Disney World in the Age of COVID

Kyle Smith
·5 min read

It takes only about 30 seconds of exposure to the happiest of viruses — the highly contagious Disney infection — to shed one’s wintry New York cynicism and welcome it. On the flight to Orlando, my older daughter — mature, wise, hilariously sarcastic, weeks away from becoming a teen — held her favorite stuffed animal up to the window so Daisy the deer could share the view. Disney World’s magic brings out the kid in all of us. It even works on kids.

Walt Disney World is a place where families wear matching, themed T-shirts, sullen high-school students take on expressions of unembarrassed delight, and middle-aged parents’ achy knees stop hurting. It’s even more true now than usual: Disney is the solution for whatever ails America. If you can get to one of its parks, get there.

Disney World has shut down some of its themed hotels (The Polynesian, The Boardwalk, The Beach Club) and paused some signature attractions, notably the spectacular nightly fireworks display and light show projected on Cinderella’s Castle. The policy is to severely limit anything that might cause tightly packed crowds to form. Parades have been reduced to a single character riding by while singing a song as patrons are kept about 15 feet away. Interactions with costumed characters are limited too; at the high-end Be Our Guest theme restaurant within the Beast’s castle in the Magic Kingdom, the lord of the manor showed up and greeted us all at lunch, waving and taking bows in the main room, a lovely replica of the ballroom from the dance scene in Beauty and the Beast. But kids weren’t allowed to go up and make contact with Beast, as dearly as they would have loved to do so. It’s a small world after all, but for the moment, it remains a socially distanced one.

The Wicked Queens of the journalism world have been trying to report a COVID outbreak at Disney World for over a year now, and have come up empty. Disney World closed its Orlando parks last March 15, even though there had been no transmission linked to them, then reopened them last July 11 and 15. The revamped Disney is taking considerable precautions, some of them perhaps overly cautious, but what it’s doing is clearly working.

Guests at Disney parks submit to a mandatory temperature check at the entrance to each theme park, and they are required to wear masks when walking around, excepting those aged two and under. Only when you are “actively eating or drinking,” and stationary, are you allowed to take down your mask. Even after dark, if you take more than a few steps with your mask down below your nose, a Disney employee will immediately admonish you. Threat of expulsion from the parks is the only leverage required to keep people in line.

The reason I doubt all of this is actually necessary is that there has been essentially zero outdoor transmission of the virus. Every time there is a large outdoor gathering, even a gathering of the kind that makes large numbers of people shout (the George Floyd protests in Minnesota and elsewhere, the Tampa-area Super Bowl celebration), someone predicts a mass outbreak, and . . . nothing happens. As far as I can tell, there is so little science to back the idea of wearing a mask outdoors that the injunction is closer to superstition — a hopeful belief that enacting the proper rituals will appease the coronavirus gods.

Nevertheless, Disney World has to deal with perceptions, and if making everyone wear masks at all times leads to its customers feeling safe, it’s probably a good strategy for now. Folks feel reassured when they see one another masked up, and the short tempers that are so often in evidence during this panicky time are nowhere to be found at Disney theme parks, except among very small visitors frustrated about the wait time outside Spaceship Earth or Test Track. People are nice to each other on Disney property; picture the polar opposite of Twitter. Just as a kind of Old Testament spirit of vengeance and retribution rules some corners of social media, Disney is a place where everyone is kind and forgiving. When people are determined to have a good time, they tend to succeed. And who can fail to smile at an entire population trained to refer to our daughters as “princess”? Like Las Vegas, Disney World is a machine designed to separate you from your money as efficiently as possible, but unlike Las Vegas, it’s a place you depart walking on air instead of reeling with regrets.

At the moment, Disney World is operating at 35 percent capacity; in restaurants, tables are spaced far apart indoors. Demarcations on the pavement show people where to stand so as to maintain six feet of distance (though people tend to bunch up a bit anyway). Despite the long-seeming lines, waiting times for attractions are shorter than usual for spring break (and, in yet another delightful surprise, some of the actual wait times are merely a fraction of the numbers that are posted). The famously well-designed bus system that shuttles grateful Disneyans around the various parks and hotels works as smoothly as usual, but the buses themselves have been reengineered to create space between parties; bus drivers ask how many are in each party, then direct you to a specific group of seats, separated by plexiglass barrier from the next party.

Not everyone can afford Disney World, but Disney has for three-quarters of a year shown that it’s possible for Americans to come outside and have fun, even in large groups. Though limited to 35 percent of capacity, the parks are heavily patronized, and people are having a great time, with more than enough precautions in place to assure a reasonable level of safety. Large outdoor gatherings such as rock concerts and baseball games should be eagerly welcomed back to American life. Respect for George Floyd isn’t the only good reason for people to form crowds.

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