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Walt Disney World Is Preparing to Reopen. It’s Gonna Be Weird.

Photo: Erik S Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shuttersto

The Walt Disney Company has submitted its plan for reopening its Florida theme parks to state and local authorities, and the company’s hope is to reopen the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom parks on July 11 and the Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios parks on July 15. But once the parks have reopened, the experience won’t be what you would normally expect from a visit to Walt Disney World.

Most visibly, all guests over 2 years of age will be required to wear masks in the parks. Capacity will be limited; you’ll have to make a reservation in advance to show up to the park, even if you have a season pass; and events that draw crowds, like parades and fireworks, will be suspended. Attractions that involve close personal contact, notably the greeting of costumed Disney characters, will also be off the menu for now. Water parks won’t reopen with the main theme parks.

Most interestingly to me, Disney is not yet allowing new reservations at its on-property hotels this summer. When the company rolls out its system for theme-park visit reservations, existing holders of Disney hotel reservations will get priority, then season-pass holders. Essentially, Disney is ensuring that when its parks reopen, they will be filled with people who have a strong commitment to the brand: people who had made reservations months in advance for a vacation to Walt Disney World — and retained that reservation through the coronavirus crisis — or people who hold season passes. These are the sorts of people who are likely most eager to get back into Disney parks, and most likely to be willing to roll with a significantly changed (and, in some ways, diminished) park experience.

Walt Disney World also faces a unique issue not seen at other Disney parks or competing theme parks that are small enough to be walkable: extensive needs for mass transportation within its nearly 40-square-mile campus. Customers ordinarily travel by bus, boat, monorail, and tram between hotels and parks, but transportation vehicles may need to operate at reduced capacity, and customers may be leery of getting on crowded buses and trains. Walking between attractions is, in many cases, impossible, and under normal circumstances, customers would welcome the opportunity to get out of the summer Florida heat and into an air-conditioned vehicle. One possible outcome is that many hotel guests will drive their own cars around the Disney property, parking in the theme-park lots usually used by day visitors, who will be many fewer in number than usual. This would lead to hideous traffic jams if done with the parks at full capacity, but a much-reduced number of visitors could make it workable for a time.

Six weeks is a long time, and it’s possible that virus conditions and public-health guidance will shift between now and then, in a way that either makes reopening easier and more full-featured or that requires the imposition of even more restrictions. But in any case, the new Disney-park experience looks like it will be very different from normal and most suited to people who are desperately missing their Disney-park fix.

Disney World Is Preparing to Reopen. It’s Gonna Be Weird.