FINAL UPDATE (6:09 pm, 05.07): Disney has just announced the very beginning of a slow, phased reopening of its Walt Disney World Resort, starting specifically with Disney Springs. For the latest on this front, please see our comprehensive article, which will also be continuously updated with the latest information.
The state of affairs surrounding a novel coronavirus and the respiratory disease it causes has been rapidly evolving over the course of the past four-plus months; called COVID-19 (an abbreviation for “coronavirus disease 2019”), it first appeared in China in December 2019, most likely at the Huanan seafood and live animal market in Wuhan, and quickly spread person-to-person from there. (It is currently believed that the virus was being circulated among a human population for quite some time before the first cases of a “pneumonia of unknown cause” were reported to the World Health Organization’s China Country Office, but it will be a while before the timeline can be definitively stated.) Within the next month, two key events would happen: the first COVID-19 case was announced in the United States of America, and the disease was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern by the WHO.
Underscoring just how quickly the situation on the ground all across the globe has changed, both of those incidents have ballooned in the over three months since; 1.19 million American cases have since been reported, nearly all states banned most public gatherings or, in many instances, all schools and restaurants for one length of time or another, and the WHO has officially pronounced that the coronavirus is now a pandemic, which means that “a new disease for which people do not have immunity spreads around the world beyond expectations.” Sidestepping the immense national and international concerns and complications such a situation generates – financial markets, for instance, have been roiling and unemployment has skyrocketed in an unprecedented fashion, stoking fears of a recession (if not a depression) for the first time since the subprime mortgage crisis started the Great Recession in 2008 – there is the matter of the theme parks to also consider, given Orlando’s central role in transatlantic tourism and the large sums of money that families near and afar spend to arrive here.
The theme parks’ closures
The latest word on the Central Florida front is that the theme and water parks of both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resorts closed on the night of Sunday, March 15 (after the end of business), and will remain down through Sunday, May 31, in the case of Universal, and until further notice for Disney. On midnight, Tuesday, March 17, Universal CityWalk was temporarily shuttered, and later that day, all the Disney-owned and -operated stores located in Disney Springs were also shut down. All of Disney’s and Universal’s hotels followed suit at 5:00 pm on Friday, March 20 – the delay was to give guests enough time to make new accommodations, if necessary. And, finally, we should note a spate of other closures at Universal Orlando: the company ended its annual Mardi Gras celebration two-and-a-half weeks early, on March 15; Blue Man Group closed alongside the theme parks; and the March 17 opening of Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites has been indefinitely delayed (as has been Epic Universe, Universal’s newest theme park – it’s been pushed back by a year, to 2024).
(Update: Disney Springs has since been given a partial reopening date of Wednesday, May 20. Read more here.)
While drastic, the developments – initially announced on the night of Thursday, March 12 – didn’t come as a particular surprise; earlier that day, both companies announced the closure of their West Coast counterparts, with Disneyland Resort coming in first, around 4:30 pm, and Universal Studios Hollywood following approximately two hours later. Both destinations had to contend with California Governor Gavin Newsom’s then-just-issued executive order that banned public crowds of 250 individuals or more for the rest of March – and even though Disneyland was initially exempt from the directive, the Mouse House wanted to act out of an abundance of caution, with Universal opting to follow course. (Disneyland Resort’s two theme parks and Universal Studios Hollywood closed down on the morning of Saturday, March 14, with Disney’s on-site hotels doing so on the 17th.)
SeaWorld and LEGOLAND, meanwhile, have similarly announced that they have closed down all of their parks during the same time period as most of their Florida brethren, starting on March 16 and running until an as-yet-undetermined date. The LEGOLAND Hotel has remained open for all pre-existing reservations – the company states that the venue is operating “within government guidelines” – and the brand-new Pirate Island Hotel is still currently scheduled for its grand opening on Monday, June 1.
Above and beyond all of the various theme-park operators, a number of local and state authorities have issued their own stay-at-home orders, as well. First up was Orange County, where most of the parks reside, with a directive that was set to last from Thursday, March 26 until Thursday, April 9; it was soon joined by Osceola County (where the rest of Disney World sits), for the same time period; and, finally, Governor Ron DeSantis at last joined the national trend of locking entire states down, ordering Florida’s residents to remain in their homes from 12:01 am, Friday, April 3 until Thursday, April 30 – a move directly inspired by the White House’s then-recently-updated federal guidance on social distancing, which expanded its initial 15-day period (from March 16 through the 30th) to run for some 45 days (through April 30).
Currently, a number of states – including Florida – have begun the process of reopening their economies in phases.
What cancellation/refund policies do the theme parks have?
Both Universal and Disney have asked for patience as guests attempt to reschedule their visits, theme-park tickets, and dinner reservations, with apps crashing immediately after the proclamations and guest-services call centers continuing to have especially long hold times in the days and weeks afterwards. These are the general terms that both corporations have offered up, though patrons with more specific questions will want to reach out to the park operators directly:
Disney has extended the tickets, whether partially used or not, that were issued for the time period during the current COVID-19 closure; they will now be valid up until December 15, 2020. (And if you aren’t able to visit by that new date, and if you have a wholly unused ticket, the company will allow you to apply the value of that pass towards the purchase of a new one for a future time.) Additionally, admission to premium add-on experiences, such as Disney Villains after Hours, or special reservations, like Droid Depot, will be automatically refunded. And, regarding the hotels, any change or cancellation fees through June 30 have been waived, and any deposits will automatically be refunded. (If you are interested in making a new hotel reservation, Disney will allow you to book from June 1 onward.)
