2020 is going to be a year to forget at Walt Disney World. After a lengthy resort closure and an even lengthier reopening period, all eyes will be on the resort come November 12. On November 12, The Walt Disney Company will be discussing fiscal full year and fourth quarter 2020 financial results. It is almost inevitable Disney Parks will be in the spotlight, including Walt Disney World. It seems likely there will be big trouble at Walt Disney World.
It seems a long time ago since the opening of Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Hollywood Studios. The attraction opened to rave reviews, but within 2 weeks, the resort was closed. Disney Springs started a phased reopening in May, and some resorts followed this in late June and the parks in July. However, the resort is still operating at limited capacity.
Disney Water Parks, some restaurants, and many resorts remain closed. Theme parks are operating on limited hours and capacity. Many amenities and experiences remain unavailable. FastPass+, Extra Magic Hours, the Disney Dining Plan continue to be suspended. Walt Disney World might be open, but it probably isn’t how you remember it.
However, we should continue to be pleased that Walt Disney World is open. Disneyland California remains closed, and there is no certainty when it will reopen. Also, we remain in a pandemic, and there are many more issues of greater importance than the reopening of a Vacation Resort. However, the ongoing pandemic would suggest there is likely to be long term big trouble at Walt Disney World.
International Travellers are some of the biggest spenders at Walt Disney World. They are more likely to be on a vacation of a lifetime and spend longer periods at the resort. International travel from Brazil, United Kingdom, China, and Europe remains prohibited. There continue to be various restrictions between Mexico, Canada, and a host of other countries. These restrictions will likely continue well into 2021. This represents a major loss of business for Walt Disney World, and perhaps will not be resolved until there is a COVID vaccine.
Despite reduced revenues, Walt Disney World has a dilemma. It has to continue providing an outstanding experience despite COVID restrictions. When the parks reopened, it did achieve this. With low crowds, guests could walk-on the majority of attractions. Experiencing a park with crowds similar to a hard-ticket event certainly had appeal, even if there were various rules you now had to follow. However, that experience has now changed.
During September, Walt Disney World started to reduce park hours. Opening hours can be as low as 8 hours at Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Perhaps with low crowds, this wouldn’t be too bad. However, permitted crowds have gradually been increasing and now stand at 50% of normal capacity. Physical distancing has reduced, which will make some guests feel less comfortable. Also, most attractions have 30-minute waits, and big attractions over 1 hour. The parks are not open very long to be waiting for 1 hour in line. Orlando’s hottest attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, remains hot! The virtual lines are running out of capacity daily with 8 seconds. This does not add up to a “Magical” guest experience.
Perhaps the biggest sign of there being big trouble at Walt Disney World was announced on September 29th. Disney announced that it would reduce its domestic workforce by 28000. Before the announcement, approximately 70000 employees were located at Walt Disney World and 30000 at Disneyland. It had already been announced that 6700 non-union Cast members would be let go at Walt Disney World. Further reductions have now been announced via unions. Hopefully, as recovery continues, many of these roles will return. In the meantime, press reports of homeless cast members living in hostels and using food banks are uncomfortable reading.
Perhaps one of the best things about Walt Disney World is the entertainment you can find unexpectedly throughout the resort. However, parades, fireworks, and various stage shows remain closed. It is uncertain when these will return, but we know some legendary entertainment will not be returning. Bob Jackson, who has played at the River Roost Lounge in Port Orleans Riverside, has been let go. After 30 years, the Grand Floridian Society Orchestra will also not be returning. Disney does freshen up its entertainment offerings from time to time, and perhaps it was considered the time for a change. Still, returning guests will probably attend Walt Disney World looking for a return to normality after the events of 2020. How long will guests accept no nightly fireworks?
Disney is a big beast, and it will almost certainly survive the pandemic. The short term outlook at Walt Disney World is likely to be more challenging. Disney places great value on guest loyalty, and guests still will expect a premium product. Disney will need to create an excellent and memorable experience during these challenging times despite social distancing, decreased revenue, and reduced attractions. It also needs the return of international guests for the summer of 2021. If it does not, there is likely to be long-term Big Trouble at Walt Disney World.