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Op Ed: Why is Disney Criticized for Opening While Competitors are Not?

Op Ed: Why is Disney Criticized for Opening While Competitors are Not?

A frequent question on social media right now is, “How come Disney is getting so much flack for reopening, and Universal or other theme parks not?” In this writer’s view, there are several reasons for the discrepancy. Read on for details.

On Saturday, July 11 Disney World opened Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom to guests. Hollywood Studios and Epcot will open later this week, on Wednesday July 15.

Universal Orlando has already been open for well over a month and has largely escaped criticism for it.

Universal Offers Alternative to Masks for Guests With Disabilities, Disney Says No Exceptions
Universal President Bill Davis greets guests in his face covering

This leaves some fans asking: why the double standard? Why is the media largely silent about Universal‘s reopening (or remaining open) while Disney is all over the news?

Seemingly every media source reported on Disney’s reopening amid an uptick in cases of Coronavirus in Florida: NPR, Reuters, the Associated Press and so on. CNN’s article on the reopening mentioned Universal, but only to quote Florida Governor Ron Desantis in saying that Universal Orlando is “doing a great job”.

The following are simply my (Rebecca’s) thoughts on why the discrepancy exists. Put simply, Disney World is THE theme park that comes to mind when one thinks of Central Florida theme parks.

Complete Guide to Preparing and Packing for a Trip to Walt Disney World Post Reopening

Disney Parks are Most Visited in US

According to USA Today and other outlets, Disney Parks are the most visited theme parks in the nation. Disney Holds all 5 of the top spots.

  1. Magic Kingdom
  2. Disneyland
  3. Animal Kingdom
  4. Epcot
  5. Disney’s Hollywood Studios

Universal Orlando Resort takes the number 6 slot, while Islands of Adventure sits at number 8. Meanwhile, Disney’s California Adventure is the 7th most visited theme park in the North America.

In a pandemic, where one’s risk is tied to how many people they encounter at close distances, Universal has the unexpected benefit of drawing fewer guests.

According to the Global Attractions Attendance Report, Magic Kingdom saw approximately 20,859,000 guests in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available). Universal Orlando came in at around half that many guests, with 10,708,000.

Taken as a whole, Disney World welcomed approximately 58,311,000 guests in 2018. Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure combined added up to 20,496,000, fewer than half the number of guests who visited Disney World.

The Timing Of The Reopening

While coincidental, it happens that Disney World is reopening at a time where Florida is in the national news for being the nation’s epicenter of COVID-19.

On Disney World’s second day of being opened to guests, the state of Florida set a US record for most Coronavirus cases added in a single day. The state has said that they are also offering far more testing, with much of it to asymptomatic people to find as many cases as possible and isolate them.

On this infographic from Johns Hopkins University, Universal Opening is the green star

On the above infographic, a screen shot from this handy page from Johns Hopkins University, the green star is approximately the date that Universal Orlando resort reopened (June 5). But there is no data that directly connects that opening to any additional cases. For example, bars were opened, then closed again after the outbreak occurred.

Looking at the graph, it’s easy to see why there was less scrutiny of their decision when compared to Disney’s reopening on the far right of the graph.

Social distancing markers at Universal Orlando

I concede that I have not heard many critiques about Universal’s decision to remain open despite the climbing cases. However, it is plain to see that things definitely looked a lot less bleak when they began welcoming guests back over a month ago.

“Disney World” is Synonymous with “Theme Park”

As I stated earlier, the theme park everyone pictures when they hear the words “theme park” is Walt Disney World resort in Florida. Media outlets and others who are not avid park goers, may use Disney World as a sort of short hand when discussing the idea of theme parks opening during a pandemic.

It stands to reason that those calling for Disney World to close would agree that Universal and Sea World should not be open either. But, rather than calling out the competitors specifically, they feel calling out the big dog is sufficient.

Photo courtesy of Seaworld Orlando

If Disney World is forced to close by the Florida state or local governments, Universal and Sea World would be forced to close as well.

To that end, Disney has stated that they will look to government leadership to decide whether to close, and the Mayor of Orange County Florida gave a press conference where he answered under what circumstances he would ask Disney to reconsider staying open.

Disney Employees are Unionized

I saw the same question floating around when articles came out about union negotiations for the return to work and union organized protests to reopening: “Why aren’t Universal employees protesting?”

Part of the reason for this specific inconsistency lies in the fact the Universal and Sea world employees are not part of unions.

Disneyland Workers Protest Reopening with Caravan
Disneyland protest caravan organized by unions, photo courtesy or Reuters

One union, Local 632 teamsters union, represents around 38,000 Disney employees. There are 7 total unions that represent various cast members at Disney World.

Disney performers are represented by the Actor’s Equity union, and you may have seen their outcry in the news. The Actor’s union is asking for Disney to test performers for COVID-19 regularly since social distancing and masks are not possible for performers in shows.

Right around the time the news broke about the Actor’s Equity union demands, we saw that down the road at Universal the Bourne Stuntacular show was opening to guests. Why weren’t those actors asking for testing before returning to work?

Bourne Stuntacular Stage Show Set to Open at Universal Orlando

The answer lies in the unions. At Disney, workers are unionized and have representatives looking out for their collective interest.

Over at Universal and Sea World, employees are not unionized. While the positives and negatives to union membership are beyond the scope of this piece, at Universal Orlando the performers have the choice to come in to work or get fired. They do not have the backing of a union to protect their jobs.

The difference between union and non union employees may also have allowed Universal and Sea World to open sooner due to the fact that they did not have unions with which to negotiate terms.

In Conclusion

To summarize, I think that part of the reason that Universal Orlando and Sea World are left out of the conversation lies in the fact that they are kind of afterthoughts in the theme park universe.

Disney World has many more visitors each day and has a lot more employees. The employees at Disney World belong to unions that negotiate on their behalf and organize protests like we saw on the West Coast at Disneyland.

Finally, the timing on Disney World’s reopening is not ideal. Florida itself is at the center of the national conversation around the Coronavirus. Opening Disney World during record amounts of cases in Florida is poor optics.

Yes, Universal has been open for over a month, but they opened their parks when Florida was at the bottom of the coronavirus curve.

Going forward, the other theme parks need to be included in the conversation around whether it is safe to be open during this time. If it is not safe for one of the parks to be open, it is not safe for any of them.

a face mask from the shopDisney site

They are all taking similar precautions to protect guests and staff. Other than number of guests, it seems like the risk of contracting coronavirus at Sea World is similar to the risk of picking it up at the Magic Kingdom.

What are your thoughts on the parks opening during this time? Do you agree that the risks to guests are about the same at Universal, Sea World and Disney World? Let us know in the comments on Facebook and join our Facebook group to keep the conversation going.

-Rebecca W Davis

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Friday 17th of July 2020

I agree with a lot of what you said. However, the numbers for Florida have been skewed and there’s investigations in place as to why they are the way they are. I definitely think the cases are much lower than what’s been reported.

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