Who Can Reopen Disney World? Not the Government

April 30, 2020, 7:28 PM · Disney's theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim have been closed for over six weeks now - by far the longest shutdown in the parks' history. With hospitalization numbers stabilizing or even declining in some parts of the country, people are beginning to look forward to the day when the parks will reopen and fans can visit again.

But who makes the decision to reopen the theme parks? Here in California, I've been watching Governor Gavin Newsom's daily online news briefings, and yesterday I watched Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' announcement of Florida's three-phase plan for reopening the state's economy. Both the Disneyland and Walt Disney World Resorts will need to see a green light from federal, state and local governments before they will be allowed to reopen, and state governors have taken leadership on controlling business activity in their states. So Governors Newsom and DeSantis likely will take the first steps toward the Disney theme parks reopening.

A first step is not the final word, however. Governors can close theme parks and other businesses to protect public health and safety. Then they can reverse those closure orders when they feel that the risk has passed and reopening is now safe. But telling a business that it's okay to reopen is not the same as reopening that business. That power rests with the business owner - in this case, the management of The Walt Disney Company.

Any decision to reopen Disney World or Disneyland likely will be made at the highest level of Disney, including new CEO (and former Parks chief) Bob Chapek and Disney Chairman Bob Iger. Perhaps they will choose to reopen as soon as either California or Florida shines that green light. But I would not make that assumption.

Remember that reopening a theme park after six-plus weeks isn't as simple as throwing open the gates and telling people, "welcome home." You've got to restock kitchens - something that won't happen easily as food supply chains are breaking down across the United States. You've got to recall employees from furlough. The longer that this shutdown lasts, the more likely it becomes that some employees will end up taking new jobs with businesses that are allowed to reopen before the parks. They'll have to be replaced, which takes time, too.

Once you've got employees scheduled, they'll need to be trained in new operational procedures, including health screenings, social distancing and new sanitary requirements. Everything in the park will need to be checked, cleaned and possibly repaired.

And those are just the internal challenges. At least in California, Governor Newsom has said that he wants to provide businesses with plenty of notice about the state's criteria for allowing reopenings, so that business owners have time to make such preparations before their reopening is approved. So the internal challenges might not cause too much of a delay between a state government announcement and people eating Mickey bars on Main Street again.

So what could provide the hold up? Those people could. No matter what state and local governments say, and no matter how much employees want to go back to work - and their employers want them there, no business will reopen if it does not believe that customers will be willing to return, too.

If people do not feel safe visiting a theme park, they will not come. If people don't feel that they can afford to visit a theme park, they will not come. And - ironically following a period when so many people have too much time on their hands - if people cannot get the time away from work and school to visit a theme park, they will not come.

As to the first point, I think that motivated Governor DeSantis' attack on "fear" in his Wednesday press conference. The Florida governor attacked news media for stoking what he framed as unnecessary fear of the coronavirus. While I agree with him that fear of contracting the virus should not keep people from seeking medical care for other ailments (Covid-19 isn't the only thing that can kill you, after all), I don't for a moment believe that people's fear of this virus is irrational.

Covid-19 has killed people of every age group. It has killed people who were healthy before being infected, as well as those who were sick. So far in the United States, it has killed thousands more Americans than died in the entirety of the Vietnam War. If you're over a certain age, you might remember what many young men did to avoid being sent to Vietnam. (Here's one of them, by the way.) And it's a heckuva lot easier to skip a trip to Disney World than it was to dodge the draft to Vietnam.

So long as people see a trip to a crowded theme park as a health risk, they will not come - and browbeating "the media" like some paranoid Fox News sycophant isn't going to change that.

The challenge, therefore, isn't to lobby governors. It's for Iger and Chapek and The Walt Disney Company to show the public that a visit to Disney after the corona shutdown won't be a visit to a crowded space where they can't be protected from infection. Unless Disney wants to wait until a vaccine is ready (and remember that the current record for that is four years, and we've never had a vaccine for any type of coronavirus before), that will require changes to standard operating procedures. It will require testing those procedures. And it will require savvy marketing to make the public aware and confident of those new procedures and how they work in practice.

(Hey, sign me up for the press event where Disney uses me as a guinea pig to show potential visitors how they will get their temperature check, Covid test, and Mickey mask on their way into a social-distanced, sanitizer-slathered Magic Kingdom.)

Until Disney's management believes that its safety practices will help attract enough paying customers to make its theme parks profitable again, they won't resume operations. No matter how much some politicians would like to see those parks open again.

Replies (24)

April 30, 2020 at 9:34 PM

I've been visiting this site for years now. This might be my favorite write-up, Robert. Thanks for doing what you do.

