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.

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

Regular visitors 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. Accompanied by his husband and 6-year-old son, Mr. Harper visited Animal Kingdom on Saturday after previewing the Magic Kingdom on Thursday. "Strangely to us, [compared with] going into our neighborhood grocery store, it feels safer here."

On Sunday, Florida officials reported a new record: more than 15,000 new coronavirus cases, surpassing a record set by New York in April for the biggest one-day increase in infections for any state since the pandemic began. The county that includes Walt Disney World reported a single-day record in new cases, as well. Disney representatives didn't respond to requests for comment on whether the surge in cases would change its plans to keep the park open and running as is.

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 on Thursday. She has been a regular visitor since she was in preschool and 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."

It's uncertain for how long Disney will be willing or able to operate its parks at such a reduced capacity. While the company isn't saying how many people are being admitted into its Orlando park this weekend, Disney World is capable of accommodating more than 200,000 guests at a time and generating tens of millions of dollars in revenue a day, according to a former executive at the parks.

Disney Chief Executive Bob Chapek has said that the company wouldn't reopen a park if covering at least its variable costs wasn't possible. In May, the company opened Shanghai Disney at 30% capacity.

"I don't think they should open it up to more people anytime soon...slowly phasing it in is better," said frequent Disney World visitor Maya Roherty. The 42-year-old travel agent from Janesville, Wis., who was at Magic Kingdom on Saturday to celebrate her daughter's 10th birthday, said she's taking advantage of the nearly empty park while she can.

"If they start to let more people in at some point this will go away, but right now, it's really something we'll never be able to do again," she said.

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

July 12, 2020 16:04 ET (20:04 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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