Florida theme parks keep eye on virus as spring break nears

Mike Schneider & Tamara Lush

ORLANDO, FLORIDA (AP) — As Florida’s busy spring break season kicked off this month, coronavirus czar Vice President Mike Pence addressed something that’s been on the mind of tens of thousands of families preparing to travel to theme parks: Is it safe?

Over the weekend, Pence stressed it was safe for healthy Americans to travel, noting “one of our favourite places to go when my children were young and even before my children came was in Orlando”.

“Whether it be Disney World, whether it be other destination, whether it be cruise ships those most at risk are seniors with serious or chronic underlying health conditions.”

“Otherwise Americans can confidently travel in this country,” Pence said at a meeting with cruise industry officials in Fort Lauderdale recently.

Still, as COVID-19 concerns multiply, the issue weighs heavily on the minds of tourism officials.

Mickey and Minnie Mouse perform during a parade as they pass by the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. PHOTOS: AFP
Park guests relax and cool off with a water mist under the globe at Universal Studios City Walk in Orlando
The entrance to SeaWorld in Orlando

“There is definitely concern. Particularly how and when it could manifest itself in the United States (US),” said President of International Theme Park Services Inc Dennis Speigel, an independent industry consultant.

He’s been watching the spread of the coronavirus for weeks, as theme parks in Asia have closed. He estimated the temporary closure of Disney parks in Shanghai and Hong Kong will cost the company anywhere from USD175 million to USD300 million.

Florida’s coronavirus cases have had a muted effect on the state’s biggest industry so far, but that could change at any moment. As of Sunday night,

Orlando is the nation’s most visited tourist destination, bringing vast numbers of people from around the globe to its major theme parks, which also include Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. The city attracted 75 million visitors in 2018. But it’s also at least 105 kilometres from the nearest coronavirus case.

Though some convention business has cancelled because of concerns, individual leisure travel hasn’t been affected, local officials said.

Jennifer Morales, a 47-year-old mother from San Antonio, said the outbreak hasn’t changed her plans for an eight-day Walt Disney World vacation with her daughter. She’s been to Disney World 20-plus times, and her daughter is in a marching band scheduled to be in a park parade.

“I don’t think it warrants cancelling a vacation right now,” she said, adding that she’s more worried about sitting on a plane with people with colds and the flu. “I’m kind of a germaphobe. We all have our own personal hand sanitisers, We’re diligent about handwashing at the parks, especially after rides. Now we’ll spending a little extra time washing hands. I already travel with a small can of Lysol and hose everything down in our hotel rooms.”

The state draws hordes of college-age students and families with grade-school children during the spring break season, which begins in earnest in mid-March and runs into April. Cancellations could be devastating during one of the busiest times of the year in the Sunshine State.

“Monitoring all of our visitor information channels, we’ve only seen a handful of inquiries so far,” President and CEO of tourism promotion agency Visit Orlando George Aguel said earlier in the week.

Three convention groups have cancelled their conferences in Orlando over concerns about the new coronavirus, which Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said represents a USD154 million impact.

Aguel said a handful of smaller hotels in the Orlando area have had conferences cancelled that involved large numbers of international conferees, “and they predicted there would be some challenges with that, so out of an abundance of caution they decided it would be wiser to cancel.”

The US Travel Association recently predicted a six per cent decline in international visitors to the US over the next three months as a result of coronavirus. If the prediction holds, it would be the largest decline in international inbound travel since the recession a dozen years ago, the association said.

Coronavirus fears hit Florida this week as Disney World opened a new ride based on Mickey Mouse, a park first. The resort’s most anticipated new land in years, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, debuted only last August.

If a Disney visitor shows coronavirus symptoms or first responders think they have the flu, both patient and paramedic will get a face mask, said President of the union local for firefighters at Disney World Tim Stromsnes.

Speigel said parks and attractions likely will undergo “a lot of fumigation, disinfection, right now, not only in the front of the house, but the back of the house.”

Officials with Busch Gardens and SeaWorld didn’t respond to email inquiries about how the coronavirus had affected them.

Disney officials said in a statement that extra hand sanitisers were being placed throughout its four parks and more than two dozen hotels.

Tom Schroder, a spokesman for Universal Orlando, said it is reinforcing “best-practice health and hygiene procedures” in response to the coronavirus outbreak and adding more hand sanitiser units to its parks.

“We will continue to closely monitor the situation and be ready to act as needed,” he said.

Spiegel added that at many parks, deliveries will be scrutinised and workers will be retrained on cleanliness procedures.

Parks may also restrict employee travel to higher-risk countries such as China, Italy and South Korea — a measure Legoland has already taken.

Last Wednesday, the opening day of Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, about 1,000 people were waiting to enter the park, said owner of Inside the Magic Kurt Schmidt, a massive online community and news site for Disney fans.

No one was wearing a mask, Schmidt said.

“From where I’m sitting, there’s absolutely no difference in how things feel,” he said. “I can’t see anything that is different.”