When a pandemic sweeps the globe, making large gatherings of people incredibly dangerous, how does the Walt Disney Company respond? At first, with copious amounts of Purell, but the operators of the world’s largest theme parks announced on March 12 that California’s Disneyland would close for only the fourth time since it opened in 1955. The Walt Disney Company soon confirmed it would be also closing Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and Disneyland Paris on March 16, marking the first time in history all six Disney theme park resorts would be closed simultaneously.
On March 27, the Walt Disney Company announced that US parks would remain closed indefinitely, and that park employees — known as cast members — would be paid through April 18, saying in a statement:
While there is still much uncertainty with respect to the impacts of COVID-19, the safety and well-being of our guests and employees remains The Walt Disney Company’s top priority.
As a result of this unprecedented pandemic and in line with direction provided by health experts and government officials, Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World Resort will remain closed until further notice.
The Walt Disney Company has been paying its cast members since the closure of the parks, and in light of this ongoing and increasingly complex crisis, we have made the decision to extend paying hourly parks and resorts cast members through April 18.
The earliest available reservation at Walt Disney World or Disneyland Resort is June 1. When the pandemic was declared, just the parks were intended to close. But the Walt Disney Company soon announced it would temporarily shutter all of its Walt Disney World hotels on March 20. (Disney’s Vero Beach Resort and Disney’s Hilton Head Island Resort closed on March 20 and Aulani, a Disney Resort in Hawaii, closed on March 24; both now remain shuttered until further notice.)
Disney-owned “malls” — Downtown Disney at Disneyland and Disney Springs at Walt Disney World Resort — were at first set to stay open following the park closures, but closed March 17; third-party-owned locations were initially able to make their own decisions, but some locations, like José Andrés’ Jaleo at Disney Springs, announced closures until further notice. The entirety of both malls is now closed for the time being.
Before Disneyland’s historic announcement came, California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Disneyland was exempt from a general order limiting groups of 250 or more people, citing the situation as “complex” and “unique.” However, by early afternoon, the company issued a statement saying:
While there have been no reported cases of COVID-19 at Disneyland Resort, after carefully reviewing the guidelines of the Governor of California’s executive order and in the best interest of our guests and employees, we are proceeding with the closure of Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure Park, beginning the morning of March 14 through the end of the month.
Gov. Newsom’s office also issued a statement, saying:
Late last night, California put out a new policy on mass gatherings and engaged in deep conversations with Disney and other companies about how to meet it. Using that policy, Disney made the right call in the interest of public health and agreed to shut down their California parks. Expect more announcements like this shortly.
The company closed Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland in succession on January 25 and 26 to contain the spread of Covid-19, as the danger of the virus and the disease it causes quickly became clear, and both have remained closed since. However, Shanghai’s Disneytown, the outdoor mall attached to the park, began welcoming guests 45 days into the closures in what could be an optimistic sign. As “the first step of a phased reopening,” as reported by CNN, the mall is allowing guests to visit specific locations after undergoing temperature screenings, requiring them to wear masks throughout and present health records when entering a dining area. But even as promotional videos of furry characters play on social media, the rides stand still.
When Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo requested to postpone large gatherings for two weeks in February, Tokyo Disney Resort announced it would close temporarily. The park extended that closure through part of April — pushing the opening of its new Beauty and the Beast ride and Fantasyland expansion at least one month later than intended. Its hotels remain open but with limited services, as character dining with Mickey Mouse and gift shops remain closed and buffets have been amended to table-service dining. Now, according to TDR Explorer, the entirety of Tokyo Disney Resort including hotels will close until at least April 20, with its Fantasyland opening pushed to mid-May at the earliest.
Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea — a locale that many theme park aficionados consider the holy grail — closed for 34 and 47 days, respectively, following the 2011 Tōhoku tsunami and earthquake, a threshold that will now be exceeded, even if the park opens by April 20. A new opening date has not yet been announced for Universal Studios Japan, located a few hours away in Osaka, whose closure has been extended to April 12, with the likelihood of being pushed further.
