Disney World and Disneyland closing amid Covid-19 fears

When a pandemic sweeps the globe, making large gatherings of people incredibly dangerous, how does the Walt Disney Company respond? At first, with copious amounts of Purell, but as of March 12, the operators of the world’s largest theme parks announced that California’s Disneyland would close for only the fourth time since it opened in 1955; the park will be shuttered March 14 through the end of the month. A few hours later, The Walt Disney Company confirmed it would be also closing Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Disneyland Paris for the rest of the month starting Monday, March 16th, marking the first time in history all six Disney theme park resorts would be closed simultaneously.

Earlier in the day, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Disneyland was exempt from a general order limiting groups of 250 or more people, citing the situation as “complex” and “unique.” However, by early afternoon, the company issued a statement saying:

While there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at Disneyland Resort, after carefully reviewing the guidelines of the Governor of California’s executive order and in the best interest of our guests and employees, we are proceeding with the closure of Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, beginning the morning of March 14 through the end of the month.

Governor Newsom’s office also issued a statement, saying:

Late last night, California put out a new policy on mass gatherings and engaged in deep conversations with Disney and other companies about how to meet it. Using that policy, Disney made the right call in the interest of public health and agreed to shut down their California parks. Expect more announcements like this shortly.

The company closed Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland in succession on January 25 and 26 to contain the spread of Covid-19, as the danger of the virus and the disease it causes quickly became clear, and both have remained closed since. However, Shanghai’s Disneytown, the outdoor mall attached to the park, began welcoming guests this week — 45 days into the closures — in what could be an optimistic sign. As “the first step of a phased reopening,” as reported by CNN, the mall is allowing guests to visit specific locations after undergoing temperature screenings, requiring them to wear masks throughout and present health records when entering a dining area. But, even as promotional videos of furry characters play on social media, the rides stand still.

When Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo requested to postpone large gatherings for two weeks last month, Tokyo Disney Resort announced it would close temporarily starting February 29. This past Monday, March 9, the park extended that closure through early April — pushing the opening of its new Beauty and the Beast ride and Fantasyland expansion at least one month later than intended. Its hotels remain open but with limited services, as character dining with Mickey Mouse and gift shops remain closed and buffets have been amended to table-service dining.

Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea — a locale that many theme park aficionados consider the holy grail — closed for 34 and 47 days, respectively, following the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake, a threshold that could be exceeded if the closure lasts past April 15. A new opening date has not yet been announced, but Universal Studios Japan, located a few hours away in Osaka, has extended through March 22 with the possibility of being pushed further, a far shorter window than Disney’s park.

Disneyland Paris, the most-visited location in France, remained open for days after three employees tested positive for coronavirus. The staff worked “backstage,” the company term for not guest-facing, and were not confirmed not to have had contact with guests, according to the Financial Times.

Shanghai’s Disneytown has reopened to visitors, despite Shanghai Disneyland remaining closed.
Yin Liqin/China News Service via Getty Images

The Paris park first announced newly enhanced safety protocols on Thursday, temporarily suspending parades and a large portion of its in-park entertainment through mid-April, and limiting capacity within lines, theaters, and larger indoor restaurants. Disneyland Paris also restricted face-to-face contact with Disney princesses, shuttering their meet-and-greet location in favor of a parade-style cavalcade hours before announcing the park would be closed for the rest of March.

With the entirety of The Walt Disney Company’s theme park portfolio experiencing closures — parks in the US and France through the end of March; in Japan through mid-April; and in China indefinitely — it’s worth noting that the domestic resorts are closer to home in ways less obvious, too. Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and Shanghai Disney Resort both serve as a joint venture between the Walt Disney Company and local government — which owns the majority share — while Tokyo Disney Resort is overseen by the Oriental Land Company, a Japanese business that owns and operates the resort. Disneyland and Walt Disney World, however, are singularly owned. (The Walt Disney Company also regained ownership of Disneyland Paris back in 2017.)

For a fantasy-filled destination whose brand is “the happiest place on earth” — open 365 days a year, come Floridian rain or humid shine, on all major holidays — it’s an unprecedented occurrence. Historically, Disney World and Disneyland have only closed for impending natural disasters or in the wake of a national tragedy (like 9/11 or JFK’s death); while other businesses may close up shop for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, here, it’s the busiest days of the year. (It’s worth noting that both of Disney’s Chinese theme parks closed days before Lunar New Year — which typically sees a boom in park attendance.)

As of March 12, the Florida theme park resort was still functioning normally, with lengthy lines for roller coasters, increased cleaning of high-touch surfaces, and recommended hand-washing procedures amid the pandemic. These precautions will remain in place until the March 16 closure; the California park will also use these same precautions until it closes on March 14. Antibacterial hand gel dispensers were placed in key locations throughout Disney World, and earlier this week, the park added mobile hand-washing stations. (A thing to remember: The viral video of that kid licking a pole? It was taken inside Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.)

Disney Cruise Line — yes, the mouse has his own fleet — will suspend departures starting this March 14 through the end of the month. As of March 12, the cruise line remained in service with enhanced measures despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No guest or crew member who has traveled from, to, or through China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, or Japan or has had contact with anyone from those regions, including connecting flights, was previously allowed to board.

Up until the closures, crowds didn’t seem to have taken too much of a downturn. According to guests of the Florida resort, and per attraction wait times, there were still plenty of people in the parks — likely a result of Disney’s new Star Wars attraction that requires a first-come, first-served “boarding pass” to ride, and its first Mickey Mouse ride, which opened just last week. The New York Times reported that Disney-affiliated companies had seen “business as usual,” with one park-goer saying, “If I’m going to get sick and die, I might as well do it at Disney World.”

While parks in the U.S. and France are closed later this month, all three on-property dining, shopping, and entertainment districts — Downtown Disney at Disneyland Resort, Disney Springs at Walt Disney World, and Disney Village at Disneyland Paris — will remain open.

Hotels at Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris will also remain open. Disneyland Resort will temporarily shutter its three on-site hotels through March.

Hours before the announced closures, Walt Disney World Resort began offering temporary adjustments to package deals, waiving the $50 change fee for guests who have purchased theme park admission and a hotel room as a bundle directly from the company.

For Disneyland guests, the company pledged in its statement to work with guests “who wish to change or cancel their visits, and will provide refunds to those who have hotel bookings during this closure period.” With travel increasingly discouraged, and more and more reactions and shutdowns from the entertainment industry, Walt Disney World and Disneyland Paris are expected to make similar accommodations soon.

Disney Parks are, after all, an escape, but the severity of the pandemic continues to grow.

Updated with a statement from the California Governor’s office and news of additional Disney park closures.

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