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Five big guest safety enhancements expected when Disney’s Parks and Resorts reopen

It’s been almost a month since Disney announced it would be closing its theme parks and resorts and there’s no reopening date on the calendar yet. But that day will come. When it does things will be different as we all get used to the new normal. 

As Disney said in its announcement, by closing the parks and keeping them closed, the company is looking out for the health and safety of its cast members and guests. It follows that before Disney can reopen the parks it will have to be confident that the health and safety of guests and cast members are no longer at risk.

Part of that confidence will come from a new set of restrictions and guidelines for the parks. There’s precedent for this. Following the Sept. 11 attacks, Disney implemented changes to security and what guests were allowed to bring into the parks. 

It’s likely that whatever procedures and guidelines Disney arrives at will be fluid for a while as Disney adjusts to the new normal, which itself is likely to evolve over time. If you’re interested in what that new normal might look like, this article on VOX looks at 3 possible scenarios that would enable some sort of return to normal in the USA.

As Bob Iger expressed early this week, Disney is consulting its own experts to start thinking about what its theme parks will require to reopen. 

Even as the economy is gradually reopened, elective travel will be discouraged. This will make it difficult for Walt Disney World, who relies on visitors from afar, to reopen right away, but Disneyland can draw on the millions of potential guests who live within a few hours drive of Anaheim. 

Southern California also affected a ‘Stay at Home’ order before Central Florida did. That gives Disneyland a head start and means it will probably be where Disney tests its ideas.

Disney depends on its best customers to return and spend their money even when other guests stay home or can’t afford to attend due to economic pressures. I would not be surprised if Disney makes some adjustments to its Annual Passholder programs during this time, but that’s a topic for a different post.

Assuming the powers that be at local and national government levels are able to figure out some way of making sure everyone is tested on a regular basis, exactly what can we expect to see at Disneyland and Walt Disney World as part of the new normal?

Iger’s quote about temperature checks being part of that were rightly criticized. There are myriad reasons temperature checks aren’t sufficient. It’s already hot in summer, they won’t catch asymptomatic people, imagine how disappointed you would be if you spend a lot of money to travel to Disney and then get stuck in a room, also, a light fever can be defeated with Tylenol.

That said, if guests demand temperature checks, Disney will probably use them as part of its screening. 

So what other changes is Disney expected to make in the parks and resorts? Let’s explore some of the options. Not all of these will be implemented, but there will be some multi-layered approach from Disney that’s likely to include some of the below.

Proof of health. 

As mentioned in the VOX article, one route would be a digital certificate of either testing or immunity. Proof of a recent test would be required before you could enter a hotel or theme park. 

Disney could offer testing on site, as many companies in the recovered areas of China have begun to do. There is reportedly a finger prick test in development that will let you know if you have the virus in 15-45 minutes. I could imagine Disney administering that test to guests before they check in to the hotel or get permission to enter the parks.

Of course that doesn’t solve the problem of someone traveling to the park only to find out they were asymptomatic and then having to spend 14 days quarantined somewhere. National certification would help there.

Protection for individuals.

It’s very likely the new normal will involve a requirement for everyone who goes out into public or works and interacts with the public to wear masks. This is already a rule in Osceola County, which covers part of Walt Disney World.

We will have to get used to cast members wearing masks over their noses and mouths. Since that friendly smile is so key to Disney’s guest service excellence, expect some additional training for cast members to come up with other ways to signal that world famous smile is underneath the mask.

Before the parks closed, Disney started adding hand washing stations everywhere around its parks, but expect that to be greatly expanded and enforced. 

Not only will restaurants require guests to wash their hands before entering (and probably suggest a handwashing before you leave), but expect them to be added before you enter the parks, attraction queues, at bus, monorail, and Disney skyliner stations, and as you exit all of the above too.

For obvious reasons buffet and family style dining will switch to sit-down service off a menu only. Salad bars, condiment stations, and hamburger fixin’ stations will be temporarily shut down too. 

