Masks on, FastPass out: What Disney theme parks will look like when they reopen
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with additional information.
For months, all Disney theme parks around the world were closed. And while the U.S. Disney theme parks remain closed for now, with only Shanghai Disneyland reopened, there’s now a planned July 11 reopening day for Disney World in Florida.
Based on what we’ve seen at the reopened Disneyland Shanghai parks in Asia, formal announcements from Disney World and knowledge of various processes and technologies that Disney has at its disposal, here’s what a reopened Disney theme park may look like. And get ready — it won’t be exactly the park you remember.
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A phased reopening
When Disney World closed in March, it closed in phases. First came the theme park shutdowns, followed by the closures of the hotel resorts and finally the Disney Springs shopping and dining area. Shanghai Disneyland (which was the first of the Disney parks to both close and reopen), utilized a phased reopening that started with the resort hotels, shopping and dining areas, followed over six weeks later by the theme park reopening.
Disney Springs (a shopping and dining area near the Disney World theme parks) at Walt Disney World had a May 20 reopening, Disney Vacation Club resorts and the Fort Wilderness Campground will begin to reopen on June 22, followed by two of the four theme parks at Disney World on July 11 (Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom). The remaining two Disney World theme parks (Epcot and Hollywood Studios) will reopen on July 15. We do not yet have reopening dates for the Disney resort hotels, the waterparks or for Disneyland in California.
We know that reopening Disney parks and resorts won’t be simple even once the ink on all the plans is dry. Stocking up on supplies ranging from turkey legs to soda to toilet paper; getting the rides back in action; bringing back staff members; and instituting training for new procedures won’t happen overnight, even once things do get rolling.
The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, brought us bag checks at the Disney Parks, a security measure that remains in effect today. Now, you will also need to have your temperature checked in a touchless manner before entering Disney World or Disney Springs, just like at the Shanghai Disney Resort.
You’ll need a temperature below 100.4 degrees to enter the gates of Disney. Even select airlines plan to introduce temperature screenings in the coming weeks.
To cap attendance, and minimize day-of disappointment if admission limits have been reached, advance reservations will be required to enter Disney World, just as we see now in Shanghai. Whether you’re booking a single-day park ticket, or plan to use your Disney annual pass on a given date, you’ll need to make that reservation online in advance, at least for a while.
That reservation process has yet to be announced, but we expect it to be unveiled at some point in June.
Timed admission is also a real possibility so that not everyone is waiting at the entry gates at the same time. (This may very likely be how ski lift tickets operate next season, too.)
I was at Disney World for a media event for the opening of the new Mickey and Minnie Runaway Railway attraction on March 3, less than two weeks before the parks closed. While the worst of the outbreak was still to be realized in the U.S., the virus was still very much on my mind while I was there. In fact, I declined to use the fingerprint scanner to enter the parks, as it seemed like an obvious potential home for germs that I wanted to avoid.
At that time, declining to use the fingerprint device meant a trip to guest services, forms to fill out, IDs to display, photos to take and then a return to trip to the line to enter the parks. But avoiding the scanner was possible even before the closure.
In fact, at Disneyland, while photos are on file to cut down on fraudulent ticket use, fingerprints are not utilized. While fingerprints are useful at Disney, my money is on either an elimination of that literal touchpoint to enter the Florida Disney parks or an easier way to opt-out.
In addition, there will be an increased reliance on mobile ordering and payment, the park’s Magic Band technology and online room check-in.
As expected, like at Universal Orlando just down the street, Disney World has announced that it will be mandatory for parkgoers ages two and up to wear a mask during the entirety of their visit (except when dining or in their hotel room) — in addition to social distancing measures. The cast members, other than face characters and select performers, also wear masks. And yes, it gets to be 100 degrees and humid at Disney World in the summer.
Virtual queuing, no FastPass
How do you maintain a safe social distance from others at a theme park with tens of thousands of daily visitors? That’s one type of challenge while capacity is very low and you can spread out the guests a bit easier, but it will be an entirely different challenge as Disney scales up visitors.
