Walt Disney World Reduces Distance Rules - So What's Next?

May 12, 2021, 9:48 PM · As theme parks across the country begin rolling back their Covid protections, let's talk about what parks should - or maybe should not - be doing in the months ahead to protect the health of their visitors and employees.

But before we get to that, let's acknowledge the devastation that the Covid-19 pandemic has left around the world. Millions of people have died and countless others have been left with long-term disabilities, in large part because many government leaders and other people in general did not take this threat seriously enough. The pandemic continues, and much more remains to be done to protect communities around the world.

That said, Covid transmission happens locally. With infection rates dropping and vaccination rates rising across America, it is reasonable to consider the eventual removal of protections - including physical distancing and mandatory mask wearing - that communities have used to prevent the spread of Covid while vaccines were unavailable. In the Orlando area, many theme parks - including Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld - have begun to reduce physical distancing limits from the six-foot standard. California has set a June 15 for the elimination of current pandemic rules in the state, though it remains possible that new rules may be established.

While many fans are looking forward to parks being able to reopen more attractions, restaurants and events, I know that many of us also would not like to see parks go back to their pre-pandemic normal. By disrupting everything, the pandemic has given theme parks an opportunity to fix many of the enduring problems that have been challenging the industry and frustrating its fans.

1. Give us some space - Okay, maybe we no longer need six feet between parties as Covid declines. But many visitors do not wish to go back to shoulder-to-shoulder overcrowding throughout the parks. Covid isn't the only disease circulating out there. No one wants to breathe in flu or cold viruses, either. And no one wants to get drawn into an altercation that can happen when strangers are bumping up against each other in public. People need space, and parks should not load so many people into queues, shows, shops and pathways that no one has any. If that means requiring advance reservations or offering fewer low-priced pass programs, so be it.

2. Cleaner is better - When a lot of sources were blaming fomites for the spread of Covid, parks and other public accommodations responded with aggressive surface cleaning. We know now that respiratory transmission is the real problem with Covid, but again, Covid isn't the only disease out there. And too many parks let too many locations get, well, gross, in pre-pandemic times. No, you don't have to shut down rides every 30 minutes for deep cleaning to prevent the spread of disease. But can we at least agree that it's much nicer to spend the day in a clean theme park than one with sticky surfaces and overflowing trash?

3. Masks can remain useful - If people want to continue wearing masks in public for health reasons after mandates are lifted, no one ought to have a problem with that. Let's not forget that children ages 11 and under cannot yet get vaccines and a whole lot of parents out there would love to keep their kids from catching this miserable disease. So long as masks do not display hate speech or symbols, there's no harm - and potentially some benefit - to you when other people wear a mask, especially during the upcoming cold and flu season. (And if you are so radicalized by anti-mask, Covid-denying politicians and media sources that you think a mask itself is a symbol of hate and oppression, I hope that you can soon step away from that and find some peace and grace in your life. You deserve better.)

4. Employees deserve better care - Finally, if nothing else, this pandemic has reaffirmed the importance of health care - both physical and mental. Every theme park employee should have access to affordable and convenient health care, including all immunizations. Employees should be allowed and encouraged to protect their co-workers and customers by staying home when sick, without losing pay or status.

Disneyland President Ken Potrock said that the year-long closure of his resort's theme parks provided them with "the silver lining of time" - time to fix problems that needed to be addressed. As that time comes to its end and we enter a new era in the history of themed entertainment, let's hope that it brings all of us better days than we have seen before.

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Replies (23)

May 12, 2021 at 10:31 PM

Another thing I would add is that "Theme Park Operators Need to Stand With Their Employees". It was ridiculous how many workers were berated, assaulted, or spat upon when they were just trying to enforce the rules their management put in place. "The customer is always right" is an outdated mantra that emboldens people to do as they please and the parks need to send a clear message where that mentality does not fly anymore.

May 12, 2021 at 11:21 PM

Fantastic article, and number 3 made me laugh out loud.

I agree with everything you're saying, but don't those things add up to much higher ticket prices? If you cut the crowd, cut the cheaper tickets, keep things nicer and treat the employees better, don't you make less money, meaning the people who are coming will have to pay more?

