Governor Ron DeSantis held a Florida Theme Park Roundtable today with top leaders from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld…plus the manager of Toothsome Chocolate Emporium, for some reason (maybe they were the sponsor?). In this post, we’ll offer some key takeaways and commentary from the meeting.
The roundtable was broadcast on the Florida Channel; we joined a bit late, potentially missing key information (like why Toothsome was involved?) but it didn’t seem like a particularly info-dense or revelatory session. Essentially, DeSantis asked questions of Central Florida theme park leaders, with a brief Q&A that was cut short because–I kid you not–Professor Doctor Penelope Tibeaux-Tinker Toothsome interrupted the event to deliver milkshakes.
For the most part, the Florida Theme Park Roundtable was devoid of substance and didn’t really offer any insight into the specific forward-looking plans of Universal, SeaWorld, or Walt Disney World. We were hopeful that there’d be something offered on that front–perhaps a mention of holiday plans or discounting strategy. Nevertheless, here are some things we found interesting from the panel…
One message that was fairly pervasive: Visit Florida. It’s very, very safe for you to come and spend money at any of our state’s theme parks. All of the park leaders said that in one way or another, and the need to raise ‘awareness’ about the safety measures the parks are taking and their track records thus far.
This was essentially the salient point by the theme park reps: greater efforts should be undertaken to spread the “good word.” They feel that once that happens, more people will visit the state and each of the parks. Various leaders spoke to the frustrations and discomfort of being stuck at home, and posited that Florida could be marketed as the antidote to these troubling times.
Generally speaking, DeSantis was supportive of this, pointing to decreasing case numbers following the reopening of Walt Disney World and other parks. However, nothing particularly actionable was discussed–just that a better job could be done of marketing Florida as a destination and its theme parks as safe places.
It could just be the fairly superficial nature of the roundtable, but it struck us that leaders from all three parks identified the obvious issue with attracting visitors from out of state, but only addressed it as a marketing matter. We’re a bit too close to the topic to view it from an outsider’s perspective, but it’s very clear to us that messaging isn’t the sole barrier to better attendance. There are a number of reasons people are not booking theme park vacations right now, and marketing won’t overcome many or most of those.
In terms of specifics, only SeaWorld offered any concrete steps for enticing more guests to visit. Their interim CEO mentioned things they’ve learned while reopening based on guest feedback. This led SeaWorld to offer extended evening hours, adding fireworks and bringing back fan-favorite festivals with plans for more Halloween and Christmas events.
DeSantis was asked about the parks increasing capacity, and said that he would be comfortable with Walt Disney World, SeaWorld, and Universal allowing more guests to visit. There wasn’t a ton of specificity in this response, but he did point out that physical distancing requirements are less than 6 feet in some other countries.
We should note–and it was noted elsewhere in the panel–that capacity caps are not the limiting factor on attendance right now. Even if these parks removed all limits, there’s still a lack of organic demand. In fact, aside from a couple of weekends at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Walt Disney World has yet to run out of Disney Park Pass reservations (meaning all three buckets being empty–not just the AP one, which happens regularly). To our knowledge, Universal’s two theme parks and SeaWorld are not hitting capacity with any degree of regularity, either.
The first actual test of the Disney Park Pass system and park capacity might come over Labor Day weekend. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is fully booked for September 4-7, 2020 and other parks are nearing their reduced limits, too (except Magic Kingdom, which has availability all days of the long weekend for theme park ticket holders and resort guests).
In attempting to address issues with visitation, DeSantis spoke about travel restrictions. He noted that Florida originally didn’t allow visitors from certain states with higher numbers (a hot topic on our Quarantine Rules for Walt Disney World Travelers) and that there are intuitive but irrational fears surrounding air travel.
This dovetailed into DeSantis mentioning measures to allow and facilitate travel from Brazil, which has seen a drop in cases. I didn’t catch everything he said here, but it’s worth noting that in the past DeSantis has been delicate when discussing Brazil, undoubtedly recognizing the country as one of Florida’s biggest sources of international visitors.
Each of the parks also discussed what they were doing to bring back employees. Universal stated that they’ve brought back around 85-90% of full-time employees, but they also have a “vast supply” of part-time or seasonal employees and there currently are not opportunities for the vast majority to come back. Universal’s hope is that increasing visitation, park hours, and capacity, they can bring more employees back.
Walt Disney World indicated that with all four parks and many hotels up and operating, they’ve brought “tens of thousands” of Cast Members back, and hope to continue to do more as volume and demand increase moving forward. Otherwise, there wasn’t much discussion of unemployment measures, furloughs, or job assistance–all of which seems like a major oversight given the circumstances.
Personally, I found the most interesting portion of the roundtable to be the kind words exchanged between SeaWorld and Walt Disney World. They discussed their animal care and rescue efforts during the closure of Animal Kingdom and SeaWorld. Leaders for both noted that even though their respective parks were closed to visitors, they were continuing many of their normal animal operations and conservation initiatives.
SeaWorld specifically noted the birth of a baby manatee that had to be shared via social media. I missed this story when it happened back in May, so I was glad to hear about it now (see above video). Disney and SeaWorld emphasized that they were “collaborators, not competitors” during the closure.
Ultimately, the big thing that stuck out to me was reiterating that message of safety and that being a necessary first step to tourists returning. Theme park leaders all stressed this repeatedly, and it felt as if it’s a message they somehow want the State of Florida or some other third party to convey.
As we’ve noted in the past, Walt Disney World’s reticence to release general public discounts for fall and winter likely stems from the negative PR surrounding their reopening and a fear of backlash for “luring” tourists to what was previously a global hotspot. If this panel was any indication, these parks absolutely do want out-of-state tourists…but perhaps they don’t want to be the messengers that people should visit Florida?
Other than that (and even with that), nothing major was discussed. Honestly, I don’t know what I was expecting with this Florida Theme Park Roundtable, but more than what was presented. Given that it was a public-facing panel, I wasn’t anticipating trade secrets or granular calendars of events or pricing strategies to be unveiled. Nevertheless, plans for enticing guests to return (beyond the vague notion of “let’s market our safety”) would’ve been nice.
Hopefully there are also behind-closed-doors meetings taking place between Governor DeSantis and these same leaders, so the parties can discuss what needs to happen in real terms to bring back tourism, jobs, and more to Central Florida–and how the state can facilitate that. Oh, and I’d also love to get to the bottom of the mystery about Toothsome’s presence at this event.
If you watched the Florida Theme Park Roundtable, what did you think of it? Any feedback on Governor DeSantis being comfortable with the parks increasing capacity? Does that concern you, or do you think it’s a non-factor for now? Thoughts on increasing marketing/messaging about Florida and the parks being a safe place to visit? 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!