April 30, 2020 at 9:46 PM

Interesting situation. Does it make more sense for Disney and Universal to keep the parks closed and lose a fixed amount of money every day or is is better to open them and take the risk on losing even more money due to lack of visitors?

And that's only the fiscal side of the equation.

I sure hope the smart people at Disney and Universal get this one right.

April 30, 2020 at 10:02 PM

Excellent work and you point out the issue of folks wanting to go in or not.

Again, it varies depending on your area and how bad it is as in my small town 45 minutes south of Chicago is light on cases and such. So if tomorrow, businesses are told they can reopen and some no doubt ready to go, folks will be wanting to go to a local pub, library, bookstore, toy store, etc, even with risks. Other won't be so it can vary.

Then there are those who will obey every rule with distance and masks etc and those who will act like it's still earlier this year and scoff "I'm healthy, I'll be fine." Just read news and see some folks refuse to take this as seriously as others.

It can vary in other aspects. Read interviews and it's clear NBA/MLB/NHL guys are raring to go even if it's in an empty gym. Likewise, scores of actors who would be willing to brave a smaller set to get productions going and such. Issue being, much easier to handle that than a park seeing tens of thousands of people every day so Disney and Universal are still going to face challenges getting this going.

April 30, 2020 at 10:08 PM

One of the major parts of equation that has puzzled me in these ‘reopening efforts’ is the limited capacity.

The only logical argument I can think of is that making ‘some’ money by re-opening is better than ‘no’ money by staying closed...

But there has been a business philosophy for so long to cram as much money as possible in any manner possible (dessert parties, after hour events, etc) that opening up and limiting capacity just doesn’t make sense?

Wouldn’t everything be much less efficient, cost more, while making less... and capping the amount of money can be made because of the capacity limitation.

Unless companies plan on charging double or more to make up for the shortfall, though will consumers be willing to pay extra, especially with the economy in its current shape?

This is a hole I don’t know how a lot of companies are going to dig themselves out of.

April 30, 2020 at 10:27 PM

I'm all for the idea of the NBA playing out their playoffs at WDW's ESPN Wide World of Sports. It makes sense every way you think about it. WDW is basically a bubble from the outside world, they have the facilities, they have broadcasting capability, there are plenty of hotel rooms to house all the teams and their staffs/broadcasters, they have catering capability. If public gatherings are unsafe, rendering the parks useless for the foreseeable future, I like the out of the box thinking. If it's not going to be safe for tourists to all gather in a space may as well put the property to use for publicity.

May 1, 2020 at 1:26 AM

The_man, they're considering that with Australian rules football. Have the players in quarantined hubs to ensure a virus free competition and let them play in front of cameras. It does make sense. The one area of pushback they are getting (not sure if it's real or a vocal minority) is players not wishing to be isolated from family and life in general.

May 1, 2020 at 5:25 AM

>> Hey, sign me up for the press event where Disney uses me as a guinea pig to show potential visitors how they will get their temperature check, Covid test, and Mickey mask on their way into a social-distanced, sanitizer-slathered Magic Kingdom.)

With those who test positive personally escorted by you to Tom Sawyers Island for 14 days?

May 1, 2020 at 6:43 AM

Counting my family, friends and work colleagues, there are 23 pass holders (all 3 parks) I talk to on a regular basis, and no one has the slightest interest to go back to the parks.

My grandson is 2 in October, and we had planned to take him to BGT. For us, that is likely to be our 1st excursion to a park, and that will depend on it being safe to do so.

There is always going to be those who will go back no matter what, but will it be more cost effective for the parks to remain closed, rather than open up to what might be almost empty parks ? And if/when they do open, can they afford to close down again ? Is it better for them to stay closed for the duration, and only open up when it's 99.9% certain all will be OK. i.e. we have a vaccine.

Big decision for sure.

May 1, 2020 at 6:49 AM

@makorider Count myself, my wife and 2 children among your survey of passholders NOT returning to the parks anytime soon. A highly contagious virus spreading worldwide with an infinitesimal fraction of the population with immunity, large groups of people coming from destinations all over the country and world ... what could go wrong?

May 1, 2020 at 7:02 AM

I think when the parks open they will be mainly populated by annual passholders. Thing is that the parks hardly earn money on the passholders, I think it won't be worth for them to open just for them business wise.

May 1, 2020 at 11:08 AM

I’d just keep em closed

May 1, 2020 at 11:19 AM

With confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Orange County at a meager 2,393 (cumulative, not current) or aproximately .07% (less than a tenth of a percent) of the Orange County population, and deaths in Orange County at 45 (mostly elderly, and or with preexisting conditions), I would be more than willing to go to the park if it opened today. I realize the situation elsewhere in the US is not the same (NYC for example), but here in Orange County CA, we haven't even seen a blip on the radar, and most locals feel the same as I do. I know I'm in the minority on this site, but on other sites there are plenty of fans that feel the same as I do.

