Over six months ago, the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, California closed its gates. What we all hoped would be a temporary closure of a few weeks was extended into an indefinite shuttering. In June, Disneyland announced a planned reopening date for the parks of July 17, 2020 – the resort’s 65th anniversary and just 6 days after Walt Disney World reopened in Orlando. While the Downtown Disney shopping district reopened on July 9, this summer date for the parks was not to be as the public health situation in Southern California deteriorated.
In the three months that followed, theme park guidelines that might enable Disneyland to reopen were not forthcoming. Governor Newsom’s office, Disney leaders, and officials and business representatives from both Anaheim and Orange County have been engaged in a pretty heated PR battle over the issue.
After a lot of false starts and rumors, the state today released guidelines for theme parks in the state of California to reopen. For Disneyland’s chances of reopening, however, it doesn’t look good. At all.
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State of California Theme Park Reopening Guidelines
Theme Park Guidelines Basics
So what are the essential parameters that Disneyland could reopen under? Everything depends on California’s colored tiers that now govern permitted activities in each county in the state. Counties in purple (substantial) face the most restrictions, followed by red (widespread), orange (moderate), and yellow (minimal) as the least restrictive.
The new guidelines (available in full here) distinguish large theme parks like Disneyland and Universal Hollywood from smaller local and regional theme parks, of the likes of Gilroy Gardens, the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, or Belmont Park. Small theme parks that have a maximum capacity of no more than 15,000 guests can reopen when the county in which they are located moves into the orange tier. Capacity will be restricted to 25% or 500 guests, whichever is fewer. Additionally, only guests from the same county are permitted to attend and only outdoor attractions may reopen.
Larger theme parks like Disneyland, however, must wait until their home county enters the state’s yellow tier to reopen. Capacity will similarly be limited at 25%, but there will be no geographic restrictions on guests.
So When Will Disneyland Be Able to Open Under These Guidelines?
If you’ve been glued to states’s colored map like I have, you likely know that Disneyland is located in Orange County, which is currently in the red tier. That means the OC has to move down two tiers, from red to orange and then from orange to yellow, in order for Disneyland to open.
Is this even doable for Orange County? The OC has hovered tantalizingly close to orange for the past several weeks, but hasn’t been able to post the numbers required to make the move. With Halloween and Thanksgiving and cooler weather approaching, there is a real risk that increased socializing or indoor activities will keep orange status out of reach.
The yellow tier will be that much harder. Few counties have been able to hit it thus far, and most of them are highly rural counties in remote parts of the state. Dr. Mark Ghaly, Governor Newsom’s Secretary of California Health and Human Services, stated in his most recent press conference that because San Francisco County has been able to move to the yellow tier as of this week, other large urban counties in California should be able to follow suit too if they do the work.
Personally, I’m skeptical. There are substantial differences between San Francisco and the counties in which major theme parks are located. At just 47 square miles, San Francisco is the smallest county in the entire state by a long shot. Orange County where Disneyland is located is about 17 times larger, at 791 square miles. Counties with other large theme parks are even bigger – Los Angeles and San Diego are both over 4000 square miles.
Targeting outbreaks and reaching at-risk communities is a very different ballgame in a county as tiny as San Francisco than it is elsewhere. The demographics and overall wealth of the city of San Francisco are also quite a bit different than Southern California counties. Reducing COVID numbers in places with greater disparities will be harder. This is simply not an apples to apples comparison.
Even with the same amount of effort and messaging, the OC or other theme park dependent counties may not be able achieve these same results and move into the yellow tier. Many theme park watchers are predicting the yellow tier is not a realistic goal for most urban counties in the state until a vaccine has been deployed widely.
In short, it could well be late spring or even summer of 2021 before Disneyland is permitted to reopen if these guidelines remain in place.
Could These Guidelines Be Challenged or Change?
Disney understandably disagrees strongly with these requirements and has already engaged on the public relations front. Disneyland’s president released the following statement almost immediately:
Theme park leaders from almost all of the major operators in these state released a joint statement as well, expressing disappointment and concern over the new guidelines (see that full statement here).
