With the first doses of the COVID-19 vaccine finally being distributed, vaccines are top of mind. While the arrival of a vaccine to fight the global pandemic could certainly be the first sign that “normalcy” will return, it may not be the whole “cure” that Disney World needs.
Having a vaccine isn’t like flipping a light switch and the world goes back to normal — the same can be said for Disney World too. When it comes down to it, it may take years before consumer confidence and expendable income are back to where they were in 2019, and that can alter when we could once again see “pre-pandemic” Disney World.
Once a vaccine is widely available, will guests come back to Disney World? If so, how long will it take? Sure, guests are returning every day (and the parks have been filling up to their set capacity on multiple occasions), but will guests return in numbers akin to 2019 and prior? Let’s take a look at three major reasons why a vaccine could be the start, but not the final requirement to “cure” Disney World.
The vaccine could have a slow rollout.
While two major brands of vaccine have been approved for immediate use, Pfizer and Moderna, it doesn’t mean the majority of the general public will all have access to a vaccine right away, as we’re already seeing. According to the New York Times, most Americans should not expect to have access to a vaccine until May or June of 2021. And then begins the long process of actually getting an entire country vaccinated — assuming people agree to get the vaccine — and that could take some time.
All signs point to everyone needing to receive two doses of the vaccine spaced roughly a month apart, which is a slow timeline. From the initial rollout of the vaccine to the present, just over a month’s time, healthcare workers around the country are still in the process of getting their first doses of the vaccine in some areas. In others, frontline workers have been treated with both doses and now vaccines are ready to distribute to high-risk elderly populations. Accessibility of the vaccine will vary wildly by location for the initial months of distribution, making it difficult to pinpoint where we stand in terms of vaccinating the population.
Then there’s a question of how many Americans WILL actually get vaccinated, at least in the short-term future. In a New York Times article, Dr. Anthony Fauci talked about life getting back to normal by late 2021. But that comes with a big asterisk. That timetable will depend on at least 75 percent of the country getting vaccinated promptly. And according to a recent Gallup poll, six in ten Americans — less than Fauci’s threshold for normalcy to begin to return by late 2021 — would agree to be vaccinated.
This could put Disney in a precarious spot. In order to swiftly return to a more “normal” Disney World — one without as much restriction — they could potentially require guests to be vaccinated. As a private company, Disney World could ask for proof of vaccination before allowing guests on property. Whether they would do this is as yet unknown.
Imagine walking into Disney World knowing everyone there was vaccinated against the virus, yourself included. Would you feel safer? Would Disney feel they were at lower risk for liability? While the chances of that happening seem low, many were surprised that Disney required face masks or temperature checks when this all started! We’ve learned in 2020, anything is possible and on the table. The same appears to hold true in 2021.
Click here to read more about how Disney World would most likely need a vaccine widely available before normal operations can resume.
Consumer confidence may be slow to return to normal.
Even with a vaccine, consumer confidence could take a while to bounce back. There is certainly a level of demand for travel already, as Disney World was nearly at their set capacity for Thanksgiving and the Christmas holiday seasons. Airports around the country were also packed with holiday travelers, despite nationwide surges in cases. Disney also shared in their earnings in November that the remainder of 2020 was currently booked at approximately 77% capacity.
However, some level of demand doesn’t immediately indicate that the tourism industry is roaring back to 2019 levels once a vaccine is widely available. There may still be a percentage of people out there who simply don’t want to travel right now, and don’t feel comfortable getting on an airplane, staying in a hotel, or visiting a destination where they cross paths with thousands of strangers.
However, there are some signs that could indicate that while tourism won’t return to “normal” right away, it could get close. During the park closures, two thirds of our readers said they would feel comfortable visiting Disney ASAP. More recently, the New York Times reported that U.S. air travel has hit record highs since the pandemic began, causing concern amongst health officials but also signaling that the public could be ready to return to traveling as soon as possible.
Despite a certain level of demand, Disney can only accommodate so much given current health and safety guidelines. Remember, even though Disney World has been filling their parks to capacity, that capacity is currently still set at 35%. That cap is in part due to social distancing guidelines. However, Disney may discover that once they’re able to raise capacity further down the road, they may not fill the parks quite like they did before the pandemic.
During the closures in 2020 we shared how travel analysts predict that the ramifications of this crisis could be six or seven times worse than they were after 9/11, which could mean a slow climb back to normal crowd levels for Disney.
