WDW Reopening Update: Orange County Defers to Disney & Florida Announces Phase 1

In this Walt Disney World reopening roundup, we’ll cover yesterday’s press conference by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, WDW cancelling more hotel reservations for May, Southwest Airline’s “request” for the parks to reopen, and a meeting by the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force during which they essentially deferred to Disney.

Before beginning, we want to address the vocal minority expressing closure update ‘fatigue.’ Some readers understandably only want to know when Walt Disney World announces the parks are officially reopening. To be transparent, this is not that–it’s an incremental update. It will be abundantly clear when there’s a major announcement–the words “Disney officially announces” will appear in the title and the news will be emphatically shared far and wide across social media.

If you aren’t interested in anything other than that, we’d encourage you to stop clicking these posts until seeing such a headline. Some have lamented that anything short of an official reopening date is pointless and perhaps stress-inducing, as these inner machinations are easily misconstrued or overblown. For our part, we’ve attempted to combat that by contextualizing everything, frequently using words like tentative, speculative, preliminary, etc. in order to quell rumor and fear-mongering.

There’s a huge appetite for the “inside baseball” updates on Walt Disney World, Orange County, and the State of Florida as they all inch towards reopening. For evidence of this, look no further than the comment counts on any post related to the closure as compared to our fun posts or top 10 lists. For many, the drawn out reopening process is fascinating just as is following the business side of the Walt Disney Company.

The simple reality is that many of us are stuck at home with nothing better to do. Between curiosity and a surplus of time, I’ve voraciously read dozens of articles per day. I have a Google alert set up for a couple of ancillary topics that likely will be impacted (not Disney-related). It doesn’t produce any definitive news (yet), but I nonetheless read all of the commentary and speculation.

On a daily basis, we watch governor press conferences for states where we do not live. Yesterday, I watched a full 84-minute briefing by Arizona Governor Doug Ducey. Why? I don’t know. We don’t live anywhere near Arizona. I certainly don’t blame CBSN for airing the newsworthy content. They didn’t force me to watch it.

While there is overwhelming interest in these closure and reopening updates, we nevertheless want to balance that (most of our content is still fun and lighthearted, like the Cats of Disney or Ducks of Disney posts) and minimize the chances that smaller stories are given outsize consideration. Accordingly, we’re going to begin consolidating some of this news into “WDW Reopening Updates,” which is what we’ve done here. Basically, if you see that preface in a title going forward, it’s less consequential and not breaking news.

With that out of the way, let’s start with the biggest piece of the puzzle first: Florida as a whole. Governor Ron DeSantis held a briefing late yesterday, during which he outlined the steps the state had been taken thus far before unveiling Phase One of Florida’s reopening plan.

Florida will reopen certain businesses throughout the state on Monday (May 4, 2020), excluding the hardest-hit counties of Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach. During this phase, restaurants and retail spaces can allow customers inside, but only at 25% capacity. Restaurants can also offer outdoor seating if tables are 6 feet apart.

Schools and most other businesses in Florida cannot reopen yet. Explicitly included among these are movie theaters, bars, fitness centers, hair stylists, and other personal services.

In public, all people must adhere to social distancing guidelines from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Face masks are recommended in public for interactions and situations where social distancing is not possible.

The implications here for Walt Disney World are minimal, if any. While the theme parks and resorts will not be reopening as part of the first phase, it does leave the door open for Disney Springs.

The questions are whether Walt Disney World wants to reopen the complex, if it’s viable for third party dining to operate at only 25% capacity, and when Orange County will allow restaurants to reopen.

Our expectation is that Disney Springs will be the first component of Walt Disney World to reopen, but that’s incredibly unlikely to happen on May 4, 2020. Orange County’s tentative timeline for businesses was previously May 11, and even that seems aggressive.

However, we view Disney Springs as likely to reopen before the parks and resorts because it’s mostly third party tenants that are frequented by locals. There’s far less cost to Walt Disney World in allowing these restaurants to reopen, and some upside. Disney Springs would offer a ‘proof of concept’ venue to see how some of the modified operational protocol might play out, as well as observing guest demand and behavior trends.

The Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force has kicked things into high gear, with meetings held yesterday by its four subgroups covering a range of topics. Of pertinent interest to Walt Disney World fans is the Guidelines for Reopening Businesses Group, which includes leaders from Disney, Universal, and other Central Florida hospitality businesses.

The group met yesterday, and heard from local health care officials for guidance and best practices. The health care recommendations included the wearing of face masks by all employees and guests, continued social distancing, testing for symptomatic individuals, proper hand hygiene, surface sanitization, and temperature checks for all employees and guests. 

Some of these best practices were well received and meshed with tentative guidelines and mandates for theme parks, restaurants, and hotels released the previous day by the group. However, there were concerns about the feasibility of temperature checks and face masks for all guests in addition to employees.

The temperature checks appear to be the biggest point of contention, and officials with the Florida Department of Health have likewise called into question their efficacy and practicality. Given all of that, it seems likely this will be left to the discretion of Walt Disney World and other theme parks.

Speaking of leaving discretion to Disney, that was another topic of the virtual meeting. Following comments the previous day from Thomas Mazloum, SVP of Walt Disney World Resorts & Transportation, the task force expressed its intent to grant greater leniency and deference to Disney, Universal, and other complex venues in determining their own best practices.

The consensus seemed to be that Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando are more like “self-contained cities” that are best situated to internally determine their own level of safe capacities throughout the various phases, consistent with CDC guidelines. Mayor Demings and others on the call expressed that Disney and others will be judged on potential guests’ perceptions of safety and driven by opinions on social media and elsewhere.

This might sound like Disney and Universal are receiving an exemption to not follow the guidelines and mandates, it’s probably better construed as autonomy to reopen components in phases and develop higher standards. Safety is part of Disney’s brand, and they’re much more likely than a mom and pop shop to be excoriated online if consumers are dissatisfied with their approach.

In other words, the stakes are higher for Disney than most businesses. They have a corporate responsibility to protect guests and Cast Members, and are reputationally behooved to do so. As such, the ultimate OC Task Force guidelines and mandates will be instructive, but not conclusive in terms of what Disney does. They’re more likely to be a floor than a ceiling on safety measures. At least, that’s our hope.

Walt Disney World is sending out emails to guests with stays scheduled between May 17 and May 23, 2020 as a notification that their reservations will be cancelled. The email presents recourse in terms of processing refunds due, what’s nonrefundable, and typical stuff you’ve probably already seen. It also presents the Free Dining Recovery Deal as an option for future bookings (details unchanged since it was announced).

This is unsurprising, and it’s safe to assume that in a week or two, reservations through May 31, 2020 will be cancelled. Disney has been taking the rolling approach so as to not overwhelm its call centers with cancellations. The big question at this point is whether reservations for June 1, 2020 and beyond will be next to get cut. That was Walt Disney World’s initial target reopening, and the start date for the recovery deal and when rebookings began.

While a lot remains unknown, it’s fairly clear that the process to reopen will be longer and more drawn out that the closure period. June is now just one full month away, and if even some of the hotels will be operating by that date, the wheels on that need to start slowly turning in the next couple of weeks. We should know whether June 1 is plausible sooner rather than later.

Finally, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly recently gave an interview in which he said that air traffic levels are next to zero at this point, and that “a lot of things are going to have to happen for the country to come back to life, much less air travel.”

When asked what needs to happen for people to travel again, Kelly said that people need to feel safe and “they need to have something to be able to do when they get there. So Disney World needs to open back up.”

Walt Disney World is a superstar in Central Florida, providing the ‘sunlight’ to support a range of smaller businesses and hundreds of thousands of local employees. However, Southwest is far from a small business on I-Drive–this statement really underscores just how instrumental Disney is to the other businesses in its orbit, including a ‘planet’ like a major airline. If you’re wondering why so many people are anxiously awaiting any and all news about Walt Disney World’s potential reopening, look no further than that statement by Southwest’s CEO.

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!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of Phase One of Florida’s reopening plan? What about Orange County granting more discretion to the major theme parks? Do you expect Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort to go above and beyond what’s required here? Thoughts on Southwest CEO’s comments? 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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