By Erich Schwartzel and R.T. Watson
Langley Roby, a 38-year-old teacher, counts traveling to Walt
Disney World in her mother's womb as her first visit to the theme
park in Orlando, Fla. Her mother was six months pregnant, but that
didn't stop her from riding Space Mountain, says Ms. Roby.
Ms. Roby's next visit to Disney World may end up being even more
unusual. Ms. Roby, from Owensboro, Ky., plans to arrive at the park
early Thursday morning to be among the first guests welcomed back
into the Magic Kingdom since the coronavirus pandemic closed its
gates in March.
"It's never going to be cleaner than it is that day," said Ms.
Roby, who said she has visited Disney World about 40 times. "I feel
like it will honestly be a safer environment than just going to the
grocery [store] or any place local because Disney has so much on
Walt Disney Co. is counting on die-hard fans like Ms. Roby to
weigh the risks of traveling amid a pandemic and still decide to
head to the park. In the most crucial test yet of its ability to
resume operations while keeping consumers safe, Disney will begin
opening its flagship park in phases starting on Thursday and
continuing through July 15. Other theme parks have begun welcoming
visitors, but Disney World carries a symbolic pull, with its
closures and reopening plans serving as something of a barometer
for the economic resuscitation at large.
The timing is particularly fraught, though, as the number of
coronavirus cases in Florida reaches record levels. Disney is
introducing safety measures that will inevitably disrupt the
escapist environment of the Happiest Place on Earth.
Dozens of Florida hospitals have recently reported a surge in
admissions. Gov. Ron DeSantis has nonetheless encouraged Disney to
stay on course with the reopening plan it first announced in late
"We have to have society function," he said at a news conference
The park is open to annual passholders like Ms. Roby on Thursday
and Friday, with the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom areas opening
to the general public on July 11, followed by Epcot and Disney's
Hollywood Studios four days later.
Workers at Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., vocally opposed
Disney's plans to reopen there, culminating in a protest outside
the park and a consortium of unions pleading with California Gov.
Gavin Newsom to ask Disney to delay. The company ultimately did,
saying it couldn't reopen on schedule after state officials delayed
the release of theme-park safety guidelines.
Far less opposition has emerged among the Walt Disney World
workforce, though the company has faced pushback over plans to have
workers self-screen for coronavirus symptoms.
The Actors' Equity Association, which represents some performers
at the park, has called on Disney to postpone the opening as cases
in Florida rise. The performers' jobs make them particularly
vulnerable to contagion, the association said.
"It is deeply disturbing that while coronavirus cases in Florida
surge, Disney is refusing to provide regular testing to one of the
few groups of workers in the park who by the very nature of their
jobs, cannot use personal protective equipment," said Mary McColl,
executive director of Actors' Equity Association, in a
A Disney spokeswoman said Actors' Equity members won't be called
back to work during the phased reopening. "We regret that their
union hasn't accepted the safety protocols."
Disney is significantly reducing its capacity at the park, the
spokeswoman said. But any revenue that could help Disney break even
is welcome after months of closures that have cost the company
billions of dollars in revenue. A popular summer day at Walt Disney
World can attract more than 200,000 guests and generate tens of
millions of dollars in revenue, according to a former executive at
the parks. Disney World will have been closed for 118 days when it
reopens to the broad public on Saturday.
Essentially all parks employees have been furloughed since
April, and some have had such difficulty navigating Florida's
unemployment system that they have yet to receive a benefit check,
workers say. Others, however, have taken home two or three times
their regular income thanks to the extra $600 a week added by the
federal stimulus package.
Disney's parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong have already reopened,
allowing revenue to start flowing back to what had been the
company's fastest-growing division. In May, Disney said the
coronavirus had taken about $1 billion in revenue from its parks
division in the January-to-March quarter, when a majority of parks
were closed for only a few weeks. The scope of the problem is
expected to prove even bigger in August. The company will disclose
earnings from the following quarter, when the domestic parks were
shut down and the international locations only open for a limited
Many of the most iconic aspects of a trip to Disney World have
been reimagined for the Covid era. Carousel riders and monorail
travelers will complete their journeys at a distance from others.
Characters such as Cinderella or Gaston wave from balconies -- or
trot through the park on horses -- rather than walk the grounds,
pose for photos with guests and even hug them.
If workers see customers flouting the mandatory-mask rule, they
are to approach them with the same demeanor as when they see
someone smoking in a non-designated space, said Eric Clinton,
president of an Orlando union local whose members operate rides and
perform custodial work at the park. From there, things can escalate
to summoning security or making the guest leave the park.
Ms. Roby is packing extra masks for her group, including her
mother and sister. But she also has priorities beyond safety.
"We want to try and ride every single ride at Magic Kingdom,"
she said. "These are going to be the lowest lines we've ever
Write to Erich Schwartzel at email@example.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
July 08, 2020 15:05 ET (19:05 GMT)
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