Well, COVID happened! Almost overnight the leisure industry shut down for 3 or more moths. What we thought was an impossibility suddenly became a jarring reality. People now want to know when Florida theme parks will be open for business again, desperate for some relief. The short answer at the moment is nobody really knows. When they do open, necessary restrictions will mean the theme parks are going to be operating differently from that of 2019 and before. Here are 7 changes coming to Florida theme parks U.K. visitors should be aware of.
Florida Governor Ron DeSantis chaired a ‘Re-Open Florida Task Force’ meeting late last month that outlined some details that businesses including theme park operators will need to implement before they can reopen. Looking at those proposals gives us a glimpse at some of the changes that will need to be made by park operators once they are allowed to open.
Disney’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Pam Hymel, has even taken to the Disney Parks Blog to list what Disney is doing as it prepares to open resorts worldwide starting with Shanghai Disney today. Today we take some educated guesses as to what you can expect on your next visit to Disney World, Universal or Seaworld based on what operators have said while taking local policies into account.
The task force has recommended that big park operators such as Disney and Universal cap the attendance when they first re-open their gates. In Florida, this will start at 50%. Disney and Universal will likely start out much lower than 50% and gradually ramp up the attendance levels over several weeks.
Shanghai Disney is currently capped at 30%. In many ways, we can look at Shanghai Disney as a blueprint for what is likely going to happen at other Disney parks as they begin phased re-openings. Disney Springs is reportedly opening some locations as early as 20th May. This would be along the same timeline as Shanghai Disneyland that opened some retail locations 6 weeks before the main park opened. Remember, don’t take this as a guarantee that the main parks will open in July, but it’s a positive sign.
How do you guarantee that everybody turning up will be able to get in the park if attendance is reduced? In the short term, Disney, Universal and Seaworld will require everybody to reserve the day of their visit in advance. You won’t be able to turn up at the gates on the day without a reservation. Your ticket may even have a time slot attached to avoid overcrowding at the gates. This will also apply to annual pass holders who will have to book a date before turning up.
For at least a few weeks to months, after they open, you are going to have to set out what you want to do and stick to your plan. Nothing has been said about park hopping which is included with every U.K. bought ticket. It’s possible that park operators may temporarily put a stop to park hopping until capacity can be increased enough for daily reservations to not be needed.
To manage crowds and ensure a safe working environment for staff you shouldn’t expect every park to be open at the same time. Openings are likely going to be staggered while other parks may remain closed. Water parks are the main contender here. They aren’t set up to easily social distance people. With the way that COVID-19 spreads they could become a hotbed for cross-contamination. We would be surprised to see water parks opening for the rest of this year at the very least.
Main parks won’t be immune either. Of the parks that open you may see staggered opening times to give maintenance staff the time they need to get everything ready safely. Attractions are likely going to have staggered opening and closing times but may also shut down temporarily for cleaning with little warning.
Your new favourite friend could be the park app on your phone which will become the hub of up to date information on park hours, ride closures and expected wait times. Disney here is light years ahead of other operators with the My Disney Experience app. Other operators are catching up quickly though adding functionality to give the public timely information they will be demanding on their visits from now on.
Download Park Apps Before You Arrive
Bye Bye Buffet (For Now)
Buffets are a big part of the theme park economy. They are very profitable for park operators. But you can say goodbye to buffet menus both in the parks and at resort hotels for the foreseeable future. This is because of the potential of cross-contamination. Quite how this will affect Disney Dining Plan holders hasn’t been laid out. Disney could add in some non-buffet restaurants in the short term but nothing has been confirmed by the company as yet.
Theme parks will also have to re-arrange the seating plans for all their restaurants to keep to social distancing guidelines. For the time being the bottom line will take a back seat to public safety. Extra staff will likely be required to serve guests at tables to limit the number of people walking around. You can expect longer wait times at restaurants thanks to more rigorous cleaning regimes being brought in.
Cross-contamination will also have an effect in your hotel rooms. Ice buckets, cups and glasses will not be available in the short term.
Maximum Group Sizes
This will affect larger family groups but for the most part, you shouldn’t notice a difference. People in queues could be limited to family units of no more than 4.
This is to keep queue lines manageable and stop them from spilling out over the streets and also to avoid cross-contamination. This rule also makes sure that everybody in the park has a fair shot of getting on the ride.
Parades & Fireworks
They form the backbone of many park visits. Disney, in particular, are renowned for their daily parades and nightly fireworks but they cannot be expected to continue in the old fashion probably at least for the rest of this year but likely for longer.
The question for park management is how on earth do you enforce social distancing for parades and fireworks should they go ahead? The answer may be a reservation system much like Fastpass+. People trying to watch without a reservation will be moved on. Disney could enforce strict viewing areas, taped so everybody knows where to stand with marshals to enforce the rules.
There are also backstage considerations to make. Can something as dangerous as fireworks be set up safely while still being socially distant? Can supporting members help set up the parades safely and is there enough space backstage for all the cast to maintain social distancing?
It really is a tough decision for park operators, especially Disney. Do you temporarily put on hold one of the most iconic reasons to visit your park or do you somehow limit the amount of people to see it. They are in an impossible situation either way. Personally we can’t see parades or fireworks happanening in the short term but if they can find a way to make it happen they will, just don’t bank on it for your visit.
