Update: Added clarification that the guidelines discussed below come from preliminary discussions within the Orange County Economic Task Force, have not been finalized or officially embraced by Florida, and have not been endorsed or supported by Disney, Universal or any other theme park company.
Yesterday Florida’s Orange County Economic Task Force released preliminary guidelines for reopening the state’s theme parks. As a shameless theme park fan who has acutely felt their absence over the last two months, I can say with full confidence that these guidelines are utterly impractical. It’s hard to imagine them working at all, and harder still to imagine guests being able to enjoy themselves if they were enacted.
Here’s what the task force’s guidelines recommend. First off, major theme parks would be limited to only 50% capacity during the first phase of reopening; it would eventually increase to 75% in a second phase. To give an impression of what that means, the Magic Kingdom’s capacity is believed to be around 100,000 people—for some reason actual capacity numbers are kept private for most theme parks. The other three Disney World theme parks are believed to have capacities between 50,000 and 75,000 a day. Disney typically enacts temporary closures and other measures to prevent overcrowding before the parks reach those estimated numbers; it’s not clear if the 50% capacity enforced during phase one would be based on the high-end estimate or the number at which Disney typically starts to limit attendance, so it’s impossible to tell exactly how many people we’d be talking about here. It’d still be in the tens of thousands, though, which is a lot of people in any context, and immediately undermines all the other guidelines.
Those would be, in quick order: Queues would be taped off into six-foot sections to enforce distancing. Hand sanitizer would be available through touchless dispensers at every entrance, exit and turnstile. Employees would wear masks and have their temperature checked before every shift, and all surfaces would be wiped down regularly throughout the day.
It’s important to keep in mind that these guidelines don’t come from any of the theme parks themselves, and have not been embraced or supported by Disney, Universal, or other theme park companies. These measures simply aren’t feasible, at least not with the number of people who would still be admitted under the 50% capacity threshold. The guidelines don’t discuss distancing in the park’s stores or common areas, and anybody who’s ever walked down Main Street USA or through Universal’s Harry Potter lands knows how crowded these places get even on days with relatively light attendance. The parks would have to enact strict procedures for all of their restaurants, retail locations, and public spaces, limiting the number of people allowed to be in any of them at one time, limiting their ability to handle merchandise and food service items like trays and utensil dispensers, and somehow preventing them from getting too close to one another. Even at reduced capacity, the wait for attractions could easily become prohibitive if the vehicles have to be cleaned after every ride, and that’s not even mentioning that physical distancing, if enacted on rides, would greatly diminish ride capacity. It’s even questionable whether any indoors attraction or restaurant could reopen at this time, which would greatly reduce what people could actually do at any of these parks.
As much as people would love to return to theme parks, and as much as Disney, Universal and other companies would love to stop losing money every day on shuttered parks, it just doesn’t make any sense to reopen under the terms put forth by this task force. It’d be almost impossible to actually enforce the measures needed to keep people safe, and doing so would ruin the fun of a theme park.
A feasible theme park reopening would have to completely rethink the way these spaces handle their guests. It couldn’t be a free-for-all, with every guest allowed to roam freely at their own leisure. Disney and Universal would have to keep tight control over all movements within the parks. Instead of allowing people to enter at any time throughout the day, they should consider staggered entrances at specific times, with all guests being placed into distinct small groups guided around the parks by employees, on a specific schedule that prevents any two groups from coming near each other. That would make it easier to enforce distancing, and also give ride attendants time to clean the vehicles after every run. It would also make it easier for the companies to enforce the kind of preventative measures that should be mandatory for guests as well as employees—namely, temperature screenings before entrance, and a mask on at all times. This could be a feasible way to reopen theme parks, from the sheer standpoint of protecting the health of everybody involved, and on a purely operational level.
Of course, it would also be wildly impractical from a business standpoint. Such rigorous oversight of guests and their actions would, by necessity, impose a tight cap on how many people are actually able to attend each day—much tighter than the 50% threshold recommended by the state. To make that profitable, theme parks would probably have to raise already exorbitant prices, during an economic downturn that has seen record unemployment. There would definitely be guests who bristle at this level of control over what they can do and when, and guests who fight against requirements to wear a mask or have their temperature taken, which could open parks up to legal action. And if somehow, despite all these measures, an outbreak could be traced back to a theme park, it would be a public relations disaster for that company, and, again, potentially a legal nightmare.
I am not exaggerating when I say that, every day for at least the last month, I’ve thought about how much I miss theme parks. If I could safely travel to Orlando and visit Disney and Universal, I’d be on my way right now. But there shouldn’t be a rush to reopen these places until medical professionals and pandemic experts say it’s okay. The only feasible way to do so would require such extreme restrictions and such a significant increase in prices that it wouldn’t make any practical sense. Unless theme parks are destined to become playgrounds for the richest of the rich—those who can afford personal guides and make it worth the company’s time to limit capacity beyond what is currently being looked at—it should still be a long while before we’re able to return to the Magic Kingdom or Universal Studios again. And yes, I really hate to say that.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.