All eyes will certainly be on Orlando, Florida, in coming weeks, as the unlikely stage for how tourism and entertainment can move forward during a pandemic. A tourism mecca for decades, Orlando is host to some key reopenings, even as Covid-19 cases hit new record levels in Florida.
Walt Disney World in Orlando pushed ahead on July 11 with its reopening, as its Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom brought in a reported combined crowd of about 16,000 visitors. That was well below daily averages of around 100,000.
The resort will be the site of the relaunch of the National Basketball Association’s season on July 30. The league plans to have 22 teams playing games in a closely monitored bubble at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex. The teams have all arrived in Orlando and begun training for the season’s resumption. EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will be opening at the resort on Wednesday, and Universal Orlando is open as well, making Orlando a prime spot for big brand openings.
But all this is taking place at a time when coronavirus cases around the country are surging, no more so than in Florida. On Sunday, the Sunshine State recorded more than 15,000 new cases of the virus, which set a record as the highest single-day increase in positive cases in any state since the pandemic began. On Tuesday, the state also set a record for its highest number of coronavirus deaths, with 132.
With that in mind, the resumption of Disney World’s activities and the NBA could serve as a model for destinations worldwide looking for guidance on how to get back in business.
Or it could be a cautionary tale.
Destinations are currently trying to figure out the best ways to allow visitors to have a fun experience while staying safe. If reopening success can be had in a coronavirus hotspot such as Florida, other places may feel better about opening up. Of course, just this week, Disney had to make the call to close down Hong Kong Disneyland again after a jump in coronavirus cases there.
Disney is hoping that won’t be the case with its biggest theme park, that has been a draw for central Florida since it opened in 1971.
Orlando is one of the biggest tourist destinations in the U.S. In 2018, the state had 75 million visitors, solidifying their position as America’s most-visited destination, according to Visit Orlando. As domestic tourism will likely be the main travel going on for a while, there might be some encouraging news: of those 75 million, nearly 69 million were U.S. visitors.
The decision to reopen Disney World will also mean more activity at Orlando International Airport, the busiest airport in the state in 2019 by the number of passengers it handled. Carolyn Fennell, senior director of public affairs at Orlando International Airport, said that the airport had seen passenger numbers drop to as low 1,500 departing passengers per day, compared to the 70,000 they would normally see.
They’re slowly seeing an uptick: on July 13, that number increased to around 19,000 compared to about 72,000 they would expect. She said that the airport has been in an active role preparing for the return of their traffic, taking steps that include the installation of PPE vending machines.
Disney World has also implemented safety measures to help guests feel safe. Visitors may have their temperature checked before entering the theme parks. In addition, guests above the age of two and cast members are required to wear masks, and the park has implemented temporary adjustments to promote physical distancing.
Other parks may follow suit, especially if they notice visitors still having a fun experience despite the safety standards put into place.
One thing is clear: staying safe and slowing the spread of the virus will be a group effort, a thought echoed by George Aguel, president and CEO of Visit Orlando.
“As we work to gradually reopen, it is critical that both businesses and individuals remain vigilant in their efforts to stop the spread,” said Aguel.
“Our local government has responded aggressively to the spread by requiring masks to be worn by every person working, living or visiting in Orange County,” he added. “Additionally, we have launched a multi-county safety campaign, ‘Safer, Stronger, Together’ to further encourage both businesses and customers to follow safety guidelines, and positively highlight those businesses that are supporting proactive, visible safety measures.”
It also would probably be costly if Disney World had to close again after reopening. More ticket revenue would be lost, and it could take longer for the public to want to return.
Regardless, many in the tourism and entertainment worlds will be keeping a keen watch on Orlando.