Personally, I'm all for it, I'd gladly pay more to have the place more to myself, and in better shape. But not everyone can afford that.

May 12, 2021 at 11:22 PM

The temperature checks should have become a permanent screening. Prohibiting obvious sick people, especially children, from park entry did the most to lower spread of disease.

May 13, 2021 at 12:40 AM

Sorry Tony, but the most infectious part of the disease is before you exhibit symptoms; indeed, by the time you have a fever, you on the downward slope of contagion.

In other words, the temp checks are theater, and don't catch the most contagious carriers.

https://medical.mit.edu/covid-19-updates/2020/07/how-long-symptom-onset-person-contagious

May 13, 2021 at 1:42 AM

Temperature checks were always for safety theater(You can take some Tylenol and reduce your fever). Can’t speak for everyone but usually many people who are not feeling well, ie over the 101.4 temp, will not be able to function well and would rather stay home and take a rest.

May 13, 2021 at 3:18 AM

For much of the time since reopening, I've felt that few of the theme park protocols made much of a difference in safely, largely because they were applied broadly without paying attention to the circumstances in which they were recommended or found to work. This is especially true given the discrepancies between what parks are doing now and what guidelines are outside of theme parks. In my opinion, here's what I feel is appropriate for parks at this time:

-Screening returns to pre-pandemic procedures (i.e. no temperature/health checks)
-Parks are permitted to operate at 500 guests per acre, which should allow near-normal crowd levels without extreme crowding of guests. Indoor portions of the park are allowed 1 guest per 100 sq. ft, allowing roughly 6 ft. spacing between guests. Distancing markers are not used, but guests are not encouraged to bunch up and are encouraged to self space themselves in queues.
-Masks are not required outdoors or for short durations indoors. Masks are required in indoor queue areas, on indoor attractions lasting longer than 10 minutes, and during indoor shows.
-Rides are loaded every row, with one party per row unless an empty seat can be left between parties.
-Rides are not closed for cleaning, but if a ride goes down for other reasons it is cleaned before reopening.

Based on where we are in the pandemic right now, I feel anything beyond this is excessive and more theatrical than actually beneficial.

May 13, 2021 at 11:34 AM

What's next? Hopefully the return of the single rider lines. Universal has reopened them already!

May 13, 2021 at 1:04 PM

"Based on where we are in the pandemic right now . . ."

We currently have a highly daily infection rate than we did in March of 2020 when we first shut down. It's trending in the right direction, but the introduction of a more potent variant, say the Indian version, could quickly reverse that, particularly if people stop wearing masks indoors.

May 13, 2021 at 1:50 PM

We currently have a highly daily infection rate than we did in March of 2020 when we first shut down."

That is true. But in March 2020, we knew very little about the virus. Now we have numerous vaccines plus a countless number of people who have acquired immunity (many of whom did not exhibit symptoms).

The stat that is the most important (more so than number of infections) is number of deaths. Speaking for the U.S. (and not India where I know there is a major outbreak) the seven-day average has not been this low since the middle of July (10 months ago).

Source: https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/country/us/

Edited: Just after making my original post, I see this:
https://www.cnbc.com/2021/05/13/cdc-says-fully-vaccinated-people-dont-need-to-wear-face-masks-indoors-or-outdoors-in-most-settings.html

Great news for not just us theme park lovers, but the entire U.S.!

May 13, 2021 at 3:51 PM

The new CDC guidlines are good although I'll likely stick to masks for a bit (Illinois still has them mandated). I've seen some complaining "folks see others go unmasked, they'll think they don't need vaccine" but at this point, obvious if someone isn't going to be convinced to get it already, this won't alter much.

Instead, good signs of a corner turned in our country, still a worry about the rest of the world like India but word of a "universal vaccine" worked on is hopeful.

May 13, 2021 at 4:15 PM

Even though they were deplorable before the pandemic, I just want clean restroom facilities Cedar Point. Dead mosquitoes and cob webs aren't in any way part of the theming decor. Especially the location by Gatekeeper.

