Although some small business activity has been allowed to reopen in parts of the country and world, we’re still awaiting official word on when non-essential businesses that typically handle large crowds, like Disney’s theme parks, will be able to open.
There’s one commonality that will help reduce the risk that we experience a second wave of infections during this public health emergency – maintaining physical distancing. What does this mean for theme parks like Disneyland and Walt Disney World when restrictions are relaxed?
First, there will be a reduction in overall capacity at the park. Some attractions in Asia that have reopened have cut capacity by 50%. This is done by only filling half the usual spots in the parking lot or by selling date specific tickets. This works well for places like Zoos and Botanical parks where the main attraction is enjoyed without going on specific attractions.
Theme parks are a different creature entirely. A big part of a visit to Disneyland or Walt Disney World are the attractions and shows followed by restaurants and stores.
Maintaining social distancing might reduce capacity for any attraction by 50% or more. For instance, take a ride vehicle like the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad coaster train, to maintain a six foot distance you might have to leave two empty rows between every family.
Likewise, if a restaurant is limited to outdoor seating or keeping tables six feet apart, that will reduce capacity as well. Workers in the back of house will also have to maintain physical distancing as well, which might reduce kitchen capacity as fewer cooking stations can be in use at any one time.
Some attractions, shops, and dining locations might not reopen with the parks as Disney tries ways to figure out how social distancing can work in confined spaces. The food service area for Casey’s Corner on Main Street USA at the Magic Kingdom is a small space usually packed with a lot of cast members. That won’t do going forward. You can’t pack 40 guests into the Haunted Mansion stretching room anymore either.
Once Disney evaluates which attractions, shows, and other locations will be allowed to reopen at each park, it now has a number it can start to work with to calculate capacity. Usually this is determined in throughput or guests per hour.
Attraction – normal throughput / potential physical distancing throughput
- Big Thunder Mountain – 1500 / 700
- Peter Pan – 800/ 400
- Aladdin Magic Carpets – 500 / 250
Build your list of locations that will be allowed to open, then you can multiply that by the number of hours the park will be open and you start to get an idea for theoretical park capacity for any particular day.
Disney actually has a formula it uses to help determine how to maximize guest satisfaction, while allowing it to control its largest cost – labor. That formula starts with Disney estimating how many attractions and other key experiences a guest visits a day. It depends on the park, but that number (called RPC) is usually between 8 and 10 rides a day.
Expect the RPC to change while the parks maintain physical distancing guidelines during this temporary new normal. With virtual queues and different entertainment opportunities, Disney might find guests are satisfied with as few as 5-6 experiences during reduced operating hours.
As we saw with Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Disney has the technology to turn on virtual queues for all attractions, and right after the shutdown in March, there was some indication they were testing that on the My Disney Experience App for Walt Disney World.
Unlike a Fastpass where you get a 1-hour window to return to an attraction, I expect the window to return will be something of an experiment when Disney first reopens.
Since Disney will only be able to fit a certain number of guests in a queue while maintaining six feet distance between groups (say goodbye to those roped or chain switchbacks, btw), Disney will try to keep its queues optimized by figuring how how many virtual queues a guest can be in at once, maybe offering surprise ‘rides’ when a physical queue is dropping to a small number because guests are not showing up for their ride window, etc.
Demand for Disney theme parks is expected to bounce back eventually. It will probably happen faster at Disneyland where millions of people live within an hours drive. Walt Disney World will initially open to much lower numbers as the local population is much smaller and elective travel outside of one’s state or even metropolitan area will be discouraged at first.
The good news, if it can be put that way, is that a slow start will give Disney the time to put in place the policies and procedures it will need to host larger crowds as time goes on.
Other big changes to expect:
- Like you now see at grocery stores, expect there to be more signage indicating ‘one way’ pathways. This will help guests be able to maintain physical distancing on narrow pathways and entering and exiting shops.
- I imagine Disney wants to avoid putting taped lines or X’s on the ground where it wants guests to stand while queuing for an attraction. Not very magical. But some fun signs featuring your favorite Disney characters might work.
- Expect longer lines and waits just to get into the parks. In addition to health screening, photos will need to be associated with passes, I would like to see a guest orientation session in small groups to help guests understand how the new physical distancing guidelines work and help those who need it work through technology issues, like using no-touch pay.
- It’s going to be a while before parades and fireworks return as you can’t stand shoulder to shoulder along the parade route and maintain social distancing.
Once Disney gets an idea for each park’s capacity, that will then determine how it plans to handle admission. We expect Disney to put a priority on those who are staying in its resort hotels (which themselves will be operating at reduced capacity) and allow a certain number of other guests per day based on date specific tickets.
Expect daily park capacity to vary quite a bit initially as Disney figures out where it needs to pull back on ride capacity and queue capacity and where it can expand.
As for the big question of when the parks might reopen? There is still no official word, but it depends on factors like how well the communities they and their cast members live in are controlling the infection rate and flatten the curve.
The best thing you can do is to stay at home and keep the infection rate as low as possible.