By R.T. Watson 

Fans willing to brave what is usually one of the most heavily trafficked public spaces on earth are descending on Walt Disney Co.'s Orlando theme park in hopes of escaping the dreary realities of the coronavirus pandemic.

But reality isn't so easily set aside.

Hugging Mickey Mouse and Goofy is off limits; instead they wave from afar. Other Disney characters moseyed through Walt Disney World mounted on horses, guided by masked escorts on foot.

Attendance was limited to what appeared to be a fraction of the park's capacity, according to regular visitors, who said wait times for Splash Mountain, Peter Pan's Flight and other rides were among the shortest they could recall. Regular deep-cleaning of those rides and other strict protocols led some visitors to guess that their theme-park visit was safer than everyday shopping outings.

"It still feels like Disney, but it's a little sobering...it's kind of a new era," said Jeff Harper, a 44-year-old high-school band director from the Atlanta area. Mr. Harper visited the Magic Kingdom on Thursday with his husband and 6-year-old son. "Strangely to us, going into our neighborhood grocery store, it feels safer here."

Disney World's two main parks, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, officially reopen on Saturday, at a significantly reduced capacity; the company declined to say exactly how many people it was allowing in. But Thursday and Friday Disney let in some annual passholders for a sneak peek.

Theme parks provide one of Disney's most lucrative revenue streams. The company is reopening as the number of coronavirus cases in surges in Florida and many other states. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has been supportive of the plan to reopen Disney World, which shut down in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic. The company shelved plans to reopen Disneyland, in Southern California, around the same time as Disney World. Workers there protested the plan, citing safety concerns, and the state government said guidelines for reopening theme parks wouldn't be ready in time for Disneyland to reopen as initially planned.

Some say they are experiencing a Disney World that was barely recognizable, in ways both enjoyable and unsettling.

"It's like a Twilight Zone dream, but it's also magical because I've always dreamed of the park being empty," said 49-year-old Karen Fernandez, a resident of nearby Davenport, Fla., who visited during the special preview on Thursday. She has been a regular visit since she was preschool-age, and said she can't recall a time when lines were so short. "I can just walk on any ride and not have to wait an hour or hour and a half."

Some snapshots from those who visited the park:

Write to R.T. Watson at rt.watson@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 11, 2020 18:00 ET (22:00 GMT)

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