Coronavirus sees tourism dwindle in Orlando but not at ‘hopeful’ Disney World

‘When do you pull the trigger? That’s kind of the unknown or the uncharted territory,’ a public health professional says

Brittany Shammas
Saturday 07 March 2020 19:06
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The Disney trip had been planned for months when reports of the new coronavirus first hit the news, and leaders of the children’s cancer charity weren’t about to cancel.

So they brought the seven kids through the crowded gates of the Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, towards the pale-pink Cinderella’s Castle. They snapped photographs as the group posed with Rapunzel and Tiana, a face mask covering one little girl’s smile. They screamed through the gentle twists and turns of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and stayed late into the night for Space Mountain.

Although experts have said it poses a higher risk to those with underlying conditions, few children have become sick from the coronavirus so far. And among this group, accompanied by a doctor who tended to their medical needs, it wasn’t top of mind.

“When you’re fighting for your life and you have this opportunity to come to Disney,” said Chinos Liner, founder of the Cancun-based Chinos Cause for Cancer, “I think you forget about what happens in the world.”

In the world beyond the polished grounds of the park this week, anxiety over the virus was mounting. The death toll kept climbing, surpassing 3,400 by Saturday, as countries reported ever-increasing numbers of infections and global financial markets reeled.

Florida was in a state of emergency, declared by Governor Ron DeSantis, R, on Sunday after two people tested positive for Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in areas outside of Orlando. At a press briefing on Monday, Vice President Pence declined to directly answer a question about whether he himself would feel comfortable bringing his family to Disney World during the outbreak, offering only: “I travel across this country all the time.”

Four additional cases were discovered during the week, bringing the state’s total to six. Late Friday, the Department of Health announced the state’s first deaths, two patients in their 70s who had each returned from international trips. Meanwhile, 278 people were being monitored.

On financial websites and Disney fan blogs this week, observers fretted over vacations to the parks and investments in the company. They raised the spectre of Disney closing its theme park locations in the United States – something that’s happened only during hurricanes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks but became more tangible to some after Disney’s Asia parks shuttered late last month.

“It’s not outlandish to think that we could eventually bump up against the world’s leading theme park operator temporarily closing down its iconic theme parks on both coasts,” analyst Rick Munarriz wrote on the investment advice site the Motley Fool. “Even if Disney doesn’t resort to locking down its entrance turnstiles, the growing number of worrisome headlines will eventually weigh on travel plans.”

There has not yet been official guidance against travel to unaffected parts of the United States, or against large congregations of people. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that the virus will inevitably spread widely within the country, potentially requiring communities to “modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings.”

Yet this week, busloads of people kept streaming through the entryway of the Magic Kingdom, the world’s most-visited theme park. Children cheered as Mickey and Minnie skipped across the steps of Cinderella’s Castle in their daily welcoming ceremony. Lines for rides stretched to an hour-long late into the afternoon; conversations revolved around which rides to try next, or memories of past visits.

The coronavirus was on the front pages of the newspapers stacked in Disney resorts, but not on the forefront of visitors’ minds.

“It’s here, right? It’s not like you can bunker down and become a hermit,” said Patrick White, 57, who came from Chicago with his adult daughter. “Or you can, but to me that would be very lonely.”

There were few signs on Disney grounds of the public health crisis unfolding in the outside world, save for the occasional sight of someone whipping out a bottle of Purell. Park officials reported adding hand sanitiser stations throughout the parks, but few were visible at the Magic Kingdom on Wednesday. Employees at two stores said they had none left for sale.

“Right now, all the parks are in planning stages,” said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive and recently retired professor from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “They’re playing ‘What if.’ What if this happens? What if this happens? They’re making contingency plans.”

Orlando is the tourism capital of the United States, the driver of a $75bn (£57bn) industry in Central Florida. Even as fear over the coronavirus crept closer, with the cancellation of five conferences dealing an estimated $186m blow to Orange County by the end of the week, some seemed hesitant to discuss its potential impact.

Orlando’s mayor and at least one commissioner offered only a prepared statement declaring that the city “will continue to monitor and work closely with the County and State Health Department.” UCF barred a hospitality professor from giving interviews about the virus’s potential impact on local tourism, instead referring enquiries to top administrators. A spokeswoman for Orlando’s tourism bureau said there had been “no significant impact” to leisure visitation, declining to comment further.

Disney representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Washington Post. In a post on the company’s blog, chief medical officer Dr Pamela Hymel wrote Disney was “in regular contact with health agencies for information and guidance.” She noted that the parks have “high standards of cleanliness” and are implementing preventive measures in line with CDC recommendations.

Similarly, Universal Orlando Resort said in a statement that officials were reinforcing health and hygiene procedures and enhancing cleaning protocols, and were “ready to act as needed.”