Disneyland Paris, the most-visited location in France, remained open for days after three employees tested positive for the coronavirus. The staff worked “backstage,” the company term for not guest-facing, and were not confirmed not to have had contact with guests, according to the Financial Times.
The Paris park first announced newly enhanced safety protocols, temporarily suspending parades and a large portion of its in-park entertainment through mid-April, and limiting capacity within lines, theaters, and larger indoor restaurants. Disneyland Paris also restricted face-to-face contact with Disney princesses, shuttering their meet-and-greet location in favor of a parade-style cavalcade hours before announcing the park would be closed for the rest of March. Disneyland Paris then closed Disney Village and hotels as its current guests departed; as of March 30, the entire resort will be closed indefinitely.
With the entirety of the Walt Disney Company’s theme park portfolio experiencing closures — parks in France, China, and the US indefinitely and in Japan through mid-April — it’s worth noting that different locations have varied ownership, which could factor into when they reopen. Hong Kong Disneyland Resort and Shanghai Disney Resort both serve as a joint venture between the Walt Disney Company and the local government — which owns the majority share — while Tokyo Disney Resort is overseen by the Oriental Land Company, a Japanese business that owns and operates the resort. Disneyland and Walt Disney World, however, are singularly owned. (The Walt Disney Company also regained ownership of Disneyland Paris back in 2017.)
For a fantasy-filled destination whose brand is “the happiest place on earth” — open 365 days a year, come Floridian rain or humid shine, on all major holidays — it’s an unprecedented occurrence. Historically, Disney World and Disneyland have only closed for impending natural disasters or in the wake of a national tragedy (like 9/11 or JFK’s death); while other businesses may close up shop for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, here, it’s the busiest days of the year. (It’s worth noting that both of Disney’s Chinese theme parks closed days before Lunar New Year — which typically sees a boom in park attendance.)
Early in March, the Florida theme park resort was still functioning normally, with lengthy lines for roller coasters, increased cleaning of high-touch surfaces, and recommended hand-washing procedures amid the pandemic. These precautions remained in place through the March 16 closure; the California park also used these same precautions until it closed on March 14. Antibacterial hand gel dispensers were placed in key locations throughout Disney World, and the park added mobile hand-washing stations. (A thing to remember: The viral video of that kid licking a pole? It was taken inside Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland.)
Disney Cruise Line — yes, the mouse has his own fleet — suspended departures starting March 14 through the end of the month. Now, all departures through April 28 have been canceled. Until March 12, the cruise line remained in service with enhanced measures despite warnings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. No guest or crew member who had traveled from, to, or through China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, or Japan or has had contact with anyone from those regions, including connecting flights, was previously allowed to board.
Up until the closures, crowds didn’t seem to have taken much of a downturn. According to guests of the Florida resort, and per attraction wait times, there were still plenty of people in the parks — likely a result of Disney’s new Star Wars attraction that requires a first-come, first-served “boarding pass” to ride, and its first Mickey Mouse ride, which opened just last week. The New York Times reported that Disney-affiliated companies had seen “business as usual,” with one park-goer saying, “If I’m going to get sick and die, I might as well do it at Disney World.”
Disney stores throughout the country closed as well starting March 17.
An email was sent out to members of the Disney College Program that their program was being suspended starting March 16 and participants would need to travel home nearly immediately before housing closes on March 18.
Hours before the announced park closures, Walt Disney World Resort began offering temporary adjustments to package deals, waiving the $50 change fee for guests who have purchased theme park admission and a hotel room as a bundle directly from the company.
The Walt Disney Company is working with guests to refund or reschedule their travel plans due to closures. Annual passholders for Disneyland and Walt Disney World theme parks will have their dates extended as well.
Disney Parks are, after all, an escape, but the severity of the pandemic continues to grow.
Update, March 31: Updated throughout to reflect closure statuses.
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