Mickey didn’t pick a great time to reopen. As COVID-19 cases surge in Florida, “The Most Magical Place on Earth” is trying to be one of the safest with thorough health protocols. Walt Disney World, a business built on light-hearted entertainment, has had to acknowledge a very serious topic––with the same gusto as putting up holiday decor down Main Street. The parks have rolled out extra resources and policies, from handwashing stations to cleaning ride vehicles every two hours to some restaurants supplying a bag to hold your mask while you eat. Like the quarantined NBA playoffs currently hosted on property, Disney World has become a bubble. The parks were already a metaphorical bubble for joy and escapism, but now they’re a literal, temp-checked vacuum. In theory, it’s near-perfect. But, in reality, there are holes in the bubble.
Disney World’s mask policy is strict. Cast members (Disney’s term for employees) and guests ages two and older are required to wear masks at all times. Before the parks even reopened, the company was quick to clarify that gaiters would not be sufficient and that masks needed ties or loops. Over the weekend, Disney updated their policy for eating and drinking with a mask. You can still do it, but you have to be sitting down and socially-distanced. Park-goers say despite the heat, mask compliance is near 100%. “The right policies and procedures are in place,” said AJ Wolfe of Disney Food Blog. “The problem, as is always the case, is the human element.” Wolfe has been covering the reopenings and noted that while no one is being purposefully negligent, mistakes happen.
The exception to the rule is princesses. Unlike other cast members, they’re not wearing masks. While parades have been canceled, the princesses do pop up in surprise cavalcades. At Animal Kingdom, Pocahontas cruises on a boat. At EPCOT, Anna rides in a carriage while Elsa walks ahead. And at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, though not a princess, Rey appears inside Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. All without masks. The most concerning is Magic Kingdom’s princess cavalcade with Ariel, Belle, Jasmine, Cinderella, and more, all stationed on one float. Even if the princesses are at the six-foot mark, they seem strangely exposed. The characters are far from guests watching on the sidewalk. But sometimes it doesn’t go according to plan. On reopening day, Merida’s horse reared on Main Street after a toddler rushed her. The princess was able to dismount safely but came into close contact with people. Mask compliance is so important that Disney created a special squad to enforce mask rules; so, it’s confusing that princesses and other street performers aren’t wearing them.
As for distancing, Ashley Carter, a theme park reporter for Orlando’s Spectrum News13, said that most people are maintaining six feet of distance. But these new rules go against an attitude and mindset that theme park regulars have been conditioned with for years, if not decades: fill in all the available space. “The one area where it doesn’t feel like it is as perfect as it needs to be is in the attraction queues,” she said. “People have this muscle memory of when they’re in the park to just keep moving along in a line and to keep getting as close to the person in front of you as possible.”
As more research about the spread of coronavirus comes out, the importance of distance becomes even greater. To Mickey’s credit, the parks have installed a barrage of plexiglass, from switchbacks in lines to food order windows. It’s a major investment and goes above and beyond what other theme parks, such as Universal Orlando or Seaworld, are doing. But no matter how much control Disney puts into the infrastructure, one component of theme parks is inevitable: bottlenecks.
Within the first 48 hours of reopening Magic Kingdom, photos of the Guest Relations line and the queue to the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train went viral because they showed huge crowds of people with no distancing. But park-goers say these are rare. “Those images are like a blip,” said Carter. “It happened, but that’s not the norm right now.” Reopening kinks aside, some parks are able to handle backups better than others. EPCOT and Animal Kingdom have space to breathe. At 300 and 500 acres respectively, walkways are wider. And even though Magic Kingdom is the smallest, it works efficiently because of Walt Disney’s iconic spoke-and-wheel design that was first used at Disneyland and later in Orlando. The park’s central hub, with connected satellite lands, prevents dead ends and keeps traffic moving.
However, Hollywood Studios lacks both size and smart design. And in the age of COVID-19, subtle pain points such as dead ends or long wait times become major concerns. Even with limited capacity, the park is missing its mega shows that absorb crowds. Also, Studios just completed a renovation; so, it has all the new stuff. Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway premiered in March right before closures and most guests haven’t experienced it yet. The incredibly immersive Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride just premiered in December in a brand-new land within Hollywood Studios that’s only been open since August. It’s a lot of hype in a small space.
One of the ways Disney is trying to encourage movement is by cutting attraction pre-shows, such as the infamous stretching room in The Haunted Mansion. Instead, the doors are kept open and guests are instructed to walk through. It’s effective for ride lines, but stores don’t have the same regulated flow. “The popular shops are uncomfortable,” said Craig Williams. The DIS podcast producer sees big stores like the Emporium as the biggest threat to the bubble. “People aren’t concerned about where other people are and I think that’s because they’re used to going grocery shopping and maneuvering those tight aisles and not really caring about it.” For the near future, he said he’s going to skip both shopping and indoor theaters––especially 4D shows.
Williams said he felt comfortable that guests are seated three chairs apart with every other row skipped, but he did question some of the 4D elements and whether they pose a risk. Shows like Muppet Vision 3D and Mickey’s PhilharMagic use a lot of wind and water effects. “I don’t need to have someone else’s germs being blown on me or to constantly change masks because they’re getting wet from water being sprayed on my face,” he said.
These concerns chip away at a seemingly safe environment. And that’s a problem, because people go to Disney World to feel uplifted, happy, and safe. Magic Kingdom is revered for its clever ability to hide the outside world. Sightlines are designed to keep the environment on theme. But magical horizons aren’t enough to distract us from something else we can’t see: a deadly virus. The reality is there’s currently a warning in red text at the top of Disney World’s website regarding the risk of exposure. The plaque at the park entrance still displays Walt Disney’s famous words about leaving today and entering a world of fantasy, but there’s also a sign on the nearby trash can about your health and safety.