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Reservations, Temperature Checks, and Extended Passes: The Future of U.S. Theme Parks

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At Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, the U.S. flag is still raised in spite of the empty theme park.

Courtesy of Walt Disney World Resort

At Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in Orlando, the U.S. flag is still raised in spite of the empty theme park.

While very few reopening dates have been announced, we already know what will be different when we visit the parks again.

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On May 11, Shanghai Disneyland became the first major theme park to reopen to the public (and tickets sold out in minutes). Countless businesses have closed due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and many are still figuring out the safest and most practical ways to open their doors again. Theme parks face additional challenges due to dense crowds, lines that typically provide far less than six feet of separation between individuals, and numerous opportunities for exposure to surfaces that strangers have touched. Some international theme parks are forgoing access to the general public for now and are instead reopening as temporary kindergarten facilities, as is the case with Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen

But U.S. theme park executives seem to be keeping a close eye on Shanghai Disneyland, learning from the property’s gradual transition into the new normal after fully closing on January 24: First, on March 9, it partially reopened retail, dining, and entertainment at Disneytown, Wishing Star, and Shanghai Disneyland Hotel; and now, on May 11, it continues the process with the limited-attendance reopening of the theme park. 

Here’s what we know about the status of major U.S. theme parks and what we can glean from Shanghai Disneyland’s gradual reopening.

What kinds of safety and social-distancing precautions should I expect from theme parks?

The Disney Parks chief medical officer revealed last week that Disney is considering the following measures:

Phased reopening

As was the case with Shanghai Disneyland, retail stores and hotels are likely to open before the theme parks. Universal Orlando reopened CityWalk with limited hours on May 14, and Disney Springs at the Walt Disney World Resort partially reopened on May 20. Reopening dates for the theme park portions of these resorts have not yet been announced.

Physical distancing and capacity measures

Shanghai Disneyland reopened on May 11, 2020, with a maximum of 24,000 people—30 percent of its 80,000-person capacity—permitted entry. Decals placed on the ground at attractions and in high-traffic areas indicate where visitors should stand to maintain a safe distance from others. With guidelines being determined at the federal, state, and county levels, U.S. theme parks will follow government edicts while implementing recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

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Disney Parks are also exploring ways to minimize guests standing in line, like virtual queues available for more attractions and the expansion of existing mobile order functions for dining establishments. Six Flags plans to cap occupancy for each of its theme parks at 25 percent of peak attendance. Six Flags is also developing an app to minimize lines via virtual queues. Until the app has been rolled out, employees will be on crowd control. 

Cleanliness and sanitization

In U.S. theme parks, touch-free hand sanitizer stations will be placed at the entrances and exits of all attractions, as well as in high-traffic areas. Officials are working on ways to quickly but thoroughly disinfect ride vehicles between one group of guests disembarking and the next group boarding. Employees at Six Flags theme parks will wipe handrails and other high-touch parts of ride vehicles, trying to do so in a way that doesn’t increase wait times for guests.

At Disney parks, both guests and cast members will likely be required to wear face coverings. In Shanghai Disneyland, guests are only permitted to remove their masks when eating.

Screening and prevention support

Bob Iger, the executive chairman of Disney’s board of directors, said in an interview with Barron’s: “Just as we now do bag checks for everybody who goes into our parks, it could be that at some point we add a component of that, which takes people’s temperatures, for instance.”

Guests arriving at Shanghai Disneyland Resort were required to undergo a temperature check, as well as show government-issued identification and use a smartphone app issued by the Shanghai city government that tracks their health and contacts with anyone who might have been exposed to the virus.

A recent Universal Orlando survey asked annual passholders to rate their comfort level with temperature checks and contact tracing via cell phone GPS data to identify potential exposures. The survey also indicated that rapid COVID-19 tests may be available at park entrances.

Staff training

Disney Parks cast members in the United States will undergo new training with an emphasis on health and safety, but furloughed cast members have commented that official training for reopening has not yet been rolled out.

Are Disneyland and Walt Disney World open?

All U.S. Disney theme parks are closed until further notice, including Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, and the water parks Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. There are not yet official reopening dates for Disney parks and resorts. However, we do know July 1, 2020, is the earliest date for which Walt Disney World resorts will accept new hotel reservations.

Are Disney Springs and Downtown Disney open?

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Disney Springs partially reopened on May 20. The Walt Disney World Resort had previously announced plans for the phased reopening: “Following the guidance of government and health officials, a limited number of shopping and dining experiences that are owned by third-party operating participants will begin to open during this initial phase.” This means that Disney Springs businesses owned by the Walt Disney Company (such as the World of Disney store, Disney Pin Traders, and Mickey’s Pantry) remained closed during the first phase of reopening. The Disney-owned stores reopened on May 27.

Downtown Disney will not open until California’s shelter-in-place (SIP) order ends and is subject to further criteria that will be determined by Orange County government officials. The current SIP is scheduled to conclude on May 31, 2020.

Are Universal Studios and Universal Orlando open?

No, the Universal Studios and Universal Orlando theme parks are currently closed. CityWalk in Florida reopened on May 14. Universal Orlando will reopen to the general public on June 5 with a number of changes in place, including:

  • Limited capacity
  • Mandatory temperature checks and face coverings for all visitors and team members
  • Staggered parking spaces in the parking structure to promote social distancing
  • Floor markings indicating the appropriate six feet of separation
  • Increased “Virtual Line experiences” to reduce the number of people queued in close physical proximity
  • Hand sanitizer stations that guests will be required to use prior to boarding ride vehicles
  • Support for cashless payments such as Apple Pay and Google Wallet

Universal Orlando will not require advance reservations as Disneyland Shanghai has, but the Florida theme park has warned that guests may be denied entrance if the property has reached its limited capacity.

At the time of publication, no opening date has been announced for Universal Studios in California. 

What do the closures mean for annual passholders?

Each theme park resort is handling annual passes differently. Disney has presented two options for those making monthly AP payments: stop payments during park closures and allow the pass to expire, or postpone payments until the parks reopen and accept pass validity extended for the same amount of time the parks were closed. Passholders who paid in full will see their passes extended for the same number of days the parks are closed. 

Universal Studios is doing the same for those who have an annual or season pass. Knott’s Berry Farm Season Pass holders have seen their 2020 passes extended through December 31, 2021, with payments suspended from April 4, 2020, through the end of the park’s closure.

Will I need to reserve theme park tickets in advance?

In the case of Six Flags, yes. According to a note on the Six Flags Magic Mountain site, “all visitors (including pass holders and members) must make advance reservations to visit the park.” Shanghai Disneyland now requires reservations as well and assigns entrance times to manage the flow of guests. Aside from Six Flags, major U.S. theme parks have not yet committed to such policies. But given reduced capacities dictated by local governments and the reservation-driven Flex Passport that Disneyland Resort introduced in 2019, ticket reservations are likely an imminent trend.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this article. This article originally appeared online on May 11, 2020; it was updated on May 26, 2020, to include current information.

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