Three Years Ago, Disney Faced Its Most Devastating Crisis
On March 15th, 2020, the unthinkable happened.
For the first time ever, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resort faced long-term closures due to the first global pandemic in more than a century.
Remarkably, these weren’t even the first Disney parks to close due to COVID-19.
Today, let’s look back at the Disney chaos caused by this health crisis and how far the parks have come in recovering from the pandemic.
Let’s Relive Disney’s Worst Year Ever
I glanced through several months of MickeyBlog’s archives to evaluate our coverage at the time.
The nightmare began innocently enough with this January report.
In quick succession, MickeyBlog confirmed the closures of Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland.
Anecdotally, I was vacationing at Walt Disney World that week, and I can tell you that at least some guests were aware of Coronavirus.
We overheard some questions regarding safety protocols at the parks and witnessed one unfortunate bout of paranoia involving a Chinese couple on one of our flights.
Fear definitely hadn’t peaked by this point, but it was starting to creep into people’s lives due to what they were hearing on the news.
Many hoped the crisis would remain in the Eastern hemisphere and that the Chinese government had overreacted. They hadn’t.
By the end of February, Tokyo Disneyland had joined the Chinese parks in closing.
Early in 2020, Disney’s gravest American concern involved a PR mishap with a school trademark issue.
Within three weeks, Iger would recognize the severity of the crisis underway and announce his retirement and successor.
For his part, new CEO Bob Chapek didn’t present the body language one would expect of an executive gaining their dream job. He also spoke on Coronavirus:
Chapek provides a non-answer there, and Iger’s micro-reactions are telling. They suspected how bad the problem could grow.
Disney previously posted an update on cruise ship travel that proved pointless, as nobody would be sailing again that year.
None of this sounds normal because it was anything but that.
Disney Loses a Fortune
Outsiders will never outside how desperate the situation was inside Disney’s executive suite.
I once detailed all the ways that Coronavirus negatively impacted Disney’s business. The answer was, “Almost every way possible.”
Disney couldn’t keep its theme parks open, the entire cruise industry closed for a year, and the film exhibition industry nearly collapsed.
The lone bright spot at the time was Disney’s streaming business, Direct-To-Consumer.
At the pandemic’s beginning, Disney+ claimed 26.5 million subscribers. By the end of 2022, that number had exploded to more than 160 million.
Still, that growth represented Disney’s only good news for a while. On March 15th, 2020, both Disneyland and Walt Disney World closed indefinitely.
Before then, Americans had naively hoped that the pandemic wouldn’t reach our shores, which isn’t how infectious disease works.
At the time, reports speculated that closures in China could cost Disney $280 million. Oh, how they wish that was all they lost.
In the months leading up to the pandemic, Disney claimed record attendance in 2019 and its best January and February totals ever in 2020.
Then, the wheels came off, as the unimaginable transpired. Walt Disney World would remain closed until July 11th, 108 days later.
COVID-19 restrictions forced Disneyland Resort fans to wait much longer, a decision that caused a rift between Bob Iger and California’s governor.
Disneyland Resort wouldn’t reopen until April 30th, 2021, more than a calendar year after the closure.
You can guess how much this hurt Disney’s business, with one park closed for four months and the other offline for 13 months.
In fact, one statement may summarize the madness of Disney’s pandemic era.
Its most recent two CEOs found themselves feuding with the governors of two different states, ones on opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Disney Adapts to the Impossible
For a time, Disney just couldn’t catch a break. During the first fiscal quarter affected by COVID-19, Disney revenue fell from $20.3 billion to $11.8 billion.
Few companies even earn $8.5 billion in a fiscal quarter, much less fall that far short of expectations.
Folks, that’s how you fast-track a bankruptcy trajectory.
Thankfully, Disney stood strong in facing the impossible. We can quibble here or there about various decisions, some of which proved controversial.
However, what no one can argue is that Disney has come out of the pandemic stronger than ever.
For fiscal 2022, Disney set a record with $82.7 billion in revenue. That’s up from $65.4 billion in 2020 and $67.4 billion in 2021.
Yes, during its most recent year, Disney increased its earnings by more than $15 billion! That seems like an impossibility, but it happened.
The explanation for soaring revenue centers on the diminishing nature of Coronavirus.
As society overcame the health crisis, Disney could get back to business.
The parks returned to normal and even opened stunning new offerings like Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind.
At Disneyland Resort, Avengers Campus debuted and instantly became the go-to spot for unique character interactions.
As for the rest of the park offerings, pretty much everything we love at Walt Disney World and Disneyland has reopened.
Even attractions and restaurants with uncertain fates, like Enchanted Tales with Belle and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, have returned.
Disney’s parks are operating at full strength exactly three years after the entire empire appeared on the brink of collapse!
What’s Next at Disney?
Disney’s American theme parks still have several more aces in the hole as well.
For example, Mickey’s Toontown reopens at Disneyland Park next week, hot on the heels of Runaway Railway debuting in January.
On April 4th, Tron Lightcycle / Run debuts at Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom.
Then, during the second half of 2023, Journey of Water | Inspired by Moana opens. Oh, and The Villas at Disneyland Hotel will welcome guests on September 28th!
Meanwhile, Bob Iger has hinted that Disneyland could expand much more than people realize.
Also, during Disney’s final days of control of its Walt Disney World district, the company laid the groundwork for a fifth gate.
In short, Disney has survived the worst and now acts emboldened for its future, especially at the parks.
The timing of Disney’s 100th anniversary has proven ideal to demonstrate that the company can survive anything and still keep making magic for guests!
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Feature Photo: Disney Dining/Disney