Coronavirus has claimed over 100,000 American lives, the economy is crumbling, protests against racist police violence have erupted across the country and President Nero is dog-whistling "Horst-Wessel-Lied" while civil society smolders. Under the circumstances, focusing on the Happiest Place on Earth seems tone-deaf at best, sociopathic at worst.
But last week's deluge of despair wasn't enough to drown out Walt Disney World's May 27 presentation to the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force of plans for a phased reopening of its Orlando theme parks. Amusement rides are the furthest thing from most of our minds at this moment, but Disney's post-quarantine comeback is crucial to Central Florida's future, and nobody needs to hear another well-meaning white man's wisdom on racial justice (BLM, BTW). So I'm taking a brief break from the nightmarish news to inspect how well my recent "expert" predictions regarding Walt Disney World's reopening stack up against the Mouse's officially released proposal.
In my May 8 edition of Live Active Cultures I imagined a COVID-era Orlando vacation, beginning with an educated guesstimate that the theme parks would reopen between Memorial Day and the 4th of July. I'm giving myself partial credit for this answer, as Universal Orlando and SeaWorld are both resuming operations this week, while Walt Disney World's parks remain closed to the public until July 11. However, guests will begin returning to Disney Vacation Club hotels on June 22 and could receive sneak previews of the parks. As I suggested, several WDW hotels will remain shuttered for the time being and new room reservations are currently suspended; those who do visit will enjoy contact-free check-in services and enhanced room-cleaning procedures.
I guessed correctly that Disney's four parks wouldn't all reopen simultaneously, and that Magic Kingdom would be part of the first wave (along with Animal Kingdom), but I'm a bit surprised that Epcot will reopen with Hollywood Studios only four days later on July 14. Look for World Showcase's cultural pavilions to be staffed with ethnically incongruous locals until international employees can return. I was also accurate about Disney implementing touch-free forehead thermometer checks for arriving guests, but I didn't anticipate that face masks would be mandatory instead of optional for all guests age 2 and older. Then again, if the enforcement rate inside the parks resembles that seen thus far at Disney Springs, this "rule" will prove to be merely an enthusiastic suggestion.
My theory that park ticket sales would be suspended proved spot-on, and those already holding admission (including annual passholders) will have to compete over a limited number of advance reservations before entering Disney's parks on a particular day. While daily park attendance will initially be restricted to a fraction of the usual head count, the hourly capacity on rides and attractions will also be constrained, since unrelated parties will no longer be seated next to each other.
As expected, social distancing will be promoted around the parks with spacing markers on the pavement, and hand sanitizing stations will be easily accessible. Mobile ordering, single-use menus and tap-to-pay transactions will be the order of the day in restaurants, which recently canceled all existing dining plans and table bookings and reduced their reservation windows from 180 days to 60.
Sadly, I was also accurate in calling that Disney's famous fireworks and parades would be put on hiatus in order to minimize crowds on Main Street U.S.A. But some of the cuts will be even more draconian than my worst-case scenario: Playgrounds, meet-and-greets and character dining – cornerstones of Disney's family-focused parks – will all be unavailable, although you may spot Mickey and friends waving hello from a safe distance.
What I thought was my safest prediction – that Disney would double down on FastPass+ and other virtual queuing schemes to minimize guests standing in lines – turned out to be my biggest miss. Instead, thousands of sought-after reservations to ride Flight of Passage and other E-Tickets have been erased, and the entire FastPass+ service has been suspended until further notice along with the Extra Magic Hours program, eliminating two major perks of stay at Disney's on-site resorts. Freezing FastPass+ will certainly help keep standby lines flowing more efficiently, but without any sort of timed return option (such as the Virtual Line reservations Universal is adding to many of its attractions) it's easy to imagine certain areas, like Fantasyland, becoming as congested with extended outdoor queues as they were during any pre-virus peak period.
By the time you read this, Universal Orlando will be putting into practice many of the plans Disney has proposed in theory. I'll return next week with a report from the first morning of their reopening previews for annual passholders, and let you know how the Wizarding World of Harry Potter has weathered the quarantine. It won't be the first time in recent years that Mickey has sat back and carefully watched what its upstart neighbor was doing, but it may end up being the most important.