Disney World, Universal draw small holiday crowds despite COVID-19 surge

Gabrielle Russon and Dewayne Bevil, Orlando Sentinel

The tourism machine is still churning this holiday season at Orlando’s theme parks, despite warnings from medical experts that the coronavirus has reached a critical point in the United States.

The madness of wall-to-wall Christmastime crowds from past years was gone, but the parks certainly were not empty this week as families wore matching pajamas and face masks decorated like Santa Claus. Many said they weren’t scared away by COVID-19 even as Florida remains in the pandemic red zone, according to a Dec. 13 White House task force report.

“We booked our trip a year ago. … It’s been a dream of mine to come at Christmas time,” said Lauren Bender, who visited Hollywood Studios on Tuesday with her family. “When the pandemic hit, we really weren’t sure if we were going to come. And then once we saw everything that Disney was putting into place, we felt pretty good.”

The St. Louis family took extra precautions, like switching to a cabin at Disney’s Fort Wilderness instead of a resort hotel to avoid other guests and the lobby. They noticed people abiding by Disney’s strict mask rules.

The holiday crowds at Disney come as health experts discourage people from traveling during the Christmas season. Despite that advice, Orlando International Airport expects nearly 1.5 million travelers during the three-week holiday season.

“This is a bad time to travel in the U.S.,” said Dr. William Greenough III, a retired medical professor at Johns Hopkins University who ran its infectious disease division and focused on epidemic diseases. “We’re on high alert right now.”

Following the Thanksgiving holidays, the number of coronavirus cases has surged to more than 18 million people in the United States. This week, a new concern emerged as the United Kingdom has been shut down by a more contagious strain of the virus that Dr. Anthony Fauci warned is likely already in the United States.

“We’re hitting the highest numbers we’ve ever had right now. You’re going to take the biggest chance if you travel now,” Greenough said. “If people don’t travel a lot over Christmas, we will be in a lot better shape two or three months from now.”

Holidays in the pandemic

Pausing for a break, Michael and Rebecca Miller watched fellow parkgoers go by at Universal’s Islands of Adventure where the park reached capacity, a trend that has gone on for at least four days in a row as of Tuesday.

The family, who traveled from Birmingham, Ala., said they felt safer in the parks than in the “real world.”

But the Millers, who also followed Universal’s mask requirements, said they noticed the park was busier than they expected.

“This is a lot more people than I’ve seen together in a while,” Michael Miller said. “But in reality, this is not crowded for this place.”

In September, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said Universal Orlando parks were running at about 25% normal capacity. Universal declined to say if that figure has changed this week.

Disney revealed in November it increased the attendance cap from 25% to 35%. Neither park releases daily attendance numbers.

At the Magic Kingdom, the park felt both busy or empty, the perception changing in an instant depending on your vantage point.

In front of Cinderella Castle, a few dozen admired the Disney landmark’s new paint job.

A trip along the wide pathway by Adventureland, only a family or two were in sight, something that hardly ever happened pre-pandemic during the holidays.

But take a turn when the path grows narrower. A crowd dispersed after seeing Mickey Mouse or Santa Claus go by on a float. It felt like the days before COVID-19 even if just for a second or two.

Denise Preskitt, a regular Disney blogger who owns Mousesteps, noticed how busier Magic Kingdom felt early this week compared with October and November. Already by 9:30 a.m., a big line formed outside of Space Mountain.

“Normally at opening, you’re not getting those type of lines that quick,” Preskitt said.

At Animal Kingdom, people basked in the sun of the amphitheater that was used for the “Rivers of Light” show. About 100 people stood in the space that holds more than 2,000 while they waited to catch a glimpse of characters on a small barge floating by on the water.

Throughout Disney parks, the lines for rides curled throughout the parks, sometimes artificially long because of social distancing requirements.

For Kilimanjaro Safaris, the posted wait time was 45 minutes, stretching back to the Dawa Bar. In reality, it was less than 20 minutes.

Normally, annual passholder Hector Negroni knows better than to go to Disney World during the week of Christmas.

“I’ve never even thought to come here during this week,” the Orlando resident said, well aware the Magic Kingdom often had to shut down the turnstiles by lunchtime because there wasn’t any more room.

But this year, everyone must have an advance reservation so Disney can enforce its crowd limits.

That gave Negroni more confidence to book a trip while his niece was in town so they could get into the Christmas spirit with the holiday decorations and the corny jokes on the rebranded Jingle Cruise.

One infectious disease expert said a theme park visit can be done safely if everyone follows a few rules.

“I would say that there is a way to do it responsibly,” Dr. Nicole Lovine, the chief hospital epidemiologist at UF Health in Gainesville.

She cited the mandatory mask, social distancing and hand sanitizer rules that the parks are enforcing. It helps, too, that being outdoors can slow the spread of the virus.

“It’s really paramount that these pretty simple precautions be taken,” Lovine said.

Ending on a high note

It has been a year of stress for Kathryn Hager, who works as an ER nurse. Her husband, a nurse practitioner, was unemployed for several weeks.

With virtual learning, their son missed out on the senior year traditions of high school and being a drum major. Their daughter lost out on cheering as a high school freshman.

Their 2020 vacation had been upended three times by the pandemic. Finally, on the fourth try, the Las Vegas family made it to Orlando.

“We were nervous about traveling, but we read stories that Disney had done well with social distancing, and mask enforcement, and hand sanitizing,” Hager said.

This week, they rode Space Mountain and Flight of Passage on a trip that included all four Disney parks before heading home for Christmas.

“It has been very great to come together and finish the year on a happy note,” Hager said

grusson@orlandosentinel.com; dbevil@orlandosentinel.com