Meet & Greet Differences
Another iconic visit to any theme park, but again, especially Disney. How are character Meet and Greet situations going to evolve? We can’t see them being put on hold but they will likely be limited in choice and there are going to be some potentially unwelcome changes coming to keep them open.
Meet and greet opportunities have become phenomenally popular in recent years. Lines for Elsa, Mickey, Minnie, Shrek etc. can be longer than for some popular e-ticket attractions.
Social distancing is the main bugbear here. That lovely photo of your child with one or more of their favourite characters caught on camera for when they turn 18 is not going to happen in the short to medium term. Cast members in Shanghai have received training on “contactless interaction”. You can be absolutely sure that this will also be the case in all Florida Parks when they reopen. Everybody will have to keep their distance so you can still get a photo. Photos will be a lot less personal than they have been, at least in the short to medium term.
Cleaning of the areas will keep queues long, particularly for popular characters. An online reservation system could be applied to keep queues manageable and short enough they don’t overtake their area. Everybody will be looking towards Shanghai Disney’s recent reopening to see how they manage it going forward. Lessons learned there will be applied to other parks around the world when they eventually reopen.
Indoor Attractions & Shows
Indoor attractions are very popular in Florida. Their air conditioning provides a respite from the oppressive heat in the summer and they become the go-to attractions in the early afternoon once the summer downpours arrive. Ride interactivity though brings more headaches. How can you socially distance people in a car on Simpsons The Ride or Buzz Lightyears Space Ranger Spin?
Shanghai Disney is starting out with only outdoor attractions open but Disney World has a much larger contingent of indoor attractions. They are simply going to have to come up with a strategy of how to open certain attractions. Can you imagine a visit to Disney without going on Pirates Of The Caribbean or taking a spin through the Haunted Mansion? It wouldn’t be Disney!
Limiting people in ride vehicles is almost given. Expect middle seats to be a no go area. Or perhaps only 1 family unit per ride car. While this will extend wait times and reduce capacity it can be the only responsible way to deal with keeping an attraction open.
Another drain on capacity will be cleaning routines. Ride vehicles are likely going to have to be given the once over by ride operators between riders (also known as a ride cycle). For popular rides like The Haunted Mansion, this is going to lead to very long queues that will have to be managed probably by limiting the number of people that are allowed to enter.
Of course, interactive attractions like Men In Black at Universal Studios will likely require cleaning of the laser pistols between each ride cycle as well as the seats themselves. So, when you’re standing in a line that isn’t moving spare a thought for all the people working really hard behind the scenes to keep everything working as fast, and safe as they can.
Bonus Thought: What About Getting There?
Unlike the locals, visiting Disney World for us Brits involves a 9 hour transatlantic flight. Goverment measures currently in place mean nobody from our little rock will be visiting Disney World in a hurry.
U.S. borders are still closed to international visitors. Even if they weren’t, and some flights were operating, yesterdays announcement by the prime minister of mandatory isolation for people arriving into the U.K. will scupper summer holidays for many this year.
The two flagship carriers for Orlando, BA and Virgin Atlantic, are struggling, like many airlines. They have announced thousands of redundancies. Both airlines, potentially, could exit from Gatwick completely. Gatwick historically has been the main hub for flights to Orlando, along with Manchester which will still be operating. So where does that leave those of us wanting to visit Orlando?
Rest assured there will be flights but perhaps not with quite the frequency that there was pre Coronavirus. Virgin has consigned its ageing entire 747 fleet to the airline scrapyard. This will help its cash flow in the short term but with replacement planes not expected until 2021 they need to find replacements from within the existing shrinking fleet. Not to mention finding staff to man the flights having reportedly laid off over 3000 staff. BA, meanwhile, may look to get rid of as many as 12000 staff.
We will still find flights when we are able to travel freely but you can expect flight prices to be more expensive thanks to not so many seats being available. Orlando is a popular destination from Britain but the days of 3 times daily flights to Orlando could be numbered. At least in the short to medium term as airlines look to save costs wherever possible.
We have all been through a once in a lifetime experience. We still don’t know when any of the Orlando parks outside Shanghai will open. We are fighting an invisible foe and things are unlikely to return to ‘normal’ until we can find a vaccine. This is not going to be for at least a few months coming into years. Park operators want to open as soon as it is safe to do so and for that, in Florida at least, they need to follow guidelines from the task force.
Until we have a vaccine you should expect your theme park visits, not just to Florida, but anywhere, to be different. Visits to some of the happiest places on earth are likely going to be surrounded by short tempers, long queues and reduced options.
The fluid situation we find ourselves in requires a fluid response. What may be the case for one park may not be so for another. Local laws have to be observed. Disney World now is accepting reservations from July but that is likely only going to be for locals. Don’t take July as a given, just a best guess scenario. After yesterdays announcement, it’s doubtful that U.K. visitors to Orlando will be able to visit this side of the summer holidays. You should be planning for the autumn at the earliest and on arrival don’t expect things to be as normal for quite a few months.
But there is one thing that Disney, Universal et al provide to all of us in these uncertain times. Relief from the mundanity of being cooped up for weeks and a belief that things can get back to normal. Or whatever the new normal is going forward.
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