Walt Disney's (NYSE: DIS) most popular resort isn't close to opening anytime soon, but the conditions are starting to be laid out for the inevitable return of Disney World. The Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force -- a committee launched by the county's mayor to develop a phased approach to reopening the local economy -- offered up initial recommendations on Tuesday.
Theme parks have been widely expected to be among the last businesses to get rolling again given the large crowds they attract. But the task force's recommendation calls for Disney World, Comcast's (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Universal Orlando, and SeaWorld Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS) to unlock their turnstiles again with significant restrictions as soon as the first phase of the economy's reopening following the COVID-19 crisis.
Image source: Disney.
Welcome to Tomorrowland
The task force is offering suggested guidelines for the area's largest theme parks, largely from a staffing perspective. The recommendation is that all theme park employees receive a fever check before starting a shift and wear a protective mask the entire time. They recommend that anyone older than 65 should not return to work until after at least the first two phases of reopening.
Suggestions also include the installation of touchless hand sanitizer stations at all attractions, wiping down railings and surfaces after every use, and spacing out attraction queues so riders are kept six feet apart. Theme parks would also be limited to taking in just 50% of their capacity in the first phase, climbing to 75% in the second phase.
It's important to frame all of these suggestions in the proper light. This is an advisory task force. It's not the one governing how Disney, Comcast, and SeaWorld will get rolling again in Central Florida in the coming weeks or months. It's also admittedly a biased task force. The group's roughly four dozen members are executives at leading area businesses, including all three of the theme park operators. These members want to see shelter-in-place restrictions ease sooner rather than later, so naturally they're going to take an aggressive stance to shift out of the current interruption.
The pandemic is showing signs of easing locally. New cases in Orlando have declined for four consecutive weeks, but loosening restrictions that have kept the parks closed for the past six weeks could reverse that welcome trend. The parks will open eventually, however, and the suggested safeguards in what should be a slow ramp-up will provide plenty of data points to reverse course if COVID-19 cases begin to spike.
The reopening of Disney World will be challenging, imperfect, and ultimately awkward. Disney's status as a bellwether consumer discretionary stock hangs in the balance, and then it's a matter of gauging where the economy is when the theme parks do open. Capping attendance at 50% initially would be a blessing that may very well happen organically, giving Disney, theme park operators, and the coronavirus crisis time to determine where things go from here.
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