LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a Magic Kingdom hair salon where little girls get styled like Disney princesses, remained closed on Saturday. Buzz Lightyear was only able to wave from a distance. Parades and fireworks? Scratched.
And the coronavirus continued its rampage through Florida, with state officials reporting 10,360 new infections, the third-highest daily jump since the pandemic began.
None of which stopped Sonya Little and thousands of other theme park fans from turning out — in masks in the scorching Florida heat — for the reopening of Walt Disney World. After closing in March because of the pandemic, the mega-resort near Orlando began tossing confetti again at 9 a.m. Two of its four major parks, the Magic Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom, welcomed back a limited number of temperature-checked visitors, with some attractions and character interactions unavailable as safety precautions. Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios were set to reopen on Wednesday.
Disney’s parks have always been about leaving your troubles behind, a sunny outlook some might find improbable during a pandemic. The reopening amounts to a breathtaking effort by a corporation to prove that it can safely operate — entertaining families and employing tens of thousands of workers — at a highly dangerous time.
“I’m so overwhelmed with emotion,” a weeping Ms. Little said, as she stood on Main Street USA wearing Minnie Mouse ears. “The last few months have been so hard. We have just felt so defeated. Being here gives me the strength to go on.”
With that, Ms. Little, 45, who flew to Orlando from Birmingham, Ala., with her friends Tammy Richardson and Kristi Peek, adjusted her face mask and set forth for Fantasyland.
Throughout the morning, the scene near Space Mountain in Tomorrowland was relaxed as most visitors took care to socially distance and Disney employees, each wearing a mask and a face shield, kept a close eye. Disney would not say how many people it let inside, but the grounds did not feel crowded. At midday, the park — usually the busiest in the world, with about 21 million visitors last year — was a surreal sight: sparsely populated plazas, families sauntering between attractions rather than racing, rides with five-minute wait times. There was barely a stroller to be seen near Disney’s singsong It’s a Small World boat ride, much less the usual gridlock.
“It was almost more enjoyable than usual because we got to ride everything with no wait times,” said Samantha Harris, who drove to Orlando from Myrtle Beach, S.C., with her family, including her 5-year-old niece, Addilyn. Ms. Harris said she was so eager to score tickets that she logged onto Disney’s booking website at 5 a.m. on the day it opened. To limit capacity, Disney no longer allows visitors to walk up and buy tickets, instead making blocks of “reservations” available online. Some blocks for July were gone in minutes when Disney opened the site on June 24.
After months of home quarantining, the chance to have some wholesome fun and perhaps touch a childhood memory seemed to outweigh the risk of catching the virus for visitors. “A Welcome Respite” read a headline in The Orlando Sentinel about Disney’s reopening.
“We will take any amount of normalcy and any amount of joy that we can get,” Jose Villanueva said as he rested in the shade in Tomorrowland with his wife, Kacie. “I know that some people are upset about having to wear a mask or there being no fireworks. For us, we feel lucky to be here. This was the first thing that made us feel like we could leave our house and still feel safe.”
“It’s Disney,” Ms. Villanueva said. The couple made the trek to Florida from their home in Laurinburg, N.C.
That kind of optimism is the foundation of the Disney experience. In case the wafting smell of fresh fudge and pipe-organ soundtrack don’t immediately jolt you into another dimension, there are signs at the entrances reminding visitors, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” Walt Disney’s original theme park designers spoke about the properties as selling reassurance. No matter how terrible things seem outside the gates, here is a place where everything is OK: people are nice, the windows all sparkle, there are stuffed animals to cuddle, the speedway cars never run out of gas.
To safely reopen, however, the Magic Kingdom had to allow some of the grimness of pandemic life to puncture the utopian fantasy. To ward off germs, Disney now leaves rows of seats empty on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. Employees constantly disinfect ride vehicles and lap bars. Face masks are mandatory, and, for some visitors, the coverings quickly grew wet with sweat.
“It would be a lot more fun without having to wear one,” Ivan Chanchavac, 14, said as he hopped off the Jungle Cruise.
His friend, Victoria Perez, 15, shot him a stern look. “But it is best for our safety and others that we wear them,” she said.
Her mother, Dolly Perez, drove the group to Orlando from Atlanta. “We were desperate for some fun,” she said. “Desperate.”
