Will Disneyland and other California theme parks fully reopen on June 15? Experts weigh in

The California economy will fully reopen on June 15 after more than a year of pandemic hibernation, but industry experts do not expect Disneyland, Universal Studios and other theme parks in the state to return to full capacity and operations right away.

The full reopening of the California economy on June 15 raises a number of questions for the state’s theme parks. Will operations need to ramp up slowly? How long will COVID-19 health and safety protocols linger? When will attendance return to pre-pandemic levels?

Revisions to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy allowed Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Six Flags Magic Mountain, SeaWorld San Diego, Legoland California and other California theme parks to reopen on April 1.

Universal, Magic Mountain, SeaWorld and Legoland have already reopened. Disneyland and Disney California Adventure return on April 30 while Knott’s will reopen on May 6 for passholders.

Newsom plans to end mandates in the Blueprint for a Safer Economy on June 15 and fully reopen the state economy provided progress on the COVID-19 vaccination rollout continues and coronavirus cases and hospitalizations continue to decline.

What does that mean for California theme parks? Can Disney, Universal and other theme parks return to full attendance and ride capacity on June 15?

“When California fully reopens the economy, all stay-at-home orders will be lifted and the Blueprint for a Safer Economy will end,” according to California Department of Public Health officials. “However common-sense health measures such as masking will remain across the state. Testing or vaccination verification requirements will remain in relevant settings. When we have additional details about individual sectors, we’ll let you know.”

Disneyland faces a difficult decision on June 15 when the California economy fully reopens after a 15-month pandemic-induced hibernation, according to Martin Lewison, a theme park expert at Farmingdale State College in New York.

“I think June 15 represents a difficult fork in the road when the park will have to decide if it will open with the rest of the state,” Lewison said via email. “Will Disneyland be a leader or a follower in the reopening? Given the nature of the theme park business, predicated on large gatherings, sometimes indoors, I have to bet that Disneyland will play it safe in the short run, just as they have let other California parks open first.”

Pent-Up demand

The full reopening of the California economy on June 15 will be a boon for Disneyland, Universal Studios and other theme parks in the state, according to Carissa Baker, a University of Central Florida assistant professor of theme park and attraction management.

“As we saw in other markets, there is pent-up demand for this form of entertainment and leisure travel in general,” Baker said via email. “Because of the timing of these reopenings, there will be stronger consumer confidence due to the availability of the vaccine and the knowledge that other guests and employees may be vaccinated.”

The full reopening of the state economy on June 15 will give California theme parks more flexibility to operate within their own health and safety guidelines, according to John Gerner, a theme park expert and managing director of Leisure Business Advisors.

“It does not automatically mean the parks begin operating as they did before the pandemic began,” Gerner said via email.

No COVID-19 outbreaks have been tied to amusement parks around the world, according to the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions.

“Theme parks across the nation, most notably in Florida and Texas, have demonstrated that they can operate relatively safely with mask rules, capacity limits, reservations, temperature taking at the gate, distancing and redesigned queues, new cleaning procedures, new plastic barriers, touchless payment and dispensing and limitations on maskless eat-walking,” Lewison said. “So far, no virus data tracking has pointed at theme parks to say, ‘This is a vector for the virus.’”

California was the last major state to allow theme parks to reopen after more than a year of coronavirus closures. Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, Legoland, Six Flags and Cedar Fair parks have been operating since last summer in states other than California.

“The parent companies of California parks have all opened sites in other regions, so they are experienced at operating during pandemic conditions,” Baker said.

Reopening factors

A number of factors will affect the ability of California theme parks to return to full capacity on June 15.

Current government mandates require California theme parks to limit attendance capacity, reduce ride capacity, avoid creating crowds or chokepoints and maintain social distancing. All those requirements go away on June 15 — provided the state doesn’t issue new theme park guidelines.

“Government requirements have had an impact on capacity, but they are not the only factor or even the major factor,” Baker said. “Other considerations include staffing levels, time for training in these current conditions, guest comfort and a consistent appearance of operating safely.”

