Could Disney World 'Beta Test' Covid Restrictions?

April 27, 2020, 12:25 PM · Here's an interesting tip I've received from some insiders at the Walt Disney World Resort. Disney is considering whether to "soft open/beta test" some proposed social distancing and operational changes at one theme park before reopening all of its parks to the public.

Keep in mind that this is just a proposal at this point and not something that's been approved to happen, according to my sources. And there's no date set for it, either. But it's certainly an intriguing idea, and frankly, one that makes a great deal of sense.

The idea is that Disney would reopen one of its parks to a select number of guests — likely cast members and then annual passholders — to visit under new restrictions put in place to support social distancing. Health screenings might also be part of the new procedures to be tried.

Universal Orlando earlier this month surveyed its passholders and previous visitors about proposed operational changes, to gauge potential public reaction to them. But talking about hypothetical changes is one thing, seeing actual reactions to those changes in practice provides far more useful feedback.

A in-person test also would allow cast members to make on-the-fly adjustments to the new procedures to see how they would affect operations, in real time. Park managers could see how the new procedures work and how they do - or do not - scale to actual public use. And, of course, the whole exercise would provide cast members with training and experience in implementing a new set of standard operating procedures.

Given how much theme parks test new attractions before they open to the public, it's hard to believe that any park would consider a hard reopening if they had to implement new social distancing and testing practices without doing some form of controlled testing of those practices first.

So where would this happen? It would make the most sense for the first tests to occur at Disney's Hollywood Studios. It's just a process of elimination, really. Epcot is a construction zone, so it makes sense to keep guests out of there for unimpeded demolition and construction work once that can resume. Opening the Magic Kingdom requires opening the TTC and running either the monorail or ferryboats in addition to parking lot trams. Disney's Animal Kingdom has the additional variable of the animal exhibits, plus being a huge park to operate.

But Hollywood Studios is relatively limited in size, easy to access with its new parking lot and already has been implementing a virtual queue on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. With virtual queueing expected to be park of any pre-vaccine reopening plan, the DHS cast would be the ones with a head start on managing guests trying to use it.

All Disney theme parks worldwide are officially closed to the public until further notice.

Replies (21)

April 27, 2020 at 12:38 PM

This actually makes a lot of sense. Rather than throw open the doors at once, trying a soft test of one park to see how guidelines work is much better. Not just for distancing but just how ride operations go and the flow of folks in park.

Again, for every person who'll abide by guidelines, there will be others holding to "peak has passed, I'm healthy and won't get it anyway" and no doubt act like they would months ago. Testing it would be more effective than trying it all out at once to some chaos.

April 27, 2020 at 12:41 PM

"Disney's Animal Kingdom has the additional variable of the animal exhibits, plus being a huge park to operate."

But wouldn't that be a good reason to start there instead of DHS? DAK is burning money because of the need for constant animal care, plus with the park being large and spread out, it gives CMs the extra room needed to make sure guests have sufficient space to spread out. While DHS has already incorporated a virtual queue into its standard operations with RotR, there's very little operational difference between that and a standard FP+ attraction - i.e. any attraction that has FP+ on it could easily be adapted to a virtual queue with some back-end re-programming on MDE.

I think the only reason to test in DHS would be the draw of Galaxy's Edge, and to generate revenue from high-margin Star Wars merch. If Disney wanted to do a smaller test in DAK, they could easily close off Dinoland USA, which would reduce the size of the guest areas of the park by 10-15%.

April 27, 2020 at 1:37 PM

I'll just say this much: I'll be at DHS soon after it opens. I've yet to see Galaxy's Edge and if the lower crowds gets me a much better chance at riding RotR, I'll take the risk.

April 27, 2020 at 1:53 PM

I really hope WDW does a soft open/beta test. Memorial Day weekend seems like the perfect time to do it as well. Of course it is a three day weekend and some Pass Holders may still have reservations during that time. I think a lot of people would agree with this type of opening to transition back to normal :)

April 27, 2020 at 2:59 PM

I think it's more how DHS has the Star Wars ride to get attention (plus had just opened the new Mickey ride when shutdowns happened) so Disney figuring that's the park to draw folks in first.

Again keep in mind how it's going to be different as Florida is...let's avoid a huge debate and simply say more lax on the distance rules than California is which allows theme parks there to try out stuff first.

April 27, 2020 at 4:20 PM

I mentioned this before, I think staggered park entry times using the app and exit times need to be put in place for the "evening heard exit". If you have to socially distance, that is where you will have the greatest concentration up people and the most difficult challenges. You have to gracefully exit people from the park and I think we'll see a custom exit point too now.

The app can separate that out entry/exit times (e.g.)
7:45 AM entry exit before 2:45 PM
8:15 AM entry exit before 3:15 PM
10:00 AM entry exit before 5:00 PM

I agree with local pass-holders (I am not one of them) being the target audience. Not only do I think pass-holders would demonstrate more patience, I think they would feel more comfortable with engaging with cast members to solve problems that arrive during their visit.

