In what appears to be a coordinated move, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort announced within hours of one another the dropping of one health safety measure, while Universal took that a step further with the relaxation of another. In this post, we’ll offer a rundown of the changes, when they’ll occur, and what else might be the on the horizon–and when.
Then came the recommendation from the Florida Department of Health that businesses within the county no longer need to perform temperature checks on guests prior to entry. The Orange County Department of Health Director Dr. Raul Pino said too many places are wasting resources on something that “makes no difference.” Based on these county-level recommendations, our expectation was policy changes from Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World in the coming weeks…
“We’re excited to enhance your Universal experience with the latest safety updates from local health and government officials. There are no more temperature checks upon entry. And Social Distancing between travel parties is now reduced to three feet (1 meter). Still, most of our original safety protocols remain unchanged–from wearing face coverings across our Resort to our ongoing dedication to cleanliness and sanitization.”
For its part, Walt Disney World announced on its “Reopening & Update Experiences” the dropping of one health safety measure: “Since reopening, we have considered guidance from public health authorities, government agencies, and our own team of health and safety experts as we assess and update health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.”
“As this guidance continues to evolve, and with the support of local health and government officials, we are making some additional adjustments. Following the advice of the CDC and our local health officials, we will phase out onsite temperature screenings at Walt Disney World Resort for Cast Members beginning May 8 and Guests on May 16.”
Walt Disney World indicates it will “continue to follow the guidance of health and safety leaders going forward and most importantly encourage people to get vaccinated.” This is the second time in only a few days that Walt Disney World has publicly encouraged guests to get vaccinated, which is great to see.
As we pointed out previously, vaccine hesitancy comes in many forms and to varying degrees. Some people are unlikely to be persuaded; many others are simply on the fence, waiting to hear from voices they trust, like friends, family, or even their favorite theme parks. I got the shot because my personal hero, Jason Alexander, did. (Never mind the fact that he was vaccinated after me; that’s neither here nor there.)
In terms of commentary, both of these are solid moves in my view. Temperature checks are one of many things Walt Disney World has been doing in the name of “safety” that we’ve been deriding as “hygiene theater.” They’ve always been a waste of money that was not effective at much of anything except giving guests comfort. Even last year, the consensus was that they offered minor mitigative benefits at best, and an emboldening illusion of safety at worst.
Physical distancing is a bit of a different story. Nevertheless, we need an off-ramp for returning to normal as vaccination rates increase, cases/positivity/hospitalizations/deaths drop, and risk is objectively lower.
Even if you’re exclusively a Walt Disney World fan, Universal Orlando’s changes are noteworthy. As with traditional security, the health protocol plans developed by all Central Florida theme parks have been collaborative in nature. While some diehard fans of both Disney and Universal project their own aspersions and view the companies in an oddly adversarial light, that doesn’t reflect reality.
While competitors, it’s also true that Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando both exist in the same community and engage with one another and the same local leaders. In the past, we’ve seen identical changes and policies rolled out simultaneously at the two resort complexes, including 5 years ago when both (plus SeaWorld) installed enhanced security infrastructure overnight.
There have been some diverging approaches between Universal and Disney on the health safety front, but 95% of their rules and protocol have ended up being identical. This is not coincidence.
The main difference in the last year has been that Universal Orlando has been more nimble and faster moving than Walt Disney World in making changes. They’ve essentially offered a couple of weeks’ sneak peek at policies Disney would later implement. We’d expect the same here with 3′ physical distancing.
On that note, the Walt Disney Company has its fiscal second quarter 2021 financial results webcast on May 13, 2021. A portion of this is usually devoted to forward-looking expectations, with positive changes emphasized to create optimism among investors. That earnings call would present the perfect opportunity for Disney to announce plans to relax physical distancing and increase attendance.
As we’ve pointed out ad nauseam, physical distancing is Disney’s biggest impediment to profitability. Don’t be surprised if CFO Christine McCarthy points to several “tailwinds” for Walt Disney World during the summer travel season, including safely increasing attendance thanks to higher capacity caps.
Of course, what’s good for the theme park operators is not always what’s good for the guests. It’s a given that Universal Orlando will raise its attendance limits as a result of this move. What’s not clear is how this will impact physical distancing on attractions, and whether the two increases will be proportionate to one another.
Our guess is that they will not. While most rides are not operating at or close to 100% efficiency, distancing on many attractions already has been reduced significantly since last summer. It’s unlikely ride efficiency can be increased right now to a sufficient degree to offset the attendance uptick.
Our expectation is that the length of lines will decrease, posted wait times will remain more or less unchanged, and actual wait times (which are often ~75% of posted wait times) will elevate slightly. It’s also entirely possible that many weekdays demand will be more of a limiting factor on attendance going forward than the park capacity caps.
One way reduced physical distancing would be mutually beneficial to park operators and guests is at restaurants. Decreasing table spacing and seating more people could relieve some of the burden on dining reservations, so long as those restaurants are sufficiently staffed to fill more tables (which may not be the case). Thus, whether this change is a net positive or negative for guests will depend in large part upon when you visit, what you do, etc.
Ultimately, regardless of whether or when Walt Disney World officially reduces physical distancing to three feet, that has become the de facto standard for most guests. One of the things we’ve stressed repeatedly is the importance of a pragmatic approach to health safety protocol, and the need for both health officials and businesses to comport with public expectations. Again, being fully vaccinated is effectively the end of this for most people, and they’ll behave accordingly without regard to what some marker on the ground says.
At some point, some of these measures and rules amount to Walt Disney World trying to swim upstream. In our view, that point has been reached with trying to enforce 6′ physical distancing. Making 3′ the official rule now would be advantageous for both Walt Disney World and guests, and should facilitate the return of more substantive offerings and be a big stride towards normalcy. It would also likely mean higher wait times in the short term, but that’s totally worth it for us as this is the roadblock for many other positive changes and the return of things we’re anxiously awaiting.
Any predictions on if or when Walt Disney World will reduce physical distancing? Would you view that move as a net positive or negative in returning to normal? Thoughts on both Universal and Disney dropping temperature checks? Do you think they were doing any good, or are viewed as a hassle at this point? Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about efficacy, politics, and so forth—all such comments will be deleted, irrespective of perspective. You are not going to change anyone’s mind via the comments section on this blog, nor are you going to change Disney’s rules or public policy. If you wish to contest this, rather than yelling into the internet abyss, have your voice heard in a meaningful way by contacting Disney or your local elected officials.