Disneyland Unlikely to Reopen Before Summer 2021 Under New California Rules

In this afternoon’s weekly public health report and update on California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy reopening progress, Dr. Mark Ghaly released theme park guidelines. In this post, we’ll share the details of these plans, why the parks are unlikely to open until Summer 2021 under these rules, and offer a recap of what’s happening in the last week in the ongoing saga of Disney v. California.

We aren’t going to detail the whole dispute here, just what has happened since Governor Newsom indicated that California would send a team to other states to inspect their health & safety measures. Disneyland’s Wild Reopening Ride is worth the read if you want the full backstory of the drama. We’ve also offered best & worst case predictions for dates in When Will Disneyland Reopen?

Only yesterday, Governor Newsom said he remains “stubborn on a health-first data-driven process that is done with our eyes widen open [to] avoid any further increase in transmissions.” These have become common refrains from Newsom, who has also repeatedly said the theme park guidelines are coming “very soon” for the last two months…

Before that, California sent its “strike team” to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando last week to inspect those operations. In a statement to the OC Register, California Health and Human Services spokesperson Kate Folmar stated that California health officials visited the theme parks two weeks ago, independently of operators, to assess the health safeguards in practice.

So not really a strike team, but a surprise raid sounds more exciting than a bunch of experts meticulously analyzing and inspecting operations.

Then, over the weekend there was the “Open Disneyland” rally in Anaheim outside the main entrance on Harbor Boulevard. This drew a crowd of about 20 people and, judging by the coverage we saw on the Los Angeles news, consisted mostly of hardcore fans.

Frankly, this probably did more harm than good for the reopening “cause.” I’m not sure why so many adult Disney fans are hellbent on reinforcing the negative stereotypes about us, but stuff like this does not help. Perception and messaging matters, and there are bad ways of expressing valid viewpoints.

Fortunately, business leaders and local unions have also continued to opine on the topic, making clear that the ongoing closure has sweeping economic ramifications for Southern California. Yesterday, the Coalition of Resort Labor Unions sent a letter to Governor Newsom, asserting that “a path exists where Disneyland would be able to open safely when Orange County moves into the Orange tier.”

This is significant because previously this same coalition criticized Disneyland over the summer and indicated that the unions were then not convinced that it was safe to reopen the parks on Disney’s timetable. According to the union coalition’s letter, “since then, Disney has taken safety measures we advocated, and engaged with their workers representatives, [and] our original position has changed. The company has provided detail on serious measures to protect workers via social distancing, providing PPE, addressing ventilation, and more. Most recently, the company unveiled a testing program, something we highlighted in our last letter to you.”

The letter was signed by leaders from 7 unions representing Disneyland Resort Cast Members: Workers United Local 50, Unite Here Local 11, International Union Local 83, Independent Employee Service Association, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 324, American Federation of Musicians Local 7, and International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 504.

In addition to endorsing Disneyland’s reopening plan, the union leaders urged California’s task force to meet with representatives of the resort workers as part of the process. They contended that the effectiveness of public health agencies would benefit from coordination with worker representatives that have practical knowledge and expertise regarding the challenges of addressing exposure risks.

While the parties have met in the middle and Disney has addressed some of the unions legitimate concerns, part of the about-face by the unions is undoubtedly due to the layoffs of 28,000 Disney Cast Members in California and Florida. Keep in mind that there are plenty more indirect job losses; Anaheim has hundreds of hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that are dependent upon travel and tourism.

While we’ve been critical of Disney’s antagonistic tone towards California in the last few months, the layoffs have no doubt been exacerbated by Disneyland’s ongoing closure. (Again, messaging matters…and we can’t help but wonder whether some of this standoff could’ve been avoided had Disney attempted to diffuse tensions rather than escalate them.)

Just yesterday, over 1,300 additional Disneyland attractions Cast Members were laid off, including in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Thus far, Disneyland accounts for nearly 30% of the layoffs. That number might seem low, but there are a couple of things to consider.

First, Disneyland employs far fewer of the domestic theme park Cast Members than Walt Disney World. Second, once Disneyland is back up and running, it will be better poised for success than Walt Disney World, thanks to its comparative lack of hotels and local visitor demographics. In reality, the layoffs are disproportionately impacting the California parks at this point.

During today’s weekly public health press conference, California Health and Human Services Secretary Dr. Mark Ghaly unveiled the state’s reopening guidelines for theme parks. During this, he offered guidance for both theme parks and live professional sporting events at outdoor stadiums.

Dr. Ghaly discussed the observations from the tours of theme parks in Florida, including many practices that were reassuring along with others that were “random.”

