When and How Should Disney Parks Reopen?

Walt Disney World

Disney parks have been closed worldwide for over a month, with several having shut down at the tail end of January. Many are wondering when they should reopen and what that might look like.

I’ve been tracking the Disney park closures since they began back in January, and now with all of them shut down and the virus in various stages of severity around the world, the big question is when and how should these parks reopen?  If they reopen too soon, they risk furthering the spread of the disease, whereas the longer they remain closed, the longer people are out of a job (tens of thousands are furloughed) and local economies that depend on tourism suffer. 

Personally I would rather err on the side of public health and safety, but getting back to normal is still a worthy goal to look forward to.  It just has to be done in a smart way, and we need to be patient.  Here’s what that could look like.

New Precautions at Disney Parks

One thing for sure is that they can’t open their doors immediately and expect things to go back to how they were before right away.  There will be changes and new precautions put into place just like after 9/11.  The world is different, and while we don’t have a full grasp of just how different or how long these differences will last, we know to expect it.  These are a few potential changes that could be coming down the pipeline when the parks start to reopen.

Temperature Checks

One of the first tidbits we got about what changes could be coming our way came from former/future CEO Bob Iger himself (Bob Chapek is very briefly CEO and it’s complicated).  Iger hinted that temperature checks could be something they roll out at their parks to reduce the rate of infection.

One of the things that we’re discussing already is that in order to return to some semblance of normal, people will have to feel comfortable that they’re safe. Some of that could come in the form of a vaccine, ultimately. But in the absence of that it could come from basically more scrutiny, more restrictions. Just as we now do bag checks for everybody who goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that, which takes people’s temperatures, for instance.

We’re studying what China has been trying to do in terms of its return to normalcy. And one of the things that’s obvious is they’ve conscripted a large segment of their population to monitor others in terms of their health. You can’t get on a bus or a subway or a train or enter a high-rise building there—and I’m sure this will also be the case when their schools reopen—without having your temperature taken.

This isn’t fool proof, however.  As we’ve come to learn over the past few weeks, many people are completely asymptomatic, which means they wouldn’t have a fever but could still potentially spread it to others.  In the beginning we were generally told that a fever was the biggest sign to watch out for, along with a cough and difficulty breathing, but a lot has changed in the past few months and that’s clearly no longer entirely the case.

Still, this is a step in the right direction, even if it means potential delays at the front gate to enter the parks.  I can see this causing some upsetting experiences for people as they try to filter into the park, but we’re all going to have to adapt. 

Park Capacity Limitations

There is a potential for the parks to limit the amount of guests allowed inside in order to reduce crowds even lower than the current park capacity.  This same tactic is being used all over the place from grocery stores to work places, so I can see this being a possibility for Disney parks as well.  This is being partially done in Shanghai Disney already, where certain areas of the resort are open, but operating at a limited capacity.

We have seen a hint that this could happen in the actual parks themselves with Shanghai Disney testing staggered seating with their cast members.  I feel like if they are going to implement staggered seating, they’ll have to limit the amount of guests allowed in the park to avoid these people just gathering in another area.  It doesn’t help leaving seats empty if the people that would fill those seats are all standing around together elsewhere.  If they didn’t limit capacity, this type of limitation would be rather pointless.

With fewer people in the park, the opportunities to social distance from one another will be greater.  People can leave seats between each other at restaurants, shows, and attractions, helping make social distancing easier.

This comes with issues, of course, as Disney has to balance their operating cost with their income.  This means there could be fewer park employees, closed rides, and higher ticket prices to push back against demand.  It’s a delicate balancing act, but one that would be worth it in the end to help reduce the spread and prevent another outbreak.

Virtual Queues

CinemaBlend has posed an interesting option for reducing crowds within the park: virtual queues.  Disney has already begun to do this with certain high demand attractions, so the leap itself isn’t that big.

In an attempt to help deal with the popularity of the Rise of the Resistance attraction at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, both Disneyland and Walt Disney World instituted virtual queues. Rather than just standing in line or even using FastPass, you used an app to secure a spot in line, and then went to the attraction when you were called. Recent updates to Disney apps have implied that these virtual queues might already be looking at expanding. Such things make extra sense now, because stand-by lines are one place where large numbers of people gather and are intentionally compressed close together.

It should be pointed out there are some significant logistical issues to implementing virtual queues across the board. Theme park spaces are basically designed with the assumption that large numbers of people are standing in lines at any given moment. If all those people are pulled out of line, then the common walkways would become incredibly crowded. Still, this may be where things will head if these other issues can be solved.

