It's Not Just When, but How Disney and Other Parks Will Reopen

April 13, 2020, 2:09 PM · 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.

Replies (15)

April 13, 2020 at 3:05 PM

When a vaccine, treatment, or "herd immunity" is created, things will go back to the old ways. We will be shoulder to shoulder, front to back in theme parks and elsewhere. You say that its been 100 years since a pandemic like this (and honestly, the Spanish flu pandemic was a lot worse than what we have now), yet we were fine with the way theme parks were run after that.

It may take a year or so for things to get back to normal for theme park fans, but it will get back there.

April 13, 2020 at 3:29 PM

Regardless if its theme parks or cruise lines, many businesses are just not designed to operate or function effectively nor efficiency under the social distancing protocols currently in place.

We as a society, as a civilization are not designed to survive long term under the current conditions because in essence we are social animals albeit supposedly highly intelligent, logical and rational ones.

Once this subsides we will eventually revert back to our preexisting norms and routines. We did after SARS, MERS, avian flu, etc and we will after COVID 19 until the next pandemic arises when we will suspend our daily routine once again.

April 13, 2020 at 3:34 PM

If you are not in normal operations for 12-18 months, your "normal" has changed. Between social attitudes, corporate finances and market spending, the way that parks operated on March 1, 2020 is never coming back. It's just a question of how big the changes will be.

April 13, 2020 at 6:20 PM

I don't think they'll be as crowded when they reopen, for many obvious reasons. And yes, Disney et. al. will probably have to raise their prices yet again, to keep those crowds reasonable while still making money.

They might even have to nudge theme parks (slightly? somewhat? a lot?) toward the Discovery Cove model -- less patrons, who pay much more per day, but receive a better experience because the place is much less crowded. Honestly, I would pay a lot more to experience that. I wouldn't be able to go as often, of course, but there is something to be said for quality over quantity.

April 13, 2020 at 5:28 PM

We now have a date for when France will reduce measures. So I guess we can look to DLP for clues from here.

April 13, 2020 at 5:33 PM

>> You say that its been 100 years since a pandemic like this (and honestly, the Spanish flu pandemic was a lot worse than what we have now), yet we were fine with the way theme parks were run after that.

The difference is back in that era you couldn’t see a pandemic coming. The first you knew you were in a pickle was when people started showing up at hospital and bodies started stacking in the mourge. Testing back then was so slow by the time the test was complete you either died or recovered.

This time, we’ve been able to do a preventative response, as tests take a day or so even for the slowest ones. Next time, we’ll probably see another preventative response, which means with the knowledge of how this one worked we might see responses that are like this done much earlier, or to conditions that wouldn’t have gotten this spread.

There’s a new tool in the box now, and the question is how will it be used.

April 13, 2020 at 8:02 PM

I think we're likely to see far more temporary measures than permanent ones when the parks reopen. Things like spacing out guests in queues (or mandatory virtual queue), loading every other row, removing half the tables at restaurants, and heavy sanitation throughout the property will likely be in place at first, but I don't expect any of them to become permanent. Should the virus spike back up there will be a plan in place to roll these things back out, but it's not a sustainable model for theme park operation long term or something that is necessary unless a population is threatened by a severe illness. The main semi-permanent changes I could see would be extra screening at entrances (to prevent or at least discourage those who are ill from visiting) and rethinking how crowds are managed during parades and fireworks once those things return. Beyond that, I don't see any other major changes lasting more than a month or two beyond reopening, especially if numbers continue to decline. The reality is that those who are seriously concerned about contracting the virus probably won't attend theme parks until a vaccine is available, and if the smaller visitor pool becomes irritated and stops visiting due to over the top measures, the larger the park the more likely it could fall.

April 13, 2020 at 8:32 PM

Things will never return to "normal", not completely. International travel will change permanently, with temperature screening likely to become normal before boarding. International business travel will be rationalised and reduced, more as an indirect reaction to global economic depression and the realisation that e-conferencing solutions like Zoom are effective, cheaper alternatives. Changes will occur in many facets of life.

As for theme parks, the longer term outlook would (as others have mentioned) likely include different crowd management, temperature monitoring and other interventions. Most of this will be unobtrusive (including temperature monitoring), so things may not appear that different.

April 13, 2020 at 11:19 PM

It will be awkward at first. The 'new' normal might last even a year or two, but the old ways will return. Similarly, sports arenas WILL someday be able to fill to capacity again. It is in our nature. It may take awhile but it WILL happen. The only lasting human nature change I can possibly see is fewer handshakes among strangers. But loved ones will return to hugs and kisses again. And theme parks will be crowded again.

April 14, 2020 at 12:50 AM

@Stephen Tuday echoes my own feelings.

I thought after 9/11, so much would change forever. Yet by the end of 2001, folks mostly back to normal and soon into 2002 it felt like nothing had truly changed. Granted, this is much different on many levels but all one has to do is see the countless folks around who are ready to go back to work and such right now. Granted, it's not a smart move but people wanting to get back to some normalcy after all.

Let's be honest: If it was said "sports games are okay to attend tomorrow", would folks stay away in droves? Or would you see hundreds or even thousands out there, packing in, albeit with gloves and masks but still there? If my local pub opened with servers in gloves and masks, folks would be there and stores and libraries.

Yes, so much has changed now and we should respect that. Yet never ever overestimate the human desire to get back to some sense of normalcy (and to ignore such huge events). It won't be back to the way it was but the idea "we'll never want to be together in public again" is just as nonsense.

April 14, 2020 at 4:20 AM

It's going to be VERY interesting to see how things will have changed whenever they are able to reopen. Space Mountain with one person in the frint seat and one in the back? Or, given the speed, is that still too close, and only families can sit together?

It's going to be strange, I suspect. I know Iger mentioned the possibility of temperature checks along with the bag checks that came after 9/11, but whether or not it goes to that point, things will be strange for a bit.

And you're right, Robert, though I don't think it will be 12-18 months (that's certainly a possibility, but I'm hoping the parks can reopen sooner than that). But "normal" will not be what we've known as "normal" before this. Things will be different, but none of us know HOW different yet.

April 14, 2020 at 5:47 AM

>> I thought after 9/11, so much would change forever. Yet by the end of 2001, folks mostly back to normal and soon into 2002 it felt like nothing had truly changed

I don’t think I agree with that. I think we started to see a lot more checks on air travel and silly rules that never really went away.

April 14, 2020 at 7:25 AM

It will likely be transitional over 6-12 months but please bear in mind that as soon as normal life returns China will manufacture another virus to assist them in their sole objective of world domination. Coping with pandemics may be our future new "normal". Harrowing thought so I hope I am completely wrong.

April 14, 2020 at 7:09 AM

^ Thanks for that. ^

April 14, 2020 at 9:22 AM

Sad to hear if all the effects the pandemic will have on the park after they reopen. I understand the need for change right now, even though it is a bummer. I was planning a trip for later this year but it's starting to sound like even if the parks are open, I probably won't go this year.

As far as some of these upcoming changes having a lasting impact on the park. I hope not. And I think anyone willing to visit the parks feels the same. Changes like constant sanitization and social distancing will be far too prohibitive to the Disney experience. We love our night shows, people love parades, and longer wait times, I think it's safe to say nobody likes that. So we have to do what we have to do to get through this, but after it's over, I see no reason to continue. In fact, I think if they do, and it effects the experience as we know it, it will be to their own detriment and park fans will let them know we just want to get back to normal.

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