On Saturday, two of Walt Disney World’s most popular theme parks will open to the public, the first time many visitors have set foot in the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom since the parks shut down March 15 due to COVID-19.
Some Disney fans are delighted, with the opening days sold out, but others are incredulous that Disney World is preparing to open its gates just as Florida has recorded the largest weekly increase in coronavirus cases in the country.
The Actors’ Equity Association, which represents about 750 park employees, called on Disney to provide coronavirus testing for its employees. Disney refused, and the union said Walt Disney World rescinded its offer to bring the actors back to work in “retaliation” for the demand.
“It is deeply disturbing that while coronavirus cases in Florida surge, Disney is refusing to provide regular testing to one of the few groups of workers in the park who by the very nature of their jobs cannot use personal protective equipment,” Mary McColl, executive director of the Actors’ Equity Association, said in a statement last week.
A spokeswoman for Disney said the union rejected their safety protocols, so Disney “decided to move forward with our phased reopening without their participation,” said Alannah Hall-Smith of Disney Parks and Experiences.
Visitors will find a lot of changes at the world’s most-visited tourist attraction, including many new safety measures. Before they can even consider going, all visitors will need a date-specific park reservation, made through disneyworld.com, in addition to their tickets or annual passes. Those reservations have been in demand, with many days in July already sold out.
On Thursday, Walt Disney World resumed selling theme park tickets and allowing hotel reservations for dates in 2020. New ticket sales had been paused so that Disney could give priority to people who had already purchased tickets or were annual passholders.
After the first two theme parks open Saturday, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot will open on Wednesday, which also is sold out.
But sold out won’t necessarily mean crowded. Disney has not revealed what its cap on attendance will be, but its parks overseas opened at less than 30 percent of capacity.
There were passholder preview days this week at the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, and visitors found plastic partitions just about everywhere, from the monorail to gift shops and ride queues, to keep visitors at a distance.
There won’t be the usual elaborate parades, characters meet-ups or fireworks in an attempt to keep large crowds from gathering. Instead, there are smaller, spontaneous bursts of entertainment like a marching band or a group of dancers popping up.
“You may not see all the characters at once like you would for a big parade, but the ‘pop up parades’ are quick, upbeat, fun, and don’t require camping out in the Florida sun for an hour ahead of time,” said Len Testa, founder of the Touring Plans vacation website, who was in the Magic Kingdom earlier this week.
Masks are required for both workers and guests, and there will be no fingerprint scans upon park entry. Instead, workers use handheld scanning devices. And the bag check now involves an X-ray machine and a clear bag for electronic devices.
“Nobody touches your stuff but you,” Testa said.
All of the park’s attractions, restaurants and stores have sanitizing stations at the entrances and exits. The ride vehicles of many attractions, such as the Jungle Cruise, have plastic partitions on them to keep people apart. And many attractions, such as Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, have guests seated in every other row, while show-based attractions have some seats marked off as unavailable.
For the PhilharMagic 3D show, for example, the room before the theater has designated areas for groups to stand. Once inside the theater, certain rows and seats are blocked off. At It’s a Small World, only two families are allowed per boat, and the boats are cleaned after every trip.
Mask-free “Relaxation Station” areas have been set up throughout the parks, where guests can take a breather. Testa recommended bringing some extra masks since they get sweaty and, typical of Florida in the summer, you will likely be caught in the rain at some point.
There are adaptations large and small. Trash cans have had their flaps opened so you don’t have to have contact when throwing something away. There are partitions on buses and assigned group numbers for seats. At restaurants, Disney is encouraging guests to use the mobile check-in feature on the My Disney Experience app in order to avoid crowing the host podium. On the monorail, you are assigned to a boarding group and stand at a location while waiting to board. Once on board, everyone must be seated — no standing.
Testa said he was very impressed with how well the workers handled the rules and gently enforced distancing guidelines and face masks.
“It’s a whole new world,” Testa said, “and they’re working really hard to learn how to reopen a park from an unprecedented closure.”