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Is Disney World Opening Too Soon or Too Late?

By Rick Munarriz - May 28, 2020 at 10:00AM

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July 11 is when Disney World will start opening its theme parks, but there are arguments to be made for opening sooner -- or much later.

Walt Disney (DIS 1.84%) waited to be the final theme park operator in Central Florida to present its reopening plan to the country's economic recovery task force on Wednesday, and it's only fair that it will become the final of the area's gated attractions to get back to business. Disney World is proposing a phased reopening of its attractions beginning on July 11, at least a full month later than the rest of its area peers. 

Disney may be losing more money than any of its smaller rivals during the shutdown, but it also has the most to lose if it opens too early. With all of the other major theme park operators set to open in the first half of June, the House of Mouse will be able to monitor how the situation plays out and adjust its own opening strategy accordingly. Disney is going to let the little guys suffer through the learning curve as it becomes the only player in the area waiting until the summer season itself to reopen.

Alice in Wonderland looking puzzled along with the Mad Hatter and Rabbit

Image source: Disney.

The wildest ride in the wilderness

Disney World will open its two most visited theme parks -- Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom -- on July 11. Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios will follow suit four days later. The experience will initially be a shell of the theme park experiences you remember. 

Attendance will be tightly capped, and advance reservations will be required. Guests will be subject to temperature checks on the way in, and they'll be required to wear masks to enter and remain in the park. The face coverings rule  -- the most contentious part of the reopening plan -- will be relaxed in dining rooms and designated areas. Disney will naturally be stepping up its sanitation efforts, and social distancing markers will help keep guests apart from other parties -- theoretically. 

It may seem odd to see Disney World gunning for mid-July when everyone else in Central Florida has been cleared to start thrilling guests through the first two weeks of June. If it had asked for an earlier start, there's no reason to think it wouldn't have been granted. So, this is a deliberately calculated approach, even if it costs Disney a month of desperately needed revenue and possibly many of its displaced employees. 

Disney will be watching, giving itself five to six weeks to see what's working and what's not at competing theme parks. Disney will also be watching for a spike in new COVID-19 cases in the state that could threaten to reverse the state's aggressive reopening stance. The only thing worse than closing down once is closing down twice, and there should be more confidence in a sustainable opening if Disney waits until deeper into the summer to -- as they say in Toy Story -- wind the frog.

There won't be a summer travel season this year, so it's not as if Disney's going to miss out on prime weeks of tourist activity. Outside of the July 11 reopening day that's bound to draw the locally curious, it wouldn't be a surprise if attendance levels never reach the daily reservation cap. The international and even national travel market is going to be on ice for at least the next several months. There's a recession cackling as it closes in like a villain in a Disney animated feature.

Folks will also stay away by their own accord. The face mask issue is a polarizing one that no one can win, as both camps draw lines in the sand. Folks who refuse to wear face coverings won't be able to go to Disney's parks under the current playbook. If the policy is reversed while the dangers of contraction are still running high, then it will be folks who do wear masks who won't want to be around too many people who aren't taking similar precautionary measures.

Disney can't win either way, so why not kick the can at least a month further down the road than everybody else? Time isn't kind right now.

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