What will a day at Walt Disney World be like when theme parks reopen? Fans have been asking that question pretty much ever since the parks closed, but business and community leaders in Central Florida today continued the process of answering that question for all local attractions in a meeting organized by area elected officials.
No one's confirming any details yet, beyond Universal Orlando officials stating that they are, indeed, looking at some of the measures suggested in that survey the resort put out last week, including temperature checks, social distancing, and capacity limits.
The broad outlines of what a location needs to do to be safe are not secret. Since this is a new virus - for which there is no vaccine and no one has any immunity until they've had it and recovered - the only way to prevent infections is by keeping people safely apart from one another.
How could a theme park possibly do that? Remember that theme parks employ a lot of operational experts. They have found ways to manage crowds of tens of thousands of people safely and peacefully, given a wide variety of constraints. I have no doubt that they can design ways to manage visitors safely through this crisis, too, even if their solutions end up looking nothing like theme parks' standard operating procedures.
You might think that the first question to address is how many people a park can admit safely at one time, given the need for social distancing. But I'd like to suggest that's actually one of the last questions to be answered. To get there, you have to think from the inside out, starting with reimagining the operations experience within each attraction, restaurant, and shop within the park.
If you don't know me by know, I love ops. I worked several years as an operations host, trainer, and lead in Magic Kingdom West Attractions at Walt Disney World. How people move through theme parks and their attractions fascinates me. I find the design of queues, preshows and loading areas every bit as exciting as the attractions they serve. It's amazing how rearranging a few boxes on a loading dock can help increase a ride's hourly throughput by more than 100 people, but I saw that happen when I worked in the parks.
The study of guest flow through physical space is a known science, so designers don't have to work without guidance here. We simply have changed the parameters within which that flow may happen. Let's consider a few new givens:
The first parameter requires screening at the park entrance, whether that's an actual health check or a paperwork check to see that guests and employees have passed a recent health screening elsewhere. At a minimum, you can check people with a temperature scan at bag check, denying entry to those showing a fever. It's not foolproof, as it's been shown that people without a fever can spread the virus, but it's a start that reduces risk to those who visit.
Ideally, government would be checking the entire population, and only those who have shown immunity or at least tested negative for the virus within a reasonable amount of time would be allowed entry to the park. But no large community in America has established a testing program on that scale yet. So parks are left with the choice of remaining closed until their community does, or crafting a testing procedure of their own.
The health/bag check also would include a mask check, ensuring that everyone was wearing one. Park employees would be empowered to eject anyone inside the park (outside an eating area) who was not wearing their mask. This takes care of the first two parameters.
But it's that third one where things get tricky, because it runs counter to parks' physical design. Theme park attractions are designed to put through as many people as possible, leading to ride vehicles and show spaces that cram people together. That design principle has to go away now, with new restrictions on how closely unrelated parties may be placed.
Physical modifications can be part of a solution here, but new load procedures and training for operators must be included as well. In addition to physical spacing for guests, points of physical contact must be considered as well. The virus lives on surfaces, so for every surface that a guest touches, it must either be cleaned after every guest or the guest's hands covered when they touch it.
Let's take the example of Disney's Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. It's a small, enclosed space, so you would have to limit each capsule on one party of up to six people. No more combining parties or taking single riders to fill out a load. That means you could be operating each ride unit with anywhere from one-sixth to its full capacity.
The upside is that parties now can sit wherever they want inside the ride, where the pilot seats offer a far better experience that the other four seats on the attraction. But those seats' interactive stations would have to be set to run in automatic mode, as they likely would be empty for many, if not most, parties.
What about all the stuff that people touch on this interactive attraction? It's not practical to wipe down and sanitize every touch point between each ride, so the easier solution is simply to provide each rider with a pair of disposable gloves as they enter the cockpit. The unload cast member would then collect the gloves as they exit the cockpit. It's an extra expense and an environmental waste, yes, but that's probably the best trade-off from the company's perspective here.
Park ops teams then need to figure out the appropriate changes to every other attraction in the park. Maybe you load only every other row in a theater attraction, instructing operators to keep parties in the same row at least six feet apart. On rides, you need to not load enough rows or cars in between parties as to ensure six feet of distance between them at all times.
What about in the queue? The easiest approach is to eliminate them. Go to virtual queues for every attraction in the park. Disney and Universal have the programming in place to support this, but other parks might now, delaying their opening while they develop that tech. But even with virtual queues, people will still need to line up at the load point, as people's return for their appointed ride time is never done to the per-minute or even per-second accuracy that ride systems might require. To keep people safe there, parks will need to lay down spacing markers within their queues, as grocery stores around the Los Angeles area have done on the sidewalks outside their stores.
Restaurants can eliminate or minimize their queues by requiring mobile ordering, but then they still need to define separated areas for people waiting to pick up an order. Tables must be removed to maintain adequate distance between parties. Employees will be needed to seat people and to keep people from taking tables or loitering if they are not eating.
Stores would need to staff a door monitor to limit the number of people inside at once. Display units might need to be removed so that people can maintain proper social distancing while inside. And, again, markers would need to be laid down to ensure proper spacing at registers. Remember that spacing isn't just six feet in front and behind you. It's six feet to your side, too, which means that some registers might need to close to ensure that lateral spacing, as well.
Once parks run the numbers to determine how many people its reconfigured attractions, restaurants and shops can accommodate, only then can they figure out how many people they safely can admit to the park at once. Remember, without queues and open stores, parks lose a lot of the capacity into which they can stuff excess crowds. The last thing you want after doing all this is to have people milling about close to other parties, with nothing to do while they wait for their next virtual queue return because they can't get into any restaurants or shops.
At that point, knowing how many people they can admit and how much they might be able to expect from guest spending in capacity-limited stores and restaurants, parks can do the math to figure out whether reopening under these limitations makes financial sense. I suspect that Disney and Universal - with their relatively high guest spend numbers - could make this type of operation work, at least for a few months. I am not so sure about other parks.
We don't know yet know what individual parks and resorts will do in response to this virus... other than to remain closed until further notice, as they all now are. But planning for that reopening is underway, and it's helpful for fans to understand the scope and difficulty of making those plans.
Remember, it's not just about being a good citizen and doing whatever possible to limit the spread of the virus. It's also about reassuring potential visitors that they can feel safe in your park. If whatever a park does - or does not do - in response to this challenge fails to make people feel comfortable visiting, they won't.
And if people don't come, there's no point in opening, is there?Tweet
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