Walt Disney World Reopens: Capacity and Health Safety Measures

The Walt Disney World Resort theme parks closed for four months due to fears over the health safety of the large crowds it attracts. Disney World is amid a phased reopening of its Orlando resort. Visiting Animal Kingdom for the annual passholder previews and Magic Kingdom on its official reopening day offered an opportunity to explore the protocol Disney has put in place to protect its guests and cast members.

Disney has made tremendous efforts to prepare safety protocols that allowed their reopening while COVID cases are at a sharp rise in Florida. Their efforts are secure. However, there is ample opportunity for more procedures, as many of the safety measures in place require a level of awareness from guests to be effective. Furthermore, without attention to these areas of opportunity, the perception of safety at Disney may diminish. After being closed since mid-March, Disney World cannot suffer through reopening parks with dismal attendance.

Guest Arrivals At Security

Security at Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom were markedly different. Animal Kingdom has installed the new contact-less scanning system. When arriving, the cast member directing my party on the proper protocol for this feature did not adequately explain the process. Therefore, we required secondary screening to which personnel manually checks your bag and wands your person.

At Magic Kingdom, a different cast member advised me to remove metal containers from my backpack before walking through the scanners. While the request was odd to me, I followed the instruction as given. Doing this led me to require secondary screening as I had other metal items in my backpack.

During both manual screenings, the cast member carrying out the procedure wore gloves. The concern is that in neither instance were the gloves put on in my presence. To project an image of safety, security cast members should remain gloveless and apply a new pair of gloves for each guest they search, and they should put on the gloves in front of that guest.

Taking The Monorail

Arriving at Magic Kingdom, I attempted to visit as close to rope drop as possible. When I came to the Monorail station, the queue was still forming on the up ramp. During the entire wait, guests paid mind to the social distancing markers on the ground. At the platform, parties were organized on dots. Once the monorail was ready, guests were filed into the cabins by party. Each cabin was separated by vinyl. Once inside your separated section, another group is boarded into your part or the car. This combining of separate travelers is a point of concern.

If Disney chooses to mix parties on the monorail, adding another vinyl barrier to the monorail cabin would offer guests a sense of security. This transparent barrier can be added to the floor-to-ceiling rails on either side of the train cabin, in addition to the vinyl separator already installed. This separator should allow space when entering and exiting the vehicle and allow visibility for guests on either side. It can be detachable in case of an emergency. Applying a barrier like this would require all guests traveling to be seated.

Once the train arrived at Magic Kingdom, the organization of the boarding process was not reflected in the disembarkation. Guests piled out of the cars in the pre-closing fashion, with no physical distancing. Stationing team members to guide guests' monorail departure during high traffic times is essential. Just as when they were boarded, guests would exit their vehicle when instructed and in a deliberate fashion.

Outdoor Walkways

Both Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom have open areas and spaces that are easily congested. In those tight areas, it would be beneficial to social distancing to guide guests in a specific direction. Many Disney visitors become less than self-aware and forget their social responsibility while at the parks. Where common sense ends is where Disney must intervene with either cast members directing guests or clear signage to guide guests along the right path.

Dining Removing Your Mask

While at Animal Kingdom, I chose Flame Tree Barbecue as my quick-service lunch. I wanted this restaurant because all of the seating is outside. As I was used to mobile order before the park closing, I walked up to the restaurant once I received the notification that my food was ready. I did notice, however, that many people were gathered about placing their mobile orders. This lingering was not a concern as they maintained a physical distance from one another and did not block pathways.

At Magic Kingdom, I noticed a similar crowd, albeit more significant and much less physically distanced, gathered outside of Pecos Bill. As it is now, guests are not allowed into the restaurant until their meal is ready. A cast member stationed to guide guests to distance themselves physically would be helpful in this scenario. I noticed a similar but smaller gathering when I arrived for my lunch reservation at Liberty Tree Tavern.

When we arrived at our table at Liberty Tree Tavern, we were seated in a seemingly close to multiple tables. We asked to be reseated at a table further away from where other guests would soon be seated. We then went to wash our hands. The narrow staircase to the restrooms was unmarked concerning which side should be used to go to the bathroom versus exiting the facilities.