Theme parks around the country have limited entertainment offerings to avoid attracting large crowds and to reduce labor costs during reduced capacity restrictions, according to Baker.

Slow and cautious

Florida officials lifted all attendance restrictions on theme parks in September, but Disney, Universal and SeaWorld have decided to maintain some capacity limits and COVID-related safety practices, according to Baker.

“I would guess that California parks will follow the same gradual and cautious approach,” Baker said.

Lewison doubts Disneyland will want to return to full capacity and full operations for some time — even with California’s good numbers.

“Virus cases remain stubbornly high in the U.S. and inviting large numbers of people to gather without limits may be inviting disaster, especially if it includes a return to high-capacity indoor attractions like Pirates of the Caribbean, Haunted Mansion, Star Tours and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge,” Lewison said.

Recovery and rebound

Baker is optimistic California theme parks will recover sooner rather than later thanks to the high availability of COVID-19 vaccines — but coronavirus variants could impact the full return of the parks.

“It is hard to say exactly when the parks return to normal operations as it will be based on two dynamic conditions: The pandemic and the recovery of the financial health for the parent companies,” Baker said.

The key factor that will determine when California theme parks return to full capacity will be visitor vaccination levels, according to Gerner.

“Until there is a clear indicator that ‘herd immunity’ has been achieved the theme parks are likely to be understandably cautious as they ramp up,” Gerner said.

Disneyland could return to normal capacity and operations if everyone wears a mask and gets vaccinated, according to Lewison.

“Everything depends on how the virus trends and that trend is determined by viral variants, rates of vaccination and how people and the market behave,” Lewison said. “If everyone in America were more careful about wearing masks and if there weren’t so much ignorance and fear about vaccines, then maybe theme parks could safely operate at higher capacity. But a lot of people don’t want to be told what to do, don’t want to wear a mask and don’t believe the science.”

A controversial vaccination passport concept could provide a quicker return to full operations and capacity at Disneyland, according to Lewison.

“I’m afraid to say this because it’s a political hot potato, but if there was a way to check guests for proof of vaccination they might be able to fill the park tomorrow,” Lewison said. “But vaccine passports are apparently a major point of political division in the nation right now.”

Attendance and demand

When California theme parks return to pre-pandemic attendance levels mainly depends on visitor perception rather than operating procedures, according to Gerner.

“There’s apparently much pent-up demand among fans, but wide acceptance could take longer,” Gerner said. “Based on past situations, the good news is that attendance will likely again reach new highs.”

California theme parks will return to pre-pandemic attendance levels in the near future once attendance capacity restrictions end, according to Baker.

“Californians have gone longer without these entertainment spaces than most markets around the world, however, so I have no doubt the demand will be there,” Baker said.

California theme parks aren’t expected to return to normal operations while there are still a significant number of COVID-19 cases, according to Gerner.

“There will likely still be safety precautions even when actual operating capacity returns to pre-pandemic levels,” Gerner said.

Safety protocols

Disneyland’s reputation for being a safe place to visit rests on decades of careful management, according to Lewison.

“Every decision, large or small, is scrutinized and these are big decisions regarding safety — the number one issue for every theme park and attraction,” Lewison said. “Disneyland is not going to sacrifice safety under any circumstances and that’s one of the many reasons they’re far and away the leader in the global theme park industry.”

COVID-19 health and safety protocols will linger until California theme parks are comfortable they can be removed, according to Gerner.

“Some that are relatively convenient may become permanent as ‘new normal’ standards,” Gerner said.

COVID-19 health and safety protocols will be phased out at California theme parks once vaccination rates increase, according to Baker. The first to go: Temperature checks, indoor dining restrictions and retail capacity limits followed by mask requirements and social distancing.

“What I expect to linger would be the enhanced sanitation of surfaces, an emphasis on hand washing and hand sanitizer and new protocols that provide enhanced guest convenience — contactless security checkpoints, mobile ordering and virtual queues,” Baker said.

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