Disney has the capacity to expand on the use of virtual queues, which have been in place with the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction since it opened in December 2019. This works by having Disney guests use the My Disney Experience app to join a virtual queue that will ultimately tell the guest when to return and join the physical line as guests with higher “boarding groups” are processed. This eliminates the need to pack guests into one long line together for hours.
This technology could be rolled out to additional popular attractions that traditionally have long lines to help disperse guests around the parks.
While we don’t yet know exactly the role virtual queuing will play at Disney World, we know that for now, FastPass+ is out. Disney will utilize the additional FastPass queue space to manage capacity inside the attractions while maintaining social distancing. Along those lines, Extra Magic Hours for resort guests are also temporarily suspended.
Even without the extensive use of virtual queues, you can practice social distancing in a Disney theme park.
For example, Shanghai Disneyland has installed signs and ground markings to instruct guests where to stand in line, and where to keep on moving.
Shanghai Disneyland has also reduced capacity on attractions by blocking off every other row. For example, on the very popular Tron ride at Shanghai, only one side of the cycles are occupied, except in cases where a family is riding together.
Suspension of parades and shows
Some elements of the quintessential Disney experience are more problematic for social distancing than others. Historically, Disney’s famous parades and fireworks shows have been plagued with serious crowding issues as everyone floods the same place at the same time.
Disney World confirms on its website that experiences that draw large group gatherings, such as parades and nighttime spectacular, won’t be a part of the initial reopening.
Typically, Disney World only hits its maximum guest capacity and closed gates to additional guests on a very limited number of dates each year (usually around New Year’s Eve).
But the number of allowed guests will be severely capped when the parks reopen. In Shanghai, the government capped the park’s attendance at 30%, which is 24,000 guests. And Disney is staying well under that for now, saying capacity would increase by 5,000 guests a week until they hit the government’s maximum allowable number.
At Disney World, the website states that theme park capacity will be significantly limited. In fact, while awaiting the new reservation system, Disney World has paused new ticket sales and Disney Resort hotel reservations.
As reopenings continue in many states, restaurants are often capped at 25 to 50% of maximum occupancy, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see limits in those ranges initially applied at a Disney theme park.
Related: How coronavirus will change travel
Changes to Disney restaurants
Even at full capacity, getting a table at one of Disney’s best restaurants is tough, so it may get even more difficult to secure those experiences when the parks reopen at a reduced seating capacity.
In fact, because of limited capacity, Disney has recently canceled all existing dining reservations and experience bookings, including Disney dining plans included in packages. It plans to reopen dining and experience bookings with more limited capacity numbers closer to the parks reopen date.
Disney World will also shift from a 180-day dining booking window, to a 60-day booking window for both dining and experience bookings going forward. (Which I think is a great decision even outside of coronavirus as it’s hard to know where you want to eat six months in advance.)
While we’re talking about popular Disney restaurants, there will no longer be character interactions as we were used to. I also don’t expect self-service buffets to be available anytime soon.
Hand sanitizing stations
The week the U.S. parks closed, we saw mobile hand washing and hand sanitizing stations pop up around the theme parks. We will see more of them when the parks ultimately reopen at high touchpoints such as restaurants, snack carts, the park entrance and in attraction entrances and exits, just as we see in Shanghai. It’s also possible some of the temporary hand stations may be introduced in a more permanent capacity, mirroring some of the methods already utilized on the Disney Cruise Line and Shanghai Disneyland.
When will Disney World and Disneyland reopen?
The Walt Disney World theme parks officially begin reopening on July 11, though some visitors with annual passes, DVC memberships, etc. may have access a few days before that.
Disneyland has yet to make any announcements about reopening dates or formally submit reopening plans. However, we have recently learned that Disneyland and other California theme parks will be permitted to reopen when the state reaches the third phase of its reopening plan. There’s no set date for when California will enter that next phase of its reopening, but it very well could still happen this summer, pending relevant COVID-19 rates.
Just as Sept. 11 forever affected theme park security, this pandemic will likely leave a lasting impression on Disney and other major theme parks around the globe as they begin to emerge from months of hibernation. While some additional safety and health measures may eventually ease as we get past this acute phase of the pandemic, some changes to Disney and similar theme parks may very well be permanent.
Featured image by Hu Chengwei / Stringer / Getty Images
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