The next big decision for the people who run Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and the rest of the nation's theme parks is not when they will reopen. It's how they would be willing to reopen.
It's becoming apparent that there will be no single "V-E Day"-type reopening date for the nation's businesses, at least not anytime soon. If there is to be a reopening before a vaccine emerges, that likely will happen in phases, as certain types of businesses are allowed to restart under certain conditions. Face coverings and social distancing rules might remain in place. Restrictions on travel, including cruising and international travel, also might stick around for some time. And most importantly for theme park fans, bans on large gatherings also might continue.
So the question for theme parks is not a simple one of "when," but becomes one of "how"? Is it possible to operate a theme park in a way that complies with a restriction against gatherings of several hundred people or more? What about requirements that people stay a prescribed distance apart? Or potential hygiene rules that would require more frequent cleaning of surfaces that the public could touch?
Theme park operations rely on a set of standard operating procedures. Parks design their "SOP" to ensure that attractions and other locations operate safely - for both guests and employees - while also operating efficiently. The restrictions that many communities might put into place to help contain the spread of the coronavirus as businesses reopen might conflict with some, if not many, of the well-established SOP at theme parks.
How many times have you heard "please keep up with the party in front of you" in a queue? Or to "slide down and fill in all available space" in a theater? I'm willing to bet that many of you have used single-rider queues before to get on a ride with a shorter wait, too. But all that goes away if parks have to abide by social distancing restrictions.
SOP packs people together because that's how theme parks keep their wait times to a minimum. The more people you can load in a theater and the more seats you fill on a ride, the higher an attraction's through-put becomes. A gap in the queue means that either an operator needs to hold a ride vehicle at dispatch, waiting for the next party to walk up to the load station, or to dispatch it empty to keep the ride circuit moving. Either way, through-put suffers and the wait time gets longer for everyone.
Now imagine if operators also had to wipe down every lap bar and every over-the-shoulder restraint between trips. That adds more time in the station, meaning fewer runs per hour and lower through-put. Not to mention scheduling more employees in the station to do that cleaning.
Even if a park could justify operating its rides under a large-group gathering ban, it probably could not get away with big outdoor events such as parades and even fireworks - anything that causes hundreds of people to gather, should-to-shoulder, in a crowd. If parks also need to limit the number of people inside shops and restaurants, they could run into crowding problems on their streets and pathways, especially with attraction queues overflowing due to lower hourly through-puts. That probably forces parks to close their gates at much lower crowd levels than they would under the old, "normal" SOP.
At some point, park management has to ask, "so what's the point in opening, then?" If a park has to rethink and redesign its SOP to comply with new rules, then retrain all of its employees before opening, and then only be able to handle a fraction of the crowd that it could welcome before, who then will be having a compromised experience anyway... at what point does all this just become too much? At what point is it easier and less of a financial loss just to wait until the park can reopen while using more of its existing SOP?
At what point does the "how" dictate the "when"?
The challenge is that there might never come a time when parks can operate using their old rules and procedures. Even if federal, state and local governments were to allow that, the public might not accept it. The longer that this enforced social distancing continues, the more that it becomes possible that it will lead to long-lasting, if not effectively permanent, changes in people's attitudes toward being in public. That's why leaders such as Disney's Bob Iger already are talking publicly about reinventing the parks for a post-corona market.
Successful theme parks, such as Disney's, employ a lot of people who crunch a lot of numbers to help craft SOP. But now parks are tasked with reinventing their SOP to support reopening in a post-corona market for which there are no numbers to crunch - because no one knows what that market will look like. We haven't has a pandemic like this to provide a precedent to model from in 100 years - decades before this industry started in its current form.
I write this not to discourage fans but to let them see into the process that's happening among theme park managers around the country right now. Ultimately, I think it's best for fans if they understand why the changes that might be coming to their favorite parks had to happen... or why parks are not reopening along with other businesses, if that's what occurs.
No one knows yet when the parks will reopen. And no one knows yet how they will reopen, either. But park managers are thinking about these questions 24/7 right now, and I think it's perfectly appropriate for fans to be giving these issues some thought, too.
After all, it's our money that we will be spending to visit the parks when they reopen. With that money becoming scarce for many of us, we will be looking for an experience that is safer and more rewarding than ever in return.Tweet
This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.