But Chapek avoided nearly all talk of a timeline for a reopening of U.S. locations during the coronavirus crisis, including major venues Disneyland in Southern California and Disney World in Central Florida. He said it was “too early to predict” such moves and used language such as “We are evaluating a number of different scenarios to ensure a cautious, sensible and deliberate approach.”
The evasions, it turns out, are for a simple reason: There’s no plausible date on the horizon for when reopening the parks could actually happen. This is true despite signals from the governors of California and Florida that restarting their economies is a key goal.
Disney’s reluctance to return to business quickly suggests that governors’ talk of reopening the economy is unlikely simply to wish away the economic pain of the coronavirus shutdown.
When it comes to the country’s entertainment economy, there is nothing like Disney parks.
In normal times, an estimated 60,000 people come every day each to Disneyland and Disney World’s Magic Kingdom — a baseball playoff game or a major stadium concert each day, 365 days a year, at opposite ends of the country. The parks are the closest the country has to a national commons.
And many of those customers spend a lot more than the price of admission once they get there; revenue at Disney’s parks and experiences division totaled more than $25 billion last year.
The Disney parks are also critical for jobs. More than 77,000 people work at the Florida location alone when factoring in adjacent hotels and restaurants. In California, Disney’s theme-park operation is the state’s third-largest employer, according to one recent study, with Disneyland alone the fifth biggest.
Disney parks are so crucial to California’s economy that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) called Disney “a nation-state,” to some controversy, when he exempted it from closure requirements at the start of the pandemic.
Theme parks are also vital to Disney’s bottom line. The parks division (it also includes hotels and cruise ships) generated $6.76 billion in profit for Disney last year, three times what its film studio did.
All of this makes reopening a no-brainer.
There are, first, political obstacles. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has been pushing for the theme-park gates to fly open — he told Fox News recently that he’s had discussions with executives and commended the progress. A task force of business leaders in Orange County, Fla., offered a broad outline of what a Disney World reopening might look like once Disney World reopened: six feet of space between each person in line for rides, and mandates for face masks and temperature checks for staff.
But things are moving more slowly in California, where Newsom and Department of Public Health Director Sonia Angell have enumerated a Stage 4 plan for large-scale sports and concerts that won’t be allowed to reopen until some form of vaccine or treatment is available. Theme parks even larger than these gatherings would seem to fall in the same category. Disney could, potentially, drastically modify capacity and impose safety measures, but at best that would put it in Stage 3, which Angell said is probably months away.
But the bigger impediment to a reopening, even a mask-filled and socially distant one, is that just because Disney can there’s not necessarily an economic reason that it should. Even if the parks open, they would need to hit certain numbers to make the effort profitable. And it’s not clear that can happen anytime soon.
Comcast executives recently told investors that they would need 50 percent attendance to break even on their Universal theme parks. Disney’s theme parks likely wouldn’t be allowed such numbers out of the gate. (Florida restaurants are being told to limit service to 25 percent capacity.) And even if they were, it’s far from certain whether Disneyland or Disney World would attract those crowds. Would 30,000 people be willing to stand in line for the likes of Twilight Zone Tower of Terror? Or would they, more likely, find it a queue of horrors?
A recent Reuters/Ipsos survey found that only 4 in 10 people would actually attend amusement parks before a vaccine for covid-19 was made available. That means as much as they might go for a ride on the Incredicoaster right now, 60 percent of Americans aren’t comfortable with what it will entail to do so.
These are some of the reasons that make analysts skeptical Disney parks will reopen anytime soon.
Jim Nail, principal analyst at Forrester Research, told The Washington Post in an email that in addition to politics, there are two other important factors: “consumers’ emotional/psychological conflict between wanting to get back to normal vs. fear of being exposed” and “consumer financial condition and willingness to spend.”
That last point, about a recession, is especially central. Disney has been raking in all that revenue in recent years by raising ticket prices and selling a lot of luxury packages. And that’s about to go out the window.
“Disney’s been increasing pricing virtually every year for the past decade, proving … demand during a healthy economy,” said investment banker Lloyd Greif of Greif & Co. “Well, this economy is sick and is going to remain sick for a while. Disney’s luxury pricing model for its theme parks is in for a redo.”
That means that for Disney to take in the same revenue as before the coronavirus, it will need to increase volume — at exactly the time attendance will go down.
Chapek, who before his promotion to chief executive ran theme parks for five years, hinted how important economic factors will be in any reopening decision.
“We would not reopen any park until we can make a positive contribution to overhead and operating-profit level,” he said. Translation: It’s going to be consumers, not governments, that ultimately dictate a Disney reopen. And they have made few pronouncements thus far that they want this.
Bettors are bearish, too. The sportsbook site Bet Online found 1:1 — even odds — among bettors on whether Disneyland would open by Jan. 1, 2021, which would put the park at a closure of 9½ months. A baby could be conceived, gestated and born and Disneyland would still be closed.
Disney could operate the parks at a loss and hope attendance ramps up to cover the costs. But given the public health dangers, that would be, at the least, a risky decision.
The company is, of course, in the process of exploring various safety options for whenever a reopening does happen. On Tuesday, the parks division’s chief medical officer, Pamela Hymel, published a blog post noting measures being explored, from physical distancing to cast training. Those are simply hypothetical at this point.
The long-term closures are unprecedented for the parks, which for decades have been as constant a presence as sunlight. Historically the parks have only seen very few closures, and they were all very brief — after President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, after 9/11, in the immediate wake of natural disasters such as the Northridge earthquake or Hurricane Irma.
Modern America may have never faced a health crisis like this. But Disney parks are also facing a new phenomenon: the collective reluctance to visit them.