For inside dining locations, ample table spacing is essential for guests' safety as diners are without masks. Also, directional signage on the staircase leading to the restrooms encourages proper physical distancing.

Throughout the parks, I observed guests walking around with their masks down while holding drinks or food. The concern is that they were not eating or drinking. Instead, it was that they were holding the food or drink so that they did not have to wear masks. Modifying the experience so that guests have to wear masks while moving about and can remove their face covers while sitting down to eat and drink will eliminate this loophole in Disney's protocol.

Rides and Attractions

In both Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, I enjoyed some rides. With the limiting of park capacity, queues are stunningly short. The smaller crowd size is Disney's first layer of protection against the spread of virus.

At Animal Kingdom, I rode Avatar A Flight of Passage, Expedition Everest, and Kilimanjaro Safaris. At Magic Kingdom, I rode Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean, and Space Mountain.

At Animal Kingdom, I noticed a cast member touch my belongings in the storage location on Flight of Passage. This person was ungloved, which led me to imagine a host of mishaps that may have occurred. For me to have been at ease, team members should place gloves on their hands before touching my items.

That simple miss drove concerns for the invisible. Was the ride vehicle sanitized before me? Is the storage bin sanitized between guests?

With Disney's panache for magic, these measures are likely invisible to guests. But how could I trust the protocols that are in place if things that are visible lead to concern?

On Expedition Everest, it is not apparent when the ride cars are sanitized. With Kilimanjaro Safaris, the vinyl barriers are easy to touch, and it is unclear when they, along with the seats, are sterilized.

Had the cast member simply put on gloves before touching my items or directed me to adjust them myself, these doubts would not have come to mind and left me hypersensitive for the rest of my visit.

The Magic Kingdom has area for opportunity as well. Many of the attractions at this park have queues that switch back on themselves. These lines were designed to accommodate many people at once. This design is a challenge that Disney has met by placing social distancing markers throughout, adding plexiglass and temporary barriers where guests double back, and closing areas where boundaries are impossible.

In some spaces where switchbacks are unavoidable, guests are responsible for minding the floor markers to keep their distance from others. On multiple occasions, guests ignored those markers leaving people within inches of one another. Designing the queues to allow cast members to monitor guests' adherence to their responsibility during their visit will ensure that guests are not coming in to contact with one another, be it purposefully or mistakenly. In some instances, this can be done by utilizing the Fast Pass queue.

At many of the attractions where guests disembark on one side of the ride car and the next guest boards on the other side, physical distancing is not within the acceptable range. Disney should limit guests' access to the gates while they are waiting for their turn to load. Holding them back from the gate at least one foot is likely sufficient on most attractions.

Finally, my biggest concern with going to Disney was realized. I went on Space Mountain and expected to be on a sled with my party only, but we were paired with another group. We were situated on the back half of the ride. Space Mountain is a dark attraction with splashes of light in areas. During one of those occasions, I noticed the rider ahead of me, placing his mask on his face. Mind you; he screamed the entire ride.

Full separation of parties is necessary for attractions that cannot provide at least 10 feet of separation. With hindsight being what it is, I should have asked the cast member for a separate ride vehicle.

I did not observe handrail cleaning in any of the queues that I waited in at either park. Being fair, the longest that I waited for an attraction was 20 minutes. However, I did see multiple guest touching handrails.

Waiting for Disney to reopen has been a long process. Disney often gets it right with the things that it does. While most of their health safety measures are welcome and will likely be effective in preventing the spread of disease, there is space for them to improve.

Disney makes things feel magical, and much of what they do to give guests that feeling is unseen. But in this health emergency, it is necessary to pull back the curtain. The sanitization efforts need to be visible. Guests need to see it. If we don't see it, it didn't happen, Disney make your safety measures evident to visitors. Doing this will align guests, and they will be mindful during their stay. This change will take away a bit of the magic, but if guests feel unsafe to visit, the magic may go away because you will have no guests.