Theme parks to open, but will visitors return?

Mickey Mouse and Cinderella are back to rescue your summer, but there won’t be any hugs — and no parade, either.

Over the next two months, some of the nation’s biggest theme parks will be opening their gates to the public again. The coronavirus pandemic forced parks to close in March, leading to billions of dollars in lost revenue for major operators such as Disney and Universal.

Universal is owned by Comcast, the parent company of NBC News.

Now, theme parks are dipping a toe in the water, opening to limited capacity and executing a complicated plan to accommodate reservations, while trying to return furloughed employees and train them on a host of new procedures.

Universal Orlando opens its doors to the public on June 5, SeaWorld on June 11, and by mid-July Disney’s parks will welcome thousands of vacationers, though Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis still has to give final approval.

Theme park operators have spent months racking their brains, consulting with health experts, and examining data models on how to reduce crowd size and mitigate health risks. All of that adds up to a very different experience — which may not leave all parkgoers happy.

One flashpoint has been the topic of masks, with even President Donald Trump refusing to wear one in front of the news media. Universal Orlando, SeaWorld and Walt Disney World have all made face coverings mandatory.

“A cast member’s smile is much more contagious than a virus,” one fan wrote.

“There is something about a cast member’s smile walking into a WDW resort or park that is much more contagious than a virus,” wrote one parkgoer on the Disney Parks Blog. “If there is a face mask requirement we will not be coming to WDW.”

Some fans wondered about accommodations for special needs children, and whether masks would need to be worn in water parks. Others praised the mask requirement.

Melinda Trapani, who runs a hair salon in Eastern Pennsylvania, told NBC News she has a passion for Disney and has plans to visit this year. Trapani said she will wear a mask, but has asthma and knows she will be tugging at it. “It will be a different experience — but I will still go.”

Chris Martin runs the SecretDisney Facebook Group, which has almost 200,000 members. He says the issue has been a headache for a while. “You have people who support masks who want to wear them; people who support masks but don’t want to wear them and won’t come; then people who want to go to the parks, are adamant about not wearing masks at all, and no-one is going to stop them.”

At Disney Springs, an outdoor shopping and dining destination, employees are already walking around reminding people to wear their masks, Martin said. “The last thing you want is someone to say, I got coronavirus at Disney.”

Universal has already ruled that costume masks and veils can not be substituted for face coverings. SeaWorld said children under the age of two will not be required to wear a mask.

All parkgoers will be expected to maintain social distancing, with decals and signage clearly posted to remind visitors to maintain the requisite six feet. Vacationers should expect an augmented security presence to enforce the policies, said Dennis Speigel, CEO of International Theme Park Services, a global advisory on the theme park business.

There will be some other changes, too, when it comes to arrivals. Shanghai Disneyland, which opened on May 11, offers a template for how things will work. Park visitors will have a QR code on their phone scanned at the entrance gate, and then pass through a thermal imaging machine to detect any elevated body temperature.

SeaWorld said it would be encouraging digital payments, and ticketing staff would be separated from visitors by plexiglass screens. Maps will also be electronic.

At Universal’s Orlando parks, guests are encouraged to download an app to cut down on contacts and lines. The app will allow visitors to order food online and then return to collect their meal. Parking will be staggered for groups to avoid crowding.

While Disney has not specified how many people it will allow at its Florida theme parks, the Magic Kingdom in Orlando is the world’s most visited park, attracting 20.8 million visitors in 2018, according to the Themed Entertainment Association’s most recent tally.

For now, new ticket sales for Disney World are “temporarily paused,” according to the Disney website, and priority will be given to existing ticket holders and annual pass holders before any new tickets are sold. The park is instituting a new reservation system to make sure the number of people entering parks remain at manageable levels.

According to Walt Disney World Resort, the company will do all it can to keep employees and consumers safe, but ticket holders will assume all risk related to COVID-19 exposure.

The parks will be making their cleaning procedures much more visible, with sanitation top of mind and hand sanitizer stations everywhere. Fireworks and parades won’t be back right away, given crowd issues, Disney has said.

When it comes to food, parks will take their cues from fast feeders such as McDonald’s, and focus on mobile ordering. Self service will be kept to a minimum.

Typically, admission prices go up each year, but given that there are fewer attractions on offer and many guests have suffered cancellations and a lengthy wait for information about reopening dates, it would be highly unlikely for parks to hike prices this year, Speigel said.

Parks are fielding an endless string a customer inquiries about cancellation policies in light of all the changes. One person on the Disney Parks Blog remarked: “When I take a vacation, I just want to have fun and enjoy. This would be worse than a job. No thanks. You lost me.”

Top of mind for operators will be the nightmare of a second wave of infection that could force closures.

“Stopping a theme park, and starting a theme park, it’s like a barge on the river,” Speigel told NBC News. “The barge goes five miles before it stops, and when you start the barge back up it’s not like a motorcycle doing a wheelie.”

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