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Amid coronavirus spike, Walt Disney World reopens theme parks

A sold-out crowd Saturday at Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom found light foot traffic, short wait times and lots of new rules.

The parks looked shockingly empty, and crowds wore face masks and kept their distance from each other as Disney’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom reopened on Saturday for the first time in four months.

Epcot and Hollywood Studios will reopen on Wednesday, making Walt Disney World the last of Florida’s theme parks to open its turnstiles since the coronavirus pandemic prompted all of the state’s theme parks to shut down in mid-March.

Though Universal, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens reopened weeks ago, Disney is getting the most heat. It is reopening the world’s busiest tourist attraction just as Florida has become a hotspot for new coronavirus cases.

Related: Florida adds 98 new coronavirus deaths as average continues upward

A petition on MoveOn.org drew more than 20,000 signatures urging Disney to cancel reopening plans, saying “This virus is not gone, unfortunately it’s only become worse in this state.”

But Disney, with support from Gov. Ron DeSantis, moved forward with its plans, stressing the strenuous measures it is taking to keep its guests and workers safe. Meanwhile, the reopening of Disneyland in California has been delayed indefinitely by Gov. Gavin Newsom in the wake of coronavirus surges in that state.

Disney has not disclosed what cap it is putting on the number of people allowed in the parks, but the visitors who were welcomed back by cheering and applauding workers, which Disney calls “cast members,” found unusually small crowds within the parks and short ride wait times.

Cinderella’s Castle has had a makeover since the Magic Kingdom was last open to the public. It is now painted in pale pink with gold trim and bright blue turrets and spires. The “sapphire dusting” on the blue rooftops and gold trim were added to make the iconic spires sparkle in the sun, Magic Kingdom vice president Jason Kirk wrote in the Disney Parks Blog.

One of the longest lines was to ride Splash Mountain at Magic Kingdom. The ride will soon be getting reworked to be themed for the movie The Princess and the Frog, which features Disney’s first Black princess. The ride currently is stocked with animal characters from Song of the South, a movie that then-Disney CEO Michael Eisner shelved in 1986 due to its dated racist stereotypes.

Crowds were light and socially distant as guests walk down Main Street at the Magic Kingdom after the theme park reopened for the first time in four months on Saturday. [KENT PHILLIPS | Walt Disney World]

During passholder preview days earlier this week, fans emptied the Splash Mountain gift shop of merchandise. By midday Saturday, the long snaking line to get on Splash Mountain took 30-45 minutes, though it appeared longer than usual due to the new social distancing requirements.

“We expect this will be one of our longest waits for attractions for the day,” tweeted Touring Plans, the vacation planning site that analyzes data to predict wait times and crowd sizes at Disney World.

These days you need to secure an advance reservation in addition to your park ticket to visit a Disney theme park. There are few days left in July that aren’t sold out at the parks, according to Disney’s availability calendar.

Related: How Tampa Bay attractions have adjusted operations since reopening

Cars were parked in every other parking space, temperatures were checked at the gate and everyone over age 2 has to wear a face mask. And not just any face mask. Disney says the masks must be secured with either ties or ear loops as well as having at least two layers of breathable material.

Since guests couldn't see their faces behind their masks, Disney workers used hand-held smiles to welcome guests to Magic Kingdom for opening day on Saturday. [MATT STROSHANE | Walt Disney World]

“At this time, based on guidance from health authorities, neck gaiters and open-chin triangle bandanas are not acceptable face coverings,” Disney said on its website.

With masks covering their faces, Disney workers greeting the guests with “smile signs” of hand-held grins from Goofy or Mickey Mouse. Wait times at the most popular attractions such as Haunted Mansion were less than 30 minutes at midday Saturday and the Flight of Passage ride based on the movie Avatar at Animal Kingdom had a posted wait time of five minutes at noon. That’s a ride that had a minimum two-hour wait most days before the coronavirus pandemic.

“The happiest and next to impossible sight you’ll see at Animal Kingdom. Flight of Passage is a 5 min. wait,” tweeted WESH TV producer Kelly Prozialeck. “The walk to the entrance is longer than the wait itself. Disney is cleaning after each ride.”

While the crowds were light, there was a lot missing. No parades, no fireworks, and the character meet and greets are paused to discourage crowds gathering. Plastic partitions were numerous to keep people separate.

But not everyone agrees with Disney’s park protocols. Last week, the Actors’ Equity Association, which represents about 750 Disney World performers, filed a grievance against Disney for allegedly retaliating by rescinding its job offers after the union demanded that Disney pay for performers to be tested for COVID-19.

“A lot is at stake in these next few days,” said Rick Munarriz, who writes on theme parks for the Motley Fool investor site. “Disney has gone to extreme measures to make the theme park experience as safe as possible, but there will be hiccups. You don’t suspend parades, fireworks, and other shows that typically attract large audiences while at the same time reducing hourly capacity on rides ... without ruffling some feathers.”

But even if the experience isn’t as magical as Disney fans are used to, Munarriz said, “Safety is paramount. Disney World making sure it’s not a hotbed of COVID-19 spread is more important than staying out of the red financially through the next few months.”

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