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Should Disney Have Closed Its Parks Sooner?

By Rick Munarriz - Mar 21, 2020 at 4:00PM

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Disney World and Disneyland closed last weekend, but controversy is starting to bubble up to the surface.

Disney's (DIS -1.36%) domestic theme parks have been closed since last weekend, and it feels like an eternity. It may be a mere coincidence that Wall Street would suffer its worst week of trading since 2008, but the closing of Disney World and Disneyland, in at least a small way, made COVID-19 a reality across the country. The world's two most popular theme park resorts that have never closed down for more than a day or two are now closed for weeks, if not months.

Disneyland's shutdown at the end of operations last Saturday, with Disney World following suit a day later, is an unprecedented event. But once Disney set the tone, smaller rivals quickly followed suit. The eventual reopening will be toasted across the country as a sign of returning to normality. However, one has to wonder, now that there's at least one coronavirus death tied to someone who reportedly visited Disney World earlier this month, if the media giant should've closed its gated attractions sooner. 

Mickey Mouse and several costumed characters and Disney performers in front of the Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railyway marquee.

Image source: Disney.

Carousel of progress

A 34-year-old California man died on Thursday from complications related to COVID-19. He had flown out to Orlando for a conference on March 2, and according to his sister, he decided to stick around a bit longer to check out Disney World and Comcast's (CMCSA 0.67%) Universal Orlando. He developed a cough on March 7 and then started coughing up blood the next day. He returned home from Orlando through Los Angeles on March 9, when few were entertaining an actual park closure. 

To be fair, no one should be surprised that someone who had contracted COVID-19 visited Disney World. The four Florida theme parks entertain an average of roughly 160,000 guests a day. Between the March 4 opening of the resort's first Mickey Mouse-helmed ride and a foodie festival, Disney World was going to be a hot destination for locals and out-of-town visitors. Even if Disney had closed its Florida resort a weekend, earlier the ill-fated California man would have still been there. 

Disney did what everybody else was doing as the coronavirus cases started to grow exponentially as March played out: It installed washing stations and stepped up its sanitation efforts. It also bears repeating that Disney became the first major theme park operator to close down. It was a proactive leader and not a reactive follower on that front. However, with the man already ill before leaving Orlando, isn't it just a matter of time before other positive cases coincide with visits to the world's most visited theme park resort at the same time?

Sentiment matters, and whether or not we ultimately cheer the reopening of Disney World or wonder if the theme park behemoth tried to stay open for too long will depend on how things play out in the coming weeks. If this is the only death tied to someone who visited Disney World earlier this month, the negative narrative will fade quickly. 

You can't blame Disney for wanting to stay open as long as possible this month. It was cashing in on the debut of Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway and local families hungry for something to do with area schools letting out for spring break during the final weekend of operations. Closing its parks for an extended amount of time is a serious consideration, and we're seeing what closures of nonessential businesses across the country is doing to rattle investor confidence. Disney shares have plummeted 44% since hitting all-time highs just before Thanksgiving. 

One also has to wonder if things would've been handled differently if Bob Iger hadn't stepped down as CEO last month. Poor Bob Chapek was handed the baton in the middle of a storm. 

For now, this is just one of the first of what will probably be many unfortunate stories of COVID-19 victims. With Disney already facing the strong possibility of battling a global recession at the other end of this coronavirus curve, it has enough on its plate to worry about. 

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