Can Orlando's Disney World and Universal theme parks survive the pandemic? Inside 'the gloomiest places on earth'

WALT Disney World has long been considered one of the happiest places on earth but, right now, it might qualify as one of the gloomiest as the coronavirus pandemic has cast a dark shadow over Florida’s theme park business.

Amid a massive downturn in tourist traffic, Orlando – the UK’s favourite long-haul holiday hot- spot – is suffering record losses and there are fears of a wave of closures this autumn and winter.

The hoped-for boost of the re-opening of Disney’s parks in July has disappeared as fast as Aladdin’s genie into his bottle, while their latest bulletin suggests the current Covid mouse-tastrophe could last for at least another six months.

And the hits (to the bottom line) just keep on coming:

  • Disney has slashed the daily opening hours of its four theme parks this month.
  • Disney’s theme park division reported a $2billion loss just for April-June.
  • Rival Universal Orlando has shut two hotels and laid off more than 2,000 staff from another five.
  • Orlando International Airport, which usually handles around 60,000 passengers a day, is down to less than 20,000.
  • International traffic is almost non-existent and the airport predicts they won’t return to normal until 2025.
  • Orlando’s unemployment rate has topped 15 per cent. It was 2.8 in February.

The anticipated summer recovery was effectively torpedoed by a massive spike in virus numbers in June and July, when Florida was reporting more than 10,000 new cases a day.

A Universal spokesman admitted: “A sudden, dramatic and unexpected reversal in bookings makes it clear that the demand for travel, events and hospitality services will take substantially longer to resume than previously anticipated.”

That “unexpected reversal” has also seen Orlando’s huge Convention Center lose more than $1billion in business so far this year while two thirds of the city’s 120,000 hotel rooms remain empty.

If that’s the wide-screen version of the Disney picture, the smaller one isn’t much rosier.

At the EPCOT park this week, at the start of the annual Food & Wine Festival, the usual crowds were noticeably absent,

Instead of thousands, there were hundreds; instead of long queues at the international food kiosks, there were ones and two; instead of busy serveries, there were idle servers and closed windows.

Conversely, wait times at all the attractions were low, and the wide concourses around the World Showcase area were practically empty.

It was positively eerie to see places like the UK and Italy pavilions with no-one around at 12.30 on a typically sunny September afternoon.

The lack of live entertainment – usually a notable EPCOT feature – was also striking, while the omni-present distancing markers were more visible than usual with virtually no-one to socially distance.

And, every 10 minutes, the somber tannoy reminders for visitors to wear face masks, wash their hands and keep their distance rang out like the harbingers of doom. Not exactly the backdrop to happy theme-parking.

Universal and SeaWorld are equally hard-hit by the lack of visitors, though. Universal has shut down six attractions through its two parks and reduced hours for the foreseeable future to cut back on staffing while SeaWorld has postponed the opening of its dramatic new roller-coaster, Ice Breaker, and will close for two days a week next month.

Both Disney and Universal have scrapped their big annual Halloween celebrations this month in the face of lack of demand.

Now, the big question facing Orlando in the seventh month of COVID-19 – and the possibility of another six – is: What will things look like when it’s over? Having gone from a record 75 million visitors last year, how will it survive a full year in the doldrums?

Certainly, Mickey and Minnie will be back on parade at the Magic Kingdom, the dazzling Star Wars area of Disney’s Hollywood Studios will again be rammed with wannabe Jedis, and Harry Potter will work his wizardry over Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure once more.

But it also seems increasingly likely that some hotels will not re-open. Those that are currently offering rooms for $45 a night will find it hard to stay solvent with rock bottom rates and only minimal business for much longer.

Restaurants are also struggling with only a fraction of the visitors they’re used to seeing, notably along the usually bustling stretch of International Drive, and even in swanky Winter Park, and we are seeing some close their doors for good.

Long-time Brit favourites that serve up all-you-can-eat buffets like Ponderosa, Golden Corral, CiCi’s and Sweet Tomatoes will either be gone or drastically altered, while more than 130 restaurants are among the 1,300-plus small businesses that have closed for good in the past few months.

Orlando’s dinner shows – currently reduced to just three nights a week, or in the case of Sleuth’s, temporarily closed – may also struggle to stay in business.

Equally, some of the smaller attractions, like NASCAR I-Drive and Whirlydome, have already given up the ghost in this pandemic year and, when UK visitors finally get the green light to fly back to Florida, they are definitely going to find it a different experience.

As Aladdin and Jasmine might have said, it’s a whole new world.

The US remains on the UK travel ban list as the country reports 6.3m coronavirus cases – the highest in the world.

TUI has already cancelled all Florida holidays until December, including Disney World trips.

This is likely to be extended unless the Covid cases begin to drop.

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