May 1, 2020 at 11:15 AM

>> With confirmed cases of COVID 19 in Orange County at a meager 2,393

What is the R number?

What do you expect opening parks to do to the R number?

May 1, 2020 at 11:24 AM

I expect it to do the same thing as having the beaches open until today did. That is to say, I expect it would have a minimal impact. As we head into the warmer months, this shouldn't be a problem at all. There's a reason CA doesn't have a high mortality for the flu season compared to other states, and that reason is our sunny weather. We'll be fine here.

May 1, 2020 at 11:26 AM

@CHad H: That's a key issue, folks looking at low numbers and thinking "well, if it's that low after all this time, it'll never get bad, we can reopen" ignoring all the warnings of how it can flare up again. The fact there are people on this very site claiming "U.S. leads the world in testing" when we're actually behind about 30 other countries adds to that foolishness.

May 1, 2020 at 11:35 AM

@MikeW, as we do more testing all we're discovering is that the actual mortality rate for this disease is tiny. Yes, more people are found to have it, but generally most people who do have it don't realize they do, have minimal symptoms etc. So, I'm not sure what it proves doing more testing. To me it just shows that even if you do get it, your chances of going to the hospital are pretty slim. Currently in OC there are 190 hospitalized COVID patients, 63 of which are in the ICU. Those numbers are more relevant than tested numbers to me.

May 1, 2020 at 3:22 PM

RN, Good piece. Disneyland may fare a bit better at the outset upon opening because of its longstanding connection will LA area passholders, whereas Disneyworld, as a destination resort, doesn't have that advantage. You did a great job of outlining the kinds of matters Disney must think about. What would make my head spin even more is that they must concurrently think about parks elsewhere in the world too, along with challenges on virtually every front (e.g. films ESPN, Cruise Ships, etc.) Putting this humpty dumpty back together is a daunting undertaking. If we don't know what the economy is going to look like going forward, one has to wonder what Disney will look like. Oh yes, and then there's that concern about a second wave of Covid-19.

May 1, 2020 at 4:28 PM

>>I expect it to do the same thing as having the beaches open until today did. That is to say, I expect it would have a minimal impact.

A theme park visit isn't a comparable to a walk around a beach for very very obvious reasons. You're more spaced out on a beach, and you're definately not inside. As a neccessary part of being on a ride you're in close corners touching guards and handrails that someone touched 30 seconds before you.

I don't think you've fully thought this through.

>>As we head into the warmer months, this shouldn't be a problem at all.

Corona might be better at spreading in the winter, but it has had no trouble spreading in the tropics, or in the southern hemisphere which is coming out of those warmer months.

Again, I'm not sure you thought that through.

>>There's a reason CA doesn't have a high mortality for the flu season compared to other states, and that reason is our sunny weather. We'll be fine here.

Coronavirus is not the flu.

@MikeW I obviously agree with you, but I'd replace the word "can" with "Will". With a "natural" R rate around 3, and Germany seeing even modest loosening bringing it back to 0.96, I don't think any serious government official should be saying that they'll do any loosening unless they're sure its going to remain below 1.

(for those of you playing at home, R is the Retransmission rate. Anything above 1 is bad. 1 is stable)

May 2, 2020 at 2:45 AM

I say you are an ASSHat Robert, You mostly keep politics out of it until this post, unfortunately you failed here!

So long as people see a trip to a crowded theme park as a health risk, they will not come - and browbeating "the media" like some paranoid Fox News sycophant isn't going to change that.

This is the worst politicized mess in history. If it was anybody but Trump everyone would rally around the leaders and do what is necessary!
The left is most definitely fear mongering which leads the right to say this will be fine very soon. He is Devil on Left and God on Right, which polarizes everyone for no reason. If we could take politics out of it we would be much better off, but we can't seem to do that. And when people on this site demonize one side without recognizing the faults of the other side, it makes it worse. Both sides have faults that they refuse to recognize!
I'm not taking a side here, I'm saying that everyone who is on one side and only listens to one side is making a HUGE mistake!
If you listen to Fox, CNN is lying. If you listen to CNN, Fox is lying.
Guess what, both are because we can't take politics out of it and it is destroying us. Everyone is wrong and nobody knows anything, except people are suffering and I revert to Mr Spock.
In The Wrath of Khan (1982), Spock says, “Logic clearly dictates that the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.” Captain Kirk answers, “Or the one.”