If I were Disney, I would hold until they acquire 15 minute testing kits so they can assure park goers that they have very low risk of being introduced to someone asymptomatic. I believe they are waiting for that consecutive 14 day window in which case drop sharply.

With all of this, we are not going to see it open until they have been able to see this applied in a working model in Shanghai.

My prediction when they re-open with the new restrictions in place, mid August.

April 27, 2020 at 4:43 PM

Mike W--Actually. Most of calif, started allowing people on the beach under about the same restrictions as florida. Florida has not announced a date to loosen the lockdown yet, either. They may very well loosen before calif, but have not as of today. I watched the florida gov's news conference just today. Even some states with democrat gov's like Colorado and loosening up starting May 1 in stages. The calif gov indicated today he was going to present a more concrete plan in about week. The current calif lockdown is until may 15. If memory serves me correct.
I think DHS make sense to open first, since Darth Vader and the evil empire is very much akin to the communist gov, that started this whole mess anyway. They could station stormtroopers at the security entrance to take the temp test and ask the travel/fever covid questions. open course, the questions will be a joke. Everyone knows the "correct" answers to get in by now.

April 27, 2020 at 6:04 PM

>> communist gov, that started this whole mess anyway

I love it when people use the C word and clearly have no idea what it means...

April 27, 2020 at 6:08 PM

My initial thought was “why open the sideshow, surely you’d open the headliner”

But I think you’re right. Star Wars has top marquee billing, and ops could certainly use the time to get RoTR up to full capacity.

April 27, 2020 at 7:40 PM

I don’t how they’re going to implement these testing kits for people to get in though? I’m fro California and testing is not available to people here that don’t have symptoms so there’s no way people are going to fly that far away to Orlando to take a test and risk not getting in.. the. What? I lose 3000$ and my daughter and I can’t get in obviously not wanting to get anyone sick but then you’re going to have a lot of pi**ed off guests testing false/ positives that can’t get in!

April 27, 2020 at 7:40 PM

I don’t how they’re going to implement these testing kits for people to get in though? I’m fro California and testing is not available to people here that don’t have symptoms so there’s no way people are going to fly that far away to Orlando to take a test and risk not getting in.. the. What? I lose 3000$ and my daughter and I can’t get in obviously not wanting to get anyone sick but then you’re going to have a lot of pi**ed off guests testing false/ positives that can’t get in!

April 27, 2020 at 8:24 PM

For as many visitors as they're used to seeing, I think Disney would be insane to not reopen in phases, so some sort of limited access test makes perfect sense. I do however think it may occur at Magic Kingdom instead just because they've got a wider variety of offerings so pretty much everything could be tested in a single park, plus there's more space for the crowds to disperse. Whatever they do, I wouldn't be surprised to see daily operational changes for about a month until everything is working as smoothly as it can, and only then will they expand park operations and their visitor pool.

April 28, 2020 at 8:04 AM

We could see an OBE situation by Memorial Day. As states open up and as more random sampling data becomes available, the operational situation could change rapidly.

Best Case Scenario: No significant increase in the number of daily new cases of COVID-19 starting in mid to late May after the restrictions have been lifted, and random sampling indicates that far more people have had COVID-19 than initially thought and the mortality rate of the disease is far lower than we think it is. If that were true, Disney would have their workers wear facemasks as much as possible for their protection, and they would install hand sanitizing stations throughout the parks and implement ride cleaning procedures.

Worst Case Scenario: The COVID-19 pandemic is as bad as we initially thought and new daily cases of COVID-19 spike in mid to late May as the impact of easing the restrictions is felt. Disney has to implement stringent operational conditions with limited admittance for several months with a tightly controlled visit experience for their patrons. Facemasks are mandatory for everyone and stringent social distancing and ride disinfecting procedures are employed.

Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, but either way, we'll know in about 20 days what the situation is going to be.

April 28, 2020 at 10:49 AM

The issue with the Magic Kingdom is that guests are forced to use either the monorail, the ferryboat, or the bus system to physically get to the gate, and all of those are open-space vehicles meant to crowd in as many people as possible. You'd have to severely limit capacity and implement social distancing on all three, which would harshly limit the efficacy of getting people into the park. I see MK as potentially the last park to open due to this reason.

April 28, 2020 at 11:16 AM

@TimHillman: Sadly, had we been doing "hope for the best, prepare for the worst" months ago, we wouldn't be in this mess....

It is the concern with states loosening too soon. Texas lifting orders after just six weeks is already getting flak and driven by too many places claiming "the peak is over" despite data to the contrary. I'm in Illinois and they just extended shelter orders through May but governor getting major pressure to loosen up before then.

Again, the concern is that another wave will be worse but sadly, many are now going for the line "It's going to be around for a while, folks will die anyway, we might as well adjust for it." The situation keeps shifting sadly but too many think we can be back to "normal" in no time.