That last issue that CinemaBlend brings up could be resolved with the point I mentioned above: lowering the park capacity to reduce crowds.  Fewer people in the park means there will be fewer people crowded in these other spaces, so it’d be a win all around.

Health Checks

China has implemented a barcode system via app that monitors people’s health.  People with a green health barcode have more freedom to move about, including even leaving Wuhan, which was entirely quarantined back in January. 

They’ve already begun using this as Shanghai Disney starts to partially reopen.

Per their website:

In accordance with relevant regulations, every guest entering Shanghai Disney Resort will be required to undergo temperature screening procedures and present their Shanghai QR Code. Only guests with a green Shanghai QR Code will be allowed to enter the resort.

You can see a little bit of how the QR codes work in the video below.

But Disney parks exist in many other places outside of Shanghai, so this clearly isn’t a universal resolution for every park.  I’m not sure how this can be adapted for the United States, Hong Kong, France, and Japan, but perhaps something similar can be implemented that works for the populations in those areas.  It’ll look different in various parts of the world, but it’s something to consider. 

The idea of a health barcode app on your phone can be unnerving, so I get the argument that it can be a step too far.  If this ends up being a direction that they take, perhaps those that don’t want to have their health data uploaded to an app can just wait a couple years before doing a Disney trip.  I know this can feel invasive, but if the options are having an invasive app on my phone and having some freedom, I opt for the app.  Your mileage may vary, so make your decision accordingly.

Walt Disney World Epcot

Potential Reopening Timelines

While Phase 1 of the United States government’s reopening plan has things beginning to open on May 1st, But Disney parks don’t seem to have opening times listed until a bit further into the month, and I even think those dates are a bit too early. 

Everything is, of course, subject to change, but even mid-May feels too soon for any park to be open in any location, let alone the United States, which is the current epicenter.  Our curve may be flattening, but if we open too soon, all that work will be undone.  

Partial Reopenings

Shanghai Disney is the first park that’s made significant steps towards reopening; however, the main park still remains closed at this time.  Per their official website, “a limited number of shopping, dining, and recreational experiences available in Disneytown, Wishing Star Park and Shanghai Disneyland Hotel. Each of these resort locations will operate under limited capacity and reduced hours of operation. The Disney Car and Coach Park and the Disneytown Parking Lot will also reopen.”

I can see this working with the other parks as well.  The Disney resorts are fairly extensive at most locations, so the shopping and dining districts or certain hotel attractions could open earlier than the parks themselves.  This would act as a sort of test run for a few weeks just like the park in Shanghai as a step to reopen more fully at a later time.

Going back to an earlier point, I can also see the parks opening with limited attractions and reduced capacity as well.  I expect many attractions to be closed when things open back up, so even if the parks themselves open their gates, things inside may not feel entirely normal for quite some time.  We’re used to some attractions being down for maintenance, but this will likely be something entirely different.

Keep in mind that that last bit is pure speculation on my part as no park has opened its doors yet, but we’ll see how this ages once we get there I suppose.  If the parks open at 100%, feel free to come back here and call me out.  See you in a few months, eh?

Staggered Reopenings

Shanghai Disney is acting as the canary in the coal mine for the rest of the parks.  China was the first epicenter of the virus, and when it cracked down hard on it, it became the first place with a Disney park to start to recover (as far as we know, anyway).  I expect Hong Kong Disneyland to follow suit close behind due to their extensive measures as well.

Prior to this week, I would have expected Tokyo Disney to be next, but, sadly, Japan has seen a dramatic uptick with their cases and recently declared a state of emergency (see: Future Episodes of Fugou Keiji Postponed Due to Pandemic).  With that in mind, I really don’t know which park is going to start the process of reopening next, though I vaguely feel the United States parks may be later than the rest as we are now the current epicenter of the pandemic.

I do not know which order these parks will open, but it stands to reason that if the closures happened based on the needs of the area at any given time, that the openings would follow a similar pattern.

In Conclusion…

Disney parks, as we know them, will be changed for the foreseeable future.  It’s hard to know how long these changes will hold and how extensive they will be, but they are coming.  Brace yourself.  Adjust your plans accordingly.  And wash your hands.

Author: Angel Wilson

Angel is the admin of The Geekiary and a geek culture commentator. They earned a BA in Film & Digital Media from UC Santa Cruz. They have contributed to various podcasts and webcasts including An Englishman in San Diego, Free to Be Radio, and Genre TV for All. They’ve also written for Friends of Comic Con and is a 2019 Hugo Award winner for contributing fanfic on AO3. They identify as queer.

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