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Credit: Walt Disney World Resort

Theme Park News: Parks gear up for a busy Thanksgiving as Disney bids adieu to a top Imagineer

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Nov 24, 2020, 5:00 PM EST

Welcome once more to SYFY WIRE's weekly Theme Park News column. This week, we've got some increased park traffic due to Thanksgiving (despite the pandemic) that we should address, the departure of a Disney icon, and some fun stuff, too. Let's get started.

DISNEY WORLD: A LOOK FORWARD

With 2021 just around the river bend, we’re starting to see what Disney’s Florida parks will look like in the coming year and the years ahead. News dropped last week that “Park Hopping” would return to Walt Disney World at the top of the year, allowing guests to visit more than one park per day and signaling the first key piece of old-world Disney that will return since being put on hiatus due to the pandemic — or at least, that's the plan.

Like most things, Park Hopping will work a little differently this time around. Instead of transferring freely from park to park, Park Hopper hours will begin at 2 p.m. daily for those with valid admission. To bounce around, guests must have a Park Pass reservation for one park — and actually use it — before heading to another Disney World theme park. Hours and availability may change, so guests are encouraged to check the website and My Disney Experience app for updates during their trip. (There is currently no word on if or when other tentpoles, such as FastPass, may return.)

Still, only one piece of news this week was a bona fide shocker — the retirement of Joe Rohde, famed Imagineer, who will be leaving The Walt Disney Company early next year. Rohde, who is most well-known for the creation of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, has become a famed figure among Disney fans for his excellence in world-building and an iconic earlobe’s worth of jewelry.

Heralded for his transportative design rooted in a blend of history, art, and nature as seen in places like Pandora - The World of Avatar and Aulani, he even masterfully led the charge on a smash-grab reimagination of The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror at Disney California Adventure that, with only a few months of work, became one of its best rides.

His departure leaves more questions than answers, including the status of Lighthouse Point, a new Disney Cruise Line-exclusive island that took up a good chunk of Disney Parks & Resorts’ main stage presentation at last year’s D23 Expo. But, without a doubt, he will be missed. His legacy lives on with Tiffins and Nomad Lounge, the restaurant and bar at Disney's Animal Kingdom where his travels and stories permeate the menu and drink offerings, as well as his likeness within Tokyo DisneySea’s Tower of Terror, whose lead character, Harrison Hightower lll, bears an iconic resemblance. 

In the far-off future, it looks like plans for a car-free connection between Walt Disney World and its nearby airport are finally coming to fruition. It’s not a monorail, but Brightline and Disney announced plans Monday to move forward on a high-speed rail connecting Orlando International Airport directly to Disney Springs. Currently, Walt Disney World operates a vast fleet of buses to bring Disney resort hotel guests to their respective hotels, free of charge, but the impact of dropping both guests and visitors at Disney Springs — a “downtown” hub of dining, entertainment, and shopping owned by the resort — would be a game-changer for easy accessibility to the theme park resort via a no-admission locale.

THE STATE OF THINGS IN THE STATE OF FLORIDA

It's Thanksgiving Week at the parks and they're, well, not empty! Universal Orlando Resort, which does not require advanced reservations, hit phased capacity early Monday, and Disney World prepares to see those near-capacity hotel bookings confirmed a few weeks back.

Like much of America, travelers are grappling with peaking COVID-19 positivity rates amid plans for vacation or visiting family that may have been put off in the earlier months of the pandemic. Airports clocked over a million travelers just on Friday, while many, including the CDC, are urging others to stay home this holiday season. (Orlando International Airport is on pace to do half the traffic it did last Thanksgiving, though that's still a lot of people flying around. The airport recently clocked the second-most outbound passengers behind Los Angeles International Airport.)

Cases continue to climb in Florida; according to the Orlando Sentinel, "with a population of about 21.5 million, about one in 23 people in the state have now been infected,” while the most recent White House Coronavirus Task Force report deems Florida "in the midst of a 'viral resurgence.'"

Orlando’s theme parks provide an odd juxtaposition of judging between which is safer amid an airborne pandemic: a vacation where social distancing, hand-washing, and mask compliance are readily enforced, or a casual indoor meal with out-of-town family members.

Last week, COVID "strike teams" visited Walt Disney World and found things to be compliant. (For comparison, Orange County strike teams recently visited 11 Orlando bars to evaluate their COVID-19 compliance. All 11 failed.) Still, even as more restaurants are slated to open and rides are amended to allow more capacity, it’s worth noting that COVID-19 procedures are still in place at Florida’s theme parks, and if anything, are getting even more strict, rather than loosening. Which is for the best, because the pandemic is not at all over. 

TWEET OF THE WEEK

I know, I know, some find it a bit gauche when corporations take part in a viral trend, but I'm choosing to view this one from a different angle. How fascinating is it that one person wrote one lil' song in her house and now every official Disney account is acknowledging it? Pandemic-friendly magic!

If you're unaware of the TikTok trend that's taking over Instagram, here's a short primer on the entire Ratatouille musical, featuring the backstory and best songs from the now-viral collaboration formed entirely by young musicians in their respective homes.

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Universal Orlando is offering a major Black Friday sale, with 40 percent off a special vacation package. (Quantities are limited!)

- Avengers Campus merchandise will soon be available at Downtown Disney, even though Avengers Campus has not yet opened.

- Disney Cruise Line suspends sailings through January 2021.

- There's a new update on Universal Orlando's layoffs.

- A new "snow park" in Florida ran out of snow.

SYFY, SYFY WIRE, and Universal Orlando are properties of NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast Corporation.