But big questions remain hovering over the announcement — whether the company will be able to operate the massive properties safely, and whether consumers will feel comfortable enough to take the chance.
Executives on Wednesday sought to reassure consumers and government officials. A number of social-distancing measures will be imposed at the parks, said Jim MacPhee, senior vice president of operations for Walt Disney World Resort. Customers will be required to wear masks and undergo temperature checks.
And MacPhee said parades and fireworks displays will remain temporarily suspended because of the crowds those events attract.
MacPhee made his comments as part of a reopening plan Disney submitted at an economic recovery task-force meeting in Orange County, Fla., on Wednesday morning. The task-force members approved Disney’s plan shortly after it was presented. The plan still needs to be approved by Orlando Mayor Jerry Demings (D) before it is sent to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R). Both are expected to greenlight the move.
“We believe our reopening proposal at our properties reflects a very thoughtful, methodical and phased approach,” MacPhee said.
Later Wednesday, the company offered more details about the reopening in a blog post on its website. An entry by Thomas Smith, editorial content director for Disney’s theme parks, noted that while the company’s signature costumed characters will be present at the parks, events such as “makeover opportunities” and character meet-and-greets would not be conducted.
“In preparing to reopen during this unusual time, we have to manage our theme parks in a very different way from what we’ve known before,” Smith wrote.
He noted “limits on attendance,” “controlled guest density” and “significantly limited” capacity, but a spokeswoman said the company would not provide numbers or percentages on what that would entail. Disney previously reopened its Shanghai theme park with 30 percent capacity in keeping with government requirements in China.
It also remained unclear from the plan what would happen in the wake of an outbreak among employees, and how broad and long of a shutdown would be required if there are positive tests.
The reopening will be a key test of whether large-scale social gatherings can successfully resume in the age of social distancing. Disney’s move is an attempt to demonstrate that the experience in its parks, which involve both high volumes of people and many personal encounters, can still flourish despite the challenges.
The announcement comes despite a consistent level of coronavirus infections in Florida. The state has experienced at least 500 new cases in all but three days in May, and on Thursday reported 1,204 new cases, the most since April 17. Thirty-nine people have died in Orange County due to coronavirus.
And complicating the issue for Disney is that, unlike Southern California and other global locations, many visitors to Orlando-area parks aren’t local.
“The reality is a lot of these are destinations filled with people who fly in, and it’s still highly questionable whether they’re going to do that now,” Rich Greenfield, an analyst at Lightshed, said in an interview. “Those are the people who stay in hotels and spend a lot of money, and what will profitability look like for Disney if a lot of them aren’t coming?”
He and others also note the health challenges that would arise when many of these visitors fly back to their home states and countries.
Though Disney is moving quickly, it is not in the first wave of theme park reopenings in Florida. Universal Studios Orlando will open on June 5, providing enough time for Disney to adjust methods or scrap plans if that situation unfolds poorly.
No new tickets will be sold for the time being, Smith said; the company would focus on honoring existing tickets and reservations before selling new tickets.
Tens of thousands of Disney employees have been out of work since the parks shut down in mid-March as the virus began to spread. With the parks closed, Disney is expected to show a huge revenue drop-off for the quarter that ends in June.
The new plans do not include any of Disney’s parks in California, which remain closed. State officials there continue to debate the best way to restart business in the state, with a health official this week saying the current pace of reopening poses a “very serious risk.”