Food, Travel and Tech

Disney World reopens Saturday – what that will look like and what the experts say

Walt Disney World reopens July 11 after Covid-19 closures.
Roberto Machado Noa

Summer is usually a high season for theme parks, and this year, after closing in March amid the Covid-19 pandemic, some of Florida's top parks are reopening. Universal Studios Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando as well as Busch Gardens in Tampa Bay all reopened in June.

Sea World Orlando guests don masks to ride the Mako roller coaster, in Orlando, Fla., Thursday, June 11, 2020.
Joe Burbank | Orlando Sentinel | Tribune News Service via Getty Images

But among all the parks, perhaps none is as highly anticipated as Walt Disney World Orlando's reopening on Saturday — the iconic theme park is consistently ranked one of the most-visited theme parks in the world, with 20 million people visiting in 2018 alone.

So what will a newly opened Disney World look like, and it is safe to go to theme parks as the pandemic surges in much of the country? Here's what you need to know. 

What to expect at Walt Disney World

Disney World has outlined new safety protocol, starting with reduced capacity admitted inside the park each day. Guests will have to buy tickets in advance online.

Upon arrival, guests will have their temperature checked with a no-touch thermometer (and they are encouraged to check their temperature at home beforehand). Those with temperatures 100.4 and above will not be allowed to enter the park.

Wearing masks or cloth face coverings will be mandatory for staff, performers and guests ages 2 and up.

At many of Disney's restaurants and dining areas, visitors will need reservations and have to wear masks, except when eating and drinking. Menus will be on signs rather than distributed, and Disney character dining experiences, in which costumed Disney performers visit tables and take photos, are not happening yet.  

Shanghai Disneyland reopened in early May.
Hu Chengwei

Disney says it has increased cleaning and disinfecting of high-touch surfaces and high-traffic areas, such as public elevators and escalators, handrails, benches, tables, handles and restrooms. Hand-washing and sanitizing stations are placed throughout the park.

Some of the spaces in the park have been reconfigured with physical barriers and ground markings so that people can maintain appropriate distance from other guests while in line or on rides. Even the Disney cast members have been trained to promote physical distancing guidelines.

At this phase in the reopening, parades and nighttime spectaculars, meet-and-greets with characters and playgrounds are still off-limits.

How other theme parks have reopened

Theme parks around the world have already reopened during the pandemic with a variety of new protocols. 

For example, at Fuji-Q Highland and Tokyo Disneyland, two recently-opened amusement parks in Japan, screaming on rides is discouraged, the Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday. Guests were told in a safety video to "please scream inside your heart." 

When Shanghai Disneyland reopened in May, they implemented similar rules, including reduced capacity, social distancing and increased cleaning. Meanwhile, Disneyland in Anaheim, California, has delayed its reopening until the state releases guidelines for theme parks. However, Downtown Disney, a shopping area near the Anaheim theme park, was approved to reopen this week with reduced hours and social distancing guidelines.  

A couple waits in line to enter Downtown Disney in Anaheim, California on July 9, 2020, the first day the outdoor shopping and dining complex has been open to the public. (Photo by Robyn Beck / AFP) (Photo by ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images)
ROBYN BECK

Elsewhere in Orlando, Universal Studios reopened in early June with many of the same Covid-19 prevention measures in place, including limited guest entry, temperature checks, mandatory masks and "aggressive cleaning and disinfection procedures," according to the park's website

Theme park visitors pose from a distance with Scooby-Doo characters wearing masks at Universal Studios. (Dewayne Bevil/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Orlando Sentinel

Six Flags, another popular theme park with 26 locations in the U.S. and Mexico, has reopened 11 parks. "Clean Team" staff spray disinfectant on rides after each session, then run the ride sans people to allow the surfaces to dry, CNBC's Kenneth Kiesnoski reported Wednesday. 

Experts say it's still risky to go to a theme park

Park reopenings come as cases of Covid-19 infections are in the rise, particularly in Florida. This week there was a 30% increase in average daily new cases, as of Wednesday.

So despite safety measures, some health experts say that it's too soon to safely return to a theme park, especially in states that are Covid-19 hot spots.

"In California and Florida, where a lot of the major theme parks are based, you have not only the case rates rising, we also have people from all over the world traveling in and out of [the state]," Dr. Chidinma Chima-Melton, board-certified pulmonologist who sees Covid-19 patients in the ICU at UCLA Medical Center tells CNBC Make It. "It's a powder keg situation, and it's a perfect storm. So, from my perspective, it is not safe at all to go."

The safety recommendations for the general public, such as social distancing and wearing a mask to prevent Covid-19 transmission, are "almost impossible to really implement effectively in an area like a theme park," Dr. Latesha Elopre, assistant professor in the University of Alabama's division of infectious diseases tells CNBC Make It. "Having an environment that you can't really control from a public health standpoint, makes it difficult to say 'yes' to reopening."

Elopre recalls the 2015 measles outbreak that started at Disneyland as one example of what can happen when a highly infectious disease is present at a theme park, though measles is considered much more contagious than coronavirus. 

Temperature checks at the door only go so far, Elopre says. For example, you could be an asymptomatic carrier of Covid-19, and therefore have no fever. "When it comes to community spread a lot of people think 20% of cases you can be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic and be spreading it unknowingly," she says.

A Universal Studios employee takes the temperature of a guest during the first day of reopening from the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Gerardo Mora/Getty Images,)
Gerardo Mora

With mandated masks, just because someone enters with a face mask doesn't mean that they're going to wear it the whole time, Chima-Melton says. On a ride like a roller coaster, there's no guarantee that your face mask would be able to stay on your face the whole time, she says.

Theme park food is an obvious draw for some visitors. But if you're removing your mask to eat or drink in a crowded area, you could inhale respiratory droplets and aerosols infected with the virus, Chima-Melton says. "Yes, you're outdoors, but you are still exposed," she says.

Still, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said in a press conference Monday that he has "no doubt it's going to be a safe environment" at the park. "Theme parks have been doing great," DeSantis said.

Disney's Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Pamela Hymel, said in a statement Tuesday, that "while Covid-19, and the risk of contracting it, is present in public places, there are many important ways that we can all help promote each other's safety" at parks.

If you have been to a theme park during the pandemic, the safest thing to do is self-quarantine afterwards for 14 days, Chima-Melton says. Look out for symptoms of Covid-19 during that time. "If you have access to it, get tested," she adds. 

Walt Disney World, Universal Studios Orlando, Six Flags, Busch Gardens and SeaWorld Orlando did not immediately respond to CNBC Make It's request for comment. 

Correction: This story has been corrected to include that Disney is waiting for California to release state guidelines for Disneyland's reopening, that people with a temperature of 100.4 and above will not be admitted and that guests ages 2 and up must wear masks.

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

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