Let's Open up and let the at risk stay home!
If we do this NOW, then come August the parks will have more data to know WTF to do. Just stop listening to media and Politicians!


May 2, 2020 at 7:03 AM

>>Let's Open up and let the at risk stay home!

If it was just you taking a personal risk, then I'd agree.

But its not. You are taking the risk on for others who don't neccessarily have that choice. Those who have to work in environments where they have to interact with others.

How about instead let's act like adults. As an adult it should have hopefully hit you by now that what you want, and what you should do are not the same thing... and when there's a conflict you should go for what you should do. Protect not just yourself, but your community too.

>>If we do this NOW, then come August the parks will have more data to know WTF to do.

How many people are you willing to sacrifice at this particular altar. Give us a number.

>>Just stop listening to media and Politicians!

How about listening to the medical advice. Oh wait, that doesn't work for you either, because their advice is to keep doing what we're doing.

May 2, 2020 at 11:31 AM

@Chad in response to your wacky response to what I wrote, washing your hands regularly without touching your face solves pretty much every issue you pointed out. Continue to social distance as much as possible and if you feel the need wear a mask. Its not much different than when you go to the local grocery store.
In response to the wacky thing you wrote to Mr Torrance, I believe he is suggesting that people make the personal choice to go back to work and attend theme parks and social events if they want to. If you or anyone else at heightened risk wants or needs to continue to stay at home they are welcome to. No one is saying that anyone else is going to be forced to leave their home. What people are upset about is that they are being forced to lose their jobs and being treated like they can't be responsible enough to maintain their own hygiene and health. I agree with Mr Torrance sentiments, though not necessarily the way he said them. The politicians on both sides aren't looking out for our health or best interests. They're playing politics trying to impress you with how amazing and compassionate they are.

May 2, 2020 at 4:39 PM

>>washing your hands regularly without touching your face solves pretty much every issue you pointed out.

No, it doesn't. It helps, but its no substitute for social distancing.

>>Its not much different than when you go to the local grocery store.

Going to the grocery store is essential, and even then that should be minimised. Going on Mr Toads Wild Ride is not.

>>I believe he is suggesting that people make the personal choice to go back to work and attend theme parks and social events if they want to

Which results in extra risk for the entire community.

>>If you or anyone else at heightened risk wants or needs to continue to stay at home they are welcome to.

Except those who have to be out. The doctor whos going to save your ass. The Grocery store clerk whos going to sell you food, and the guy who has the choice between letting you on Mr Toads Wild Ride and not paying rent.

>>No one is saying that anyone else is going to be forced to leave their home.

Unless they want to eat this week.

>>What people are upset about is that they are being forced to lose their jobs and being treated like they can't be responsible enough to maintain their own hygiene and health

And you're demonstrating that you're not responsible by throwing a tantrum over not being allowed in a theme park.

>>The politicians on both sides aren't looking out for our health or best interests. They're playing politics trying to impress you with how amazing and compassionate they are.

62 thousand dead in your country. 28k in mine. And that doesn't include the "Excess deaths" that didn't have Corona on the death certificate.

Tell me, whats the number? How many people do you want to sacrifice?

May 2, 2020 at 7:38 PM

MrTorrance - a few observations:

1. Calling the guy - who started this site, owns it, and provides most of the content - ugly names is not the smartest thing to do.

2. Dropping F-bomb acronyms doesn't really persuade people to think that your position is all that reasonable or logical for that matter.

3. An article about the effect that political leaders have on re-opening theme parks during the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have to have some political content.

Robert did a fairly artful job of working around the political issues except for a few "bear traps" he left there for some of our rabid, right-wing visitors. For those of you who are unfamiliar with what I call a “bear trap” (and, Robert, help me out if the industry has a particular term to describe it), it’s a clever wording tactic or link to another article used by political or social bloggers to get the people of opposition viewpoints to say things that prove the bloggers original, rather mild assertion. Basically, the bloggers use trigger phrases like “kooky Fox News watchers” or “mainstream drive-by media” that set the opposition into a frenzy and get them to post outrageous, incoherent rants. The blogger can sit there looking very reasonable with a big “See, what I mean?” implication hanging over the thread. In the almost two decades I’ve been visiting this site, I’ve seen Robert employ it several times, and it always works.

So, MrTorrance, can you please just chill out, share your thoughts in a calmer and more reasonable manner, and give the rest of us conservatives a break by not being “the guy in the bear trap”?

May 2, 2020 at 8:47 PM

@Chad this is a theme park website, you can get off your soap box. I understand that you're under the impression that going out in public is going to kill people. I get that this is your perspective. Brow beating isn't going to help.

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