ORLANDO, FLORIDA (AP) — Every week, it seems, Kaila Barker, her husband and their five children change their minds about whether to travel from their home in Connecticut to Florida’s Walt Disney World as planned in September.
On the one hand, the lack of crowds means more opportunities to go on rides without long waits. On the other hand, Connecticut and Florida have implemented pandemic-related quarantines for each other’s residents and visitors, and the Barkers worry whether the Disney “magic” will get lost with mandatory mask-wearing for visitors and workers, temperature checks and no parades, fireworks shows or up-close “meet-and-greets” with costumed characters.
“We keep going back and forth. It’s such a hard decision to make,” Barker said last Tuesday.
Two weeks after Disney World started opening its theme parks for the first time since closing in March because of COVID-19, the Barkers’ quandary affects not only Disney World’s future but that of central Florida’s tourism-reliant economy.
More than 75 million visitors came to Orlando in 2018, mostly due to its reputation as a theme park mecca, which also includes Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. But the coronavirus has upended Orlando’s status as the most visited place in the United States (US).
In the week that Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom started welcoming back visitors, occupancy of hotel rooms in the Orlando area was down more than 60 per cent from the previous year, a much deeper drop than the state as a whole, which declined more than 41 per cent, according to STR, which tracks hotel data.
Less than half of Disney World’s 43,000 unionised workers have been recalled to their old jobs, contributing to two Orlando-area counties having the state’s highest unemployment rates last month — Osceola at 22.9 per cent and Orange at 17.2 per cent. Disney World has an overall workforce of 77,000 employees, the nation’s largest single-site labour force.
Many of those still-furloughed workers are about to lose federal benefits at the end of the month.
“This is an extremely difficult moment,” said president of the local union that represents stagehands and show technicians at Disney World Paul Cox. “There are still a majority of workers who are staying at home and they’re about to lose support. Things are going to get bad.”
Union officials estimate the Disney parks are no more than a third full, but that may be more by design to maintain social distancing. Disney World doesn’t release attendance figures, but in pre-pandemic times its four parks and two water parks could host around 150,000 visitors a day.
Florida has had a surging coronavirus caseload recently, and other Disney parks around the globe have run into coronavirus-related roadblocks. Hong Kong Disneyland Park was forced to close earlier this month following the city’s decision to ban public gatherings of more than four people, and Disney’s California parks delayed reopening while they awaited state guidelines.
Cowen Inc estimated recently that Disney’s parks and resorts won’t return to pre-pandemic profitability until fiscal year 2025, and there is a “meaningful” probability that Disney World could close again because of the pandemic.
Leaders of the Disney World workers’ unions describe the virus-related safety measures Disney has taken as “exemplary”.
After workers complained about patrons walking around with their masks pulled down while eating food like turkey legs, Disney World updated its mandatory mask policy, requiring visitors to eat in one place while maintaining social distancing.
In response to other worker concerns, Disney has distributed personal hand sanitiser containers for workers to wear on their belts, added additional break rooms to limit the number of workers in them and reduced the number of riders on buses that shuttle workers from parking lots to the parks. Performers dressed as Disney princesses being driven in a horse-powered carriage through the parks now sit individually in rows separated by clear-plastic window partitions.
“Singing their praises seems so strange,” said official with a United Food & Commercial Workers union which represents Disney merchandise and banquet workers Julee Jerkovich. “As far as this grand experiment, I would have to say Disney has done a really good job.”