Disneyland’s Wild Reopening Ride

The still-ongoing saga of Disneyland’s reopening has been a wild ride beyond even the deepest fantasies of Mr. Toad. The State of California and Disney have been locked in a bitter and dramatic standoff, that only seems to intensify as time goes on. We haven’t reported on every twist and turn in our When Will Disneyland Reopen? post, but thought we’d bring you up to speed on the major plot points with a timeline here. (Scroll to “The Last Month-ish” or “The Last Week” depending upon your familiarity with the series of events.)

For those who have not been following the saga, it truly is a wild ride, so buckle up. Disney announced Official Reopening Dates & Details for Disneyland Resort back over the summer. Among other things, that plan indicated that Disneyland & Disney California Adventure would reopen on July 17 and two of the hotels would debut on July 23. Obviously, that never happened, or you wouldn’t be reading this story.

California subsequently saw a spike in new cases, causing Governor Newsom to pause reopening plans. Consequently, Disneyland Indefinitely Delayed Reopening Plans and in that announcement issued a passive-aggressive dig, blaming the State of California for not approving its plans, while praising local unions with whom Disney had previously been butting heads. In retrospect, that statement precipitated much of the stalemate between the parties, which has only accelerated in the months since…

With outdoor dining and shopping being among the exceptions to California’s reopening “pause,” Downtown Disney did reopen as planned. Restaurants resumed outdoor seating and physical distancing and retail locations instituted a mobile wait list system to manage the number of guests shopping.

Even operating as a shadow of its normal self (which honestly isn’t that impressive at 100%), Downtown Disney saw–and continues to see–a ton of pent-up demand that undoubtedly foreshadows that Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will face. On some weekends, parking at Downtown Disney has filled to capacity—although that’s deceptive given that only a small surface parking lot is open. (We have full details about all of this in our Guide to Downtown Disney at Disneyland.)

Seeing no end in sight to the closure, other theme parks got creative and adapted to the circumstances. Knott’s Berry Farm reopened without rides for a series of incredibly popular foodie events, with more scheduled for this month. Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo reopened the animal-only Marine World Experience with reduced capacity.

However, by late summer the trajectory of cases in Southern California began trending downward, even taking into account a minor blip resulting from Labor Day. (The Los Angeles Times has a good tracker.) The statewide positivity rate began consistently decreasing, as did new cases, and positivity rates. These developments meant the state could “unpause” its reopening plans.

The Last Month-ish

At the end of August, Governor Newsom unveiled California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy. The new system placed each county into four color-coded tiers – purple, red, orange and yellow – based on positivity rates and cases per 100,000 residents in their communities. (Full details here.)

By early September, Orange County had been upgraded to the red tier of the state’s red tier, allowing more businesses to reopen and at higher capacities. That allowed a variety of businesses, including museums, zoos, aquariums, and restaurants to resume their indoor operations at 25% capacity. Outdoor operations were previously allowed. (Full details here.)

However, as California had not included guidelines for theme parks (each business sector has its own rules based on its inherent risk levels) the recurring question in Governor Newsom’s press conferences became, “when will Disneyland and other theme parks be able to open?”

Variants of that question were asked repeatedly, and in response, Governor Newsom gave variants of “we’re working on it” and “soon” as answers. He additionally indicated that he had been meeting with theme park industry leaders, and that progress was being made and guidelines for theme park reopening would be released.

Nothing had happened by mid-September, at which point groups began publicly appealing to Governor Newsom, likely at the behest of Disney.

Multiple trade organizations representing amusement & theme parks, unions that represent employees working in the parks, state and local politicians, and other interested parties began pleading with California to issue reopening guidelines for theme parks.

Following this barrage of third party pushes, Disneyland President Ken Potrock issued a statement of his own, saying that Disney was “disappointed with the state’s lack of progress in providing the industry with guidance and clarity on reopening.” Adding that Disney has proven the company “can operate responsibly, with strict health and safety protocols” at properties around the world, including Anaheim’s Downtown Disney.

Potrock went on to state that tens of thousands of people’s livelihoods depend on Disneyland’s ability to operate and that Disney stands ready and willing to accelerate discussions with the Governor and his team to make ‘real progress’ toward reopening and getting people back to work.

A few days later, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu delivered two emphatic pleas for Governor Newsom to release reopening guidelines. At a Reopen OC Now press conference, he decried the state’s delay: “It’s a disaster right here! All the businesses are closed. How long are you going to keep us closed? Give us the guidelines!”

As a subsequent Anaheim City Council meeting, Sidhu said, “our city faces a $100 million deficit,” which he attributes to Disneyland being closed since March. Sidhu argued that the decision should be that of the Orange County Health Care Agency, and that Walt Disney World’s successful reopening proves that Disney will implement and responsibly enforce safe reopening rules.

Sidhu went on to clarify: “This is not reopening Disneyland for Disney’s sake…it’s for hundreds of small businesses, tens of thousands of jobs. That is why I’m personally inviting Governor Newsom, who I have praised since day one of this crisis, to come to Anaheim.”

Then on last Monday, several state lawmakers sent a letter to Governor Newsom requesting that he issue reopening guidelines for theme parks.

