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‘It’s time:’ Disney, Anaheim officials are ready to reopen Disneyland

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When is Disneyland reopening? That’s the question that Disney keeps asking California Gov. Gavin Newsom, without any real response.

“We are ready,” said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products, in a private virtual press conference from Disneyland on Tuesday. “And more importantly, it’s time.”

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Newsom has been slow to issue guidance on theme parks in California, which have all been closed for more than six months due to the pandemic. But an eager public demands to know when parks like Disneyland and Knott’s Berry Farm will reopen, especially since representatives from those parks have issued assurances that there are sufficient safety protocols in place.

“In order to reopen, parks require guidance from the state and that guidance has not been forthcoming,” the California Attractions and Parks Association said in a statement on Sept. 14. “As evidenced by the many open amusement parks in the United States and around the world, visiting an attraction will not look the same as before COVID, but California’s amusement parks are ready to responsibly reopen.”

Newsom said in a Sept. 2 press conference that “progress is still being made,” and “we’re still working on some details.” In his Sept. 16 press conference, he added that those guidelines would be coming “very, very shortly.”

But more than a week later, that guidance still has not come — and the park warns of dire consequences the longer it remains closed. “The longer we wait, the more devastating the impact will be to the Orange County and Anaheim communities, and the tens of thousands of people who rely on us for employment,” D’Amaro said Tuesday.

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Disneyland employs over 80,000 people in Southern California, but the economic impact stretches far beyond lost jobs even as the pandemic has already cost more jobs than those lost during the Great Recession. According to Mike Lyster, chief communications officer for Anaheim, the city has an unemployment rate of about 12%, down from 15% in July, and is facing a $100 million budget shortfall in large part because of lost tourism dollars.

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“We have guidance for many industries and businesses, and what we need is an economic recovery road map,” Lyster told SFGATE. “It may not be that the parks open tomorrow, but what we need to see is movement so we know that there’s a path forward.”

He pointed to Downtown Disney, the shopping and dining area outside the parks at the Disneyland Resort. It’s been open since July, with safety protocols in place. “We look at a lot of businesses here and how they go about meeting the challenge of coronavirus,” he said. “What we’ve seen at Downtown Disney is among the best, if not the best,” in implementing safety protocols.

In addition to mask and social distancing requirements, there are now temperature screenings upon entry and no-touch bag checks (offset by a new area where incoming guests now walk past security dogs as an added safety measure). Capacity is limited in restaurants and stores — World of Disney has recently had hours-long virtual queues to get in — and new safety measures like plexiglass dividers have been installed.

In reopening Downtown Disney, Lyster said, Disney has “done a very stringent job of embracing California’s general guidelines for preventing spread. We believe they can do the same for the theme parks.”

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“We’ve worked with Disney for decades and we’ve seen them manage very large amounts of visitors,” Lyster said. “They are very good at that. We know they can take that same skill and continue to manage visitors during a unique time when we still have to continue to battle the spread of coronavirus.”

He pointed to the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge last summer, and how Disneyland did such a good job with crowd control that attendance numbers fell well below the projections, even though it was the first new area the park had opened since Cars Land in Disney’s California Adventure in 2012.

Orange County is currently in Tier 2 of reopening, which allows for indoor dining at 25% capacity and retail shopping at 50%. Tuesday, the city announced that Orange County had met the metrics for Tier 3, which allows for indoor family entertainment at 25% and museums at 50% capacity. They must maintain the criteria for two weeks to qualify for the next tier, and could do so on October 6.

The only venues and events excluded from that guidance: Disneyland, the Anaheim Convention Center, and sports tournaments. Disneyland is the only one of the Disney parks, both nationally and internationally, to remain indefinitely closed. Walt Disney World, Disneyland Paris, Tokyo Disney, and Shanghai Disney are all currently open. Hong Kong Disneyland opened briefly in June but closed again in July. That park will reopen on September 25.

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“We are disappointed with the state’s lack of progress in providing the industry with guidance and clarity on reopening,” said Disneyland Resort President Ken Potrock in a statement reported by the Orange County Register on Sept. 16. “We have proven we can operate responsibly, with strict health and safety protocols at our properties around the world and at Downtown Disney in Anaheim.”

Lyster is also concerned for the small businesses that depend on Disneyland tourism. “We see the toll being taken on small businesses,” he said. “I can only speak anecdotally, because there’s no hard data on it, but I take calls from people all the time saying, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to survive.’”
“We need the recovery plan from this, and it’s that gradual middle path forward,” Lyster added.

Frustration about the lack of official guidance on theme parks has also been high from the Disney fan community. Rumors swirled on Disneyland blogs that Newsom and D’Amaro would be in the park on Monday filming a reopening announcement, coming after earlier whispers the two had been in the closed park together the week before.

One cast member said collective hopes were “very, very high” that official word would come Monday. “We just need some guidance. At least then we’ll know what we’re working with,” said another. That same day, some Disney fans stood in the empty plaza that holds the entrances to Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure, hoping for a glimpse of something inside.

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One man, who had driven more than two hours just to shop at Downtown Disney and have lunch at one of its restaurants, said that he had heard an announcement might be coming today and was ready with statistics about how many people might be allowed back in the park on opening day. (According to the Thinkwell Group, capacity could be 50%, even with social distancing, which could be as high as an estimated 30,000 people.)

The announcement didn’t come that day, or in the days afterward.

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