What Operational & Health Safety Changes Will Disney World Make to Reopen?

“How will Walt Disney World conduct health security screenings to ensure guest safety?” and “What operational changes will Disney institute when the parks reopen?” are common questions. Many readers are wondering whether all of the parks & rides will reopen at the same time, what measures Disney will take to reassure worried guests, and more.

This is an ongoing speculative series, coming in response to feedback and concerns raised in the comments to other posts. To recap, here are questions what we’ve previously addressed:

In this post, we’ll share Bob Iger’s recent statements about procedures Walt Disney World and Disneyland will likely utilize to adapt for the current/future climate. We’ll also cover the rumors about operational changes to the parks, including phased openings, virtual queues, reduced capacity, entertainment cuts, and more…

Some degree of changes are unquestionably coming to Walt Disney World. We will dismiss out of hand the notion that the theme parks won’t reopen until there’s a vaccine, which is potentially 18 months or more away. No matter where you fall in debates about public health versus economics, society shutting down for up to 2 years is simply a non-starter. Due to our inextricably interwoven economy, it’s not feasible to simply shutter “non-essential” businesses for a period of years. The consequences would be truly catastrophic.

It’s more a matter of when this year the parks resume operations, and what changes. We originally intended upon waiting until closer to reopening before tackling the latter topic. For one, the operational and safety changes that Walt Disney World implements largely depend upon how factors. What’s the national mood? What level of crowds are projected? What is the expert consensus on prophylactic measures to minimize continued spread?

However, former (and future?) CEO and current executive chairman Bob Iger just did an interesting interview with Barron’s. In that, he covered a range of challenges that face Disney going forward, and how the company might adapt and change in the current climate.

Of pertinent interest here is the theme parks. Here’s what Iger had to say:

“One of the things that we’re discussing already is that in order to return to some semblance of normal, people will have to feel comfortable that they’re safe. Some of that could come in the form ultimately of a vaccine, but in the absence of that it could come from basically, more scrutiny, more restrictions. Just as we now do bag checks for everybody that goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that that takes people’s temperatures, as a for-instance.

We’re studying very carefully what China has been trying to do in terms of their return to normalcy. And one of the things that’s obvious is they’ve conscripted a large segment of their population to monitor others in terms of their health. You can’t get on a bus or a subway or a train or enter a high-rise building there–and I’m sure this will be the case when their schools reopen–without having your temperature taken.

So we’ve asked ourselves the question, let’s prepare for a world where our customers demand that we scrutinize everybody. Even if it creates a little bit of hardship, like it takes a little bit longer for people to get in. Just as the case after 9/11 where people ultimately lived with the notion that in order for them to enter a building, if you’re in an office building you have to show a picture ID or get your picture taken and be screened. Or in order to enter a park you have to put your bags out there to be checked and you go through some kind of metal detector. Or certainly what’s going on in airports with the TSA.”

Iger’s ideas aren’t particularly surprising. Look no further than what has been implemented at Shanghai Disneyland thus far, as it has already reopened its flagship hotel plus the Disneytown shopping and entertainment complex.

At Shanghai Disney Resort, every guest undergoes a body temperature screening upon their arrival, is required to present their Health QR Code when entering some venues, and must wear a face mask at all times.

In China, citizens are required to download cellphone tracking software that broadcasts their location to several authorities, including the local police. The app combines geo-tracking with other data to designate people with green to red color codes reflecting who is low to high risk.

Additionally, roadblocks and checkpoints have been set up throughout the country to prevent people from moving freely. Some workers are required to undergo physical examinations and a paper “Health Certificate” from their local authorities before returning to work. Health safety perimeters similar to those utilized at Shanghai Disney Resort exist around virtually every business, meaning the potential for dozens of temperature checks per day.

As a democratic republic, South Korea has had similar success in using technology to decrease cases. There, the government uses phone location data, CCTV, credit-card records, and more to monitor citizen activity. When a person tests positive, local governments issue a push alert that reportedly includes the individual’s last name, sex, age, district of residence, and minute-to-minute record of their movements at local businesses.

Singapore offers what seems to be a less intrusive iteration of these approaches. There, residents can download the TraceTogether app, which uses Bluetooth to log nearby devices. If someone tests positive, that user uploads relevant data to the Ministry of Health, which notifies the owners of all the devices pinged by that person’s phone.

Normally, I would caution against looking towards these countries for policies the United States will implement. Societal norms are very different, as are standards of privacy, liberty, as well as the balance between the collective and individual. One month ago, such blatant government smartphone surveillance and systemic swabbing & temperature testing might’ve seemed like an unfathomable violation of our dignity and privacy.

However, a couple of months ago I would’ve questioned whether the United States would embrace the same style of lockdowns as were occurring throughout Asia at the time (and to be fair, we haven’t fully). Much more has happened on that front than I would’ve anticipated–I’ve actually been pleasantly surprised by the sacrifices Americans are making for public health.

In August 2001, I likewise wouldn’t have predicted what surveillance techniques would be deployed and widely accepted (I was a teenager, so I probably would’ve only predicted what video game I’d play next). That summer, many of the programs in wide use to this day likely would’ve been dubbed “draconian” by a vast majority of Americans.

