First Free Story (1 of 3)

More travel executives get their mission-critical industry news from Skift than any other source on the planet.

Already a member?

With vaccine distributions underway but Covid still rampant, plus rising pandemic fatigue, U.S. destinations are facing a whole new challenge in hitting the right note with their tourism marketing messaging.

Orlando is one of them, ranking among America’s most tourism-dependent destinations with 41 percent employed in the tourism industry and generating $75.2 billion in economic impact pre-pandemic, according to Visit Orlando. The most visited destination in the U.S. with 75.7 million visitors in 2019, it’s also located in one of the country’s worst pandemic affected states.

That’s why it’s difficult to understand why Visit Orlando’s new campaign “The Wonder Remains,” lacks a clear message of safety protocols at its sights and attractions. Instead, the $2 million campaign — the first for Orlando since Covid and aimed at neighboring drive-in source markets — shows visitors who are mask-free as they enjoy theme parks, including crowds packed on a roller coaster at SeaWorld whose screams overpower the music.

Here’s where it gets interesting: Orlando’s chief attraction, Walt Disney World, which also suffered a major hit in 2020, has taken a polar opposite approach by clearly prioritizing and showing Covid safety protocols in its campaigns— no back shots, no mixed messages. Its most recent video to promote its 50th anniversary in October 2021 also shows the new Disney World parks’ normal, with mask-wearing throughout.

So why the sharp contrast in messaging between Visit Orlando and Disney World?

“[T}he focus is to show the POV of the traveler, so, while you may not see a mask, you see the perspective looking forward — which would show backs of heads of those in front of you — and for activities such as swimming or kayaking down a stream, masks are not required,” Casandra Matej, Visit Orlando’s new CEO, said in a statement.

Matej also noted that the intent is to drive visitors to the destination’s website, where they would find extensive information on the region’s health and safety protocols.

If one were to play the Visit Orlando clip in slow motion as it kicks off, one might actually spot the outline of masks on a couple walking away from the camera, but it’s easily missed because that back shot lasts less than a half second. It explains why local news outlets have also reported that the campaign shows no masks.

Matej said that Visit Orlando is proud of the county’s mandatory mask requirement, and pointed to an earlier December 2020 safety video featuring guests at theme park attractions — with masks on this time.

Skift reached out to Walt Disney World but did not receive a response in time for publication.

It’s possible Disney’s campaigns had a larger budget. Visit Orlando’s campaign was funded with tourist development tax dollars and uses a mix of pre-pandemic footage, according to Matej. Ultimately, the lack of strong safety messaging feels like a missed opportunity for Visit Orlando just as it anticipates a busy Spring Break crowd, instead reminding viewers of Florida’s reputation as an anti-masking destination.

Theme Parks Heeding the Safety Cue

Walt Disney World originally drew heavy public criticism when it decided to reopen in July 2020 amid a major countrywide Covid surge, with up to 15,000 new cases in Florida just days before the reopening. Competitor Universal Parks had already opened back up in June.

But skepticism led to a gradual rise in consumer confidence because of Disney’s strict safety protocols and enforcement on site, including an initial 25 percent crowd capacity limit that was later increased to 35 percent. What was anticipated as a potential disaster was averted, with local unions calling it “a success story” in December 2020, although epidemiologists said the risks remained.

Aside from transparent marketing videos showing visitors with masks at its various attractions, Disney World’s website is also clear on its home page that there are new Covid safety measures, which then go on into detail about requirements for experiences, including a new reservation system which allows for the attraction to control capacity, and the need to wear masks at its restaurants.

Competitor Universal Orlando has also incorporated safety in its marketing messaging.

But how much do the promises weigh up against the reality in the parks? That’s part of TouringPlans.com’s service, a subscription travel website and blog that helps customers plan visits to Disney World, Disneyland and Universal Orlando and stay informed on their health protocols.

Dani Meyering, a native of Orlando and freelance contributor for TouringPlans.com since 2013, had not yet watched the new Visit Orlando campaign, but expressed confidence in Disney World’s safety protocols and in the TouringPlans team.

“We feel that Disney is the gold standard in terms of Covid precautions in all of Orlando,” Meyering said, noting that TouringPlans’ team shares real time information with the public on the park’s safety enforcement efforts. “The owner of the site, Len Testa, has a team of folks that go into the park daily and take a daily count of mask compliance, because he knows and we feel that’s important to most families.”

Meyering visits Disney World at least once a week for her freelance work and said that Disney staff are visible throughout with signs that serve as reminders about social distancing and staff who stroll the parks remind people to get their masks back on.

“The challenges we see a lot is, people who are drinking and eating while walking. Disney’s official policy is you must be stationary to eat and drink,” Meyering said, noting that there are designated relaxation stations for that purpose of safely taking masks off while consuming and that Disney recently tightened its mask-wearing rule at dining locations. The Touring Plans team has not seen a change in behavior yet, but they are keeping an eye on it.

Vaccinated customers are also still required to wear masks. Meyering said that Universal has similar policies as Disney World, but that Touring Plans’ team noticed there were not as many staff members around for enforcement of protocols.

Competition For Local Tourism Dollar is Fierce

There’s no doubt competition will get more cut throat among Florida’s multiple coastal destinations on the other side of vaccines, as the Miamiland campaign from the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau already shows, launched a couple of weeks prior to Visit Orlando’s.

“Good news, it’s not some new man-made theme park, but instead, it’s the city’s real wild side,” the outdoor guide says in the video, while showing off Greater Miami’s national parks and pointing out there are “no lines, no tickets, no limits,” before exclaiming “we don’t need rollercoasters” while cruising in an airboat down a mangrove lagoon.

It caused somewhat of an Orlando versus Miami stir on social media. But this also points to a difficult and novel post-Covid reality: with the return of international tourists in the distant future, domestic travel sits on a new pedestal and tourism marketing offices may be competing for the same drive-in visitor source markets.

Do destinations have to one-up each other to differentiate their offerings? Or is this simply genius marketing to point out that natural parks and outdoor sights remain safer picks as the U.S. continues to recover from a global pandemic?

“Being the leading destination in America, it’s not unusual for others to occasionally try to compare to us in attempts to distinguish their own brand, and we view that as a compliment, as we are confident in our own skin and in our appeal to consumers,” Visit Orlando’s Matej told Skift in a statement.

Adapting Messaging Critical as Covid Fatigue Intensifies

With vaccination drives a reality and the harsh winter weather wearing on people, Covid fears have plummeted.

“There’s a kind of a growing response from folks that they are over it, they’re kind of done with the masking, they’re ready for things to be normal,” Meyering said. “So we’ve entered this interesting period where there’s a lot of folks that are fatigued by all the precautions. But as much as we wish things could be done, you know, we’re not there yet.”

Last summer, Orlando’s theme parks might have felt deserted, but larger crowds have descended on Florida this year since President’s weekend and Valentine’s Day, with an increase expected in coming weeks.

“The region expects 2021 spring break travel to mirror the Christmas and New Year holidays, when occupancy reached 50 percent,” Visit Orlando’s Matej said.   

As pent up desires to escape manifest, some marketing campaigns might be tempted to cut corners on the visual messaging and show as much “normal” as possible. But rebuilding consumer confidence will require adaptability in messaging — for Orlando, that would be showing that wonder and Covid safety can go hand in hand.

Photo Credit: Disney World's marketing videos show safety protocols, unlike Visit Orlando's new campaign. Thomas Evraert / Unsplash