May 13, 2021 at 9:22 PM

I think most theme park fans never want to see a return to the jam packed, nearly year long obnoxious crowding we were subjected to, pre-Covid. I would happily pay double the admission prices just to avoid that insanity, in which you had people in your face every time you turned around, and it took countless hours of planning just to avoid most 60 min + wait times.

May 14, 2021 at 6:20 AM

I wish I did not agree with Still a fan, but I do. WDW used to always be crowded, and I think it will again, but something about ten years happened, and there was a sea of people at rope drop. Every guide book stated a requirement was to get to the parks early. It was true that you could do more in the first two hours that you could in the next six, but people started to follow that recommendation. Understand, many people here are content to ride something once or twice, but families with kids and casual visitors want to do things multiple times. The old FP system, or even when they had no system made that easy. With FP+ it almost mandated the early riser. An example is a family whose kids wanted to ride Flight of Passage but could not get a FP. They knew they had to go to rope drop. They tried it, only to find that every other person at the park had the same idea. Three or four people getting on the MK bus and a hundred in line for the AK bus.

What needs to happen (and I am sure this has been done somewhat), but an industrial engineering firm needs to reevaluate the FP+ system. Before when it was done it could not have anticipated the kinks. It has not been substantially modified since inception. I think they need to use the DL model and lower capacity. Make it to where the system is not an option on fast loading attractions unless the park hits a certain number of people. There is no need for it on things like Spaceship Earth and others. They do a wonderful job managing rope drop, but on capacity days that is the only way to obtain multiple rides on high demand attractions.

I hate to say increase pricing, but that should be a consideration. It has been pointed out that due to the number of hotel rooms at WDW that the Universal system of unlimited Express Pass would not work, and I certainly do not advocate the deluxe resorts getting more passes than budget, but resort guests should get a benefit, like a discount for the MaxPass system (which means a large upcharge for others). Also, eliminate the single park early morning hours and make it early for resort guests at every park every day and include an extra hour at closing for resort guests. Finally, designing more activities and attractions at the resorts would help bring people out of the park. I am sure they will charge a small fortune, but the Star Wars hotel is a good example. Guests will prefer to be there instead of the park, although my family will be at a park from opening until closing. Imagine what Universal could have done with a Hogwarts hotel where you get to sleep in the same locations as the characters.

May 14, 2021 at 8:11 AM

But prices have increased during the more busy times. It just hasn't increased enough to keep people away.

Disney has more information and people who study these things than we do. Whatever prices they charge at whatever time of year is there to maximize profits.

May 14, 2021 at 10:35 AM

I don't think price increases will do anything to depress demand. With parks either closed or artificially limiting capacity over the past year plus, there is a ton of pent up demand and extra revenue lying around from guests who haven't taken a vacation in over a year. That combined with so many Americans who want to finally go back into the world, a familiar place like Disneyland (or other theme park) has massive appeal. Disney could probably double or triple their current admission prices and not impact demand that much.

I also think there's an ingrained sense from people that actually want to be back in a crowd (even those claustrophobic shoulder to shoulder ones), and while walking through a half-empty park has a certain appeal, it lacks that sense of place and community that a full capacity park provides.

While Disney has to go back to the drawing board when it comes to controlling crowds in their theme parks, I don't think limiting crowds or reducing crowds (through limiting capacity, using reservations, or price controls) will be beneficial for either guests or Disney.

May 14, 2021 at 10:37 AM

They could adopt the Discovery Cove model, in which capacity is reduced, in exchange for much higher admission costs.

May 14, 2021 at 12:13 PM

@Still a fan - That would seem logical, but I don't think that would work for Disney parks, because there is so much demand that they'd have to increase prices so much (over $300-400/day) or would be limiting capacity to such a degree that people would be upset. Imagine planning a vacation to WDW, and you start reserving your park days, and find that only 2 of the days during your planned week have availability (this after you've spent hundreds of dollars on airfare and multi-day park tickets). Additionally, given how many hotel rooms Disney has on-site (with more coming), even if they limited park capacity to just on-site guests and a small percentage of APs, the parks would still be pretty crowded.

