How Risky Is It to Visit Walt Disney World?

May 7, 2020, 12:50 PM · The big question that many people inside the theme park industry are wrestling with right now is this - how much chance is there, really, to contract the novel coronavirus when visiting a park?

In other words, just how risky is it to visit some place like Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, or your local Six Flags amusement park?

A team at the New York Times sought to identify at which businesses the virus is most likely to spread. To do that, they looked at a combination of cell phone data and survey results to assess potential for risk. In Is It Safer to Visit a Coffee Shop or a Gym?, the reporters detail what they found... and it's interesting to see where amusement parks stand in that list.

The report focuses on businesses that people are more likely to visit on a regular basis, such as restaurants and retail stores. That's where the reporters used anonymous cell phone data to track how frequently and for how long people tended to visit and stay at those locations. Then in an effort to gauge how much contact people had inside a business, the team did a survey that asked respondents to rate, on a scale of 1 to 10, how often they interacted with other people or touched surfaces at various businesses. They survey also asked about how much time people spent indoors or outdoors at those locations.

One of the mysteries that researchers are trying to solve about this virus is how much contact people need to have with the virus to become infected. We know that the virus can spread both through the air and on surfaces. We also know that transmission is always about probabilities rather than certainties.

That often makes talking about risk difficult. There are can be one-in-100 chance of being infected in some circumstance, but if you are that one person in 100, the odds don't mean much to you, do they? And on the flip side, if there's a 99 percent chance of an infection happening, and you are the one in 100 who skates through unscathed, well, you didn't really see the risk, right? So let's try to remember to ignore anecdotes from people who defied the odds then insist that their unique experience proves the odds must not be true.

The consensus on this virus seems to be that it needs close, sustained contact to spread effectively. That's why we've been urged to keep our distance, to wear masks in public, and to wash our hands frequently. It's all part of an effort to minimize the close contact with the virus that can come out of infected persons' mouths and off their hands.

The article's assumption is that there's more risk at businesses where you spend more time in close quarters indoors with other people versus ones where you are in and out quickly and don't interact with other people all that closely. The team looked at dozens of types of businesses, and here are the top eight types of businesses ranked for the most level of reported contact:

Granted, amusement parks rank relatively highly for contact, but the seven types of businesses ranked ahead of amusement parks all also were listed as having far more indoor contact. Only city and state parks ranked as being more outdoors than amusement parks. And it's interesting that many of the businesses ranked as more risky for contact than amusement parks are among the ones that some states are looking to reopen first, including beauty salons and sit-down restaurants.

Of course, there's a great deal of variance within the diverse experience of visiting a theme or amusement park. If you're going to Disney World and spending your day on dark rides and at table service restaurants, you're spending much more time indoors than you would if you were riding coasters at a Six Flags park. But in either case, you're also likely moving around quite a bit over the course of the day. It's not lot like you are siting in one cramped seat for three-plus hours like you would at a football game.

Guest flow also matters. As the Times article notes, "the same number of customers spaced out evenly over the day poses less risk than if they all arrive in a few short windows of time." That's why parks likely will start using virtual queuing and reservation times to enter as they look for ways to manage their crowds while adhering to social distancing rules.

But the good news, if there is good news to be taken here, is that amusement parks are far from the riskiest locations out there for virus transmission, providing hope that - with new social distancing, health monitoring, and sanitation procedures in place - parks might not have to be at the very end of the queue for businesses reopening.

Replies (11)

May 7, 2020 at 1:06 PM

With people getting stuck on the monorail and doors that are not closing, the people mover that crashes and the Jungle Cruise boat sinking there actually haven't been a safe time to visit WDW the last few years but that didn't stop people. I'm not sure if a virus will.

May 7, 2020 at 2:08 PM

The comments in other articles prove some folks are going to go to WDW as soon as possible, no matter any dangers.

May 7, 2020 at 10:43 PM

This lines up with what I've been saying for some time...while it won't be risk free, there's less risk visiting a theme park than most places the average person visits on a regular basis, especially with appropriate procedures in place. Being outdoors has a lot to do with it, but even beyond that there aren't a lot of instances where people are face to face in close proximity at a theme park for extended amounts of time. Plus, given that you could theoretically consider such places comparable to an outdoor shopping mall (just with attractions in addition to retail and dining), it seems that once such locations are cleared to open then theme parks should be able to as well.

