Long lines, lots of kids, and plenty to touch: How does Disney reopen its parks?

By Helen Coster and Lisa Richwine

(Reuters) – For a glimpse at how Disney recovers from the coronavirus pandemic, look no further than Shanghai, where the entertainment giant has staged a limited reopening of Shanghai Disney Resort. Adults, kids and senior citizens wear masks while wandering among staff and security guards who carry contact-less thermometers and hand sanitizer.

As some U.S. states lift stay-at-home orders, investors and park fans are watching to see how Walt Disney Co — which makes a third of its revenue from parks, experiences and products — reimagines the “happiest place on earth” for a world altered by the coronavirus.

The high-touch, high-volume, kid-centered nature of the parks, and Disney’s need to prevent damage to a brand synonymous with safety and families, will make reopening difficult, experts said.

Disney’s ability to reopen its parks in Asia, the United States and France will also be a powerful signal about how the world can get back to a semblance of normal as it deals with COVID-19.

“This is the greatest challenge that the industry has ever faced,” said Phil Hettema, founder of The Hettema Group, which designs theme park rides and other experiences.

Disney, which has not announced any plans to reopen the parks, declined to comment for this story.

Executive Chairman Bob Iger recently said checking guests’ temperature could become routine at Disney park entrances. Among other plans under consideration, according to a source briefed on Disney’s thinking: Rides like the Space Mountain roller coaster could stagger guests in each “rocket” to enforce social distancing. Guests could be notified via app or another technology when they can go on a ride or in a restaurant to eliminate lines.

Staffers, known as cast members, and guests could be required to wear masks. But in true Disney fashion, employees’ masks would be fun, not scary, the source said.

Disney on Thursday began online sales of face masks featuring Mickey Mouse, Baby Yoda and other characters and said up to $1 million in profits would go to charity.

Masks, now worn commonly across China, are ubiquitous in the shopping district outside Shanghai Disney, where workers disinfect a playground for 5- to 12-year-olds at noon and 3 p.m. daily. Temperature checks are mandated by local regulations, according to Shanghai Disney’s website.

Business and political leaders in Florida, home to Walt Disney World, have floated ideas such as limiting capacity at all theme parks during an initial re-opening phase.

The question that health experts and financial analysts are asking is whether any of these measures will be enough to protect employees, guests or Disney’s bottom line.

Social distancing could come at a steep price.

In April, UBS downgraded its rating on Disney and lowered its division profit estimates to $500 million in fiscal 2020 and just $200 million in 2021 compared to $6.8 billion in 2019.

Disney parks need to be running at roughly 50% of capacity to be profitable, according to the firm.

Investors will see a fuller impact of coronavirus when Disney releases its second-quarter results on May 5; Comcast said on Thursday that if its Universal Studios parks remain closed for the entire second quarter, the company would suffer an earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization loss of roughly $500 million.

Financial analysts have predicted reopen dates for Disney ranging from as early as June to Jan. 1. Guidelines will be set by governors in California and Florida, where Iger and Walt Disney World Resort President Josh D’Amaro sit on state reopening task forces. The rest is up to Disney.

Although Disney and other large venues face an unprecedented challenge protecting guests from an easily spread airborne virus, experts and a former executive pointed to its experience handling crowds.

More than 157 million people visited Disney parks in 2018, according to the Themed Entertainment Association.

“If anybody can figure it out, Disney will,” said Dave Schmitt, founder of MR-ProFun, a consultant to theme parks.

Safeguards have limits. Temperature checks will not catch everyone infected, and most vaccines are not 100% effective, said Dr. Megan Murray, a global health professor at Harvard Medical School.

Even so, a vaccine would provide some reassurance for park-goers, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted from April 15-21. While a fifth of respondents said they would attend an amusement, theme or water park whenever they reopen, about 30% would go if a vaccine was available. The poll, which surveyed 4,429 American adults, noted that a vaccine might not be available for more than a year.

Loyal fans are counting on Disney to get this right. Chicago resident Kelly Alexis, 50, has been to Disney resorts 35 to 40 times and plans to go to Disney World with her family in October if the park is open.

“It’s just the feeling that they do things so perfectly and they will take every precaution,” Alexis said. “They’re not going to want to have an epidemic where everyone gets sick at Disney. They would never let that happen.”

