Entertainment

Disney confident in reopening this week even as coronavirus cases reach new highs in Florida

Key Points
  • Walt Disney World will reopen in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday.
  • Florida has seen a massive increase in coronavirus cases in recent weeks. 
  • Even with growing public concern, Disney is confident in its reopening plan for Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Hollywood Studios.
With Minnie, Mickey and friends, Walt Disney World President Josh D'Amaro waves to guests gathered on Main Street USA, in the Magic Kingdom in the final minutes before the park closed, Sunday night, March 15, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Getty Images

Walt Disney World will reopen in Orlando, Florida, on Saturday amid a growing number of Covid-19 cases within the state.

The pandemic has devastated Disney. The company has been forced to shutter its theme parks, push back its film openings and run ESPN without live games from major U.S. sports leagues.

One bright spot for Disney has been its streaming service Disney+, which saw its number of app downloads jump 74% ahead of its release last week of the filmed stage production of Lin-Manuel Miranda's "Hamilton" featuring the musical's original cast. 

Reopening its parks, which accounted for 37% of the company's $69.6 billion in total revenue last year, is a top priority for Disney. Already, its competitors, Universal Studios and SeaWorld, have reopened to limited capacity in Orlando. Disney was among the first parks to close in the state in mid-March and will be one of the last to reopen. 

Despite extensive safety procedures and approval from local government, there is still apprehension from potential guests and experts about whether Disney World should reopen its gates to the public. Especially, after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis extended Florida's state of emergency for another 60 days on Tuesday.

The increased scrutiny on Disney, in particular, appears to be a result of the massive increase in coronavirus cases in Florida. Nearly 114,000 new cases were reported in the last two weeks, according to the Florida Department of Health. Not to mention, dozens of hospitals in the state have run out of space in their intensive care units.

"We are still knee-deep in the first wave of the pandemic, with cases now exceeding 3 million in the U.S.," said Dr. Ravina Kullar, a Los Angeles-based infectious disease specialist, epidemiologist and spokeswoman for the Infectious Diseases Society of America. "Data has shown us that SARS-CoV-2 outbreaks have happened from people screaming, talking loudly, and coughing and sneezing."

Kullar said theme parks will be a "breeding ground" for Covid-19 transmission and should remain closed until there is a decrease in cases.

"We are in the middle of pandemic, we need to think about what is important to open and what is not important to open," Dr. Carlos Del Rio, an Atlanta-based infectious diseases specialist, said. "I think the world survives just fine without Disney."

Disney's new safety measures

Even with growing public concern, Disney has expressed confidence in its plans and safety measures. The company will reopen Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on Saturday and Epcot and Hollywood Studios on July 15. 

Unions representing 48,000 Disney employees in Florida have already signed agreements to return under Disney's new safety protocols, which include a mandatory mask policy, temperature checks, empty seats on rides and the addition of around 4,000 sanitation stations within its parks and shopping centers. And Disney is prepared to enforce these new policies. 

Crowds walk through Disney Springs shopping and dining complex at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. The theme park is scheduled to reopen on Saturday despite a surge in new Covid-19 infections throughout Florida, including the central part of the state where Orlando is located.
Octavio Jones | Getty Images

Disney and its Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Pamela Hymel, coordinated with a number of local government and health authorities during the four-month period that its U.S. parks were closed, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the Florida Department of Health in Orange County and the Orange County Health Care Agency. 

The company also has three international parks that have reopened in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Japan. Disney said it has learned from those phased reopenings and has implemented those lessons in its U.S. strategy. 

Additionally, Disney is working toward limiting physical contact between guests and its staff using technology. The company is offering mobile ordering at its restaurants, digital check-in options and making menus available online. It has also suspended all parades, fireworks and indoor shows.

Its theme parks will also have limited capacity to start and Disney is requiring guests purchase their tickets ahead of time through an online reservation system. This will ensure that the company can control the number of visitors its parks get each day.

Can't stop now

"Disney frankly can't not do this," Bill Coan, president and CEO of ITEC Entertainment, said. "The start and stop is really complicated for them to have to bring back so many thousand employees."

Disney's theme parks are part of a much larger business that includes merchandise, resorts, experiences and cruises. These different units are interconnected and slowing one would impact the rest. Already a number of Disney resorts in Orlando are open to guests.

The company's parks, experiences and products division employed more than 177,000 people before the Covid-19 shutdown. Bringing back thousands of workers is a difficult task, but bringing them back and then delaying its plans could be even more devastating to Disney's business.

"Once you've started leaning forward, it's difficult to back off," he said.

Coan also noted that Disney holds a lot of clout in the industry and is known for being a trusted brand. It has long been the model for cleanliness in the theme park industry even before the coronavirus outbreak.

"Only Disney operates as well as Disney," he said.

There is currently no indication that Florida's government will rollback previous guidelines that allowed theme parks to open or that it will ask currently open parks to close again. DeSantis' office wasn't immediately available for comment. 

Disney and Universal theme parks in California have yet to be given the green light to reopen after cases spiked in the state last month. Disney pushed back its initial reopening date in Anaheim and is awaiting guidelines from the local government before announcing a new date.

Disneyland Paris will also reopen July 15.

Disclosure: NBCUniversal is the parent company of Universal Studios and CNBC.

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