As Florida's "safer at home" restrictions begin to ease, Orlando's battered tourism industry is looking toward the light at the end of the tunnel, although nobody can seem to agree whether it's daylight or an oncoming train. Smaller attractions along International Drive have already started to reopen, and signs point to shopping districts like CityWalk and Disney Springs welcoming guests again within a week or so. Inevitably, everyone is wondering when the big theme parks will return, and what they'll be like when they do.
Anyone who claims to know exactly when and how Walt Disney World will reopen is lying, unless their name is Bob Iger, but that hasn't stopped every financial analyst and industry observer from expressing an opinion, with clickbait headlines proclaiming "parks won't reopen until 2021" widely circulating on social media.
After weeks of reading white papers and watching government task meetings, my educated gut instinct says Central Florida's major theme parks will resume operations between Memorial Day and Fourth of July. However, it's obvious that until a reliable coronavirus cure is found, the parkgoing experience must change in ways that will inevitably be decried as insufficient half-measures by some, and intrusive overreactions by others. To be clear, none of the following policies and procedures have yet been officially confirmed, and if enacted there's no indication how long they'd be enforced. The following thought exercise depicts either a "best case" or "worst case" scenario, depending on your point of view, but my conjecture is realistically rooted in what's currently happening at other major attractions around the globe. So come with me now on a theoretical post-quarantine vacation to Walt Disney World, as we imagine how COVID-19 might change the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Your trip begins as you check into your on-site hotel using a mobile app, self-park your car and lug your own luggage directly to your room, never interacting with the front desk staff.
The room was pricier than you'd expect on the eve of another great depression, but with several resorts partially or completely shuttered, demand is high for the remaining inventory. The room itself has been thoroughly sanitized and stripped of coffee makers and mini-bars; don't expect daily housekeeping service. In-room dining is available, but it's left outside your door.
Deck chairs are scarce and widely spaced around the pool, and the lobby's grab-and-go market is closed, as are the gym and spa.
In the morning, your decision to visit the Magic Kingdom is easy, since it's the only park that's fully operational. Disney's Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are partially open on a rotating schedule, but without its international and college program employees, it's more cost-effective for Epcot to remain closed.
As you approach the theme park, you find that a new step has been added to the already onerous security screening: a touch-free temperature check ensuring that anyone with a fever is prohibited from entry. You notice that all the front-line employees are wearing face masks, and many have gloves. Guests are not being required to wear masks, but disposable masks are offered and strongly encouraged; they'll also happily sell you reusable ones branded with cartoon characters.
The ticket booths are closed, because single-day admissions have been restricted in favor of on-site guests and annual passholders, who must now reserve their visits in advance due to capacity constraints. Fingerprint scans are no longer needed at the turnstile, and once inside the gates you are greeted by a gaggle of hand sanitizer dispensers, the first of a bazillion you'll see during the day.
It's time to check your mobile app again and see what your first ride reservation of the day is, because the era of standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a standby queue is kaput. Securing advance FastPasses is now more important than ever, and virtual queuing schemes – like the system used for Rise of the Resistance – have replaced traditional lines at most attractions.
When your turn to ride arrives, you'll still spend time in a queue, but it's been rerouted outdoors to avoid face-to-face switchbacks, leaving room for six feet between parties. At the boarding station, attendants stop to wipe down handholds between riders, and vehicles that were designed to hold four or five families now carry only one or two. As a result, even though the park's attendance is limited to less than half of its peak potential, the attractions' capacities are constricted even further, and there are no single rider lines to help shorten your wait.
At lunchtime, you pull out your smartphone to order your meal, since you aren't permitted inside the quick-service restaurant until your food has been prepared, then eat it al fresco on newly placed picnic tables. Stopping to see a show, you're asked to skip every other row and leave lots of space between parties – a far cry from the traditional "slide down to fill every seat" spiel – and the 4D film has ditched a dimension so guests don't have to grab glasses. The parade and fireworks have been canceled to discourage crowding, so you window-shop along Main Street U.S.A., where outdoor kiosks have replaced indoor browsing.
To cap off your evening, you attend a character meal, where the self-service buffet has been converted to family-style service. Mickey and Minnie still appear to pose for photos, but they offer shoulder pats instead of hugs, and no longer circulate among the dining tables.
As a theme park journalist, it's my job to return to the parks (with sensible precautions) as soon as they reopen, but the issue is whether any proposed safety measures can inspire millions of families do the same. The bottom line is that attractions are going to reopen before the virus has been fully eradicated, and no measures can 100 percent guarantee guests' safety.
Instead, I predict parks will perform "health theater" – much like the "security theater" airports adopted after 9/11 – intended to make their customers feel more comfortable while limiting corporate culpability. That might be the best they can offer under the current circumstances, but if (or when) a second wave of infections hits, it may not prove to be enough.