Will Newsom reconsider? I think it’s unlikely at this point. It appears he already held off on releasing guidelines a few weeks ago in order to negotiate further with theme park leaders on the specifics. These current guidelines are a result of those communications.
So will Disney have to take more serious action, like filing a lawsuit? That’s looking increasingly possible. I was an attorney in a former life, so I’ve naturally been considering the legal issues closely. It would not surprise me if this comes to a head legally very soon. For a summary of the legal case, head on over to this article on MiceChat. My husband (also an attorney) happens to have litigated this issue with respect to another business sector and gave an interview that lays out the legal framework there.
The bottom line is that we are far from done in this battle, and things could even get uglier. I can’t see Disneyland letting its fate hang in the balance for 6 months or more.
What Changes Are Coming to Disneyland When it Eventually Does Reopen?
For guests interested in looking beyond the short and medium term battles to make longer term Disneyland vacation plans, so many want to know what Disneyland will be like when it reopens. Because Disneyland has already had multiple false starts with reopening, there are a lot of details that had already been released about the plans in place to open Disneyland, even before these theme park guidelines were released.
The bottom line is that things are going to look a lot different at Disneyland when it reopens, whenever that happens. Expect new safety protocols and seriously restricted capacity. Additionally, the parks simply won’t be able to offer everything that guests have come to expect in the past.
Everything is still a moving target, so I’ll plan to keep updating this post in the next coming weeks and months as Disney and state and local officials reveal more specifics. But here’s what we know so far about how things will be different in the re-opened parks.
1. Park Entry Reservations Will Be Required.
Just like at Walt Disney World, Disneyland is going to reopen its parks on a reservations-only basis due to the 25% maximum capacity mandated by the state’s theme park guidelines. Guests must have a valid theme park ticket in hand already to make a reservation (and ticket sales have currently been paused).
We know little else about how this reservations process will work at Disneyland, but can certainly take cues from what Walt Disney World has done. At Walt Disney World, on-property hotel guests were given the first window to make park reservations. With even fewer on-property hotels at Disneyland, it seems likely that Disney might do the same there.
Whether the demand for reservations will exceed supply is an open question too. Shanghai Disneyland required reservations when it reopened, and sold out almost instantaneously. In contrast, Universal Orlando reopened without requiring reservations and did not reach capacity all summer long until Labor Day came around. The capacity and demand at Disney World has fluctuated pretty wildly, but seems to have settled out such that weekends are busy but weekdays are only busy at the lowest capacity park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
I suspect that with so many local Disneyland annual passholders locked down with nothing to do for a lot longer time period (many of whom are young healthy millennials not in at-risk groups), Disneyland may be a park that sees a bigger crush of demand. But we shall see!
2. Park Hopping Could Be Allowed.
Although reservations are needed, Disneyland has told its ticket partners that it plans to allow park hopping – at least as of this past summer. In contrast, park hopping is not allowed at Walt Disney World right now. With the parks in such close proximity at Disneyland and no transportation needed to get guests between the parks, presumably the risks are simply much lower at Disneyland, allowing for this difference. Of course, with so many things now in flux since the original plans that were made, this could well change again.
3. Parades, Shows, and Fireworks are Out.
Large gatherings within the theme parks come with increased risk and crowding. As such, Disneyland won’t be able to offer its usual parades, stage shows, or fireworks spectaculars at first. Since the new Magic Happens parade debuted earlier in the spring just weeks before the closure, that’s extra sad of course. But safety first, so we’ll just wait patiently for these larger gatherings to safely return.
In the meantime, Disney World has filled the gap with smaller character cavalcades that happen at unannounced times that work like mini-parades. I’d expect Disneyland has many similar plans as well.
4. No Character Meet & Greets.
The need for distancing makes traditional character meet and greets impossible for now at Disneyland. But don’t give up hope on seeing the Fab 5 or your favorite princess. Disneyland will surely find a way to integrate character appearances into the parks from afar, and Disneyland’s earlier official press releases about reopening plans have hinted as much.
