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Florida’s theme parks are trying to salvage the summer, but visitors will find a very different experience

Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in Florida plan a phased reopening in July, pending approval from local and state authorities. (Matt Stroshane/Walt Disney World)
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Walt Disney Co. revealed plans to reopen its four theme parks in Florida in July with masks, temperature checks, smaller crowds and social distancing — and without the parades, fireworks spectaculars or character meet-and-greets that are typical hallmarks of the experience.

The entertainment giant will be the last of the major theme park operators to reopen in the Orlando area this summer; competitors Universal Studios Florida and SeaWorld Orlando both intend to welcome visitors in June.

“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," the company said in a statement.

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Disney said it planned to open its Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks to the public on July 11, followed by Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios on July 15. SeaWorld intends to open June 11, and Universal Orlando Resort has approval for a June 5 public reopening of its two theme parks and water park on June 5.

All closed in March as the fast-spreading coronavirus forced global destinations to shut down, dealing a major blow to a city that attracted 75 million visitors two years ago. According to an industry report, Central Florida is home to seven of the world’s 10 busiest theme parks, which drew an estimated combined attendance of 82 million people in 2018.

Executives from Walt Disney World Resort and SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment revealed their reopening plans, which must still be approved by Florida’s governor, at an economic recovery task force meeting in Orange County on Wednesday. Members of the task force unanimously approved the plans, and Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings endorsed both plans in letters to Gov. Ron DeSantis (R).

All three companies will require employees and guests to have their temperatures checked before entering and wear face coverings, a mandate that has already proved unpopular with some potential visitors when Disney and Universal opened retail and dining complexes this month.

Jim MacPhee, Walt Disney World’s senior vice president of operations, said during the presentation that the company’s “social distancing squad” had been encouraging visitors to keep their masks on, but that the company was looking at creating what he called relaxation zones, where people could take their masks off temporarily.

“All of our cast members and our social distancing squad understand the policy and are encouraging and persuading guests to ensure that they keep their masks on at all time,” he said.

Guests at all the resorts can expect smaller crowds, more hand-washing stations, contactless payment, lines structured to keep distance between people and minimal interaction with characters.

Disney said it will temporarily stop character meet-and-greets and parades as well as fireworks shows, all of which draw crowds. SeaWorld, which draws far fewer guests, said interactive elements of parades will be removed, and photo opportunities and character interaction will be modified so they happen at a distance.

Universal and SeaWorld have both said they will eliminate single-rider lines, where visitors who want a shorter wait can join other groups if there is space on the ride.

At Disney, a new theme park reservation system will be put in place to limit attendance; everyone who visits will have to lock down a reservation to enter in advance.

“We believe this thoughtful, methodical and phased ramp-up strategy for our property is the right path,” MacPhee said. “Together, we hope everyone will do their part to bring the magic of Walt Disney World back into this new environment.”

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