What the Disney theme parks will look like when they reopen

For a couple of months, all Disney theme parks around the world were closed. And while the U.S. Disney theme parks remain closed with no announced reopening date, the magic has been turned back on in Shanghai, with the recent reopening of Shanghai Disneyland.

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Based on what we've seen at the Disney parks in Asia, which has been a few steps ahead of the U.S. on the coronavirus pandemic timeline; remarks from Bob Iger (Disney's CEO until February of 2020, now Disney's executive chairman); the technological capabilities Disney has at its disposal; information from Florida and California reopening committees that have representatives from Disney; and a little old-fashioned guessing, we'll paint a picture of what we expect to see at the U.S. Disney parks when they eventually unlock the gates.

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A phased reopening

When Disney World closed in March, it closed in phases. First came the theme park shutdowns, followed by the closures of the hotel resorts and finally the Disney Springs shopping and dining area. Shanghai Disneyland (which was the first of the Disney parks to both close and reopen), utilized a phased reopening that started with the resort hotels, shopping and dining areas, followed over six weeks later by the theme park reopening.

Now, Disney Springs at Walt Disney World has announced a May 20 reopening. This follows the expected phased reopening pattern that we anticipate will continue. It's very possible that all of Disneyland and Disney World won't reopen all at once. Disney resort hotels may open in advance of the theme parks themselves and some theme park attractions and amenities may be available before others.

We know that reopening Disney parks and resorts won't be simple. Stocking up on supplies ranging from turkey legs to soda 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.

Related: When the Disney theme parks will reopen

Earn 24% back on Disney resort stays and beyond (Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(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 has 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 entry to the parks, it wouldn't be impossible for Disney to pull off and is a likely element of a Disney reopening. It's already being utilized at the Shanghai Disney Resort. Touchless temperature checks were being done on passengers boarding a Disney Cruise in the weeks before those were suspended in March. Even select airlines plan to introduce temperature screenings in the coming weeks.

(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)

Reservations required

To cap attendance, and minimize day-of disappointment if limits have been reached, expect to see advance reservations in effect for the U.S. Disney theme parks when they reopen, just as we see in Shanghai. Whether you're booking a single-day park ticket, or plan to use your annual pass on a given date, you'll likely need to make that reservation online in advance, at least for a while.

Timed admission is also a real possibility so that not everyone is waiting at the entry gates at the same time. (This may very likely be how ski lift tickets operate next season, too.)

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Fewer touchpoints

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)
(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.

Mandatory masks

In Shanghai, guests at the reopened Disney shopping, dining, hotel and theme park areas must wear a mask during the entirety of their visit (except when dining) — in addition to social distancing. The cast members, other than face characters and select performers, also wear masks. It's true that masks have a long history of acceptance in many Asian countries, so will masks be required at the U.S. parks? Probably — even though it's 100 degrees and humid at Disney World in the summer.

In a recent interview with CNBC, Disney's current CEO, Bob Chapek, said that, “Along with social distancing, one of the things we're likely going to require is masks for both the cast and the guest.” In that interview, he did acknowledge the challenge of masks in the U.S. both from a cultural perspective as well as when combined with the summertime heat.

But Disney is already selling face masks on its website, in case you need to stock up on themed protective wear for your kids.

(Photo courtesy of Disney)
(Photo courtesy of Disney)

Virtual queuing

How do you maintain a safe social distance from others at a theme park with tens of thousands of daily visitors? That's one type of challenge while capacity is very low and you can spread out the guests a bit easier, but it will be an entirely different challenge as Disney scales up visitors.

Disney has the capacity to utilize virtual queues, which have been in place with the Star Wars: 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.

What the Disney theme parks will look like when they reopen 1
(Screenshot by Summer Hull/The Points Guy; Image Courtesy of Disney)

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

Social distancing

Even without the extensive use of virtual queues, you can practice social distancing in a Disney theme park.

Shanghai Disneyland has installed signs and ground markings to instruct guests where to stand in line, and where to keep on moving.

(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)

Shanghai Disneyland has also reduced capacity on attractions by blocking off every other row. For example, on the very popular Tron ride at Shanghai, only one side of the cycles are occupied, except in cases where a family is riding together.

(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)
(Photo by Hu Chengwei/Getty Images)

Suspension of some parades and shows

Logic says that some elements of the quintessential Disney experience are more problematic for social distancing than others. Historically, Disney's famous parades and fireworks shows are plagued with serious crowding issues as everyone floods the same place at the same time.

Shanghai Disneyland's reopening confirms the hunch that Disney's parades and shows as we knew them may be paused when the parks first reopen. Most of the parades and fireworks displays are absent in Shanghai's new lineup, at least for now. There's a shortened parade and a modified nighttime display, along with squares on the ground showing where groups can stand. The big spectacles, however, may not immediately return in their previous forms.

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

Reduced capacity

Typically, Disney World only hits its maximum guest capacity and closed gates to additional guests on a very limited number of dates each year (usually around New Year's Eve).

But the number of allowed guests will be severely capped when the parks reopen. In Shanghai, the government capped the park's attendance at 30%, which is 24,000 guests. And Disney is staying well under that for now, saying capacity would increase by 5,000 guests a week until they hit the government's maximum allowable number.

We don't know what a capacity cap may look like in the U.S., but Disney World's website currently has a disclaimer saying that, upon reopening, the theme parks, hotels, restaurants, attractions and more may be modified and limited in capacity.

As reopenings begin in some states, restaurants are often capped at 25 to 50% of maximum occupancy, and it wouldn't be shocking to see those types of limits applied at a Disney theme park, depending on when they reopen.

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 at a reduced seating capacity. While we're talking about popular Disney restaurants, don't be shocked if the rules surrounding character meal interactions change, too. In Shanghai, there's no contact allowed between guests and characters at the moment, so practice those selfie skills.

Time with princesses inside the castle
(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 pretty much guaranteed we will see more of them when the parks ultimately reopen, most likely at high touchpoints such as restaurants, snack carts, the park entrance and in attraction entrances and exits, as we see in Shanghai. 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 and Shanghai Disneyland.

When will Disney World and Disneyland reopen?

The $13 million per day question (according to Forbes), is how long Disney will remain closed, and when guests can return.

Shanghai Disneyland was closed for 107 days. If that was the measuring stick, you'd see the U.S. parks reopen in late June or early July. But it's not an apples to apples comparison. Shanghai has personal health QR codes you must display to enter the parks and the U.S. is not likely on track to have anything like that available on any similar timeline.

Yet a July reopening, at least at Disney World, isn't ruled out. Disney Springs opens on May 20 and the park is still taking reservations for guests as of July 1. That does not mean the park will open on July 1, but Disney World does not seem to have ruled out a summer reopening. It's possible that California and Florida will be on different timelines, just as the Disney parks around the world are on their own timelines based on the current situation in each location.

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

That said, 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 latter part of the summer — but also, maybe not. It will depend on any potential resurgence in coronavirus cases as local restrictions loosen, and guidance from government and health officials on large gatherings.

Bottom line

Just as Sept. 11 forever affected theme park security, this pandemic will likely leave a lasting impression on Disney and other major theme parks around the globe as they begin to slowly emerge from months of hibernation. While some additional safety and health measures may eventually ease as we get past this acute phase of the pandemic, some changes to Disney and similar theme parks may very well be permanent.

Featured image by Hu Chengwei / Stringer / Getty Images

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