Even something as simple as the finger scan you give to entry a park might have to revert to the method of associating a photo with every pass for visual confirmation by a cast member. 

There are dozens of small adjustments that will have to be made for to increase safety by improving hygiene.

Continued Physical Distancing 

The need for ongoing physical distancing will change the way theme parks, malls, and restaurants are built going forward. Disney’s existing infrastructure will also have to make some changes. 

Expect the capacity of the parks and attractions to be limited at the beginning to prevent too much crowding and allow for guests to maintain a two-meter distance between themselves and other guests. 

One of the ways Disney can accomplish low crowd density is by requiring a reservation (or boarding group in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge parlance) just to get in the gates.

As for Fastpass it will give way for virtual queues for every attraction that’s open. A virtual queue would notify you when there is physical space in the queue of the attraction. Guests will be discouraged from showing up early to wait outside the queue too. 

I would also expect the My Disney Experience app to be used as a virtual queue for dining reservations, even at quick service restaurants. Want to eat at the new Regal Eagle Smokehouse, put your name on a virtual list and when a table is open, you’ll get a message. 

Some attractions will have to change their operations. For instance, you can’t safely do physical distancing while 40 people are packed into the stretching room at the Haunted Mansion. Shows will have to play to much smaller audiences or may not reopen at all.

Once you do get on the ride vehicle, how will you know it has been properly sanitized after the previous guest rode it? Disney will need to be transparent on exactly how and when it is disinfecting ride vehicles and other areas of the parks and resorts.

Some situations just can’t be made perfectly safe. If someone sitting in front of you on a roller coaster coughs there’s no way to avoid blowback. You’ll have to rely that other screening systems work to keep the illness out of the park.

The unstructured way guests normally experience a theme park might go away. Disney already has a new app they’re developing that will help guests automatically build itineraries for their day based on preferences, ride capacity, and even where they are physically in the park. The app might be changed to make it more useful in this new normal. 

The WDW Transportation system will have to think about how it will implement reduced capacity. Keeping six feet apart in a monorail is not easy since it’s just barely six feet across in the cabin. What about the queue area while waiting for a bus at the resort. Is there room for everyone to line up six feet apart? What will it mean if buses run at 50% capacity and no standing allowed? 

The secure envelope

Disney has recently spent a lot of money to make over the main entrance of all its parks (although only Disney’s Hollywood Studios was finished before the shutdown). The work moves the security check areas further away from the main gates allowing for a larger area inside the baggage scanning area. This will have to be rethought as additional health screening checks are added.

Disney may want to move to making the entire Walt Disney World property part of its secure envelope. It would require some major changes to the resort, but would allow for more freedom of movement for guests who are able to pass health and security checks. I wouldn’t expect this right away, but it’s an idea to consider in the future.

Communicating to guests

Disney will be able to test some of these procedures at Tokyo Disneyland, Shanghai Disneyland, and Hong Kong Disneyland, all of which will likely open before either of the state side resorts opens. Paris Disneyland depends a lot on how well France and other European nations are able to control the spread and implement strong test and trace procedures. 

It will be important that Disney communicate the new guidelines and procedures early and clearly to guests. It’s one thing to say we’re now checking bags for guns and knives, things we already prohibited, but something else entirely to say if you have a fever of 100 degrees you will have to move to our special quarantine hotel for 14 days (as an example). 

Eventually, after a vaccine is widely available, we will be able to gather in larger groups again. Even when that time comes, the Disney theme park experience will be changed forever to build in more social distancing on a permanent basis.  

Until that point there will be some uncertainty about just how wide open Disney’s parks can operate. 

Note: After I wrote this article Ben Smith at the New York Times published a piece about how Bob Iger has begun to think about how the Walt Disney Company might be changed after the global health emergency. It’s worth reading and further evidence that before Disney’s theme parks and resorts reopen there will be some major adjustments in how the parks are run.

What other changes do you expect to see at the parks and resorts when they finally reopen?