Disney declined to say how much it spent to retrofit the resort for the coronavirus age. The cost must have been considerable. In addition to providing employees with protective gear, the company added 4,000 hand-sanitizing stations, set up restaurants for mobile ordering and installed plexiglass partitions everywhere, including inside the queuing areas of rides.
“People trust Disney, and we have a big responsibility to deliver on that trust,” Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park chairman, said as he stood near Main Street watching the company’s most avid fans pour into the park. “As hard as the world is right now, this feels like a turning point — it’s a signal that people have hope.”
Earlier in the week, negative commentary about the reopening flooded Twitter. People used words like “irresponsible” and “disappointed” to describe Disney’s decision to stick to its reopening plans, announced in May, even as coronavirus cases surged to alarming levels in much of the country. On Tuesday, when the Magic Kingdom tried out its new protocols, allowing off-duty employees to visit, a photo emerged of people bunched together in line for the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train.
Frequently Asked Questions
Updated July 7, 2020
Is the coronavirus airborne?
The coronavirus can stay aloft for hours in tiny droplets in stagnant air, infecting people as they inhale, mounting scientific evidence suggests. This risk is highest in crowded indoor spaces with poor ventilation, and may help explain super-spreading events reported in meatpacking plants, churches and restaurants. It’s unclear how often the virus is spread via these tiny droplets, or aerosols, compared with larger droplets that are expelled when a sick person coughs or sneezes, or transmitted through contact with contaminated surfaces, said Linsey Marr, an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech. Aerosols are released even when a person without symptoms exhales, talks or sings, according to Dr. Marr and more than 200 other experts, who have outlined the evidence in an open letter to the World Health Organization.
What are the symptoms of coronavirus?
Common symptoms include fever, a dry cough, fatigue and difficulty breathing or shortness of breath. Some of these symptoms overlap with those of the flu, making detection difficult, but runny noses and stuffy sinuses are less common. The C.D.C. has also added chills, muscle pain, sore throat, headache and a new loss of the sense of taste or smell as symptoms to look out for. Most people fall ill five to seven days after exposure, but symptoms may appear in as few as two days or as many as 14 days.
What’s the best material for a mask?
Scientists around the country have tried to identify everyday materials that do a good job of filtering microscopic particles. In recent tests, HEPA furnace filters scored high, as did vacuum cleaner bags, fabric similar to flannel pajamas and those of 600-count pillowcases. Other materials tested included layered coffee filters and scarves and bandannas. These scored lower, but still captured a small percentage of particles.
Is it harder to exercise while wearing a mask?
A commentary published this month on the website of the British Journal of Sports Medicine points out that covering your face during exercise “comes with issues of potential breathing restriction and discomfort” and requires “balancing benefits versus possible adverse events.” Masks do alter exercise, says Cedric X. Bryant, the president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise, a nonprofit organization that funds exercise research and certifies fitness professionals. “In my personal experience,” he says, “heart rates are higher at the same relative intensity when you wear a mask.” Some people also could experience lightheadedness during familiar workouts while masked, says Len Kravitz, a professor of exercise science at the University of New Mexico.
I’ve heard about a treatment called dexamethasone. Does it work?
The steroid, dexamethasone, is the first treatment shown to reduce mortality in severely ill patients, according to scientists in Britain. The drug appears to reduce inflammation caused by the immune system, protecting the tissues. In the study, dexamethasone reduced deaths of patients on ventilators by one-third, and deaths of patients on oxygen by one-fifth.
What is pandemic paid leave?
The coronavirus emergency relief package gives many American workers paid leave if they need to take time off because of the virus. It gives qualified workers two weeks of paid sick leave if they are ill, quarantined or seeking diagnosis or preventive care for coronavirus, or if they are caring for sick family members. It gives 12 weeks of paid leave to people caring for children whose schools are closed or whose child care provider is unavailable because of the coronavirus. It is the first time the United States has had widespread federally mandated paid leave, and includes people who don’t typically get such benefits, like part-time and gig economy workers. But the measure excludes at least half of private-sector workers, including those at the country’s largest employers, and gives small employers significant leeway to deny leave.
Does asymptomatic transmission of Covid-19 happen?
So far, the evidence seems to show it does. A widely cited paper published in April suggests that people are most infectious about two days before the onset of coronavirus symptoms and estimated that 44 percent of new infections were a result of transmission from people who were not yet showing symptoms. Recently, a top expert at the World Health Organization stated that transmission of the coronavirus by people who did not have symptoms was “very rare,” but she later walked back that statement.
