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How the West wasn't won: Inside the ongoing battle to reopen California theme parks

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Oct 27, 2020, 11:46 AM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to this week's installment of Theme Park News. Instead of the usual rundown of theme park happenings, we're devoting the entire column to explaining exactly what's happening in California, where theme parks are largely still closed due to the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic, even as other states have allowed their parks to open. Let's get to it.

THE MESS IN CALIFORNIA

For weeks, Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, and other theme parks throughout California had been campaigning to reopen their gates — with safety procedures in place  — and awaiting Governor Gavin Newsom’s recommendations to begin the path toward reopening. After two weeks of back-and-forth, which led to Bob Iger leaving Newsom’s COVID-19 Economic Task Force and a delay of the initial reopening recommendations, the state finally released details last week — and California parks weren’t too thrilled about it

Large-scale theme parks being limited to outdoor-only queues, reservation systems, mask requirements, and 25 percent capacity isn’t shocking nor too far off from what’s in place at locations in Florida, but according to California's Health and Human Services secretary Mark Ghaly, theme parks would also need to be in yellow tier — with less than one new daily COVID-19 case per 100,000 people, the lowest of possible rankings — to open with those precautions.

Immediately after the announcement, Disneyland issued a response with its park president Ken Potrock releasing the following statement:

The following day, executives representing Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, LEGOLAND California, and Six Flags Magic Mountain banded together with the California Attractions and Parks Association, or CAPA, to hold an online meeting discussing how to proceed with the restrictions in place. The overwhelming emphasis of the meeting was centered upon getting employees back to work safely — a seeming imperative given that Universal Studios Hollywood and Disneyland Resort reside in communities that are significantly far from the lowest “yellow” tier (some are estimating it won’t be until Summer 2021 when that bottom-tier threshold may be reached).

Los Angeles and Orange County's tiers have not shifted since last week's announcement, but California’s resorts have shown they are ready to open and aren’t taking this news sitting down. Seven months into a pandemic with no opening in sight, Knott’s Berry Farm emailed fans, rallying them to contact Newsom’s office and ask him to reopen California’s theme parks as Disneyland sent a cryptic email to Annual Passholders — its core audience — seeming to call the future of the program into question. Though Disneyland without APs sounds like an impossibility, there’s now precedent: Tokyo Disneyland’s Annual Passholder system, which proved to be unsustainable with COVID-era capacity limitations at the park, was temporarily canceled late last week.

With Newsom’s office not budging on the restrictions and offering legitimate concerns about reopening, the parks are left to explore other options to not just bring in revenue and put some employees back to work, but to satiate customer demand as some theme park fans anxiously await their chance to return to Main Street, USA — even if it requires masks, hand sanitizer, and temperature checks. Seventy-two hours after California’s suggested guidelines went public, Disneyland Resort announced the Buena Vista Street entrance plaza of Disney California Adventure theme park would be opening in November for experiences including shopping, snacks, and Starbucks. (Knott’s Berry Farm has been operating as an open-air food festival with pre-ticketed events since summer, while Universal Studios Hollywood president Karen Irwin teased a similar option for their park). 

It’s a small, partial return to theme parks that many fans were elated about, but the decision makes one ponder where California leadership draws the line between what is and is not allowed. At what point does a place selling souvenirs, sweets, and sit-down dining transition from an outdoor plaza, which is allowed, to a banned theme park? Zoos are currently open with safety protocols in place and time spent at indoor experiences, including open shops at Universal CityWalk and Downtown Disney, are likely to be longer than the minute or two guests would spend inside while socially distanced on a dark ride vehicle or Space Mountain shuttle. (One of Newsom’s regulations specifies that no indoor queues may be used.)

With Disney and Universal having refrained from offering nighttime entertainment during the pandemic until a show recently debuted at the latter, the difference seems to come down to ride operations and queues and entertainment, all of which have previously established new protocols at sister parks in Florida.

Still, there are two clear sides to the reopening. The topic has become incredibly divisive, even within the theme park community, with Disney-dedicated websites writing op-eds for their side of the argument and fans battling it out online. From what I’ve experienced by spending all of my free time on the internet, Disney's audience is split; some desperately want the parks to reopen so they can visit their favorite places again with safety protocols in place, while others believe theme parks simply shouldn’t be operating during a pandemic at all.

Credit: Jeff Gritchen/MediaNews Group/Orange County Register via Getty Images

It’s increasingly fraught because everything in the realm of theme parks reopening boils down to surprisingly well-balanced arguments. Point for staying closed? Orlando’s theme parks encourage people to travel from around the country — and from states with differing caseloads — to one centralized location. Counterpoint? The restrictions within theme parks like Disney and Universal have grown increasingly strict, extending far beyond that of their own state’s guidelines, providing the bizarre juxtaposition of a theme park enforcing more health and safety regulations than most places throughout the country. 

Point for reopening? According to The New York Times, theme parks are not credited with any large-scale outbreak in the surrounding area, and mask usage and compliance have proven to be effective. Counterpoint? It is a safe assumption that at least some percentage of guests will have COVID-19, even if asymptomatic — a detail that cannot be confirmed as there has never been guest-to-guest contact tracing.

Point to staying closed? Many point to Disney as a major corporation that can take the hit of Disneyland being shuttered for months on end. Counterpoint? The economy is struggling. The surrounding businesses in Anaheim are suffering, with some even closing their doors permanently as employees have a justifiable need to return to work and Disney itself potentially clocks an over $2 billion loss from the closure.

And then there are the workers. 28,000 Disney cast members are being laid off on both coasts — and Disney announced the layoffs with a statement that took a jab at Newsom, to mixed results — and it’s been heartbreaking to watch the notifications continue to be sent out to individuals who are the backbone of what makes these places magical, even this week. (While employees received notifications of layoffs the same day Buena Vista Street's opening was announced, Disneyland Resort will also bring back over 200 cast members to staff the park.)

A public standoff at this level between state government and the parks themselves is rarely if ever seen to this scale. Disneyland Resort has previously faced opposition with the city of Anaheim, but now, the two are fighting on the same side. State involvement is quite the opposite in Florida, where theme park resorts like Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World essentially built their own comprehensive safety standards that were presented to and all but rubber-stamped by the state, lending itself to a scenario playing out two very different ways in real-time on either coast.

When it comes to California's internal battles and the long lead-up to knowing when these parks will eventually reopen, the future is vague — and until it comes closer into focus, we can do nothing but wait.

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Some theme parks overseas are closing due to COVID-19.

- Fort Wilderness' famed fan-fueled Halloween celebrations at Walt Disney World are being limited. 

- Good news: The Grand Floridian Society Orchestra has found a new home.

- The new trackless ride coming to LEGOLAND New York keeps looking better and better. 

- Todd Martens' piece on the importance of Cast Members is a must-read.

Epcot's Morocco Pavilion will soon be operated by Disney.

- Doing Halloween at home? Don't miss D23's Halloween Mousequerade hosted by Nina West!

SYFY and Universal Theme Parks are properties of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.

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