Coronavirus is, of course all over the media. And with good reason. It’s a new virus to us, it’s spreading quickly, no one has immunity, we don’t have a vaccine and a certain percentage of people are dying from it.
In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, China and Italy have quarantined millions of people in their respective countries. Airlines are canceling flights left and right (this is, of course, partially to protect people, but also to save money due to numerous cancellations by would-be passengers), and cruise lines, besides quarantining whole ships that turned out to have people with coronavirus on them, are also canceling some future cruises. Whole companies are telling their employees to work from home. Conventions, concerts, festivals and large meetings all around the world have been canceled. Large gathering places such as schools, museums, and religious sites have been reported to be temporarily closing their doors.
As Disney park fans will tell you, Tokyo Disneyland, Hong Kong Disneyland, and Shanghai Disneyland are all closed. Disneyland Paris and Disneyland remain open at this time. For now.
But they wouldn’t ever close Walt Disney World, right?
Unfortunately, I think they could. Here’s why.
Disney has published a “Disney Parks and Resorts Questions about Coronavirus/COVID-19” page on their website, as well as a FAQ about their parks in relation to COVID-19. These documents stress training and retraining of their cast members, as well as sanitation and cleaning practices. They’re obviously doing as much as they can to make sure WDW remains as germ-free as possible.
However viruses, besides face to hands to surface to hands to face, are also spread by airborne droplets. Coughing. Sneezing.
True, most people cover their nose/mouth when that happens. But if you cough or sneeze into your arm, it’s not an airtight seal. So droplets are still getting into the air. Little kids don’t know to cover their mouths and noses. And some people just turn away when they sneeze, hands/arms free, aim their faces down, and let it blast into the air.
Then you have what theme parks are famous for – queues. Indoor queues. With lots of people in an enclosed space for minutes to hours, depending on the ride. Think of the above, plus people who inadvertently cough/sneeze into their hands and then touch queue railings etc. (cast members can be fastidious but they still can’t clean every part of every railing, doorknob, souvenir someone picked up and put back, etc. 24/7). That’s a whole lot of potential for the virus to spread from person to person, even with amazing cleaning protocol on the part of the parks.
So there’s that.
Obviously, guests who are looking forward to their WDW vacations don’t want the parks to close. Disney stockholders certainly don’t want them to close. And, of course, the Walt Disney Company doesn’t want the parks to close, probably most of all.
I can’t think of anyone who wants the parks to close. But they still could wind up having to close them. Here are some ways I think it could go down:
- If Central Florida became a COVID-19 hot spot, government(s) on a county, state or federal level could ban large public gatherings and force WDW to close.
- They could also put the entire county (WDW is positioned in two counties, Orange and Osceola. Mainly Orange.) on quarantine as a way to help slow the spread of the virus. Granted, it would be a logistical nightmare, but entire counties in Central Florida have been under curfews before or after hurricanes in the past, most recently in September 2019 (Hurricane Dorian); a quarantine would essentially be a prolonged curfew.
- If the Central Florida region was a hot spot, airlines might cancel all flights in and out of MCO and the smaller airports in the area.
- If enough people canceled their vacations, either because the airlines won’t fly there or they’re just scared, would it even make sense, from a financial POV, for the parks to stay open? There was a time, until less than a decade ago, that Disney’s water parks stayed open regardless of the outside temperatures (we used to joke that the only people who would go on those “high of 59 degrees” days were the Canadians). If the daytime highs are forecast to be below a certain temperature nowadays, they close the water parks for the day; it’s apparently just not worth staying open for the handful people who come. Why couldn’t the same hold true for the “big” WDW parks? Why would they even open then if only a relatively few people were visiting?
- Walt Disney World cast members work closely together, oftentimes in enclosed spaces of attractions, restaurants, shops, backstage buildings, offices, etc. With the sky-high cost of living in Central FL and meager wages for front line workers, many of them share apartments or homes to help pay the rent. Most kids enrolled in WDW’s College Program live in close quarters, in dorm-like buildings. Hundreds of cast members who work in the Magic Kingdom use the Utilidors, the enclosed maze of underground tunnels, to get from one place to another. So bunches of cast members are close together a whole lot of the time. What if, from all that togetherness, a large percentage of them got sick with coronavirus? There would be no one to operate the parks.
- Depending the circumstances, what if WDW turned out to be the epicenter for a coronavirus hot spot? Say 50 people staying at a particular Disney hotel got sick because a housekeeper had COVID-19 but showed no symptoms and didn’t know she was spreading it. Or maybe everyone who went to a certain restaurant one day all came down with the virus and it turned out a restaurant worker had come to work that day, not feeling great but thinking it was just his allergies acting up, and it turned out to be the virus instead? That could be a potential PR nightmare and WDW might WANT to close its gates in an effort to halt the spread on their end.
At a press briefing last week, Vice President Pence was asked if he’d feel comfortable bringing his family to Walt Disney World during the outbreak. He avoided directly answering the question, only saying, “I travel across this country all the time.”
Well, that’s comforting.
WDW has only closed for 7 days in its nearly 50-year history. Six of those days were due to the threat (or aftermath) of hurricanes and the one other time was on September 11, 2001. Those were all times when there was a question if their guests (and employees) could remain safe while at the parks. In the days and weeks and maybe months ahead, WDW may need to make some tough decisions in terms of keeping their parks open or not, in light of the spread of coronavirus.
No one will be happy if the parks close. No one hopes the parks will close. But yes, under the right conditions, I think they could.
I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
By the way, in case you want to keep track of the virus, the Florida Department of Health has a website where they’re publishing updated stats about COVID-19 in the state. It includes how many confirmed cases there are, how many deaths, info about test results and how many people are being monitored (read: under quarantine), etc.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary