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What will coronavirus mean for Florida's theme parks? Five possible answers

We took some key questions to one of the leading writers about theme parks.
Credit: AP
In this Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020 photo, a statue of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse is seen in front of the Cinderella Castle at the Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

TAMPA, Fla. — When Florida’s theme parks start to reopen, how comfortable would you be with visiting? In Tampa Bay, we’ve got Busch Gardens, water parks, and Legoland. Orlando‘s major theme parks are just a short drive away - up I-4.

Robert Niles is the editor at themeparkinsider.com, which is considered one of the foremost publications on the topic.

So, we turned to Niles for his insight when it comes to finally re-opening Florida’s theme parks. Here are five key questions and his answers:

Q: Will the social distancing, crowd size limits and sanitizing strategies be enough to give people confidence so that theme parks can successfully reopen?

A: I think the steps that the Orlando task force have suggested are definitely solid suggestions. Towards getting people that way. They want to feel like the social distancing is going to be there. People are matched. They’ve got the ability to keep things clean and sanitized. So, it’s definitely, and that the parks are going to be wall-to-wall crowded, either. So, it’s definitely a start. Whether it’s enough, ultimately that’s up to the public to decide.

Q: Will theme parks reopen even if it means much smaller crowds at first?

A: I think they might be happy to open with a more limited audience of just locals at first. Because, they’ve got to test all the stuff. This is all new to them. They haven’t done operations like this before. I remember when I worked at Disney the one phrase we kept telling people was please keep up with the party in front of you. No one’s going to be saying that anymore. It’s going to be please keep six feet away from the party in front of you at all times. So, you’ve got a re-train all of your staff to do this. So it might be easier to do that with a more limited crowd.

Q: The Tampa Bay area has its own theme park industry: water parks, Legoland, and of course, Busch gardens. How will all of this affect them?

A: I think a lot of the things that are being considered in Orlando are really things that are going to become injuries or she standards. Not just in Central Florida, but in Southern California and Ohio in the Midwest. And in the bay area, obviously, that theme parks are going to have to be following. Because, there’s only so many ways you can do social distancing in a theme park. There are only so many ways that you can do social distancing in the queue. Do you have to start using future virtual queues instead of actual physical ones? Do you have to give people assigned times to come into the park as opposed to just first come first serve?

Q: What if theme parks open too soon and people get sick? What effect could that have on the industry?

A: The nightmare scenario here, the thing everybody wants to avoid, is Florida reopens its theme parks and there’s a huge outbreak. There’s a second wave that is sparked by, I remember here in Southern California when there was a measles outbreak. It was traced to somebody at Disneyland and it became the Disneyland measles outbreak. It was not Disneyland‘s fault in anyway, but it became associated with them because they were a big brand name. Nobody wants to be the Disney world, Universal Orlando, Florida coronavirus second wave. So, I think there’s going to be a lot of reticence on the part of the theme parks to rush into reopening until not only can they make a public feel safe, but they know they’re not going to be putting the public in danger in a way that would risk some type of failure that could permanently damage the lucrative theme park industry.

Q: Do you think it will ever get back to the way it was? Or does COVID-19 change this industry forever?

A: A lot of different issues out there. But I think we’re going to pretty quickly come to what the standard operating procedures are for the industry. And you’re going to see implementation industry wide. Not just limited to the Orlando parks.

You know, if you can get you a vaccine, if you can get to herd immunity, if you can get to therapeutics for this, then absolutely. We’re getting very close to where we are. The thing is, this is going to change the marketplace. People might decide that, you know what, I like more of a socially distanced theme park. I like the virtual queues instead of standing in those physical queues before. There may be some public demand for some of the things that people want to hold on to, so that in the parks they can go to more of a virtual queue, more of a concierge type service. That might be the way that the industry begins to go into the future because of this experience.

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