World of Disney at Disney Springs — Photo by Austin Lang

I Went to Walt Disney World During the Pandemic; Here’s What I Learned.

Just getting into the complex was an ordeal. A medical tent had been set up outside the entrance with mandatory temperature screenings. As I approached, I saw a family get turned away because their youngest had refused to wear a face covering. I overheard people arguing over the merits of neck gaiters as a disease prevention measure. I was beginning to wonder if going through all of this trouble was worth it for an order of chicken tenders.

Disney Springs, the massive shopping complex attached to Walt Disney World, had just reopened after months of silence. It was Disney’s test run; a trial of their social distancing measures before they risked opening the theme parks. Opening a theme park during a pandemic is, by all means, a terrible idea. Theme parks are built to house enormous crowds of people, often shoulder to shoulder. I’ve had people cough directly into my face while at Disney World. If the gates were left open during the pandemic, the Happiest Place on Earth would have become the Kingdom of Coronavirus; something Disney did not want to get tangled up in. As I emerged from my quarantine cave months later, long having forgotten what the sun looked like, I couldn’t help but wonder if things were moving too fast.

I was volunteering myself as a guinea pig. Putting my health on the line to see if this crazy experiment would actually work. Also, Chicken Guy had reopened and I really wanted some Donkey Sauce. It was selfish. It was foolish. There was a creeping feeling of guilt in my stomach as I stood in line for the mandatory temperature check. Yet, at the same time, it all felt oddly necessary.

Disney is one of the biggest employers in the Central Florida area, with over 75,000 employees according to the Orlando Business Journal. More critically, it’s also a key industry for the region, like coal mining or agriculture. While only a small portion of our population actually works for Disney, the fortunes of nearly everyone in Orlando are linked to it in some way. Restaurant owners, hoteliers, travel agents, stroller and scooter rentals, even Uber drivers… without the tourism industry, everything starts to fall apart. Revenue dries up, which means less money to feed into other, non-Disney related industries like agriculture or medicine. Tax income disappears, public works projects stagnate… without the House of Mouse, Orlando couldn’t survive. Not in its current form, anyway. Nearly everyone I knew in the area had been furloughed or laid off over the previous months because of the dip in tourism. Even I had seen a severe loss of income, as there simply weren’t any new developments at the theme parks for me to write about for my blogging job. We were getting by on pandemic unemployment, but that wouldn’t last forever. Tensions were building.

So, as foolish as it was to risk my life for Guy Fieri’s questionably named condiments, I bravely strode into that oddly deserted shopping complex, warily eying families that seemed just as uncertain about the situation as I did. We navigated hastily placed social distancing markers, finding familiar passages closed off by apologetic signs. Cast members worked with a combination of relief and apprehension; glad that they were working once again, yet uncertain of the ramifications this new normal would have on their health, the health of their families. We obsessively washed our hands and recoiled from careless guests as they walked, unmasked, through the promenade, munching on a churro as if the world hadn’t been turned upside down.

It’s been months since that awkward first day, and Walt Disney World has since fully reopened. Things are operating in a way that resembles normalcy now, even as states report record cases of COVID-19 cases. We’ve donned colorful masks, set up plexiglass barriers, and staggered ride vehicles to maintain that magical six-foot distance that marks the thin line between life and death. The practices of hugging costumed characters and asking for autographs have been replaced with waving at them from a distance and posing for photos. They’ve even started to get self aware. They’ve even fixed the churro problem by mandating guests remain seated while eating. Compared to the general chaos of the outside world, Disney feels like the second safest place to be after my own house… though how much of that is just an illusion remains to be seen.

Still, it’s clear that all of these measures have been jury rigged together. They’re outside of the norm; an aberration. You can see signs of the world that was are everywhere you look. Hands on exhibits, which Disney once touted as a method to revitalize the often boring process of waiting in line, have been roped off for safety. Iconic pre-shows, like the Haunted Mansion’s Stretching Room, where ordinary paintings contort into humorously macabre scenes of death, have been turned into just… rooms. The effects have been disabled, and the entire experience is just another bump in your trek to the end of the queue. Ride vehicles leave the station looking bizarrely empty, sometimes with only one person on board. Other times with none at all, the animatronics unknowingly performing for an audience that doesn’t exist. Interactive, wish-fulfilling experiences like becoming a princess or building your own lightsaber have been transformed into ordinary retail locations, if they’re even open at all. This wasn’t the world Walt Disney envisioned, but it’s the one we’re stuck with.

Tourism in general has taken a major hit since the pandemic began, with former major players like the cruise industry being forced to dismantle their ships to stay afloat. As the pandemic stretches onward, it’s quickly becoming clear that the way we used to do things simply doesn’t work anymore. Yes, someday a vaccine for COVID-19 will be widely available, and the disease will pass from the public consciousness, but that doesn’t mean another pandemic won’t emerge elsewhere. Moreover, the tourism and travel industries have a social obligation to reduce the transmission of disease. As the tragic events onboard the Diamond Princess demonstrated, it’s incredibly easy for diseases to transform a dream vacation into a nightmare. Long distance travel allows diseases to spread exponentially, and a global tourism destination like Walt Disney World has the potential to become ground zero for a super spreading event. For the industry to continue to exist, it needs to prove that it can keep the risk of disease under control.

Still, it’s clear that the future of theme parks will look radically different than what we’re used to. We can already see some of these future measures in play. Universal Orlando, Disney’s largest rival in the region, has already begun experimenting with new attraction design. Their signature Halloween Horror Nights event, which transforms the park into a horror movie inspired nightmare, has been scaled back to a pair of haunted houses with some interesting social distancing techniques. Guests are led through in groups, rather than the continuous conga line of terror in years past. In addition to maintaining distance, this has the pleasant side effect of ensuring each group experiences the house in its entirety, rather than simply catching the end of whatever gruesome scene Universal Creative has cooked up. The actors (or scareactors) wear masks that have been cleverly worked into their costumes, while plexiglass barriers have been put in place to prevent the spread of viral particles. These barriers are cleverly concealed through lighting tricks, maintaining the illusion that the horrific monsters are just inches from your face. Both attractions also rely on virtual line systems, further reducing contact between guests. The temporary nature of these attractions gives Universal more room to experiment, but they could provide a glimpse into what awaits in the years ahead.

It’s still unclear what things will look like a few weeks from now, let alone in a few months, but something has to change. This pandemic has left many Americans faced with the impossible choice between potentially contracting a fatal disease or facing financial ruin. We need to do better on every level. Still, the fact that no major outbreaks have been associated with the Orlando theme parks is an encouraging sign. As frivolous as it may seem, it’s proof that the sometimes draconian social distancing methods being enforced are working. That it is possible to keep this disease under control, even with crowded public spaces. We’re standing on the precipice of a new era of medically-conscious design. A future where spaces are designed to prevent the spread of disease, not encourage it. Not just theme parks, but offices, restaurants, factories, and schools. A future that, just maybe, could prevent the next pandemic before it begins.

Maybe I shouldn’t feel so guilty about those chicken tenders after all.

An Orlandian nerd who writes about pop culture, theme parks, and the autistic experience.

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