Disney World, Universal Orlando closing theme parks for rest of March as coronavirus concerns swell

disney world castle closed hurricane
disney world castle closed hurricane

Throughout its nearly 50-year history, Walt Disney World has closed briefly because of looming hurricanes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, but late Thursday, the company announced it will shut down for nearly two weeks starting Sunday because of the coronavirus pandemic — an unprecedented move.

The announcement had a sweeping effect. About 30 minutes after Disney broke the news, Universal said its theme parks are closing Sunday most likely through the end of the month, too. Universal hotels and Universal CityWalk will remain open.

SeaWorld Orlando does not have immediate plans to close and is monitoring the situation, spokeswoman Lori Cherry said late Thursday night.

“It’s truly uncharted territory,” said longtime theme park reporter Robert Niles, who had earlier anticipated Disney World would follow suit after Disneyland, which also announced it was closing Thursday.

In Orlando, the four theme parks will shut down by the end of Sunday, but the hotels and the Disney Springs shopping center will remain open.

“In an abundance of caution and in the best interest of our guests and employees, we are proceeding with the closure of our theme parks,” Disney said in a statement. “We will continue to stay in close contact with appropriate officials and health experts.”

The Disney Cruise Line is suspending all new departures starting Saturday as well.

Disney World theme park employees, which make up the largest workforce in Orlando, will continue to get paid. Employees in other company divisions are asked to work remotely. Universal said it would pay its hourly employees for any of their scheduled work through the end of March.

“It’s the right thing to do. Safety and health comes first. Revenue and profit comes second,” said Dennis Speigel, president of the International Theme Park Services.

It surprised him Disney World acted so quickly, although it was clear Disneyland had quickly set the precedent in the U.S. market, Speigel said.

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The announcement comes on the heels of Disney parks being closed in Asia. Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland have been out of operation since late January, and the two theme parks at Tokyo Disney resort have been shuttered since Feb. 29. On Thursday, Disneyland and Disneyland Paris were added to that list. By the end of Thursday night, so was Disney World, which means every Disney theme park on the planet will be shut down.

“In my tenure in the industry, I think it’s the worst case of fear, and rightly so, I’ve ever seen fall upon us, and it’s because of the unknown,” Speigel said.

Reaction on social media on Thursday night ranged from disappointment to salutes to the theme parks for taking the situation seriously.

“It hits home for a lot of people considering Walt Disney World is the vacation capital of the world. Let’s all be diligent together and support this decision so that we can continue moving forward after this has passed. The most important thing is the safety of the guests,” said Anthony Cortese, producer of the documentary “Walt Disney, Master of Dreamers.”

Walt Disney executives have warned they will take a financial hit from the coronavirus. In early February, when only the China and Hong Kong parks were closed, Disney said it would face an estimated $175 million loss in the quarter’s operating income, an amount that will clearly grow with Thursday’s shutdowns.

The theme park landscape will be unusually quiet next week in what’s normally a busy, critical time for Orlando’s tourism industry. Many schools are out for spring break, and many events, such as festivals at Epcot and SeaWorld or Mardi Gras at Universal, had been scheduled. Disney World also recently opened a new Mickey Mouse ride at Hollywood Studios.

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Concerns have escalated in the U.S., and changes have been made to schedules for large events across the country. Some officials have restricted gatherings of more than 1,000 people. The NBA and Major League Soccer have suspended their schedules.

The closings of Disney World parks have been scattered throughout the resort’s 48-year history. The cause has usually been hurricanes that forced operations to halt for a day or two. The theme parks were closed in September of 1999 for Hurricane Floyd and three times in 2004 as Charley, Frances and Jeanne passed by. Matthew (2016) and Irma (2017) also prompted closures.

The parks also closed on Sept. 11, 2001, after terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

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