However, the September 11 attacks offered a change in perspective. The United States government swiftly and unilaterally expanded its powers, broadening warrantless surveillance by the National Security Agency while also establishing several agencies and programs that are still in use today.

The point is that changed circumstances can cause societal norms to evolve, and dictate what we tolerate. Much of what happened post 9/11 was to allow a return to some semblance of normalcy. The operative difference between then and now is that there’s no reason for this to be permanent–a vaccine should bring an end to whatever surveillance is instituted.

One thing that sticks out to me from Iger’s interview is the remark that “people will have to feel comfortable that they’re safe” before things return to normal. Iger is incredibly careful with his words (one reason he’s probably doing interviews instead of Chapek), and his use of feel is not by accident.

Whatever policies and operational changes Walt Disney World and Disneyland implement will likely be about assuaging minds and creating the perception of safety. Temperature checks are not wholly effective–they’re about mitigation, not blanket safety. As with the pejorative “security theater,” expect “health security theater” to be a term that enters our cultural vernacular.

Like Walt Disney World’s current security checks, the health security procedures and requirements will be a balance of mitigation and theater. This isn’t to cast aspersions–psychological reassurance and comfort can be every bit as important as actual safety. This will likely be even more true after emerging with the scars from months of staying at home and consuming non-stop media about one singular topic.

Screening measures won’t be fully effective, but will follow the mantra: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. The inherent nature of theme parks means Walt Disney World or Disneyland won’t be completely safe upon reopening. Like most things, there will be some assumption of the risk.

When the parks do open, our expectation is that Walt Disney World and Disneyland will utilize measures similar to those at Shanghai Disney Resort for health security screening. We’d anticipate that Big Tech and the business community will drive this rather than the federal government. Whatever emerges will likely be a “softer” and more relaxed version of what has been deployed in Asia to be palatable to Western sensibilities.

Hopefully, these tools are already being developed and the necessary equipment is being manufactured to deploy such a system within a couple of months.

As for what Walt Disney World and Disneyland will change from an operational perspective beyond the health security screenings largely remains to be seen. A lot of rumors have already emerged, and we view those with some skepticism. Not because we doubt the veracity of the rumor itself, but because it’s premature.

What’s being discussed as theoretical possibilities in Orlando or Anaheim offices months before the parks reopen might bear little resemblance to what comes to fruition. For one thing, there are still many unknowns. For another, business and operational realities will bump up against some of these proposals.

Of the rumors we’ve heard, there are several that are highly plausible. Dining will need to see a variety of changes. One will be reducing restaurant capacity and taking tables “out of service” to maintain <50% occupancy with physical spacing of at least 6 feet. Next, increasing spacing for physical queues at counter service restaurants and strongly encouraging mobile order.

The final big one is entertainment–cancelling virtually all of it. Fireworks, parades, and stage shows result in disproportionate congregating in certain areas (we’ve been bemoaning Central Plaza crowds during the Halloween and Christmas parties for years). Eliminating entertainment also saves Disney money, and a cut done under the guise of safety seems right up Disney’s alley.

Another is reducing capacity on transportation and rides, as well as disinfecting surfaces guests touch between rides on both. Attractions where this is not feasible or practical could simply not open with the rest of the parks, going on ‘seasonal’ status for the next couple of years.

Using more virtual queues is another possibility, which has gained credence among fans due to app changes to support boarding groups for more than just Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. However, virtual queues have the unintended consequence of displacing guests into other areas of the parks, creating the potential for denser crowds elsewhere.

One theory is that there will be a phased reopening of Walt Disney World. While we’ve referred to both Disneyland and WDW here, this is one (of several) areas where they diverge. It’ll be much easier for Disneyland to resume most operations simultaneously. The smaller and leaner nature of the resort complex, coupled with the more local audience ensures that.

As for Walt Disney World, this could theoretically mean Disney Springs reopening first. That could be followed by Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and some resorts. Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and other resorts could be the last pieces of the puzzle in such a scenario.

This is one of those things that seems highly plausible even if it’s not actually a credible rumor. For one, Walt Disney World is such a complex resort with so many moving parts, and it’s going to be much slower to restart than it was to close. Epcot in particular seems like a logical choice for a delayed opening, for a number of reasons.

However, almost all of these logical moves have an illogical unintended consequence. Reducing capacity in any way increases crowds at what is operational. Some parks or portions thereof not operating disincentivizes guests from booking vacations at a time when Walt Disney World will need a shot in the arm. Eliminating iconic entertainment does the same.

Ultimately, Walt Disney World will also need to communicate operational changes that will negatively impact the guest experience well before the parks reopen. While reasonable guests should anticipate an array of changes and intrusion, people who booked trips aren’t going to be pleased if they don’t find out until arrival that only half of the parks are open and only three-quarters of those attractions are operating. We’d thus expect a trickle of information about how the guest experience will change going forward to adjust expectations. We’ll keep you posted on what other modifications are planned as they’re announced!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!


Do you think Walt Disney World will do in terms of health security screenings when the parks reopen? Are you anticipating modified operations–including the elimination of entertainment and reduced ride capacity? Do you expect a phased opening of the parks & resorts? Will you immediately book a trip, or wait until everything is back up and running, and things have returned to normal? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? 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!

233 Responses to “What Operational & Health Safety Changes Will Disney World Make to Reopen?”
  1. Lori April 23, 2020

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