Business

Disney parks are nearly empty and that seems to be the plan

by Christopher Palmeri

Bloomberg

Walt Disney Co.’s just-opened theme parks in Florida are so deserted that visitors are waiting five minutes or less to get on many rides — an eerie experience for people accustomed to long lines.

Jay Scutt, who runs the Park Hoppin’ YouTube channel, visited the Animal Kingdom park on July 12, the day after it opened to the public, and found it lightly attended.

“I walked on everything,” said Scutt, a frequent park goer. “I’ve never seen the park like this.”

No doubt, many would-be visitors are wary of going to Disney’s parks during a pandemic. But the thin crowds may largely be the result of limits imposed by a new reservation system, part of the company’s cautious approach to reopening attractions. Reservations were quickly snapped up for last weekend, but the park still looked empty to many attendees.

“It seems to be slow by design,” said Jeremiah Good, chief Central Florida correspondent for Laughing Place, a website that tracks theme-park attendance. The one exception was Splash Mountain, which is loosely based on the controversial 1946 film “Song of the South.” It’s scheduled to be remodeled with a new theme, which has made it a bit more of a draw.

“While reservations are booked, the only significant wait is for Splash Mountain and its associated merchandise location,” Good said.

Disney, based in Burbank, California, is reopening its parks in stages. Two of the Florida properties, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, welcomed back visitors on Saturday. Two more, Epcot and Hollywood Studios, joined them on Wednesday, as did Disneyland Paris. The Disneyland park in California, where government officials this week clamped down again on restaurants and other establishments, remains dark.

It’s been a learning process for Disney. The company reopened its Shanghai theme park in May with capacity set at less than 30 percent. In an interview on July 11, Disney parks chief Josh D’Amaro declined to say what capacity the company would permit in Florida. The executive said he was “pretty pleased” overall with resort bookings going into next year.

“We’ve increased capacity in Shanghai,” he said. “I think we’re seeing very cooperative guest behavior.”

Disney has moved more slowly than rivals in reopening. Florida parks run by Comcast Corp.’s Universal Studios and SeaWorld Entertainment Inc. restarted operations weeks ago. They also haven’t seen large crowds, though.

Florida attractions are under extra scrutiny this week as the state has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases, including in the Orlando area, where theme parks are concentrated. Two Major League Soccer teams pulled out of a tournament being held at Walt Disney World after players tested positive. Disney said its safety protocols, including temperature checks at the gate, social distancing and frequent cleanings, will protect guests and staff.

In Hong Kong, meanwhile, Disney’s park closed again on Wednesday because of a resurgence there.

People who do venture inside the Florida parks are at least paying a bit less than normal. Tickets have been available for $125 a day, at the low end of the usual range in a busy summer. Disney introduced a tiered ticket pricing system several years ago, with prices this year running from $109 to $159 on the company’s website.

“We’re reopening in a very phased and controlled way,” D’Amaro said. “As we watch to see what demand looks like, we’ll adjust as necessary, but each park is going to look a little bit different.”

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