Disney Theme Park Leaders Provide Best Practices for Operating in a Pandemic
As autumn begins, Disney theme parks around the world continue to evaluate operations while moving forward with reopening plans. On September 25, Hong Kong Disneyland reopened to guests. The park shuttered twice earlier this year when leaders in Hong Kong saw an uptick in the number of coronavirus infections in the region. Disney attractions in Florida, China, Japan, and France have reopened—sharing best practices.
“We’re learning from experiences in Shanghai,” says Melissa Valiquette, vice president of Epcot. “Paris has learned from what we’re doing at Walt Disney World. And Disneyland Resort is benefiting from the experiences of our cast from all of these worldwide destinations.”
Josh D'Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products says Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure in Anaheim, California, are ready to reopen this autumn—as soon as the state of California issues guidance.
“We need guidelines that are fair and equitable so that we can better understand our future and chart a path towards reopening. The longer we wait, the more devastating the impact will be to Orange County, California, and the Anaheim communities,” D'Amaro says, adding 80,000 jobs rely on Disneyland’s daily operation.
“We have 65 years of operating Disney theme parks in time-tested ways. Yet, in the span of a few months, out of necessity, we completely reinvented how we bring our magic to life,” says
Paula Verkuylen with the external communications department at Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products.
Here is a look at the current best practices and key learnings in use at Disney parks around the world this autumn:
Training and Tracing
During its four-month closure, Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida, used the time to develop a new training program that’s still in use this fall.
“As many of our cast members are called back from furlough, they’ve gone through training on new measures,” says Elizabeth Mullins, vice president of hotels and resorts at Walt Disney World. These continued measures include practicing new techniques for proper cleaning, sanitizing, and disease prevention. She says the resort partnered with Florida government agencies and epidemiologists to develop “a through process for supporting contact tracing,” should a cast member become ill.
“This includes notifying any close work contacts and placing them on leave, until they are medically ready to and cleared to come back to work,” Mullins says.
In addition, the resort set up coronavirus testing facilities on property, where both cast members and the public can easily be tested.
Each cast member is issued several face coverings as part of their costume (the name given to uniforms at Disney Parks). The masks—called Pixie Dust Masks—feature designs and patterns created by cast members.
“As we continue to learn more about mask design, we continue to enhance them,” says Mullins, adding the third generation of face covering—promoting safety and greater comfort—is now in use.
Safety for All
While Walt Disney World is roughly the same size as San Francisco, California, theme park leaders continue to implement plans that allow visitors to spread out.
“A cornerstone of our health and safety measures involve intentionally limiting capacity to allow for physical distancing,” says Djuan Rivers, vice president of Disney's Animal Kingdom. While Rivers says Disney theme parks do not release attendance numbers, they do employ a group of “industrial engineers to help determine our capacity levels.” Purposely suppressing attendance will allow planners to know how many guests intend to visit each operating day this fall. An online reservation system, first implemented this past summer, shows guests what autumn days are available for booking. Once at the park of their choice, guests will find Disney’s health and safety plan at work, which includes:
- Requiring face coverings for guests and cast members
- Temperature screenings for guests and cast members
- The roaming “The Incredi-Crew” a group of cast members that promote physical distancing among guests
- Increased cleaning and sanitizing efforts
- Adding handwashing stations and hand sanitizer boxes across theme parks
The precautions are welcomed by guests, according to Valiquette. She says data shows eight out of 10 guests feel Disney’s health and safety measures “are just right.”
“With few exceptions, our guests are reassured by the measures in place,” Valiquette confirms.
Since the four theme parks at Walt Disney World reopened to guests, resort leaders remain open to policy changes.
“We said that we would steadily evolve our operations as new information and learnings became known,” says Rivers.
When data from a Duke University study showed that gaiter-style face coverings and bandanas do not provide the same level of protection as masks that fit snuggly, Walt Disney World evolved its policy to forbid both gaiters and bandanas.
Meantime, Valiquette says children have found wearing custom face coverings that feature Disney characters (available for purchase in merchandise locations) as a fun way to dress-up and celebrate the Halloween season.
The theme parks also changed how and where guests may enjoy food and beverage items. This autumn, visitors must be seated or standing stationary when they remove their masks to eat or drink.
“The measures we implemented as we reopened were good,” Rivers says. “The measures we have put in place since then have improved upon (our) already strong practice.”
Keeping Live Entertainment Live
To promote social distancing, the resort will continue to postpone firework displays and parades this autumn, while some indoor shows will continue in new ways outside. Valiquette says while the resort will continue “halting things that cause guests to gather closely together,” the resort created 26 new entertainment offerings. Unannounced character appearances—each enjoyed from a distance—empowers front-line employees to keep crowds from forming. Musical acts this fall will continue to be held in non-traditional environments outdoors that promote physical distancing. With the holiday season just two months way, the resort will use the autumn months to make additional pivots for Christmas performances, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year in Orlando.
Adjusting operating hours to match demand this fall, and reopening shuttered hotels when attendance warrants, is another way park leaders are staying fluid. Rivers says Walt Disney World saw a demand in late-summer by annual pass holders and Floridians looking to stay close to home.
“Our focus at the moment is on local travelers, but as time goes on, and the situation improves, we’ll be able to broaden our reach once again,” Rivers says.
For now, Valiquette says autumn guests share “they are experiencing more attractions than usual, due to shorter wait times.”
In Anaheim, California, the Downtown Disney District shopping and dining area have a number of procedures for managing demand in real time. Monitoring incoming vehicle traffic, pausing entry into the parking lot, and using mobile waitlists into retail locations, are all methods that keep crowds from forming.
“Given that the vast majority of our guests live in California within a few hours drive of Anaheim, the reception we’ve seen at Downtown Disney is an encouraging sign these local guests will come to visit once our theme parks and hotels open,” says Patrick Finnegan, vice president of Downtown Disney District and Disney California Adventure.
“Fortunately, we know these times we’re in will not last forever,” Mullins says with confidence in her voice. “When our guests are ready to our destinations, we’ll be ready to welcome them back.”