corporate filings. What happens to them? Universal has said it would pay workers for their scheduled shifts. But what if the closure extends beyond the currently posted work schedule? Will employees still get paid?

Even if employees get their base wages during the shutdown, I am sure than many were counting on overtime hours during the Spring Break season. The loss of those will hurt.

There's also the question as to whether employees will need to come in to work to get paid, too. While there remains an enormous amount of work to be done even in a closed park (think of this as a two-week-long third shift, if you will), park employees also need to be practicing social distancing in order for this national attempt at slowing the virus' spread to have the best chance at working. And then there's the new pressure that some employees will be feeling to stay home with their children while schools are closed.

Next, what happens to planned projects? Obviously, attractions that were close to opening or even scheduled to open during the shutdown period, including Universal's The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash!, Legoland California's The Lego Movie World, and Busch Gardens Tampa's Iron Gwazi, should be ready to go when the parks reopen, or shortly after that.

But what about projects that were not close to complete, or perhaps not even started? This closure not only disrupts park operations, it throws off development and marketing plans, not to mention companies' balance sheets, as the parks will lose weeks of admission and in-park spending income.

The upside is that having the parks free of guests for at least a couple of weeks could help parks clear many of their maintenance tickets and maybe even speed up ongoing capital work. (Walt Disney World might be able to get that Cinderella Castle paint job done a lot faster if it doesn't have to clear the area around the castle during the day, for example.) But that assumes that park employees and contractors will be able to come into work. If this virus does not slow down in the next two weeks, the next step in many local governments' response plans is to restrict all out-of-home travel. That means that two-week third shift I talked about comes to an end. What happens then?

Which brings us to the big question that many of us are beginning to ask, quietly and with great trepidation — will all the theme parks survive this crisis?

The Disney and Universal parks are part of mega-corporations with significant reserves and resources. While the amount of money those parks will lose during this closure will be staggering, those companies are worth much, much more. As a percentage of their corporate value, the shutdown losses should not endanger Disney's or Universal's viability, even if the shutdowns extend into April or May.

Cedar Fair, Six Flags, and SeaWorld live under different circumstances. Each is a separate company, without a big corporate sugar daddy to help them through this. SeaWorld's been hurting even since Anheuser-Busch got taken over and then spun out the parks. Six Flags only recently began to enjoy some stability after a wild ride following the brand being sold off by Time Warner.

A two-week closure will sting - hard, but shouldn't be an existential threat to any of these chains. I suspect that SeaWorld would be hurt the worst simply because it had the most parks scheduled to be open full-time during March. Cedar Fair is probably the least exposed, as two of its three biggest park weren't scheduled to be open until May, though Knott's Berry Farm will take hit by losing most of its Spring Break season.

But the longer that this lasts, the more troubling the closure becomes for these independent companies, each of which has been involved in merger and acquisition rumors in recent months. And what about smaller, independent parks? Again, having this happen before the heart of the season is helpful, but the loss of any part of the traditional summer vacation season could be devastating.

So if you are a theme park fan, the best thing you can do for the parks right now is to do everything you can to help ensure that this viral outbreak slows its spread. That means following every last bit of advice to wash your hands frequently, keep your distance from others when leaving the home, avoiding any crowds, and frankly, just staying home as much as you can.

Because the quicker we all get through this, the sooner the parks can reopen.

Replies (3)

March 14, 2020 at 7:57 PM

Robert, any word on if any of the parks are using this unexpected downtime to their advantage (or at least to some advantage) ie- extra resources thrown at maintenence to get some that would be done later in the year early, or put some extra shine on the park for the grand-re-opening, extra rehersals for new shows, etc??

March 14, 2020 at 11:12 PM

Really too early to tell. Everyone I’ve spoken with is still working on processing the shutdown.

March 16, 2020 at 9:53 AM

Because the situation is more or less global, we are probably (hypothesis) dealing now with with a big shift, instead of a loss. The major problem seems to be the cash flow. Cash flow can break a business, by lack of reserves and/or the impossibility to dig into short term bankloans.
Over the longer term (on year base) it is well possible that the customers will come, just later. The classic situation of a sudden (single) park shut down is, that those custumers get rerouted to the competition, in the said period. This cannot happen now, it's global.
If the parks can overcome the inverted cash flow risk, later in the year they most probably will get more busy. In line with that, perhaps extended opening hours and as matter of logic, more staff hours needed.
It will perhaps not be a 100% shifting of funds operation, but also, it would not be a full loss. At the other hand, I can imagine literally no company at all is prepared to get all this organised.
I imagine that exceptional state/country bridging loans would be a great safeguard. (If banks are unable or unwilling to take the risk).

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