• The Star Staff

Disney World opens its gates, with virus numbers rising

By Brooks Barnes

The Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, a Magic Kingdom hair salon where little girls get styled like Disney princesses, remained closed Saturday. Buzz Lightyear was only able to wave from a distance. Parades and fireworks? Scratched.

And the coronavirus continued its rampage through Florida, with state officials reporting 10,360 new infections, the third-highest daily jump since the pandemic began.

None of which stopped Sonya Little and thousands of other theme park fans from turning out — in masks in the scorching Florida heat — for the reopening of Walt Disney World. After closing in March because of the pandemic, the mega-resort near Orlando began tossing confetti again at 9 a.m.

Two of its four major parks, the Magic Kingdom and the Animal Kingdom, welcomed back a limited number of temperature-checked visitors, with some attractions and character interactions unavailable as safety precautions. Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios were set to reopen Wednesday.

Disney’s parks have always been about leaving your troubles behind, a sunny outlook some might find improbable during a pandemic. The reopening amounts to a breathtaking effort by a corporation to prove that it can safely operate — entertaining families and employing tens of thousands of people — at a highly dangerous time.

“I’m so overwhelmed with emotion,” a weeping Little said, as she stood on Main Street USA wearing Minnie Mouse ears. “The last few months have been so hard. We have just felt so defeated. Being here gives me the strength to go on.”

With that, Little, 45, who flew to Orlando from Birmingham, Alabama, with her friends Tammy Richardson and Kristi Peek, adjusted her face mask and set forth for Fantasyland.

Throughout the morning, the scene near Space Mountain in Tomorrowland was relaxed as most visitors took care to socially distance and Disney employees, each wearing a mask and a face shield, kept a close eye. Disney would not say how many people it let inside, but the grounds did not feel crowded. At midday, the park — usually the busiest in the world, with about 21 million visitors last year — was a surreal sight: sparsely populated plazas, families sauntering between attractions rather than racing, rides with 5-minute wait times. There was barely a stroller to be seen near Disney’s singsong It’s a Small World boat ride, much less the usual gridlock.

“It was almost more enjoyable than usual because we got to ride everything with no wait times,” said Samantha Harris, who drove to Orlando from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, with her family, including her 5-year-old niece, Addilyn. Harris said she was so eager to score tickets that she logged onto Disney’s booking website at 5 a.m. on the day it opened. To limit capacity, Disney no longer allows visitors to walk up and buy tickets, instead making blocks of “reservations” available online. Some blocks for July were gone in minutes when Disney opened the site June 24.

After months of home quarantining, the chance to have some wholesome fun and perhaps touch a childhood memory seemed to outweigh the risk of catching the virus for visitors. “A Welcome Respite” read a headline in the Orlando Sentinel about Disney’s reopening.

“We will take any amount of normalcy and any amount of joy that we can get,” Jose Villanueva said as he rested in the shade in Tomorrowland with his wife, Kacie. “I know that some people are upset about having to wear a mask or there being no fireworks. For us, we feel lucky to be here. This was the first thing that made us feel like we could leave our house and still feel safe.”

Why? “It’s Disney,” Villanueva said. The couple made the trek to Florida from their home in Laurinburg, North Carolina.

That kind of optimism is the foundation of the Disney experience. In case the wafting smell of fresh fudge and pipe-organ soundtrack don’t immediately jolt you into another dimension, there are signs at the entrances reminding visitors, “Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.” Walt Disney’s original theme park designers spoke about the properties as selling reassurance. No matter how terrible things seem outside the gates, here is a place where everything is OK: People are nice, the windows all sparkle, there are stuffed animals to cuddle, the speedway cars never run out of gas.

To safely reopen, however, the Magic Kingdom had to allow some of the grimness of pandemic life to puncture the utopian fantasy. To ward off germs, Disney now leaves rows of seats empty on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. Employees constantly disinfect ride vehicles and lap bars. Face masks are mandatory, and, for some visitors, the coverings quickly grew wet with sweat.

“It would be a lot more fun without having to wear one,” Ivan Chanchavac, 14, said as he hopped off the Jungle Cruise.

His friend, Victoria Perez, 15, shot him a stern look. “But it is best for our safety and others that we wear them,” she said.

Her mother, Dolly Perez, drove the group to Orlando from Atlanta. “We were desperate for some fun,” she said. “Desperate.”

Disney declined to say how much it spent to retrofit the resort for the coronavirus age. The cost must have been considerable. In addition to providing employees with protective gear, the company added 4,000 hand-sanitizing stations, set up restaurants for mobile ordering and installed plexiglass partitions everywhere, including inside the queuing areas of rides.

“People trust Disney, and we have a big responsibility to deliver on that trust,” Josh D’Amaro, Disney’s theme park chairman, said as he stood near Main Street watching the company’s most avid fans pour into the park. “As hard as the world is right now, this feels like a turning point — it’s a signal that people have hope.”

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