During this, Dr. Ghaly identified some of the potential problem points with theme parks, including some factors that made them higher risk settings than outdoor stadiums. We aren’t going to rehash all of that–you can read the above slide from the presentation.

The bottom-line concern is that theme parks present a greater likelihood of outbreaks in California, particularly among a wider geographic base of visitors. (That was emphasized repeatedly during the presentation.)

Consequently, the long-awaited release of the theme park reopening guidelines are exactly what was leaked a few weeks ago that both Disney and Universal implored California to reconsider.

These are definitely not what those companies, local politicians, unions, or other businesses had in mind when urging California to release theme park reopening guidelines.

Here are the specifics of the theme park reopening rules…

Moderate (orange):

  • Smaller parks can open with modifications
  • Capacity must be limited to 25% or 500 people, whichever is less
  • Outdoor attractions only can open
  • Reservations required
  • Local attendees only (from the same county as the park’s location)

Minimal (yellow):

  • Larger parks can open with modifications
  • Park capacity must be limited to 25%
  • Reservations required

Here’s additional guidance for California theme parks and amusement parks.

This guidance includes additional considerations for:

  • Admission, entry, and security
  • All rides and attractions
  • Dining and concessions
  • Performances, interactive exhibits, and events
  • Uniform, costume, and wardrobe protocols

All of this means that Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Universal Studios Hollywood cannot open until their respective counties (Orange and Los Angeles) hit the yellow or minimal tier. As we’ve said previously, that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. Realistically, this means Disneyland and DCA almost certainly won’t reopen until 2021.

More on the why of that as we cover California’s tier system and where Orange County presently stands…

Theme park reopening guidelines are relatively meaningless in isolation–what matters is how they square with California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy reopening plan and (in the case of Disneyland) Orange County’s status within those tiers. Right now, things aren’t looking so great.

Orange County is still in the red or widespread tier, which is where it has been since being upgraded after Labor Day. (No progress in over a month.) At that point, Orange County was trending in the right direction, really close to the orange or substantial tier. Since then, the county’s numbers have essentially plateaued, and the introduction of the “health equity” metric actually put Orange County further away from its goal than it was back in early September.

At this point, the earliest Orange County can enter the orange/substantial tier is November 3, 2020 based on the current requirement that a county qualify for the next tier for two weeks before moving into it. However, that is incredibly unrealistic given the recent trajectory of numbers. Orange County would essentially need to immediately improve its numbers by a significant amount. That’s not even remotely feasible.

More likely, Orange County won’t enter the orange/substantial tier until mid to late November or December 2020. That’s the best case scenario. The worst case scenario is the county not meeting that goal by then, there being a post-Thanksgiving spike, and Orange County remaining in the red tier until early 2021.

As for the yellow tier, it’s way too early to say, but January 2021 is almost certainly the best case scenario for that. Once Orange County is able to enter the orange/substantial tier, it’ll need to stay there for 3 weeks under California’s rules before even being eligible to move up to the yellow/minimal tier.

So there’s still an outside chance of Disneyland getting the green light at some point in December 2020, but that’s highly unlikely given where things stand and have gone thus far. More likely, Disneyland Resort won’t reopen until Spring 2021 under the current rules.

Even a Spring 2021 reopening for Disneyland and Disney California Adventure might be overly optimistic.

Per Dr. Clayton Chau, Director of the Orange County Health Care Agency, “it’s going to be very hard to achieve the yellow tier” due to Orange County’s size, number of universities, and interstate commerce. He thinks Orange County can look forward to yellow tier by Summer 2021 “hopefully.”

UPDATE: Disneyland Resort has released the above statement about California’s theme park reopening guidelines. Pretty unsurprising, but worth adding here nonetheless. Something tells me the Disney v. California saga is far from over.

With that said, it’s also entirely possible that California modifies or relaxes its reopening tiers between now and Spring 2021; this ultimately comes down to striking the right balance between different types of health. While California keeps stressing health and data, at some point the economic data and long-term ramifications are going to be too dire to ignore. We can’t help but think that here, messaging and perception are mattering a bit too much to California and Governor Newsom. As always, it’s a delicate balance and we’re happy to not be the ones making these tough decisions.

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!


What are your thoughts on California’s theme and amusement park reopening guidelines? Is this too stringent, or appropriate given the circumstances? Think this means we’ll soon get an announcement from Disney soon regarding this news? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions? 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!

104 Responses to “Disneyland Unlikely to Reopen Before Summer 2021 Under New California Rules”
  1. John Areiter March 2, 2021

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *