new normal for theme parks that I envisioned as a hypothetical yesterday is becoming reality, at least in the state of California.The
In his daily online address to the state, Governor Gavin Newsom today detailed six criteria that state leaders will be watching to decide when to begin to modify California's stay-at-home order. As expected, the Governor explained that California will not lift the order all at once, but instead will clear businesses to reopen in phases, under specific restrictions. You can watch today's entire briefing below.
LIVE NOW: Governor @GavinNewsom lays out parameters and tools needed before the state modifies California’s statewide stay-at-home orders and other broad #COVID19 interventions. https://t.co/r0WJnqcXVP— Office of the Governor of California (@CAgovernor) April 14, 2020
The Governor did not mention theme parks specifically during his remarks, but did address mass gatherings when taking questions from reporters. And his answer should make clear that there's little chance of Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood and other California theme parks opening in June, as many fans have been hoping and maybe even expecting.
"The prospect of mass gatherings is negligible at best until we get to herd immunity and we get to a vaccine," the Governor said. "So large-scale events that bring in hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of strangers - all together across every conceivable difference, health and otherwise - [are] not in the cards based upon our current guidelines and current expectations.
"Things can change radically," he continued, "so I want to caution my own words... but when you suggest June, July, August, it is unlikely."
The Governor made clear in his remarks that California will not allow businesses to return to a pre-corona "normal" until there's an effective and tested vaccine and society has reached a herd immunity that protects everyone. But no one expects that to happen by summer. Few believe that will happen even this year.
This means that if theme parks are to open in California before there's a vaccine, they will need to change their standard operating procedures to conform with emerging state rules on social distancing, health monitoring, and personal protection. California theme parks will need to find ways to operate rides, shows, stores, and restaurants with limited capacities and mandated spacing between guests. Health screenings might have to happen alongside security screenings. And mass gatherings such as fireworks and parades might be off the schedule entirely.
Creative theme park leaders can find ways to make this happen. Perhaps parks might have to require reservations to enter and to experience attractions within, abandoning standby lines and walk-up ticket sales. Parks might need to designate traffic lanes for pedestrians throughout the park, as they do for especially busy periods, with extra spacing between them for the new rules. The theme park industry has developed world-class expertise in managing crowds under just about any situation. I have no doubt that they could manage crowds to the satisfaction of California's strict standards for protecting the public during the suppression phase of managing this disease.
But can they afford to?
As I suggested yesterday, the new restrictions on operations could force parks to spend an enormous amount of money on increased staffing and training, in addition to having to make capital changes in and around the parks. That expense, coupled with restrictions on the number of customers who could visit at one time, might make it impossible for some parks to be able to afford to open before a vaccine allows California to lift its restrictions.
But if those parks do not open until fall, or next winter, or next year, that long of a downtime by itself might become an existential threat.
Of course, the Governor's standards apply only to the state of California... and perhaps in Oregon and Washington, which have entered into a post-corona recovery pact with California. Florida and other states where large theme parks operate are free to adopt their own rules about social distancing and business operations. But would Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld be willing to open their parks in Florida while they remain closed in California? (Is there any civil legal liability for them to operate in one state while another has ordered them closed as a public health risk?)
Even if other states were to allow parks to reopen before the risk is eliminated, would people want to visit them? Not everyone has to stay away. If even a significant percentage of would-be customers choose not to visit due to perceived risk from mass gatherings, the economics of operating a theme park changes substantially. Forget about reopening, theme parks might not be able to stay open until a vast majority of the public believes they are no longer at risk when traveling and being part of a crowd.
Again, I do not write any of this to spread fear or discouragement. I write this as I do everything here at Theme Park Insider — to keep you well-informed of what is happening in this business so that you can see what's going on, what's coming and what you need to do to make the right decisions for you and your family.
Also remember that theme parks are a global industry. The United States - for a long list of reasons - has suffered more cases and more deaths than any other nation. Other countries may be able to allow their parks to reopen without risk before the United States can. That will give us plenty to write about - and you to read about - as we await the resumption of the American theme park industry.
And even while the parks are closed, the insider's work of planning for their reopening and their future never stops. In many ways, this is the most interesting and amazing moment in the history of the theme park business. Even if the parks remain closed for a while.Tweet
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