Many Americans are facing new hardships.
Finally, remember that in 2020, MANY people have experienced the loss of income, a job, a business, or, tragically, the loss of a loved one. For many, a Disney World vacation will simply not be feasible for the time being, at least not in the way that many families used to travel.
Regardless of discounts and deals, a family vacation to Disney World is a pricey investment. And if there’s less expendable income to go around, travel will more than likely be among the first things that get cut from a family’s budget each year. Finances combined with insecurities around traveling make simply foregoing planning that trip to Disney World much more of a possibility.
Policies and projects are in flux.
It’s also important to note that the pandemic may have already caused irreversible changes at the Disney parks.
Other than financial and travel ramifications, the attacks on 9/11 led to several policy changes that have become a routine part of our trips to Disney World, including increased security and flight restrictions that resulted in the parks becoming “no-fly zones.”
So far during the past year, we’ve seen updated security systems implemented at the parks that encourage low- or no-touch policies, mandatory temperature checks for all guests entering theme parks or hotel restaurants, and updated policies that encourage no-touch solutions like encouraging cashless payments throughout the property, requiring mobile ordering in parks and hotels, and promoting online check-in for hotels. Some or all of these policies may be permanent going forward despite a vaccine being available.
September 11th, 2001 also led to Disney making major decisions about upcoming projects. At the time, Disney was planning on including a second phase of Pop Century Resort known as “The Legendary Years” which would represent the 1900’s – 1940’s, but the sharp reduction in tourism immediately following 9/11 forced Disney to stick to one phase of the hotel, and many of the buildings were left uncompleted. The location of “The Legendary Years” eventually became Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, which opened in 2012.
We’ve already seen Disney push opening timeframes for several upcoming projects, and some seem to be falling off the radar completely — especially in the massive EPCOT transformation project. The Star Wars Hotel was supposed to open reservations in 2020, but there has been no movement on that front. And we also have seen projects like the TRON coaster in Magic Kingdom seemingly be pushed to 2022 instead of 2021.
So if a vaccine can’t “cure” Disney World this year…what will?
While Disney World has reopened all four theme parks and many of their hotels, with reduced capacity, they still stand to operate at a loss. In fact, one analyst predicted that 2021 could be another “lost year” for the Walt Disney Company, and they may not see their finances fully recover until 2023. We can already see several signs from 2020 that Disney has a long road to recovery ahead, even once a vaccine becomes readily available.
For starters, not all of the resorts have reopened. Several of the resorts that did not reopen initially include Disney’s Port Orleans Resorts (French Quarter and Riverside), Disney’s All-Star Resorts (Sports, Movies, and Music), Disney’s Beach Club Resort, Disney’s BoardWalk Inn, Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge — Jambo House, and Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. (Though many of these resorts do have Disney Vacation Club rooms available for booking.)
Also as of this writing, Disney’s All Star Movies is set to reopen on March 22nd, Disney’s Beach Club is scheduled to reopen on May 30th, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will reopen on June 6th, and Disney’s Polynesian Resort is set to reopen sometime in the summer of 2021.
Then we saw drastic layoffs that, by the first half of fiscal 2021, will have impacted 32,000 Cast Members across the Disney parks. Many of these positions could take time to come back if they return at all, as Disney continues to mitigate their expenses and restructure their priorities as they recover financially from the billions lost due to the park closures.
In the long run, it seems likely that the Walt Disney Company will come out of this global pandemic standing on its own two feet but it needs time to do so. They have recovered from previous crises that impacted travel, like 9/11 in 2001 and the Great Recession in 2008.
However, neither of those events caused long-term closures of the parks and resorts like we saw last year. That resulted in a $6.9 billion loss in operating income for the fiscal year. The scale of this current crisis is unlike anything faced previously not just for Disney but for the current global community.
The real challenge ahead won’t necessarily be when they can bring FastPass+ back or when character meet and greets can return. The challenge won’t even truly be when their face mask mandates can be lifted. In the years to come, Disney will need to seriously grapple with the fact that consumers might be traveling less and that vacationing priorities may be different going forward. The world is changing following everything that has happened and Disney World will need to change with it. A vaccine is the first huge step towards that happening. But don’t expect everything to return to “normal” overnight.
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Do you have an upcoming vacation to Disney World planned? If you don’t have a trip planned, when do you think you’ll make plans to travel again? Let us know in the comments.