For the first time in history, all Disney theme parks around the world have been closed for multiple weeks. The parks will remain closed for, well, who knows how long. Disney has used the term “indefinite,” so while we don’t know when exactly the parks will reopen, we know they’ll probably look different when they do.

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Based on what we’ve seen at the Disney parks in Asia, which is a bit farther along the curve of the coronavirus pandemic than the U.S., in addition to what the U.S. parks were doing just before they closed in March; remarks from Bob Iger (Disney’s CEO until February of 2020, now Disney’s executive chairman); technological capabilities we know Disney has at its disposal; and a little old-fashioned guessing, we’ll paint a picture of what we expect to see at Disney parks when they unlock the gates.

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Phased reopening

When Disney World closed in March, it closed in phases. First came the park shutdowns, followed by the closures of the resorts and the Disney Springs shopping and dining area. For several weeks now, Shanghai Disneyland (which was the first of the parks to close), has been in a phased reopening that has started with the resort hotels, shopping and dining areas.

We’re betting that when the U.S. Disney parks reopen, everything won’t open simultaneously on the same date. Following the patterns we have already seen, it’s logical to assume Disney Springs and some Disney resort hotels may open in advance of the theme parks themselves.

We know that reopening Disney parks and resorts won’t be simple. Stocking up on supplies ranging from turkey legs to Coke to toilet paper; getting the rides back in action; bringing back staff members; and instituting training for new procedures won’t happen overnight, even once things do get rolling. To contextualize the scale of what’s happened, Disney has suspended its current college program, culture representative program (for Epcot) and reportedly told the June arrivals to not travel to Orlando.

Disney Riviera Resort (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Temperature checks

The aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001 brought us bag checks at the Disney Parks, a security measure that remains in effect today.

Bob Iger recently told Barrons that, “just as we now do bag checks for everybody that goes into our parks, it could be that, at some point, we add a component of that that takes people’s temperatures ….”

While it will be a major change that will slow down entry to the parks, it wouldn’t be impossible for Disney to pull off, as it’s already being utilized at the portions of the Shanghai Disney Resort that have reopened. Touchless temperature checks were also being done on passengers boarding a Disney Cruise in the weeks before those were suspended in March.

Eliminate fingerprint scans

I was at Disney World for a media event for the opening of the new Mickey and Minnie Runaway Railway attraction on March 3, less than two weeks before the parks closed. While the worst of the outbreak was still to come in the U.S., the virus was still very much on my mind while I was there. In fact, I declined to use the fingerprint scanner to enter the parks, as it seemed like an obvious potential home for germs that I wanted to avoid. At that time, declining to use the fingerprint device meant a trip to guest services, forms to fill out, IDs to display, photos to take and then a return to trip to the line to enter the parks. But avoiding the scanner was possible even before the closure.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

In fact, at Disneyland, while photos are on file to cut down on fraudulent ticket use, fingerprints are not utilized. While fingerprints are useful at Disney, my money is on either an elimination of that literal touchpoint to enter the Florida Disney parks or an easier way to opt-out.

Mask requirements

In Shanghai, guests at the reopened Disney shopping, dining and hotel areas must wear a mask during the entirety of their visit (except when dining) — in addition to social distancing. The cast members at that resort also wear masks. Now, masks have a longer history of acceptance in many Asian countries than in the U.S., so will masks be required at the U.S. parks? I’m not sure. And let’s not forget that it’s already 100 degrees and humid at Disney World in the summer.

As the country develops a deeper understanding of the coronavirus and as people everywhere are encouraged to wear personal protective equipment, it’s not impossible to believe that masks could have a permanent role at the U.S. Disney parks — especially if that helps the parks reopen sooner.

Chip n Dale celebrated their birthday at the Shanghai Disney Resort today! While the park itself has not re-opened, part of the resort hotels and restaurants have, along with Disneytown! LIKE or RT if you can’t wait for all #DisneyParks to be safely back open again! ???????? pic.twitter.com/9m0ay21HcI

— themeparkreview (@ThemeParkReview) April 2, 2020

Virtual queuing

How do you maintain a safe social distance from others at a theme park with tens of thousands of daily visitors? I’m sure Disney is meeting on that daily, but one way to reduce congestion is to eliminate lines.

