Is it possible to keep a theme park clean and safe during a pandemic?
Back in October, California governor Gavin Newsom announced a plan for reopening theme parks in the state.
After months of lobbying for reopening from both Disney and Universal as the state sought to limit the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, the plan was not received well, with representatives from both companies balking at measures they saw as overly restrictive. Then — after huge spikes in COVID numbers — Disneyland was converted into a vaccine distribution site in January...
With staggering losses and massive employee layoffs as a result of months of closure, both Universal and Disney were eager for their theme park businesses to get back in gear in California. But the companies don't have the same issues in Florida, where they have been operational since the summer.
In fact, Florida governor Ron DeSantis completely eliminated state-level restrictions on businesses as of September 25th, and even made it impossible for local municipalities to mandate anything beyond the most minimal restrictions on bars and restaurants.
Despite some worrying trends in the state's coronavirus numbers, the Governor has been determined to return to business as usual, even promising a "full Super Bowl" in Tampa next February. But not everyone is as blindly optimistic as Florida's highest elected official.
Why Go to Disney World During a Pandemic? | The New Yorkerwww.youtube.com
While Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World have been reopened since June and July respectively — when Florida's first wave of COVID cases was at its worst — if travelers are considering a trip to either resort, they may want to have a closer look at the precautions taken by each company to make their parks safe(ish) for visitors.
With that in mind, my wife and I recently went under cover as "tourists" and "nerds" to inspect these theme parks by going on a bunch of rides and getting overly excited about various attractions that may or may not be designed for small children.
While both resorts claim to be taking measures recommended by the CDC, only Disney World has explicitly stated that they are operating at 25% capacity. That said, guests should not expect to see 25% of the usual crowds, because Disney World's various parks don't generally fill up to 100% capacity under normal circumstances.
Instead—on days when the parks reach their 25% capacity—the resulting crowds should be around 40-60% of average levels. While this creates a noticeable reduction in the density of visitors, Disney World is far from a ghost town, and both Epcot and Animal Kingdom—the two parks my wife and I
enjoyed inspected—were host to a comfortable number of people on the weekdays we spent there.
As for Universal Orlando, it's hard to get a proper comparison, because we found ourselves at Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure on the Sunday before Halloween. While that weekend would probably see the parks packed to the brim under normal circumstances, it was still quite busy, with throngs of people—especially in the "Wizarding World of Harry Potter" sections—frequently making us feel uncomfortable.
While it may not be fair to blame Universal for the way their guests choose to cluster, it's worth noting that the resort has refused to publicly clarify their current operating capacity, referring to it simply as "limited capacity" or "reduced capacity," without providing a specific number.
Perhaps it's a more lax approach to limiting guests that has allowed the resort to maintain long hours with lots of mascots and live performances, while Disney has reduced both their operating hours and the presence of performers in their parks — having laid off around 90% of Disney World's union performers — in order to cut costs.
While this may make for a more fun experience for some visitors to Universal Orlando, if safety is a priority, Disney is clearly taking a firmer approach to minimizing their crowds. And while Disney parks are operating for fewer hours each day, the reduced crowds make it easier to experience a lot in that limited time.
Disney World and Universal Orlando have adopted the same basic protocol when it comes to social distancing, instructing guests to maintain at least six feet of distance from anyone they weren't traveling with, and providing floor markings in lines for rides and attractions.
However, Disney was a bit more stringent about repeating and enforcing these instructions, which made a clear difference. While a substantial portion of guests at Universal seemed to ignore the floor markings—generally leaving only a few feet between themselves and other parties—nearly all the guests we saw at Disney World seemed to take the six foot rule seriously.
Disney also took the extra step of adding physical barriers between lines wherever necessary, which is a major reassurance when you would otherwise be forced to keep track of dozens of strangers in various directions in order to maintain appropriate distance from everyone around you.
Again, both Disney and Universal have adopted the same basic protocol advised by the CDC. Guests must keep their mouths and noses covered by a face mask at all times, except when eating or drinking — which is only to be done while stationary and away from other guests.
