ORLANDO, Fla. — Gary Semel’s hands trembled in anticipation of the moment he had awaited for four months.
Finally, he could kneel down in front of Cinderella Castle at Walt Disney World to propose to his girlfriend of two years, Tia Lovett, 50. They kissed, face mask to face mask, a love story in historic times, while a Disney photographer captured the moment.
“I wanted to do it at Disney, and then it closed. I’ve been waiting very impatiently,” said Semel, 49, turning to his future wife. “I’m sorry that I took so long. I really wanted to do it here.”
For the Jacksonville couple and many others, the return of Disney World on Saturday was a jubilant celebration. But the day brought only light crowds to the Magic Kingdom, which opened to the general public in tandem with Animal Kingdom.
Epcot and Hollywood Studios will open Wednesday as Disney’s Orlando empire returns a month after Universal Orlando and SeaWorld.
Not everything was magical.
The resort’s revival is happening as the coronavirus pandemic surges. The state reported 10,360 new coronavirus cases Saturday, the third-highest daily increase, and 95 more deaths as Florida has become one of the nation’s major hot zones for the virus.
When asked why Disney was opening now, executive Josh D’Amaro responded, “We are in a new normal right now, so what’s happening outside of the gates of Walt Disney World is our new world.”
“We were one of the first theme parks to close, and we’ll be about the last to open,” he told CNN. “And we spent every minute of every day thinking about how to operate in this new normal that we’re in.”
At the Magic Kingdom, all Disney employees wore face coverings, and workers with high contact with guests, such as ride operators, were equipped with clear face shields as well.
Most visitors seemed to be obeying the required mask rule Saturday as well as markers meant to keep them 6 feet apart. Employees were observed enforcing the requirements.
“We’re encouraged by our guests’ overwhelmingly positive feedback for our phased reopening and are grateful for their support of the new measures we’ve added,” Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement.
Throughout most of the day, the most popular attractions posted 30-minute wait times or less, moving considerably faster than the sometimes hourslong lines of last year. A trip on Space Mountain had a 15-minute queue by afternoon.
The biggest issues appeared to be early Saturday as the first guests arrived to face a long line for guest relations, apparently because of problems with electronic tickets.
“This is not good,” said theme park journalist Carlye Wisel, depicting the moment on her social media account and calling it proof some things were working and others were not.
For Disney and the other parks, coronavirus will be a long-term problem for the industry, warned Dennis Speigel, who runs Ohio-based International Theme Park Services.
The virus ruined Orlando’s spring break. It’s already hitting the lucrative summer season, too, with no fireworks shot off for huge crowds on the Fourth of July or any day, for that matter, since mid-March at Disney.
“I’m thinking based on where we are right now, reading the tea leaves, Halloween is a serious question,” Speigel said. “We’re going to be dealing with this (virus) this time next year, no question about it. This is with us for two years, easily.”
For now, Disney loyalists can’t line up to get the best view of the daily Magic Kingdom parade. Guests can only see a lone float or a marching band spontaneously travel around the route as entertainment.
Kids can’t hug Mickey Mouse or run up to Princess Elsa.
“Disney World is a world very different than the one that closed back in March,” said Robert Thompson, founding director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “Going to Disney World for that experience in the past was so fundamentally defined by the very things that now have to be regulated.”
For some people, this new theme park experience isn’t what they want when they plan a Disney World dream vacation, Thompson said.
And for others, taking a selfie with a face mask on the Magic Kingdom’s Main Street will capture a historic moment in these strange times, Thompson said.
It proves that you witnessed it.
Bianca Jesus cried when she lined up to watch the fireworks and waved goodbye Mickey Mouse & the gang on March 15 as Disney World, which had never closed down for more than a day or so, went dark. She wasn’t alone in the outpouring of emotion.
She vowed to come back on the first day back. Jesus, a tour guide who has lived off her savings during the pandemic, booked a Disney hotel room, even though she lives in Orlando, to guarantee advance reservation.
Her spirits were so high Saturday, she said she didn’t mind wearing her mask on a hot day.
She said she felt safe with Disney temperature screening visitors, the mask requirements and seeing employees enforcing the rules.
Despite the changes from the pandemic, “it still felt like Disney,” Jesus said, after snapping selfies with Winnie-the-Pooh characters who posed on a restaurant porch, spread out from guests. “I’m so grateful to be here today.”
Using its advance reservation system, Disney is limiting its crowds, but the company has not revealed how many people it will allow into the parks each day going forward.
“We are taking a cautious and deliberate approach, which allows us to evaluate and adjust along the way, as the situation evolves,” Finger said.
Some passholders seethed on social media that Disney still sold day-of tickets for $125 a pop on Saturday after they had invested $900 or more on their annual passes and still couldn’t get in. The limited supply of advance reservations distributed to passholders ran out by 7 a.m., the day Disney issued them.
For some, the frustrations are compounded that Disney mistakenly charged passholders on the monthly payment plan for four months in a row on July 3. Disney now faces two lawsuits over the situation.
Magic Kingdom visitors who arrived before noon were treated to the wide-open spaces of Main Street and other lands of the theme park. Lack of crowd noise made the piped-in background music seem unusually apparent.
The Dumbo ride was spinning, but only three cars were occupied.
Visitors jockeyed along Main Street for pictures with a repainted Cinderella Castle as a background. It was harder to get a shot of the iconic building without other park goers in the scene, unlike previous lightly attended days where only annual passholders or Disney World employees could attend.
Periodically, a booming announcement would courteously remind visitors to wash their hands frequently, keep their face coverings in place and maintain social distancing.
Some restaurants and a smattering of stores were not open, perhaps a reflection of the low attendance cap. Most attractions were operating, but the park was absent some actor-driven experiences such as Story Time With Belle and some street entertainment.
The Briar Patch, a store connected to the Splash Mountain ride, was closed. During an annual passholder preview, visitors had snapped up merchandise in the wake of the announcement that the attraction would eventually shed its “Song of the South” theme in favor of characters from “The Princess and the Frog.”
Instead of an afternoon parade or up close character meetings, Disney has substituted appearances where Mickey Mouse, Goofy, assorted princesses and dancers glide down the streets waving at onlookers.
“We love you, Tinker Bell!” yelled one woman as the Peter Pan sidekick passed near the castle.
By midday a Florida standard had returned to Disney: the sudden thunderstorm.
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