When will Walt Disney World reopen and how will things be different?

When Walt Disney World temporarily shuttered its parks and resorts a week ago, the announced two-week closure to help prevent the spread of Coronavirus seemed like a very long time for the gates to be closed. But it’s a different world today than even just one week ago.

When will Walt Disney World reopen? It’s pretty much an unknown at this point. But we can almost certainly guarantee it won’t be April 1, or probably even May 1.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a preliminary recommendation that all gatherings of 10 or more people be canceled for 8 weeks starting March 15. If this schedule holds, it would be May 10 at the earliest before Disney could think about reopening.

In order to help Flatten the Curve, California, New York, and other states have issued stay at home orders for non-essential workers and we expect individual counties in Florida and eventually the entire state to follow their lead. The good news is that early indications are that these strict physical distancing restrictions are working.

The theme parks, resorts, hotels, restaurants, and service companies that support them are the lifeblood of Central Florida’s economy. Everyone, especially those who work in the hospitality industry wants to know when they will reopen. The answer depends on two things:

1) How well Florida and other states are able to flatten the curve and keep the spread of infection to a number low enough that, even with wide spread testing, new infections a day drop to single digits.

2) The government is able to institute some form of broadly available quick testing, as they have in South Korea, or an effective treatment or vaccine is ready. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait for the vaccine, because that’s a 12 to 18 month timeline before even the first doses are available.

We’re not epidemiologists at The Disney Blog, so we urge you to follow those who are and the CDC for the latest updates in your neck of the woods.

All experts we read are issuing the following recommendations: Stay at home if you aren’t working an essential job. Only go out for essential errands or to exercise while maintaining a distance of 6 feet from others, order deliveries if you can. Most importantly, practice good hygiene including frequently washing your hands.

We are confident that as a nation we will get through this and the economic engines of our nation will resume operation. Once that happens, Walt Disney World can start a slow phased reopening. We’re going to need an escape after all of this, that’s for sure.

It’s likely that once new health guidelines have been established a few stores and restaurants in Disney Springs will be the first to reopen. This will be a welcome sign to locals who want to know there is a future for hospitality and tourism in Central Florida.

Then once elective travel between communities outside of Central Florida resumes, I would expect one or two Magic Kingdom Resorts to open. Then a week or so later, the Magic Kingdom can begin hosting guests in small groups.

Disney is staffing most hotels with skeleton crews right now, while paying all full- and part-time cast members. How long Disney will continue to pay its workers if the closure continues beyond the next couple weeks, we don’t know (help from congress to continue payrolls would be nice). If it does let workers go, it will take a few weeks to rehire employees and train them on the new health and safety procedures.

Once the Magic Kingdom returns or rehires a core group of cast members, it will have to train them on new procedures and run safety checks on attractions. We expect Disney to try and open as soon as it can by allowing guests staying on property and a small number of day visitors in via a 4-6 hour window to visit the park where a limited number of attractions and stores will be open. Think of it as a hard ticket event that happens 2-3 times a day.

Each guest will have to pass a health screening and then get a boarding group to enter the park along with an itinerary designed to keep everyone in small groups. Physical distancing guidelines will be in place via the use of virtual queues for all open attractions as will enhanced sanitization procedures at restaurants and on attraction vehicles. Shows and parades won’t be on the schedule as they run counter to physical distancing guidelines.

Once a treatment or vaccine is available and demand starts to picks up, one or two more hotels will staff up and reopen to guests as will more attractions at the Magic Kingdom. We imagine the second park to open would be Disney’s Hollywood Studios since Star Wars: Galaxy’s’ Edge is there.

After DHS, we expect Disney’s Animal Kingdom, with the popular Avatar – Flight of Passage attraction and all the animal exhibits to be next.

EPCOT will probably be the last to come back on line. Not only will it have to rehire and retrain all those international cast members in future world, it has a number of construction projects that were stopped at various levels of completion.

The harsh reality is that EPCOT may not open for 18 to 24 months after Magic Kingdom reopens to guests. Even after there’s a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s going to take the world economy a long time to recover from an economic hit this powerful.

Because of the expected economic downshift, things at Walt Disney World will be different for the next 3 to 5 years, at least. We expect most capital expenditures that are not already nearly finished to be put on hold or canceled outright.

  • The Star Wars Starcruiser hotel will likely be delayed becoming the new ‘ghost hotel’ like what happened to the original Legendary Years at Pop Century, now the Art of Animation resort.
  • The major transformation announced for EPCOT will be drastically slimmed down. That Mary Poppins attraction will be cut. We don’t expect the 3-story Festival Center to be built or Spaceship Earth to get that new story line anytime soon. The Moana-inspired ‘Journey of Water’ attraction might get built since it’s pretty much just a park with some fountains.
  • Work on the new Reflections – a Lakeside Lodge will stop.

What does this mean for annual passholders? Well, Disney had announced that it would extend each pass by the number of days the park was closed. But that was when the parks were only going to be closed for two weeks.

If the closure stretches out for 8 weeks or more and Disney follows a phased re-opening strategy similar to the one I’ve outlined above, the annual passholder program will probably have to be curtailed or canceled for a few years.

I’m not as familiar with the Disney Vacation Club membership contract. But I imagine there will be some adjustment there too. Perhaps months added on to the end of each owner’s contract life to make up for the time when the DVC resorts aren’t open.

Note, I am deliberately being a bit pessimistic here on the timeline to a full return of operations at Walt Disney World because I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. I think our economy is fairly strong and will rebound, but it will take some time. I will be very happy if I’m proven wrong and things bounce back relatively quickly.

We will let you know when we hear anything official from Walt Disney World as to their plans for reopening. For now, the website still lists the closure as running only through March 31. But it also says they “will continue to make adjustments to our operations as appropriate and look forward to welcoming Guests back as soon as it is advisable.”

Disney has already canceled the Star Wars: Rival Run Weekend from RunDisney that was scheduled April 16-19. We expect that won’t be the last cancellation.

We look forward to a chance to visit Walt Disney World as soon as possible. Let us know in the comments what is the first think you plan to do when you can arrange your next visit.