Disneyland has been silent about character dining, but Walt Disney World has been able slowly reintroduce character meals since its reopening allowing characters to remain at a distance from tables. Topolino’s Terrace in the brand new Riviera Resort was the first offering, followed by Garden Grill and then Hollywood & Vine which will offer both Halloween and Christmas themed character meals. So perhaps there is hope for modified character meals at Disneyland too!
California has been much more restrictive, however, about indoor dining generally. All of Disneyland’s character restaurants are indoors, with the exception of Plaza Inn which has both indoor and outdoor seating. With indoor dining set to 25% capacity, that may make character meals at the smaller venues like Storytellers Cafe or PCH Grill impracticable. But I’d also hope and think that Disneyland may get more creative with outdoor options. Stay tuned!
5. Masks and Temperature Checks Will Be Required.
As with most major theme parks re-opening around the world, face coverings will be required to visit Disneyland. All guests ages 2 and up will be subject to this requirement. And as we’ve seen at Walt Disney World, Disney will mean business with this requirement. Guests there are quickly corrected by cast members if their masks drop below their noses, and guests also are not allowed to take masks off to eat or drink unless they are stationary.
California has also put in place a statewide mask mandate, so masks will be required in a lot of other places for guests staying off Disneyland property.
While most Americans have gotten used to mask wearing, it’s important to note that SoCal can get hot a lot of times of the year. Wearing a mask for a full day is also very different than wearing one for an hour long trip into the grocery store. Many families with little ones may find that they will need to visit the parks for shorter periods of time or even wait to go at all (see Mom Rewritten’s excellent piece about whether you should take kids to Disneyland when it reopens that addresses this topic). At the very least, Disneyland guests can take solace in the fact that the Orlando weather was most definitely more oppressive for Walt Disney World visitors under the same restrictions!
Disney will also likely be monitoring guests temperature with no-contact thermometers as they enter through security.
6. Mobile Ordering & Contactless Tech Services Will Be Expanded
One of the ways Walt Disney World has improved safety is by minimizing cast member and guest interactions using technology. From using QR codes to pull up restaurant menus to mobile ordering at quick service restaurants, contactless is where it’s at.
Disneyland will be no different. The OC Register recently reported that Disneyland plans to expand its already popular mobile ordering service.
Both Disney Gift Cards and Apple Pay will be added as pay methods on the official Disneyland app (in addition to the current credit card options). And mobile ordering will be permitted for guests as young as 13 years old, up from 18.
While many of Disneyland’s largest quick service restaurants are already integrated into the mobile ordering process, not every one is yet. Disneyland has already announced that Tropical Hideaway in Disneyland park and Studio Catering Co. in Disney California Adventure will be added to the mobile ordering service when the parks reopen. Expect additional restaurants to be added to that list.
7. We Don’t Know Yet about Maxpass, Virtual Queues, Extra Magic Hour, Magic Morning, and More!
A huge part of planning a Disneyland vacation is figuring out a smart touring strategy to dodge crowds and lines and ride more attractions. And all of that is in flux in this reopening so far.
We know that Disneyland will be restricting overall guest capacity in the parks but we don’t yet know what that means for attraction lines and access. Disneyland normally offers same day free digital Fastpass or the paid Disney MaxPass option that allows guests to book Fastpass reservations on a smartphone. It has also used a virtual queue for the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction. All of these options, along with old-fashioned standby lines only, could be on the table. At Disney World at least, we have learned that the resort’s Fastpass+ system is not used for now, leaving standby lines as the way guests currently ride for all rides except Rise of the Resistance.
Also in question is whether Extra Magic Hour or Magic Morning will still be offered. These early entry options give guests access to a even less crowded park for shorter lines. So stay tuned for more coming soon.
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Are you anxiously awaiting Disneyland’s reopening? Will you go when it reopens? Do you agree with the new theme park guidelines?