Potential Plans for Disney World Phased Reopening

Leaders from Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and other Orlando area theme parks met today as part of a subcommittee within the Reopen Florida Task Force to determine how and when to reopen parks and other attractions in the Sunshine State. In this post, we’ll share some ideas discussed, what this could mean for Walt Disney World, and potential impediments to these plans.

The subcommittee that met has been dubbed the “Industry Working Group on Tourism, Construction, Real Estate, Recreation, Retail and Transportation,” and includes executive leadership from a wide range of businesses from theme parks to airlines to retirement communities (yes, really). Of relevance for this blog are two group members: Walt Disney World President Josh D’Amaro and Universal Orlando CEO John Sprouls.

This meeting comes a few days after Florida beaches began to reopen and 24 hours after Florida Governor Ron DeSantis claimed that Walt Disney World is “so far ahead of the curve” on reopening and will be “leading the way” in Florida’s plans to begin opening in the coming weeks under the federal government’s Guidelines for Opening Up America Again, a three-phased approach based on the advice of public health experts…

During the tourism portion of the Reopen Florida Task Force meeting, Walt Disney World President Josh D’Amaro did not speak. However, Universal Orlando CEO John Sprouls did, and he outlined some of plans to reopen Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure.

This is significant because, as with security, the health protocol plans here are certain to be 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 to some degree, indirectly benefit from one another. 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 the two on the security screening measures (most notably, Universal uses baggage scanners–something we’d love to see Walt Disney World adopt), but there are a lot of practices that are consistent between the two. This is not coincidence. It’s a foregone that Universal and Disney will likewise adopt nearly identical health procedures and protocol for reopening.

Sprouls outlined a number of possibilities, including increased sanitation throughout the parks, increased use of virtual queue systems, encouraging guests to wear face masks, added social-distancing measures, disinfecting attractions throughout the day, increased use of mobile ordering and contactless payment transactions, staggered seating for shows, screening employees daily, and more.

Much of what was mentioned mirrors the possibilities outlined in a Universal Orlando survey sent out over the weekend. Notably, that survey also mentioned suspending parades and nighttime shows, limiting attendance to half of park capacity, and removing 3D glasses from attractions. (Anything that accelerates the abandonment of 3D is welcome in our book!)

He additionally stated that multiple teams are working on a number of different scenarios for reopening protocol. Moreover, that the theme parks will be guided by state and local officials, as well as health officials with the overarching goal to be keeping employees and guests safe.

This all mirrors recent comments from Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger–along with health safety measures that have been floated for Walt Disney World and Disneyland, and what’s currently being rolled out ahead of Shanghai Disneyland’s imminent reopening. (All as previously discussed in our What Operational & Health Safety Changes Will Walt Disney World Make to Reopen? post.)

For both Universal and Disney, there’s the complicating factor of their theme park operations on the West Coast. While Florida is overzealous about reopening its businesses, California Governor Gavin Newsom is striking a much more tentative tone. The two governors are essentially at opposite ends of the spectrum on this, which is noteworthy here.

California’s more cautious approach to resuming normalcy could end up shaping big business behavior nationwide, as has happened with auto emissions and other things. It’ll be interesting to see what California’s economic task force–which counts Disney’s Bob Iger as a member–determines is the best course of action for that state in the coming weeks.

There’s also the potential matter of trepidation on Disney’s part. The state of Florida is offering some degree of cover with this task force and its official recommendations, which could encourage Walt Disney World to resume operations sooner. However, there’s still the reality that “safety” is part of the Disney brand, and reopening prematurely would damage that.

On balance, it’s tough to predict how this will play out and Disney’s position here is unenviable. It’s somewhat difficult to envision Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando reopening while Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood remain closed. Suffice to say, just because DeSantis wants to reopen the state ASAP doesn’t mean that’s the route Disney and Universal will take.

Florida’s eagerness here comes as the local economy has already been decimated by the shutdown. The bulk of Central Florida’s businesses and employees are dependent upon tourism, and the impacts have already been catastrophic. This is not to say that Florida’s plans (whatever they might end up being) are right–just that the state is in a tough spot.

Visit Florida CEO Dana Young stated that hotels in the state have seen a $1.6 billion drop in revenue over the past six weeks, per Spectrum News 13. In order to get tourism numbers back up, people will need to feel that it’s safe to travel. Visit Florida is thus working on a multi-phase campaign, with the first part focused on Florida residents, encouraging them to visit state attractions.

Part of Visit Florida’s push will involve encouraging Floridians to support local businesses by taking an in-state vacation. This should mesh with the Reopen Florida Task Force’s plans for a gradual and careful reopening that will entail first reopening to Florida residents, then national visitors, followed by international guests.

While this phased approach to reopening the Walt Disney World theme parks has not yet been cemented (far from it), it certainly makes sense. Moreover, it would offer more latitude in a slower rollout of rides, shows, and other offerings (even potentially a phased opening of the parks themselves).

Once in a lifetime or other infrequent Walt Disney World guests are less forgiving (we’re trying to put that diplomatically), but the stakes are lower with Floridians. There’s less of a cost for locals in visiting Walt Disney World. Many are Annual Passholders and those who aren’t don’t have to book airfare, stay in a hotel, etc–many will be happy just to get out of the house and have a public space to walk around.

By contrast, tourists are spending thousands of dollars for their vacations, and may be less receptive to parades, fireworks, attractions, etc., not happening. We’ve already heard from a ton of readers who have expressed similar sentiment. We can’t blame them given the cost of a Walt Disney World vacation, but we all also have to accept the reality that things are going to be a bit different (mild understatement) for a while.

Reopening to locals first with all of the modified health safety procedures would allow Walt Disney World something of a “soft opening” period for the resort complex as a whole. During that time, Disney could test and adjust its new protocol, see what works and doesn’t, and slowly ramp up operations.

When and how long such a “soft opening” would last before welcoming out of state tourists to Walt Disney World is anyone’s guess at this point. However, we likely won’t have to speculate for too long, as Florida Governor Ron DeSantis wants a plan submitted to him by the end of this week. We’ll keep you posted as to how the reopening plan shapes up at that point (for a heads up when that happens, subscribe to our free email newsletter).

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!


What do you think of Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort reopening to Floridians before out of state or international tourists? Which of the health security screenings and protocol do you think will come to fruition 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!

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