Also, even if Disney were to significantly limit admissions at higher costs, you know that execs would keep pushing operations to find ways to generate more revenue by either jacking prices up higher (is $500/day too much?) or slowly letting more and more people into the parks. Pricing controls and capacity restrictions and just short term band-aids that will never fix the biggest issue with Disney parks, which is crowd control. Until Disney establishes a viable crowd control system/service (FWIW, I think MaxPass is pretty good, and miles better than FP+), tweaking admission prices and park capacities won't do a lick of good in the long term.

May 14, 2021 at 12:15 PM

Aren't they planning to keep a reservation system of some sort? I think there's some kind of middle ground between something like Discovery Cove, and the insane, sardine can park stuffing of recent years. Few people would deny that the latter really impacted the guest experience.

May 14, 2021 at 12:43 PM

WDW announced that ParkPass (the park day reservation system) will continue at least through 2022. However, as park capacities are allowed back towards 100%, the ParkPass system will do little to control crowds in the park except on the busiest days (Holidays). Even with current capacity limits, with no FP+ or other crowd control systems (and few parades, live entertainment, shows, and other "time sinks"), the experience in the parks sounds pretty miserable. If Disney starts letting more people into the parks (and you know that doubling or tripling the admission cost won't stop the flow of families to Orlando), it's only going to get worse unless Disney comes up with something to keep guests spread out across the parks.

May 14, 2021 at 1:05 PM

If a big ticket price increase was done in conjunction with long term reduced capacity, of course that reduces crowds. As long as they ran rides at full capacity, you could then get a lot more done on any given day, hence giving you value to justify the price increases. And yes, if you're paying a lot more for a ticket, Disney can afford to run rides at full capacity.

However, a huge 100% (or more) ticket price increase would be unconscionable if Disney (and other theme park operators) plan to go back to 100% capacity (and their max capacity numbers are pretty ridiculous in the first place).

Personally, I think the aforementioned Discovery Cove model (or something close to it) is far more sane, offering a higher quality guest experience, then the "pack em like sardines" policies of recent years.

Yes, you mentioned the much higher demand for Disney theme parks. True, but 50% of capacity (for example) is still a lot of people. As I said their current 100% capacity numbers are ludicrous -- at times, like Dec. 25-Jan. 1, it's shoulder to shoulder, claustrophobic, and no waits under 100 minutes.

May 14, 2021 at 1:14 PM

When WDW broke the $100 barrier in 2015, many here thought it would be the final straw to slow the annual inching up of admissions, but they just kept going, and actually at a faster rate than the previous decade that included rebounding from the Great Recession. Depending on what type of ticket you're buying, admission prices have gone up nearly 60% over the past 5 years for a peak-day visit, and the parks were never more crowded than they were before the pandemic struck. I think you're underestimating the desire (and need) for Americans to take a vacation this summer (and onward for at least the next 1-2 years), and if WDW gets rid of artificial capacity limitations, guests will fill them even if tickets are twice what they are today. You also can't forget about WDW50, and while Disney has been pretty low key regarding celebrating the occasion, you better believe the Drones will pay up the nose to visit WDW during its milestone anniversary.

Never underestimate what Disney fans will pay to visit their favorite place on Earth, especially if they've been denied a visit over the past year.

May 14, 2021 at 9:46 PM

Spreading people out is certainly good, which is why it is nice that they will have premium new attractions at each park with EPCOT about to get several big ones. Not having one park as an early morning hour can help, as it inflated attendance unreasonably so at the specific park. However, people forget that a huge chunk of visitors are first timers who will likely return maybe one more time. They will always go to MK, and they do not like the confusing logarithms that guests have to learn to maximize enjoyment. It is even worse for them when they shell out $10,000 or more. Adding fast loading attractions or attractions that aren’t loading at all will certainly help. I adore the 360 films and similar crowd attractions, and it does seem that there is space for people eaters like that.

May 15, 2021 at 1:44 PM

To the colonel, I said disease not covid. Roughly 50% of my visits to WDW before covid resulted in me getting sick from something.

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