How will Orlando, theme park capital, recover from 2020?

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A guest dons a Snow White costume on Main Street, U.S.A., next to a statue of Roy O. Disney and Minnie Mouse, in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World on Sept. 30.

JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

BY GABRIELLE RUSSON
ORLANDO SENTINEL/TNS

ORLANDO — The year 2020 brought images of Orlando never seen before.

Interstate 4, the eternally trafficclogged gateway to the theme parks, was quiet. The Magic Kingdom, the world’s busiest park, was empty for months, a happy place that previously had shut down for just a day or two for hurricanes or other emergencies.

The coronavirus pandemic is expected to recede in 2021 as vaccines become available. But restarting Orlando’s tourism machine will be a monumental task, and experts don’t agree on how much longer the region and its hundreds of thousands of industry workers will suffer.

Long recovery

Disney should start to bounce back in the spring, Wall Street analyst Bob Boyd predicts. By the end of 2021, Boyd said Disney and the other theme parks could face a new problem: Not being able to find enough employees to hire.

“The really, really good news we’ve had on the vaccine front is actually quite a bit of hope for later in the year,” said Boyd, who follows theme parks at Pacific Asset Management.

But Dennis Spiegel expects 2021 will be “another bump in the road” as he predicts the industry won’t fully bounce back for two more years. In the meantime, he wonders if more reductions could come, like some parks operating only five days a week to save money since there aren’t too many other things left to cut.

“What do people do when they travel, particularly for the family vacation to Orlando? They make that reservation four to six months in advance. Some even further. And nobody’s doing that right now,” said Speigel, CEO of International Theme Park Services.

‘Here to grow’

Disney parks chairman Josh D’Amaro spoke of the theme park industry’s resilience in November.

“Our industry is hurting, it’s hurting from the presence of COVID-19 in our communities,” D’Amaro said at a virtual convention. “But unlike some industries impacted by the pandemic, ours is here to stay, and it’s here to grow.”

The theme parks, the lifeline of Orlando’s economy, have struggled in the pandemic, and so have the nearby hotels, restaurants and rental car companies, all of which endured mass layoffs.

In March, the Orange County tax collected on hotel rooms suffered the worst single-month crash in its 40-year history, falling by $17.6 million, or 57%, from the same month a year before. By the end of 2020, revenue was rebounding. It generated $7.03 million in September, still far less than the $17.7 million brought in a year earlier.

A whole new world

Since July, Disney World reemerged from the pandemic shutdown in the spring as a different place.

Everyone wears masks. The lines are spaced out, 6 feet apart.

some of the things that make Disney special, such as hugging Mickey Mouse or watching fire works explode over Cinderella Castle, are gone.

The resort hasn’t announced when it will restore them, but some theme park analysts say the old ways of life pre-COVID could reemerge soon.

“Things like fireworks, I think they can bring that back relatively quickly,” said Robert Niles, a longtime journalist who pens a regular column for California’s Orange County Register and a blog, ThemeParkInsider.com.

Moving forward

By spring, Boyd said he predicts the parks’ social distancing rules will relax, allowing fire works and other entertainment to “reawaken.”

“2021, especially the first half of 2021, I think it’s going be a story of things becoming increasingly more normal,” Boyd said.

Already, as of Jan. 1, people can start “hopping” between two parks again. Disney has begun testing its fireworks displays, perhaps a sign of what lies ahead.

Other Disney World iconic experiences might prove more challenging to bring back.

Among the 32,000 Disney layoffs this year were many Equity actors who performed in shows such as the Festival of the Lion Kingdom, the parks’ adaptation of the beloved musical, or the longtime running Indiana Jones Stunt Show.

“Some of these large cast musical productions, (those) might take a little while because you need to be able to show you’ve got the income coming in to justify that type of expense,” Niles said.

Will tourists come back?

Some analysts say consumers whose trips were disrupted in 2020 are eager to return to the parks, which bodes well for Disney, Universal Orlando and Sea World in 2021.

“There’s just so much pent-up demand to do the things we’ve been unable to do for what’s getting close to a year,” said Jeremy Bowman, an analyst at Motley Fool.

Boyd predicts international travel to pick up starting in summer 2021.

Speigel is unconvinced airline travel will recover swiftly. Orlando International Airport’s passenger count dropped 41% to about 29 million in 2020 compared to 2019.

“You just don’t walk in and flip the switch and the next day and all this comes right back on,” Speigel said.

Conventions cancelled

So far, the Orange County Convention Center has canceled 67 conventions with an estimated economic impact of $1.71 billion and rescheduled 48 others amid the pandemic.

Some major events are still going on as planned, such as the recent AKC National Championship and a surf expo in January, said spokeswoman Nadia Vanderhoof.

Some question if Americans are ready to splurge on lavish vacations after the emotional scars of 2020, where many felt the pain of losing a loved one to the virus, the isolation of being stuck at home, or the anxiety of losing their jobs.

“There’s a huge challenge we’re facing in the psychological recovery from this stressful
year,” Niles said. “We’re dealing with a widespread mental trauma on a scale that we have not seen in the United States, probably since World War II … Even for people whose response to stress is book a vacation to Orlando, a lot of them are going to get there and just they’re not going to feel the happiness that they thought they were going to feel.”

After the vaccine is widely available, shedding the 2020 mindset could take time, theme park reporter Jim Hill warned.

“How many of us are going to able to go, ‘OK, let me pull off my mask and stand within 6 inches of somebody in line for the Haunted Mansion,’” said Hill, who runs JimHillMedia.com and co-hosts The Disney Dish Podcast.

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