What’s the risk of catching coronavirus from a surface?
Touching contaminated objects and then infecting ourselves with the germs is not typically how the virus spreads. But it can happen. A number of studies of flu, rhinovirus, coronavirus and other microbes have shown that respiratory illnesses, including the new coronavirus, can spread by touching contaminated surfaces, particularly in places like day care centers, offices and hospitals. But a long chain of events has to happen for the disease to spread that way. The best way to protect yourself from coronavirus — whether it’s surface transmission or close human contact — is still social distancing, washing your hands, not touching your face and wearing masks.
How does blood type influence coronavirus?
A study by European scientists is the first to document a strong statistical link between genetic variations and Covid-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Having Type A blood was linked to a 50 percent increase in the likelihood that a patient would need to get oxygen or to go on a ventilator, according to the new study.
How can I protect myself while flying?
If air travel is unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to protect yourself. Most important: Wash your hands often, and stop touching your face. If possible, choose a window seat. A study from Emory University found that during flu season, the safest place to sit on a plane is by a window, as people sitting in window seats had less contact with potentially sick people. Disinfect hard surfaces. When you get to your seat and your hands are clean, use disinfecting wipes to clean the hard surfaces at your seat like the head and arm rest, the seatbelt buckle, the remote, screen, seat back pocket and the tray table. If the seat is hard and nonporous or leather or pleather, you can wipe that down, too. (Using wipes on upholstered seats could lead to a wet seat and spreading of germs rather than killing them.)
What should I do if I feel sick?
If you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus or think you have, and have a fever or symptoms like a cough or difficulty breathing, call a doctor. They should give you advice on whether you should be tested, how to get tested, and how to seek medical treatment without potentially infecting or exposing others.
But then came three more preview days for annual pass holders and employees’ friends and family. A barrage of happy posts arrived. “Some things in life are worth melting in the Florida sun with a face mask for,” one woman wrote on Instagram, where she posted a photo of herself standing in front of Cinderella’s Castle, which had been freshly painted.
Media coverage of opening day was tightly managed, even by Disney’s stringent standards. The company initially said it would give a credential to a New York Times photographer for Magic Kingdom access but reversed itself late Friday.
The reality of whether Disney succeeds in keeping its guests and employees safe will become clear in the weeks to come. Demand is also a question, especially since Disney World draws much of its attendance from the Northeast. Getting on a plane right now can be more harrowing than any theme park ride. (Take it from this reporter, who flew to Orlando from Los Angeles on Thursday.)
Disney has been devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Its 14 theme parks delivered record profits in 2019. Several are still closed, including Disneyland in California. Disney’s movie studios controlled 40 percent of the domestic box office last year. Now, they’re sitting at a near standstill. ESPN has been left without live sports to broadcast. Analysts estimate that Disney will lose more than $1 billion for the quarter that ended in June.
To shore up its balance sheet, Disney lined up more than $13 billion in fresh credit, slashed executive salaries, suspended its dividend and furloughed an estimated 100,000 workers.
About 43,000 union employees were furloughed by Walt Disney World in April. Diego Henry, 34, who works at Dinosaur, an Animal Kingdom thrill ride, was one of them. On Saturday he was back at work, one of roughly 20,000 union workers Disney has recalled for its reopening. Although he has pre-existing health conditions like asthma and diabetes that make him susceptible to the coronavirus, Mr. Henry, a member of the Unite Here union, said he felt “confident” about his safety given Disney’s protocols.
“A lot of us feel like we don’t have a choice financially,” he said of returning to work. “We have to put food on our tables. That said, if I felt like going to work would jeopardize my health, I wouldn’t have done it.”
Under Disney’s new procedures, Mr. Henry begins his work days by taking his temperature at home and running through a list of possible symptoms that include coughing and muscle pain. Disney checks his temperature again when he arrives at the park.
So far, Mr. Henry said, most visitors have been careful about wearing masks and physically distancing. “I have had to tell a few people, ‘Hey, your mask needs to be covering your mouth and your nose,’” he said. “But I give Disney a round of applause. I feel safer at work than I do at the grocery store, where people don’t wear masks.”
It gives new meaning to one of the corny jokes that Jungle Cruise skippers deliver at the end of each excursion: “We’re about to enter the most dangerous part of our journey — the return to civilization.”