(Reporting by Helen Coster in New York, Lisa Richwine in Los Angeles, and Shanghai Newsroom; Additional reporting by Arriana McLymore in Raleigh, North Carolina; Editing by Kenneth Li and Lisa Shumaker)

‘Fun’ amidst the flooding. Houston’s kids show resilience as waters rise

Leeanta Rodriguez, 13, pictured at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston, Texas, U.S., August 27, 2017

By Brian Thevenot

HOUSTON (Reuters) – Houston’s Nine-year old Melody Rodriguez saw a snake swimming toward her through the floodwaters. Reginald James Jones, Jr., also nine, had to climb into the attic to escape water up to the roof.

His sister, seven-year-old Ta’lilia Smithers had screamed that her family would die as the water rose quickly in their home.

These children and others who were rescued on Sunday and ferried on city dump trucks to Houston’s George R. Brown Convention Center also brought wonder and resilience to their perspective on the torrential rains from Hurricane Harvey that drowned their homes.

Their fascination after witnessing the power of nature escaped their beleaguered parents in the cavernous hall.

Being up in that attic was “fun,” Reginald said.

“It was a really big attic,” he said. “The attic kept us calm. I could see everything from up there – all the flooding. And I could see downtown.”

His little sister, 5-year-old Jakayla Taylor, marveled at how the “whole city was flooded – like a beach.”

Ta’lilia found took comfort in knowing she would probably get “a whole week off of school.”

“But momma says she can’t wait for us to go back to school, so she can have her eight hours of peace,” she added.

Late Sunday evening, Melody had recovered from the snake scare of that morning and reveled in the retelling. The people at the shelter, she said, were just so nice.

“They gave us pizza, lasagna, hot dogs, potato chips – and they also gave me these shoes,” she said, showing off her new purple rubber kicks. “Oh, and this hand sanitizer.”

Melody’s mother, who had five more children with her between the ages of 4 and 15, smiled as she watched her daughter excitedly tell flood stories and play with stuffed animals the Red Cross gave out.

As far as storm shelters go, this one was well-staffed and comfortable – a world away from the nightmarish scene at the ad hoc shelter at New Orleans’ convention center 12 years ago during Hurricane Katrina.

Houston’s experience with Harvey has drawn comparisons with the disaster that hit New Orleans, but there are many contrasts.

Nearly all of Houston’s downtown, for instance, appeared to have power Sunday night, along with many other areas of the city. Unlike New Orleans, Houston did not suffer a catastrophic wind storm before the flooding began, nor the massive levee failures that let in all the water at once.

Emergency management officials and the Red Cross had more time to organize shelters in Houston as Harvey first pounded coastal cities further south along the Texas coast, including Rockport.

Melody’s mom, 37-year-old Aeisha Brimzy, said her family’s every need had been handled since they arrived.

“It has been like all of us coming together,” she said of the flood victims at the convention center. “It’s been so peaceful. They have been feeding us all day, giving the kids snacks. The volunteers and the Red Cross and the police, they are really doing their job.”

Just then, a voice over the loudspeaker said: “If you need dry clothes, go to your cot. We are handing out fresh, dry clothes.”

A few yards away, people gathered around a big-screen TV taking in the latest storm news.

A volunteer came by to offer the kids more hot dogs. The youngsters said they were already full.

Earlier in the day, the children had suffered a harrowing trauma.

“Momma, is it going to get higher? I can’t swim,” Brimzy recalled one of her six-year-old twins, Carolina, saying as the water from Buffalo Bayou rushed into their apartment in Clayton Homes, a public housing development on the east side of downtown.

Melody showed a mix of sadness at some of her losses and bewilderment at what she had witnessed.

“My back pack is gone. I lost two tablets and some other very valuable stuff,” she said, referring to her Apple iPads. “And two pairs of name-brand shoes.”

“Our table, it was floating in the water! It was so high that our couch was floating around. But momma’s vases just sank,” Melody said.

Another daughter, 13-year Leeanta Rodriguez, had spent the night before tossing and turning in bed.

“I couldn’t sleep, because I knew that bayou was going to come up,” she said.

Sure enough it did, at about dawn. She carried her sister, Carolina, out of the flood and to the rescue trucks on her back.

Now at the shelter in the late evening, Leeanta worried about more practical things, like whether she would have to change schools, which she didn’t want to do. She said she loved her friends and her basketball team at Pershing Middle School.

Across the big room where they gathered, seven-year-old Ta’lilia worried about her school, too. She believed it had flooded like her house. The school is located in South Houston near a Bray’s Bayou.

“It’s Thompson Elementary – the Thompson Eagles,” she said. “It’s my first school I’ve ever been to … I guess I’ll just have to be strong and brave – because the eagle in strong and brave.”

 

(Reporting by Brian Thevenot; Editing by Simon Webb and Marla Dickerson)