We already know that Disney has the capacity to utilize virtual queues since that process has been in use for the popular Rise of the Resistance attraction since it opened in December 2019. This works by having Disney guests use the My Disney Experience app to join a virtual queue that will ultimately tell the guest when to return and join the physical line as guests with higher “boarding groups” are processed. This eliminates the need to pack guests into one long line together for hours.

This technology could be rolled out to additional popular attractions that traditionally have long lines to help disperse guests around the parks.

Related: Guide to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney

Skip the preshow

Many Disney attractions tell a story, and part of that scene is often set with a preshow experience that packs dozens of people together in a tight space to watch a video or experience another form of visual and auditory storytelling before getting on the actual moving attraction. Examples of attractions with preludes include: Pandora: Flight of Passage, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, the infamous stretching room at the Haunted Mansion, Rock ‘n’ Rollercoaster and Soarin’, among others. It’s possible these preshow attractions could be canceled, at least for a period of time.

Suspension of parades and shows

Disney will likely seek to eliminate as many obvious sources of overcrowding as possible, and the famous parades and fireworks shows immediately come to mind as being problematic in a world where social distancing is still top of mind. After all, these are the moments when the majority of all Disney guests simultaneously flood entire sections of the park. So, when the Disney parks reopen, parades and shows may not immediately reappear, or at least not in the way we’ve enjoyed them in the past.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Reduced capacity

Typically, Disney World only hits maximum guest capacity and closes its gates to additional guests on a very limited number of dates each year (usually around New Year’s Eve). But it’s entirely possible that Disney (or local officials) may decide that a safe number of guests for a world after a pandemic is lower than what was traditionally permitted. It’s also possible the operating hours will be reduced to allow more time for deep cleaning procedures to be conducted each evening.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

This could be true not only in the parks, but also in the restaurants.

Before the country pretty much shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, many state and local governments required restaurants to operate at half capacity. It’s possible that requirement could remain in place while the country, and the magical world of Disney, gradually and cautiously reopens.

Even at full capacity, getting a table at one of Disney’s best restaurants is tough, so it may get even more difficult to secure those experiences when the parks reopen. While we’re talking about popular Disney restaurants, don’t be shocked if the rules surrounding character meal interactions change, too.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Hand sanitizing stations

The week the U.S. parks closed, we saw mobile hand washing and hand sanitizing stations pop up around the theme parks. It’s all but guaranteed we will see more of them when the parks ultimately reopen, most likely at high touch points such as restaurants, snack carts, the park entrance and potentially even the attractions themselves. It’s also possible some of the temporary hand stations may be introduced in a more permanent capacity, mirroring some of the methods already utilized on the Disney Cruise Line.

When will Disney World and Disneyland reopen?

The $13 million dollar per day question (according to Forbes), is how long Disney will remain closed, and when guests can return. It’s unlikely the Disney theme parks in the U.S. will reopen before June, as they aren’t even taking reservations until then, but that doesn’t mean you should start packing your Mickey ears for a June 1 trip either. Shanghai Disneyland has been closed since late January and still doesn’t have a reopening date for the theme park.

Using that 75-day (and counting) closure as a guide, it’s entirely possible the U.S. parks will still be closed at the start of June.

In fact, for all the vast resources and technology Disney has at its disposal, it still may be one of the last places to turn the lights back on, simply because of the scale of humanity that tends to descend upon the parks at one time. While there are concrete actions Disney can take to spread people out, increase sanitation and promote health and social distancing, there’s no two ways around the reality that theme parks traditionally bring lots of people into very close proximity for prolonged periods of time.

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

I would not expect the Disney parks in the U.S. to truly reopen until it’s also deemed safe for schools to reopen. That may still be during the summer — but it also might not be. It will depend on how quickly the country flattens the curve, successfully rolls back some shelter in place requirements without a recurrent spike of cases, ramps up testing and tracking measures and has success with smaller gatherings of people.

Bottom line

Just as Sept. 11 forever impacted theme park security, this pandemic will likely leave a lasting impression on Disney and other major theme parks around the globe. While some additional safety and health measures may eventually ease as we get past this intense phase of the pandemic, some changes may be permanent.

Featured image by Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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