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BREAKING: Disney World Dropping Physical Distancing

Walt Disney World will be reducing physical distancing in its theme parks and resorts, but not in all locations. In this post, we’ll offer a rundown of the changes, when they’ll occur, and what else might be the on the horizon–and when.

This change is somewhat unsurprising. Two weeks ago, Orange County, Florida relaxed physical distancing to 3 feet as part of a phased plan with vaccination and positivity metrics that would allow the gradual lifting of all mandates. Many businesses followed suit immediately, including Orlando International Airport and other spots guests would encounter on their voyage to Walt Disney World.

Following that, both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando announced they’d be ending temperature checks, with the latter also reducing physical distancing: “We’re excited to enhance your Universal experience with the latest safety updates from local health and government officials. There are no more temperature checks upon entry. And Social Distancing between travel parties is now reduced to three feet (1 meter). Still, most of our original safety protocols remain unchanged—from wearing face coverings across our Resort to our ongoing dedication to cleanliness and sanitization.”

Universal Orlando made its changes effective immediately, with temperature checks already gone and new distancing markers in queues and elsewhere the very next day. We’re a bit surprised they bothered at all with the new markers since 3′ is a “natural” distance and most guests were/are disregarding them anyway. It would be nice if the unpleasant reminders of the last year started to disappear, especially those that aren’t accomplishing anything.

The more noteworthy change went unannounced, which is that Single Rider lines returned and Universal began seating every row on rides. This is significant because it increases operational efficiency of attractions, which helps to offset the higher attendance cap that reduced physical distancing facilitates. Since last year, we’ve been in favor of decreased distancing on attractions, especially those that are moving and outdoors, where risk of transmission is virtually nonexistent.

Today, Walt Disney World is following Universal’s lead and making changes to its “Reopening & Update Experiences” regarding physical distancing (including the above icon, which previously said “6 ft – 2m” inside the two-way arrows. Here’s the full text of the new policy from DisneyWorld.com:

Temporary adjustments are still in place to promote physical distancing. While we will reduce physical distancing measures for Guests across many areas with a gradual, phased approach, six-feet distancing measures will continue in all dining locations, merchandise stores and in areas where Guests can temporarily remove their masks.

Physical distancing measures may include:

  • Signage and Ground Markings: Please follow directional signage and ground markings, which have been installed throughout Walt Disney World Resort to help Guests better navigate common areas while practicing physical distancing.
  • Physical Barriers: Physical barriers have been added in select places to help promote proper separation between people, including in queues and on transportation and attractions. Barriers may also be visible, for example, in areas around cash registers or at Guest Relations.
  • Party Size: Guests traveling in parties of more than 10 are asked to split into smaller groups in queues, dining locations and other areas around our parks and resorts to better allow for physical distancing.
  • Parking: Cashless payment is recommended at the auto plazas.
  • Training: Cast Members are trained to engage with Guests and promote physical distancing guidelines in common areas and queues.

Walt Disney World also states that “as guidance has continued to evolve, we—with the support of health and government officials—will be making more gradual adjustments. You may begin to see these changes across many of our areas. We appreciate your patience and understanding as we make this transition.”

Disney also once again encourages people to get vaccinated. It’s great to see this continual messaging. Personally, I wish they’d take it a step further and include that in the first part–that their “gradual adjustments” will also be driven by U.S. case and vaccination rates.

However, language like that might be better reserved for something less public-facing. Perhaps on an earnings call for the Walt Disney Company? Not so coincidentally, Disney has its fiscal second quarter 2021 financial results webcast tomorrow (May 13, 2021).

A portion of this is usually devoted to forward-looking expectations, with positive changes emphasized to create optimism among investors. That earnings call would present the perfect opportunity for Disney to present a clear plan to relax physical distancing and other health safety measures.

Personally, I’d love Disney to articulate actual metrics that would be utilized for gradually relaxing these rules–percentage of the eligible population vaccinated, rolling 7-day case averages, positivity numbers, etc.

Everyone could use a little more transparency in these matters, no matter whether you’re for or against changes–to make informed decisions with plenty of advance notice.

As was the case when Universal made this change, what’s good for the theme park operators is not always what’s good for the guests. It’s a given that Walt Disney World will distribute more Park Pass reservations as a result of this move.

Per the company’s previous earnings call, Disney was limiting attendance to 35% of normal levels because of physical distancing. Based upon Disney’s own industrial engineering estimates, that was the maximum attendance level possible while adhering to 6′ physical distancing. It should go without saying, but the math changes with 3′ physical distancing in most place.

Also as with Universal, what’s not clear is how this will impact physical distancing on attractions, and whether the two increases will be proportionate to one another. Our guess is that they will not.

While most rides are not operating at or close to 100% efficiency, distancing on many attractions already has been reduced significantly since last summer. It’s unlikely ride efficiency can be increased right now to a sufficient degree to offset the attendance uptick.

Our expectation is that the length of lines will decrease, posted wait times will remain more or less unchanged, and actual wait times (which are often ~75% of posted wait times) will elevate slightly. It’s also possible that many weekdays demand will be more of a limiting factor on attendance going forward than the park capacity caps.

Although we’re predicting a busy summer season and Park Pass reservations are already fully booked for some dates, there are still many unknowns. For one, will Disney gradually increase attendance, going first to 40%, then 45%, and so on? For another, what is the level of organic demand–50%, 60%, 70%, or higher? We don’t yet know the answers to these questions, and those things plus attraction efficiency will dictate both the “feels like” crowd levels and wait times. In other words, there are a lot of unknowns.

One thing that is interesting here is that Walt Disney World is not reducing physical distancing in stores, restaurants, or anywhere guests can temporarily remove face masks. This could be interpreted as Walt Disney World erring on the side of caution, and that certainly may be true. It might also be good for appearances but a practical necessity.

As we explained in the latest update to When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return? staffing is the biggest obstacle right now for restaurants. We’ve done several meals recently where many tables were unfilled (beyond those deliberately left open) and many third party restaurants are offering huge signing bonuses–just today, San Angel Inn announced it would pay $1,000 to new hires. It’ll be interesting to see whether physical distancing at restaurants sticks around once all of the new College Program participants have been trained and can help ease the burden on those dining spots. Beyond that, we expect a lot of changes in the coming weeks–expect more to be revealed on tomorrow’s earnings call. We’ll keep you posted with all the details!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Thoughts on Walt Disney World dropping physical distancing? Do you view that move as a net positive or negative in returning to normal? Pleased that Disney is keeping 6′ in restaurants, or wish they’d relax that to make ADRs easier to score? (Or do you agree with our assessment that that ‘non-change’ is probably more a practical reality than anything else?) Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about efficacy, politics, and so forth–all such comments will be deleted, irrespective of perspective. You are not going to change anyone’s mind via the comments section on this blog, nor are you going to change Disney’s rules or public policy. If you wish to contest this, rather than yelling into the internet abyss, have your voice heard in a meaningful way by contacting Disney or your local elected officials.

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