Would Walt Disney World Consider a Phased Re-Opening?
The Walt Disney Company surprised a lot of people yesterday when it quietly added operating hours to all of its Walt Disney World parks in early May. The move may seem premature and could even hint at a website mistake.
Still, this turn of events raises several questions, most of which involve Disney’s practices at Shanghai Disneyland. It was the first Disney park resort to return, at least partially, from Coronavirus.
The presumption is that Disney will follow some of the tactics from that campus, which has restored some services but hasn’t operated its parks yet. What would a similar phased re-opening look like at Walt Disney World?
The Shanghai Disneyland Model
We know several things about how Shanghai Disney officials have proceeded. They have re-opened a “limited number of shopping, dining and recreational experiences.”
The official park website also says: “Each of these resort locations will operate under limited capacity and reduced hours of operation.” And it adds that parking lots are open for business again, too.
What can we take from that?
Disney has done what it can to restore some semblance of a revenue stream at its Shanghai resort. Shopping and dining options aren’t as profitable as theme park operations, but they’re certainly better than nothing.
With this modest start, Shanghai officials can perform a sort of stress test across multiple fields. They can determine whether audiences are ready and willing to return to Shanghai Disneyland.
Also, the management team has learned which rights people are willing to cede to get back to Disney. Most famously, cast members take people’s temperatures before allowing admission. It’s an understandable safety precaution stemming from COVID-19.
So, Shanghai Disneyland is safe from infection but still earning some money. Most importantly, it’s filling the void for Disney lovers…and at a cheaper customer cost than usual.
How Walt Disney World Would Compare
The first thing to remember is that Walt Disney World works differently than Shanghai Disneyland…or even Disneyland. In Orlando, Disney operates four theme parks, two entertainment complexes, and a sports campus.
Also, the American government specifically empowers states with rights, and that ripples down to the use of land. Disney technically runs its own government, but it couldn’t ignore the public’s safety to keep Walt Disney World open.
Disney can’t rely on the federal government to decide for it like in Shanghai, but it must/should abide by the current Florida stay-at-home request. This directive technically ends on April 30th but could last until May 2nd, depending on one’s interpretation.
So, nothing can happen at Walt Disney World until one of those dates unless park officials petition for a special exemption. Due to Disney’s trustworthy behavior over the years, the company would have a good chance of winning such a request.
The question becomes whether they’d want to do so, which we’ll explore in the next section. However, presuming that Disney does a phased re-opening, the similarities to Shanghai Disneyland wouldn’t match perfectly.
What Would Open First?
At Walt Disney World, stores and restaurants spread across the entire campus. Shanghai Disneyland features a more centralized location.
The presumption is that Disney Springs would become the first place to open. It features revenue-generating locales like the ones at Shanghai Disneyland.
I’m not sure that the BoardWalk entertainment complex would follow suit, though. It might not make enough money, especially with Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, Disney’s Beach Club Resort, and EPCOT all closed.
Something everyone should understand is how much Disney resorts, parks, stores, and restaurants rely on one another to generate income. So, Disney Springs is the primary option that resides outside this tight ecosystem.
Oddly, the other possibility for a phased re-opening is ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. It’s shut down now, as almost all forms of sports on every level are currently closed. The main exceptions are professional wrestling and UFC fighting, neither of which fits the Disney lifestyle.
However, several sports, including Major League Baseball and the National Basketball Association, are at least exploring potential returns. Similarly, the National Football League would like to run training camps after the draft.
Due to Disney’s ESPN connections and programming needs, I can envision scenarios where the sports complex comes back soon. I don’t think it’s likely by any stretch, merely a possibility.
Disney could breathe some life into its currently unused facilities while also providing more ESPN content. I’m confident that’s an idea the company has at least explored. COVID-19 concerns may render it impossible, though.
The Hurdles to Overcome
Assuming that Disney did re-open some facilities, the parks would face some unique challenges.
For starters, Disney wouldn’t have an easy time readying its stores and restaurants. Let’s presume that Disney Springs does re-open during the first phase. Who would work there?
Most of the third-party locations in the area have furloughed or laid off their employees. Starting on April 19th, Disney cast members will follow suit.
Workers would need to come back to their jobs, which some may not want to do. Many feel betrayed by their employers. And where would customers stay anyway?
Unless Disney re-opens some of its resorts during phase one, potential visitors wouldn’t have good options. The third-party resorts at Disney Springs have already closed for a while. Even if Disney got to open early, none of these places necessarily would.
So, would Disney cater primarily to Florida residents? These people would need to show bravery in the face of a pandemic to leave their homes. Would they do that to eat or shop at Disney Springs?
I mentioned that Shanghai Disneyland used its phased re-opening to determine these things. Disney’s in tight with the government there, so it was an authorized decision made by Chinese officials.
In America, the company would face heightened scrutiny. Its leadership team is fully aware of the optics of re-opening even a small part of Walt Disney World.
Former CEO Bob Iger recently floated the idea of requiring temperature checks at Disney’s American parks. He added that theme parks changed their practices after 9/11 and felt something similar would happen now.
Then, there are the other challenges in re-opening Disney, even on a small scale. In short, the company would face several short- and long-term obstacles, even for a phased restart.
What Are Disney’s Goals for a Phased Re-Opening?
Given all these aggravations, you may wonder why Disney would choose a phased re-opening. I’m not confident that they will.
However, the critical thought process here is a trial run. Park officials want to know how readily customers will return to Disney Springs.
China has faced several different oddities while trying to restart society outside the home. The movie industry experienced an all-time indignity when theaters averaged less than one customer per showing upon re-opening.
Disney doesn’t want to take on the negative social media complaints for a minimal amount of revenue. The company would only do this if signs indicated many people were willing to eat and shop at Disney Springs.
The crowds lead us to the secondary discussion. Disney took a beating over pictures of people ignoring social distancing during the final hours at Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
With a phased re-opening, park management could observe whether Disney guests have gotten smarter. Will they follow CDC guidelines and maintain proper spacing?
Also, Disney would use this opportunity to test a modified version of operations. Like Shanghai Disneyland, the open locations would offer limited capacity and reduced hours.
Disney executives could utilize all this information to decide the feasibility of a park re-opening. If the phased re-opening worked well, management would have an easier time signing off on the return of Magic Kingdom et al.
So, will Disney do a phased re-opening at Walt Disney World, or will the company restart everything at once? I’m inclined to say the latter.
However, a modest re-opening makes more sense if Coronavirus concerns stretch out for several months. Disney doesn’t want to stay entirely out of business for that long.