In response, Dr. Mark Ghaly, California’s top health official, said: “We’re working hard to get that out in a responsible way as soon as possible. We’re working with those industries to put out something that’s thoughtful…to ensure those activities are done responsibly.”

This standoff reached its crescendo exactly one week ago…

The Last Week

On Tuesday, the Walt Disney Company announced that it would be laying off 28,000 Cast Members at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. In a press release, Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products attributed the layoffs to the prolonged economic uncertainty and to emerge as a more effective and efficient operation when things return to normal.

In the opening lines of that layoff press release, the Walt Disney Company also stated that the layoffs were “exacerbated in California by the State’s unwillingness to lift restrictions that would allow Disneyland to reopen.” As Disney’s layoffs of 28,000 employees made international news–and that line with it–this only further heightened tensions between Disney and California.

The following night, rumors started swirling that Governor Newsom was imminently going to release guidelines for theme parks to reopen. This quickly gained a lot of traction, as there were specific details that seemed plausible and consistent with the other reopening guidelines (25% cap on attendance, face masks required, etc.) plus a restriction that admission be limited to guests residing in a 120 mile radius of each theme park.

The mileage restriction itself was controversial among theme park fans, as well as hospitality industry associations and trade groups. That’s particularly true for those in Anaheim, where there has been an explosion of hotel development since Cars Land opened ~8 years ago. It should go without saying, but local Annual Passholders and day guests aren’t booking hotel rooms. However, the worst was yet to come.

What that leak did not include was a tier requirement for the aforementioned guidelines. It was widely assumed to be the red tier, as that would match other businesses at that risk level. After all, theme parks have characteristics of museums, aquariums, restaurants, and stores. Red thus makes sense for those limitations, albeit with the more stringent mileage requirement tacked on.

However, as more information trickled out, it became clear that the draft guidelines were not for the red tier. They were for the yellow tier, which reflects a “minimal” risk level and allows most businesses to fully reopen with modifications. (There is no green tier–yellow is lowest.) Essentially, that’s where Florida is right now in terms of its reopening status despite California’s objectively-superior numbers.

As this became clear last Thursday, representatives from the governor’s office and California Department of Public Health indicated that theme park guidelines had been established and would be unveiled at the following afternoon’s press conference. In response, the California Attractions and Parks Association released a statement urging California not to finalize a draft of the reopening guidance that the association saw earlier that day.

Later that same afternoon, a Disney spokesperson told the Sacramento Bee that Walt Disney Company chairman Bob Iger had quit Governor Newsom’s economic recovery task force. While Disney would not say why or precisely when Iger left the task force, it was pretty obvious given the timing.

The following day, rather than issuing the stringent theme park guidelines, Governor Newsom agreed to delay. California’s Health Director Dr. Mark Ghaly said: “Given the size and operational complexities of these unique sectors, we are seeking additional input from health, workforce and business stakeholders to finalize this important framework — all leading with science and safety.”

Governor Newsom has held press conferences since, and even been questioned about reopening dates for theme parks and Disneyland specifically. He’s thus far avoided answering those questions. Additionally, Dr. Ghaly stated that there’s “no promise of a specific date” for new reopening guidelines.

Finally, just today the Orange County Health Care Agency has recommended the state allow Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, and Knott’s Berry Farm to reopen once Orange County moves into the moderate tier of California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy guidelines.

As noted above, Orange County is presently in the substantial tier. If current downward trends hold, Orange County could be moved into the moderate tier by October 20, 2020.

That pretty much catches us up to where things presently stand. It’s difficult for us to view this objectively and at arm’s length. Assuming for the sake of argument that the 120 mile radius limitation is in the final rules (which we think would be devastating for Anaheim’s hospitality businesses outside of Disney), we’d effectively be precluded from visiting. Without that self-interest to bias our judgment, we still found the draft guidelines to be overly burdensome and frankly, a bit arbitrary and capricious.

If using California’s stated “risk of activity” perspective, there is little difference between Disneyland and an indoor museum (for once, Disneyland is basically a museum!). To the contrary, much more of Disneyland operates outdoors or in ventilated settings where the likelihood of transmission is lower. The highest risk activity at Disneyland whenever the parks do reopen will be indoor dining, which is already allowed in standalone restaurants throughout Orange County.

Moreover, Disney has demonstrated the efficacy of its safety measures–and commitment to them–in literally every other park the company has already reopened around the globe. It thus seems a bit extreme and perhaps punitive to not allow theme parks to reopen until counties reach the yellow tier. Given the onerous requirements of the minimal risk level, it’s quite plausible that Disneyland will not reopen until 2021 if the draft guidelines end up being what’s implemented by the State of California.

If you’re preparing for a Disneyland trip, check out our other planning posts, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, tips for booking a hotel (off-site or on-site), where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland Vacation Planning Guide!


Do you think Disneyland Resort will reopen in time for the Christmas season, or is Spring 2021 the more likely/best case at this point? Do you agree with Disney or the State of California–or can you empathize with both sides? Think the mileage restriction will be in the final draft? What’s your predicted timeframe for reopening? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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