Orlando's hotels and theme parks will eventually reopen, but things will never be the same

Photo via Walt Disney World/Twitter
Prior to the Spanish flu, it was common for offices and classrooms to use a single, shared drinking cup. Today this practice seems unthinkable as we’ve come to understand the dangers of such a commonly shared item. The same types of changes will come out of the current pandemic, and our world will, again, never be the same.

Just as seeing the World Trade Center towers in the background immediately dates a movie, characters seen shaking hands or visiting a buffet may soon have the same effect. No industry could see more changes than in hospitality, especially Orlando’s sprawling theme park resorts.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll begin to get some understanding of when theme parks will reopen. Currently, it seems like most are planning a mid-summer phased opening. That would mean leaving closed certain attractions at first, especially indoor ones with guests in close proximity. While the exact reopening dates are not yet determined, what is clear is theme parks will forever be different after this pandemic.

One of the most significant changes may be in restaurants, where buffets will go the way of the drive-in and the drugstore soda fountain.

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In an interview with Barron’s last week, Disney executive chairman Bob Iger acknowledged that shifts in health protocols at the parks will be similar to the security enhancements added since 9/11. Temperature checkpoints are likely, either via handheld thermometer or walk-in booths that look similar to metal detectors.

In early March, Wynn Resorts announced it was using thermal cameras at all entrances to monitor guests' temperatures in a non-invasive way. It’s believed similar no-touch temperature check systems will also be implemented at theme parks. Another scenario could include drones, like the ones now being tested in Australia, which can monitor multiple vital signs from a distance, including body temperature and heart rate.

Disney will likely phase out their fingerprint scanners, replacing them with touch-free  facial recognition systems. NBCUniversal confirmed last year that it will be using a facial-recognition system at its new Beijing theme park.

Nearly all major theme parks except Walt Disney World, already use a facial ID system, though most rely on front gate attendants to verify IDs. If Walt Disney World does transition away from finger-touch points of entry, it will be the abandoning of yet another aspect of the multi-billion MyMagic+ system that has plagued the resort since its rollout over a decade ago.
click to enlarge The cleanliest place on Earth? - PHOTO BY SETH KUBERSKY
Photo by Seth Kubersky
The cleanliest place on Earth?
WDW may opt to keep the fingerprint readers for the time being, with readily available hand sanitizer stations nearby. Ahead of their mid-March closing, Disney parks had rolled out numerous hand sanitizer stations. These are expected to return once they reopen, along with more hand washing stations becoming permanent.

Pre-show audience rooms and other areas where guests gather in large groups will likely be skipped for the time being. Some parks have also paused parades, indoor shows, and other attractions that require large groupings of guests.

Mobile ordering and touchscreen kiosk ordering will become more commonplace. Some hotels have already begun ordering the kiosks to replace many check-in clerks. Just before closing the parks, the My Disney app saw a virtual queue tab appear for a short time. This new tab, believed to have been mistakenly published, is expected to be used on nearly every ride once the parks reopen. These virtual queues, kiosk check-in, and mobile ordering systems are going to be the new norm, thanks to their lower overhead costs and ability to more easily gather data on guests – all while keeping guests out of unproductive lines when they could be spending more time buying things.

Public surfaces will be wiped down more frequently, and more surfaces will be treated with anti-bacterial and anti-viral chemicals. Some airlines are already looking to use these chemicals, which can last for several weeks, while hotels and theme parks are reportedly also examining them. These treatments will be used frequently on public surfaces such as airplane seats, attraction ride vehicles, and furniture in hotels.
click to enlarge Universal Orlando's Savioke Personal Service Robot at its Cabana Bay Beach Resort - PHOTO VIA UNIVERSAL ORLANDO TWITTER
Photo via Universal Orlando Twitter
Universal Orlando's Savioke Personal Service Robot at its Cabana Bay Beach Resort
Automation will become more common with robots doing many of the less-skilled jobs. This new wave of robots will augment higher-paid workers in kitchens, housekeeping, groundskeeping, and transportation. Disney was already reportedly looking at autonomous shuttle buses and similar robotic systems.

As more businesses like grocery stores and hotel chains invest in these robots, their cost will drop, causing a snowball effect that will impact many low skilled front-line positions across the tourism industry.

The New York Times is reporting Disney is already looking at decreasing office space as it streamlines, and shifting television productions to require fewer employees. The same cuts are just as likely to apply to the hard-hit Parks, Experiences, and Products division. The Times piece also notes the company is still uncertain how it will address ways people will come together again for entertainment, in the wake of the pandemic.

One of the most significant changes may be in restaurants, where buffets will go the way of the drive-in and the drugstore soda fountain. Vital Vegas, a news site known for the accurate reporting of pre-confirmed news stories relating to the city’s casino industry, was the first to report that multiple Vegas buffets are being permanently closed. Similar stories of the ending of buffets are now also coming from the cruise industry. Disney is expected to follow this trend as well with their on-site buffets. The all-you-care-to-eat systems may remain, with stations staffed with attendants who plate the food for you or some buffets may shift to the family-style meals that can already be found at some Disney restaurants.

We’re still a good 18 to 24 months away from understanding what the "new normal" will look like from here on out, in the meantime, we’ll have coronavirus focused protocols that will focus on social distancing and keeping all guests healthy. It’s still too early to fully understand the lasting implications of the current pandemic, but what is for sure is some things will never be the same.
Photo via Cuauh34/Wikimedia Commons
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