In announcements reminding guests of the rules, those who do not comply are threatened with removal—though we did not witness any effort to make good on that threat. As with social distancing, the reminders were more frequent at Disney, and employees did occasionally correct people who left their noses exposed. Many of the workers at Disney World also had the added protection of face shields, which was nice to see.
As for the various restaurants in each park, they were still operating. And while there was some effort to space guests out, we did not feel comfortable removing our masks in indoor spaces with uncertain ventilation, so we chose to make use of abundant outdoor seating.
This is the one area where Universal definitely had Disney beat. While both resorts had hand sanitizer stationed all around their parks in automatic dispensers — and Disney Epcot also had a number of outdoor handwashing stations, which was handy with their food and wine festival ongoing — only universal had employees stationed at every ride to make sure each guest sanitized their hands before boarding.
This made a big difference when grabbing seatbelts, restraints, and handlebars. We had a reasonable assurance the hundreds of other people who had also touched those surfaces had relatively clean hands at the time. Without that added step at Disney, it felt a little more urgent to track down hand sanitizer after getting off each ride. And while it was generally easy to find, it's easy to imagine what a challenge it could be for parents to keep a small child from touching their eyes, mouth, and nose in the meantime.
Both parks seem to be using hand sanitizer that includes aloe or some other kind of moisturizer, because after three days of near constant application, our hands had not transformed into scaly, irritated claws.
Speaking of strangers touching surfaces, you might wonder what kind of army it takes to keep these massive theme parks clean while thousands of people mill about, touching and breathing on everything. And you can keep on wondering, because while both resorts assure visitors that they have ramped up their cleaning procedures, that was only evident at Disney — and even there it didn't seem sufficient.
While nothing looked particularly dirty at either park, at Disney we saw only a handful of workers moving about with spray bottles and cloths, sanitizing handrails, benches, outdoor tables, and other surfaces. At Universal, the only place we saw that approach to cleaning was at the temporary lockers where guests are required to place their belongings before more intense roller coasters — which is less of an issue at Disney, where there's less emphasis on thrill rides.
This is not to say there weren't workers cleaning surfaces at Universal, but unless they are exceptionally good at doing their job undetected, they are certainly fewer than at Disney World.
Of course there is a confounding factor in all of the efforts theme parks take to keep their guests safe: the guests themselves.
While the new rules and safety measures are positive steps, there's nothing that will stop a stubbornly oblivious or selfish or just plain stupid person from pulling their mask off to talk on the phone or itch their nose or sneeze into their hand and then proceed to touch everything.
As much fun as we had at both Disney and Universal, that fun was regularly disrupted by the horrified rage of watching people comply with public safety rules only as much as they had to to avoid getting in trouble.
At Universal — where there was less effort to drive home the rules — that included way too many people crowding close to strangers, many of them not seeming to realize that their noses are attached to their lungs, i.e. the things that can get infected and then infect others with a deadly virus...
But at both parks it included people — only some of them children — touching everything within reach, ignoring hand sanitizer, then touching their phones, their loved ones, and every part of their faces. And worst of all, the drunk people...
There's a reason why bars have been subject to stricter rules as the country attempts to reopen. Drunk people cannot be tamed. If they remember and understand the rules, do they care?
Does it matter to someone who's just trying to keep a buzz going that they can spread COVID-19 even if they're asymptomatic? That — when they ignore the rules and take off their masks to throw back some some beer — they could be indirectly triggering the deaths of who knows how many innocent people?
At both Disney and Universal we saw people fully remove their masks while surrounded by strangers, indoors, in line for a ride, and leave their masks off for an extended period of time. In both cases they had drinks in their hands and were already drunk.
Maybe that's on the parks for letting them join those lines while they had drinks with them. Either way, it was a healthy reminder of how stubbornly selfish and uncaring people can be.
Drunk People: 0/5
So if you're considering a trip to Florida, and hoping that the theme parks at Universal Orlando and Disney World will provide a safe place to escape the world for a bit, you should know that, while neither one is doing a perfect job in terms of COVID safety measures, Disney is probably a safer bet.
That said, Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure at Universal might be the most fun you'll ever have on a rollercoaster, so...tough call.