May 7, 2020 at 10:53 PM

People often talk a strong game online, but bragging that you'll be at the front gates when they reopen in the midst of a pandemic is one thing, while actually doing that - under the restrictions that Disney puts in place - is something else entirely.

May 8, 2020 at 5:49 AM

Agreed @Robert. People forget that the experience of visiting the parks won't be anything like the before times. And the early weeks are likely to be even rougher still while the parks find their footing in this brave, new world. And then there is the issue of the virus. Low risk doesn't mean no risk. Let's face it. There will be transmission at the parks. Some people will contract COVID-19 from visiting.

Add to that the fact that we are just about to enter the most miserable time of the year, weather-wise. Hot and humid! And exactly how do you social distance when everyone needs shelter during Orlando's massive (and dangerous) daily summer thunderstorms.

Sorry, folks. Way too soon and way too much still unknown to visit for me personally. But it will be interesting to see how those willing to go report their experiences.

May 8, 2020 at 5:59 AM

Keep in mind that the article is just an opinion piece, with the data referencing amusement parks provided via survey and cell phone location data pings. Which amusement parks is an important question. Given the ranking of indoor activities, I'd venture to guess this skewed heavily to more moderate climates. It is probably the only category in this article to suffer based on area of the country. But an interesting article nonetheless.

Knoebels is almost exclusively outdoors. Universal Orlando is primarily indoors.

May 8, 2020 at 7:58 AM

Something they are failing to take into consideration is that theme parks attract attendees from far away. I live in Central Florida -Seminole county. We have a relatively low number of cases and deaths. If I were to go to a local restaurant, it would likely have mostly people from my community. If I go to Magic Kingdom, god only knows where those people are from and what their local population infection rate is. Add to that the fact that many of them traveled to the park via airports that mix all kinds of populations and bring large numbers of people in close proximity to each other. A local/regional theme park that doesn't draw crowds from all around the country or world is very different than Walt Disney World or Universal.

May 8, 2020 at 8:50 AM

I appreciate everyone's comments and ideas on this, but we seem to be getting into a debate over whether it is less risky to be shot with a handgun or a shotgun. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Locals, foreigners, indoors, outdoors, amusement parks, coffee shops... It just takes that one wrong person to sneeze in your face as you pass by them, and suddenly demographics and probabilities all go down the drain.

May 8, 2020 at 10:35 AM

I would think that people who are not feeling well would likely not go to a theme park. But they might go to a store. Thus, the danger rides with the store visit. But I also agree with the comments above that people coming from a long distance will likely go into the park, even if they don't feel well.

The real danger is with people who feel well when they leave home, and get the virus on the way, and don't know it. They may be at the theme park for a week, which is plenty of time to spread it. They may test negative at first, but...

May 9, 2020 at 9:30 AM

You have to ask yourself one question. How much risk are you willing to take for yourself and your family, to attend any large crowd venue like theme parks, restaurants, malls, etc? Then go back home to your relatives, friends and co-workers and possibly be putting them at risk not knowing who you have come into contact with that might have had the virus. Even if you are asymptomatic, you can still spread it. Is your health, and potentially your life, worth the risk until a vaccine is proven effective? Riding a rollercoaster or a dark ride just isn't worth the risk for me. We all take risks everyday, some big, some negligible. You choose based on what you can tolerate. Obviously many others feel they are above the risk. I work in an event driven industry that all events we host are indoors and can have hundreds or thousands of attendees for multiple days or even just a single day. As most of us are aware, many people attending events can be from Florida, other areas of the US and other countries. We are not having any events until things are stabilized and the environment (risk) is deemed safe to do so. So I feel that re-opening any business has to be in slow, incremental steps, and monitored very closely for increases in infections and deaths before increasing capacities. My venue has had events cancelled since early March and everything through July and some events into August have been cancelled. Some are rescheduled sooner, but that is only if social distancing restrictions are loosened up enough to permit it from happening at all. There are so many variables involved here to host any type of public gathering that it may not be worth the trouble to attend at all, at least for the rest of 2020.

May 9, 2020 at 11:46 AM

I know a guy who, just a week before this whole mess started, began a three-week cruise. He was stuck on the ship for an extra week to try and get to a port through major messes and nasty stuff. He says the ship itself wasn't too bad handling it all with buffets closed, stuff wiped down, etc. He talks of how he could get crazy and the cruise industry tough...

Yet he still plans on taking another cruise next year. Some folks will be so eager to get on trips, they'll take risks.

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