April 28, 2020 at 12:57 PM

@MikeW - You're right, but we can't prepare for all contingencies, and it is human nature to prepare for the last big crisis.

I hate say it but somebody/some state has to be the guinea pig and get us the data we need to press forward. All I know is that I'm going to continue to hunker down for the next month and watch the statistics and reports.

April 28, 2020 at 12:59 PM

Some guidelines from Orange County this morning:
Note, smaller parks will have different guidelines (i.e. gatorland, fun spot) Also proposed was taping at 6ft intervals in ride wait lines.

Some of the proposed mandates for large theme parks included regulations for essential employees, potentially asking for all essential employees to wear face masks, as well as temperature checks for essential employees prior to their shift (with fevers over 100.4 degrees unable to enter the premises, and anyone with flu-like symptoms asked to stay home).
The proposals also had a heavy emphasis on sanitation, specifically touches hand sanitizers at each ticketing entry and turnstile, as well as at each ride entrance and exit. Additionally, they would ask staff to regularly wipe surfaces at random, and wipe down railings/surfaces after each use.
As for reopening, the group looked at limited capacity as a potential for reopening in phases. Specifically, a proposed 50% capacity for phase one, and 75% capacity for phase two. During both these phases, they note that those most vulnerable, such as those 65 and older, should still stay home.

April 28, 2020 at 1:30 PM

@Mako - I wonder if the goofballs that created these guidelines have ever been in a theme park that is at 50% capacity. Even at 50% capacity, you'd have to have over 50% of guests physically in queues/theaters/restaurants in order to be able to give the remaining 50% of guests walking around the necessary 6-feet of distance.

Let's take MK for example. The park is just over 100 acres (@4.5 million square feet) with an AVERAGE daily attendance of 56k people. If you assume half of the total area of the park can be occupied by guests, that means allowing 50% of just the average daily attendance (not even the park's capacity) will only allow 80 square feet for each person. While the exact number is not available, it's assumed the maximum capacity of MK is somewhere near 100k, so these guidelines would allow Disney to stuff 50k people into the park, which would provide @45 square feet for each person, which is a little more than double the 19 square feet necessary to allow for a 6-diameter bubble of space around each person (obviously, multi-person families/groups would reduce the needed space further, but they'd have to stay together - an unreasonable assumption). That's a safety factor of 2, which is an extremely low bar when life and death are concerned (engineering standards usually require a minimum safety factor of 10 or more commonly 100 for structures and other things where failure would likely result in catastrophic consequences), and is an extremely generous estimate of guests being able to occupy 50% of the park's area.

I just don't see those numbers working, and that in order to effectively practice the CDC's social distancing guidance would be to limit park capacity to somewhere between 10-25% of maximum, especially when not every attraction/show/occupied space will be available.

April 28, 2020 at 2:06 PM

Great bit of math there Russell …. :) Makes you realise just how little ‘free’ space there is in the parks, and they reckon DHS might be the guinea pig !! I agree, for me DAK is the obvious choice. Dinoland would need to be open, but maybe make it one way traffic thru the land?

I’m so torn right now, I want to get back to the parks, but I’m also very apprehensive about what’s going to happen once all these people start to mix together. At the very least I’ll give it 2 weeks to see if any spikes start to appear. Here in Orange county we are holding our own, but I hate to think we’d become the next epi-center once the parks reopen. And this could possibility be the case, especially if they open up to residents and passholders to start with.

From the blogs and passholder Facebook pages, everybody is raring to go, so I can see a mass invasion of the parks once they open, whether it’s 10%, 25% or 50% …. there's going to be a lot of people standing at that gate waiting to go in.

How do you social distance that ??

April 28, 2020 at 5:12 PM

MikeW and everyone else--Texas is in a really unique situation of all the big states. They have tested more people than all but calif, florida and NY. Yet their amount of cases are approx 25 of the 50 states. Their death rate vs cases percentage is also the lowest among all the big states. their deaths when adjusted for population is right about approx 10th of of 50 states. For whatever reason, that will be to be closely examined in the next few years, they have done the best of all the big states. Makorider--Such a huge proportion of WDW's visitors are from out of state (and even out of the USA). For (at least) the first month, the amount of visitors would be limited just by that. Many visitors are thinking just like you and want to wait 3-5 wks after reopening. And, he may have misread the guidelines, (they may mean of avg attendence, not 100 Percent capacity). Then. they make a lot more sense.

May 1, 2020 at 12:54 PM

There are some other issues that they have to contend with now.. In Southeast Asia they have determined the highest concentration of airborne water droplets are in restrooms. That means individuals using facilities will have to be masked and you will need cast members to insure they are adhering to that. There are also concentrations on floors. They will have to open and close rest room areas in a regular basis to clean and decontaminate the floors.

Otherwise, they will have to "quick-test" guests before they enter. Queues and pre-show areas should still be able to be used so long as guests are masked. and spaced out appropriately.

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