With rising case numbers in Florida, many readers have been increasingly vocal that it’s too soon for the Walt Disney World theme parks to reopen. In this post, we’ll look at whether opening should be postponed, with the potential pros & cons, plus ramifications of the parks staying closed for now.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom are set to reopen on July 11, followed by Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15. These reopening dates were set over one month ago, at a time when Florida’s new daily case numbers were at a fraction of their current levels.
This upward trend has prompted one local union and many guests to urge Walt Disney World to remain closed, worrying that the major tourist destination will only exacerbate Florida’s woes. With Disneyland delaying its planned reopening, more have suggested Walt Disney World should follow suit. So…should Walt Disney World stay closed for now?
We’ll be blunt and up-front: we truly do not know. We’re humble enough to admit that, and would likewise suggest the same is true for you. The problems facing Disney and Florida leaders are complex ones, with no easy answers.
Rather than presuming to have the requisite knowledge (we absolutely do not) to address every component of this convoluted issue, we’ll cover a few and analyze those, while clearly acknowledging that there is much more we simply do not know.
Obviously, new daily cases have risen. The Florida Department of Health reported 8,942 new cases last Friday, followed by 9,585 new cases on Saturday. These numbers shattered the previous daily high of 5,508 infections made earlier in the week. This week, numbers have been trending in the right direction, with 6,093 new cases being this week’s high.
Closer to home, Central Florida now has 25,727 cases, up 1,440 from a day earlier. Orange County’s latest heat map shows fewer cases along the tourist corridor (which includes Universal Orlando), with far more in the downtown Orlando area. Nevertheless, we won’t sugarcoat it–that’s still an alarming number of new cases. It’s also exponentially more than when Walt Disney World made the decision to reopen. This alone is sufficient basis for many to believe Walt Disney World is reopening too soon.
However, Florida’s weekly reported deaths have been under 300 for seven weeks in a row. From the week ending April 19 to the week ending May 10, reported deaths were 300 or over.
Moreover, even though over 80% of general and ICU beds are in use at hospitals in Orange and Seminole counties, local health officials say that they are not concerned, as elective surgeries and unrelated emergency procedures have increased in recent weeks. They further state that Central Florida hospitals continue to have enough capacity to handle any potential surges.
There remain a lot of unknowns about what activities are less and more likely to be conducive to spread. As we covered in our recent Best Outdoor Dining at Walt Disney World post, it’s safer to dine al fresco as being outdoors dramatically lowers the risk of transmission. That’s corroborated by this study where only two cases out of 7,000-plus could be traced to outdoor activity.
Public health authorities have identified bars as the locus of outbreaks in a number of states, including in Florida. These have been shown to be super-spreader scenarios for a variety of reasons, and we’re hopeful that Florida’s decision to close all bars after an explosion of cases and widespread non-compliance will further reduce new numbers. As that move was made only a week ago, we really won’t know its effectiveness for another week due to the incubation period.
Research also shows that contaminated surfaces and fleeting encounters are low-risk, whereas sustained person-to-person interactions, crowded events, and poorly ventilated areas are higher risk. This bodes well for constantly-moving and properly-spaced queues (even indoor ones), but not so much for indoor stage shows.
There’s also the reality that Universal Orlando and other Central Florida theme and amusement parks have been open for roughly one month, and we’ve yet to see any outbreaks traced to these parks. In fact, aside from a few isolated cases with connections to (but not causal ones) theme parks, nothing has been traced to them, period. This is despite Florida health officials documenting community spread in the state beginning last December.
This should not be construed as conclusive proof that theme parks are “safe” places to visit right now. To the contrary, the expert consensus is that there are aspects of the theme park experience that are inherently higher-risk for visitors. More importantly, the parks being operational puts thousands of Cast Members who are in regular and direct contact with guests at risk.
The hope is that the enhanced safety standards, health protocol, and operational changes are sufficient to mitigate those risks. However, there are still simply too many unknowns about the efficacy of such measures. Studies and research continue, and our collective knowledge is evolving.
We won’t rehash all of the health and safety measures here as this is already going to be a long post, aside from one: face masks. The science is clear on masks, and they have proven effective in combating spread elsewhere around the globe. (From a purely economic perspective, even Goldman Sachs supports a nationwide mask mandate, asserting that it could substitute for another lockdown and save the economy from a 5% GDP hit.)
Both Japan and Hong Kong have been incredible success stories of the pandemic, despite neither having a coherent government response (both were arguably failures on a governmental level). Even with their denser populations, ubiquitous mass transit, and relatively lax restrictions, both have seen far fewer cases and hospitalizations than other nations. The crucial difference is that both Hong Kong and Japan adopted near-universal masking without any government mandate.
This is relevant because, unlike elsewhere in Florida, Walt Disney World and Universal have face mask policies that are being actively enforced. To be sure, compliance is not 100%, but it’s much better than anywhere else in the Orlando area. We’ve been to both Disney Springs and CityWalk a few times, plus our recent resort stay, and have felt safest at those locations.
Our local Publix has been so bad that we won’t even go back there, as it’s the wild west as compared to compliance at Disney and Universal. With that said, there’s an obvious distinction: grocery stores are an essential necessity, whereas theme parks and other entertainment complexes are not.