Disney is still encouraging families to spend their spring breaks with them

In the wake of the first three convention cancellations, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings called a news conference Thursday to reiterate that the county remained free of confirmed cases. He called the risk to the community “very low,” adding that leisure travel remained strong.

“We invite families and others to consider vacationing here, especially during spring break,” said the mayor, the husband of US Rep. Val Demings. “We are still open for business here in Orange County.”

But elsewhere in the Sunshine State, even areas without confirmed cases were seeing tourism ramifications. On Friday, Miami leaders announced that Ultra Music Festival, a three-day event set to begin March 20, had been called off. With about 170,000 attendees last year, the festival’s economic impact in Miami-Dade County has been estimated at $168m.

Some in the Orlando tourism industry said they were beginning to fear for the spring and summer months. Orlando Travel Company owner Ashley Moss, whose family has been in the business for three decades, said she had been moving “full steam ahead” – until the second half of the week.

Bookings remained stable, but her optimism slipped as she read news reports and contacted vendors about availability for April and beyond.

“The hard part about this is there’s really no way to prepare for it, and there’s really no way to tell which direction this is going to go,” Moss said. “Is it going to get worse, or is it going to get better at some point? I’ve never seen anything like this. My family’s been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

At Fun Spot, a small, family-owned park just off the touristy International Drive, carts of people sped up and down the White Lightning and Freedom Flyer roller coasters. It was a normal day, said John Chidester, the park’s vice president of marketing. There had been no downturn in sales or interest.

“I think we’re all waiting,” he said. “We’re waiting to see how the story unfolds. I don’t think anyone is taking it any further than that, because nobody knows what will end up occurring. Are we hopeful? Yes.”

Albert Ko, a professor and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health, said the country appeared to be entering a phase of the virus where people might need to consider reducing unnecessary travel and avoiding large gatherings in close quarters.

At that stage, he said, it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive.

Few children have actually died from the virus as of yet (Reuters)

“When do you pull the trigger?” Ko said. “That’s kind of the unknown or the uncharted territory.”

For the time being, the Orlando International Airport remained crowded with visitors. Demings, the Orange County mayor, said in an interview he was optimistic that leisure tourism would stay strong, believing that even amid a public health crisis “people will want to travel, will want to relax in environments where they feel safe.”

Disney World was still ending each day with its “Happily Ever After” fireworks show. The Happiest Place on Earth was still the Happiest Place on Earth.

Any major decisions were being made behind the scenes, where parks officials were watching the virus closely. Late into the week, the situation didn’t seem significant enough that parks would need to close, said Dickson, the former executive. But that could change.

Disney officials have to balance keeping people safe against causing unnecessary panic, Dickson said. And they have to consider the impact on the 85,000 employees who count on them for a paycheck.

“It’s a difficult thing because there are huge economic consequences, but there are also huge safety and health consequences,” he said. “So you’ve got to make your decisions based on the best interests of both.”

Disney’s actions, whatever they might be, could send ripples across the entire entertainment industry, the Motley Fool’s Munarriz said, telling The Post: “All eyes have to be on the mouse.”

Tourists in Orlando, for their part, ranged from nonchalant to concerned about the virus – but not concerned enough to change their vacation plans.

Alex Riddell, visiting from Ontario with his wife, was unfazed, telling a reporter, “It’s a sickness. It’s going to eventually either be cured or peter out.” Local Armando Torres, at the Magic Kingdom for his son’s birthday, argued that “every few years there’s a scare.” Jokingly, he added, “You’ve got to die of something.” Others said they believed now was the time to travel, in case the situation worsened.

“It almost made me not want to come,” said Prentis Davis of Alabama, who was celebrating his son’s seventh birthday and wore a shirt with the word “Daddy” over Mickey’s face. But, he added, “I figured it was going to get bad regardless.”

Jake and Rachel Beren went back and forth in the days leading up to their flight: Should they still go? Should they still bring their boys, one a toddler and the other 4 months old? In the end, they reasoned that they hadn’t worried about SARS or the flu or H1N1. They stocked up on hand sanitizer and made the trip from New Jersey to Florida, a decision that perturbed his parents.

As he watched his towheaded son frolic in front of him at a waterfront area in the Disney Springs shopping complex, Jake Beren said he was glad they’d come. Still, his worries hadn’t fully dissipated.

“Every time we see someone sneeze, we’re like, ‘Hold your breath; run away,’” he said, recalling a man in line at the Animal Kingdom who had sneezed “like six times.”

Liner, of the Cancun-based cancer charity, said his organisation was “conscious of what’s going on” and insisted it would never put the kids at risk. The group felt secure with the doctor’s presence, he added, and many of the kids already had face masks.

They planned to visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios and several other parks during their week-long trip. Everyone wore matching shirts with the children’s names arranged into 53 – the number Chinos Cause for Cancer has taken to Disney since getting started in 2015.

The virus, Liner said, “would never stop us from coming to make the dreams of the kids.”

The Washington Post

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