Let’s take a moment to pause on Disney World annual passes – there are two methods for paying for your AP, and each of these, in turn, has two options available. Firstly, if you’ve paid in full, your two choices are (1) to have the number of days that the parks are closed be tacked on to your pass or (2) to receive a partial refund for the closure period (just call VIPassholder Support). And if you’re on a monthly payment plan, you should first know that Disney stopped those recurring charges starting on April 5. How you opt to proceed from here is where your options spring up: (1) if you want to postpone all subsequent payments until the parks reopen, your pass will be extended; (2) if, on the other hand, you’d rather stick to your original expiration date, those monthly charges will be foregone and you’ll receive a partial refund from March 14 through April 4 (when Disney World first temporarily shut down).
Universal, for its part, is offering “flexible programs” that are almost identical to Disney’s. The company is extending the validity of any pass, either single- or multi-day, up to one year out from its date of purchase – but keep in mind that, once you start to use a multi-day ticket, all of its days must be redeemed within a week. (And if you aren’t able to visit within that one-year period, Universal will allow you to apply the value of a wholly unused ticket towards the purchase of a new one for a future time.) Annual passes will also have the number of days that the parks are closed tacked on to them, and any and all cancellations or modifications to hotel reservations during the closure period will be allowed without any fees (also, if you’re paying for your annual pass with FlexPay, all monthly payments have been postponed starting on Wednesday, March 25).
SeaWorld will also refund any ticket or in-park experience customers aren’t able to use during its own downtime, and you can reschedule your visit up through 2021 without any fees. (If you have a vacation package, you can either reschedule or get a refund if you’re within the 72-hour cancellation window.) Additionally, the company is upgrading all of its annual passholders to the next tier for free for the remainder of 2020 and offering a number of other goodies, such as additional bring-a-friend days and pass-member events.
LEGOLAND has initiated a “Peace of Mind Policy” that still encourages guests to book visits at the theme and water parks and their attached hotels with the knowledge that the dates can be shifted with no penalty fees (you’ll just need to do so at least five days before your scheduled day of arrival). In addition, any admission that was dated during the closure period can be used on any other 2020 day; as far as annual passes go, all pre-existing ones will receive an extension of one month for every month that LEGOLAND Florida is closed (as long as those passes aren’t enrolled in Monthly Pay, that is), while all brand-new ones will have 100 days after purchase to be activated. (If you are a Monthly Pay AP, don’t worry – those payments were suspended starting on April 1.)
What about the theme parks’ employees?
The financial situation for the various theme-park operators’ employees has, in many cases, been evolving right alongside the closure situation on the ground. Disney, for example, paid all of its various cast members up through April 18 (which, the company was quick to point out, was an additional five weeks’ worth of pay). All non-union workers have since been furloughed, though they still receive full healthcare benefits, with both the employee and company premiums being picked up by Disney. (Specific agreements with specific cast-member unions have also been reached, which more or less fall under the same general guidelines.)
Universal‘s approach is a bit different from its competitor’s. All team members were paid in full until April 19, at which point phases of pay cuts were instituted: most employees went down to 80% pay (with their work being adjusted accordingly) starting on the 20th, and all part-time hourly workers were furloughed beginning on May 3 (yes, all health benefits were likewise picked up by the company).
Lastly, over 90% of SeaWorld‘s employees were furloughed beginning on April 1.
What will the theme parks be like when they do reopen?
On April 7, the business trade Barron’s spoke with Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger about just what, possibly, the theme parks would look and operate like once they reopen (whenever that may be). “One of the things that we’re discussing already,” Iger said, “is that, in order to return to some semblance of normal, people will have to feel comfortable that they’re safe.” Should a vaccine not be ready by then – a very real possibility, as most medical experts expect that process to take anywhere from 12 to 18 months – Disney is currently playing around with the idea of setting up a temperature check for guests before they’re admitted into Walt Disney World Resort, just as China, ground zero of the coronavirus pandemic, has already instituted across many parts of its vast country (and just as Disney had to implement security screenings in the face of violent incidents nationally).
Other theme-park operators in Central Florida are already following suit. On May 1, Universal began to check the temperature of all employees and business visitors – such as contractors and vendors – as they set foot on Universal Orlando property; all those individuals with a temp exceeding 99.9°F are being turned away and banned from re-entry for the next 72 hours. It is very likely that other businesses all across the rest of the country will follow these same guidelines, as well.
On May 5, during a quarterly earnings call, Disney officials announced absolutely horrific numbers for what the company’s worldwide COVID-19 closure has been doing to its revenue, but the real eye-catcher for American audiences is what the Mouse House says it’s planning to do in reopening its resorts all over the world, starting with the one in Shanghai.
Once Walt Disney World opens its doors again – whenever that may be – the company will implement:
- A phased reopening (dining/retail locations will bow before the theme parks, for instance)
- Social distancing everywhere, probably via virtual queues and the Play Disney Parks app
- Increased sanitization, particularly in high-trafficked areas
- Increased usage of personal protective equipment
- Extra training for cast members on all new procedures
Just two days later, the very first peek of what that slow, deliberate, tentative reopening process at Florida will look like was offered, as Disney Springs was announced to start its phased reopening on Wednesday, May 20. You can read all about that, and follow along with the latest developments, here.
Last updated 6:09 pm, May 7, 2020