However, one of the most compelling reasons for reopening Walt Disney World is its instrumental role in Central Florida’s tourism-dependent economy. We hesitate to even broach this, as there has been a lot of cringe-worthy sentiment about ‘sacrificing grandma for the economy.’ This has caused unnecessary polarization and partisanship, which has done a disservice to the larger conversation.
The reality is that what America faces is a multifaceted problem that is now as much about housing and food insecurity as it is about the pandemic itself. Too much of the surrounding conversation has been myopic and reductionist, completely devoid of nuance, and attempting to offer a simple solution to a complex problem. This can be acutely illustrated by what’s already happening in Central Florida.
Florida’s broken unemployment system has made national headlines, with countless stories of system crashes, denial errors, and non-payments. Officially, more than 771,000 claims have been rejected and over 175,000 claims have yet to be verified, with unemployment in the Orlando area jumping to 22.6%, which is the worst in the state and far above the national average.
Every Floridian undoubtedly knows someone impacted (if they haven’t been affected themselves), and there have been harrowing reports on the local and national news. Before continuing any further, we’d strongly recommend reading ‘We Live From the Tourists’ in the New York Times and Orlando Sentinel’s latest on Florida unemployment. These tell vivid stories of the heart-wrenching human toll. In short, for many Cast Members, Walt Disney World reopening is “essential.”
To be abundantly clear: people should not be forced to choose between their financial and bodily health. There are numerous systemic problems on local, state, and federal levels that need to be fixed. However, as a practical reality, there is no waving a magic wand at this point and solving all of those. We have to play the cards we’re dealt, not the ones we wish we had.
There is little denying that America has failed this moment on multiple levels, including individual ones. While we desperately wish many aspects of this had and would still play out differently, we are realists. Our wishes are not viable realities that can instantaneously be ‘snapped’ into existence. Given that Florida’s unemployment system has not been fixed after four months, there is no reason to believe it’s going to be fixed at this point.
The longer the closure stretches on, the worse the economic fallout. Permanent layoffs have already begun throughout the Central Florida tourism sector. Last week, Universal Orlando laid off a number of employees across various departments. One Disney Springs restaurant operator announced it’s permanently laying off 143 workers. Cirque du Soleil has filed for bankruptcy protection and laid off 95% of its workforce.
While there have been no reports that Walt Disney World has begun its own layoffs, it’s naive to think the same won’t occur there. During the Great Recession, Disney laid off around 1,900 Parks & Resorts employees in a single round. During the previous dot-com bubble burst, Walt Disney World laid off 1,200 to 1,400 employees.
Moreover, Walt Disney World’s actions or inactions reverberate through Central Florida. A wide swath of area businesses are critically dependent upon the tourism Disney drives. Restaurants, hotels, smaller attractions, and more all directly rely on spillover business from Walt Disney World. Myriad others in Mousetown are indirectly tied to Disney.
Walt Disney World is a behemoth in Florida, and many industries rise and fall with Disney. There’s a simple reason all other area business leaders on the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force were so emphatic about Walt Disney World reopening–their futures depend upon it.
Experts widely believe that Central Florida’s tourism industry will take years to fully recover, meaning that these are the opening salvos of widespread layoffs that are inevitable throughout the region. The extent of the industry-wide layoffs depends upon how quickly theme park operators can bounce back and convince the general public it’s safe to plan trips.
Walt Disney World reopening in July isn’t an effort to salvage the summer–it’s about the fall and holiday season. Save for DVC members, Annual Passholders, and diehard fans with existing trips, what’s left of the summer is already a lost cause. No matter when the parks reopen, it’s going to take several months to ramp up operations and even start to return to a semblance of normal and attract tourists back. The greater the delay, the deeper and longer-lasting the wounds.
Ultimately, even this just paints a partial picture. There are no doubt countless other factors and variables, both for and against reopening. And to be abundantly clear, we truly don’t know where we come down on this question. It’s tempting to offer simple solutions to complicated problems, but we’d again caution against that. Frankly, I’m quite thankful to not be one of the Disney or local leaders tasked with the unenviable decisions in front of them. It’s a veritable buffet of least-bad choices. Even equipped with better knowledge, there’s no way of knowing today what unintended consequences will result from any decision.
Finally, we’ll reiterate what we said at the end of “Our Surreal Stay at Walt Disney World” post. While a lot of this likely reads as being pro-reopening, we still would err on the side of not traveling to Florida for vacation right now. (To that point, we are not traveling anywhere.) Even with risk mitigation efforts in the parks & resorts, the fact remains that cases are spiking. Flying to Florida and taking a weeklong Walt Disney World vacation right now is not no-risk or even low-risk. We’d also be incredibly apprehensive about planning a trip for the fall. If you’re an out of state tourist, you can play it safe and take a wait and see view to see how things play out. Such a tentative approach is arguably not as practical for Walt Disney World’s decision-makers when considering the long-term and holistic health of Central Florida.
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–is it too early to reopen, the appropriate time, or do you likewise not feel comfortable offering a definitive answer? Are there additional major factors we’ve failed to consider? Agree or disagree with our assessment? We anticipate this being a controversial topic, but please keep the comments civil. A variety of viewpoints are welcomed here, and comments will not be deleted for their perspective alone. However, we will not tolerate insults, arguing, conspiracy theories, or politically-charged comments. Don’t ruin a 95% fine comment with an unnecessary cheap shot–that 5% will get it deleted. Additionally, please do not incessantly harp on the same point across multiple comments. Respectfully share your opinion and move along.