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Still the happiest place on Earth — even as coronavirus hits Florida

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 3/7/2020 Brittany Shammas
a group of people standing in front of a crowd: The Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., shown here in January, has continued to bustle despite the Orlando area beginning to feel the impacts of coronavirus fears. (John Raoux/Associated Press) © John Raoux/AP The Magic Kingdom theme park at Walt Disney World in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., shown here in January, has continued to bustle despite the Orlando area beginning to feel the impacts of coronavirus fears. (John Raoux/Associated Press)

ORLANDO — The Disney trip had been planned for months when reports of coronavirus hit the news, and leaders of the children’s cancer charity weren’t about to cancel.

They ushered seven kids through the crowded gates of the Magic Kingdom on Wednesday, toward the pale-pink Cinderella’s Castle. They snapped photographs as the group posed with Rapunzel and Tiana, a face mask covering one little girl’s smile. They screamed through the gentle twists and turns of Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and stayed late into the night for Space Mountain.

Although experts say coronavirus poses a higher risk to those with underlying conditions, there have been few reports of children becoming sick. Among this group, accompanied by a doctor who tended to their medical needs, the virus wasn’t anyone’s top concern.

CDC: COVID-19 Information for Travelers

“When you’re fighting for your life and you have this opportunity to come to Disney,” said Chinos Liner, founder of the Cancun-based Chinos Cause for Cancer, “I think you forget about what happens in the world.”

Beyond the polished grounds of the park this week, anxiety over the virus mounted. The death toll surpassed 3,400 by Saturday as countries reported ever-increasing numbers of infections and global financial markets reeled.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) declared a state of emergency Sunday after two people tested positive for covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in areas outside of Orlando. At a press briefing Monday, Vice President Pence did not directly answer a question about whether he would feel comfortable bringing his family to Disney World during the outbreak, offering only: “I travel across this country all the time.”

Four additional cases were discovered during the week, bringing the state’s total to six. Late Friday, the Department of Health announced the state’s first deaths, two patients in their 70s who each returned from international trips. Meanwhile, 278 people were being monitored.

On financial websites and Disney fan blogs this week, observers fretted over vacations to the parks and investments in the company. They raised the specter of Disney closing its theme park locations in the United States — something that’s happened only during hurricanes and the 9/11 terrorist attacks but became more tangible to some after Disney’s Asia parks shuttered late last month.

a group of palm trees and a fence: A closure sign stands in front of the entrance to Walt Disney Co.'s Disneyland Resort in Hong Kong, temporarily closed because of the coronavirus, on March 5. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg) © Justin Chin/Bloomberg A closure sign stands in front of the entrance to Walt Disney Co.'s Disneyland Resort in Hong Kong, temporarily closed because of the coronavirus, on March 5. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg)

“It’s not outlandish to think that we could eventually bump up against the world’s leading theme park operator temporarily closing down its iconic theme parks on both coasts,” analyst Rick Munarriz wrote on the investment advice site the Motley Fool. “Even if Disney doesn’t resort to locking down its entrance turnstiles, the growing number of worrisome headlines will eventually weigh on travel plans.”

There has not been official guidance on travel to unaffected parts of the United States or to large gatherings of people. Still, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned the virus inevitably will spread widely within the country, potentially requiring communities to “modify, postpone, or cancel mass gatherings.”

This week, though, busloads of people streamed into the Magic Kingdom, the world’s most-visited theme park. Children cheered as Mickey and Minnie skipped across the steps of Cinderella’s Castle. Costumed Disney characters embraced fans and held them close for photos. Lines for rides stretched an hour long late into the afternoon; conversations revolved around which rides to try or memories of past visits.

The coronavirus was on the front pages of the newspapers stacked in Disney resorts but not on the forefront of visitors’ minds.

“It’s here, right? It’s not like you can bunker down and become a hermit,” said Patrick White, 57, who came from Chicago with his adult daughter. “Or you can, but to me that would be very lonely.”

There was the occasional sight of someone whipping out a bottle of Purell, and park officials reported adding hand sanitizer stations throughout the parks — although few were visible at the Magic Kingdom Wednesday. Employees at two stores said they had none left for sale.

“Right now, all the parks are in planning stages,” said Duncan Dickson, a former Disney executive and retired professor from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. “They’re playing ‘What if.’ What if this happens? What if this happens? They’re making contingency plans.”

‘Still open for business’

Orlando is the tourism capital of the United States, the driver of a $75 billion industry in Central Florida. Even as fear over the coronavirus crept closer, with the cancellation of five conferences dealing an estimated $186 million blow to Orange County by the end of the week, some seemed reluctant to discuss its potential impact.

The city’s mayor and at least one commissioner offered only a prepared statement declaring that the city “will continue to monitor and work closely with the County and State Health Department.” The University of Central Florida barred a hospitality professor from giving interviews about the virus’s potential impact on tourism, instead referring inquiries to top administrators.

Becca Bides, vice president of marketing for Orlando’s tourism bureau, said in prepared comments that there had been “no significant impact” to leisure visitation, adding that 91 percent of visitors come from within the United States. She said the region “does not have direct air service to China or any country currently under a U.S. travel advisory.”

Disney representatives did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Washington Post. In a post on the company’s blog, chief medical officer Dr. Pamela Hymel wrote Disney was “in regular contact with health agencies for information and guidance.” She noted the parks have “high standards of cleanliness” and are implementing preventive measures in line with CDC recommendations.

Similarly, Universal Orlando Resort said in a statement officials were reinforcing health and hygiene procedures, enhancing cleaning protocols and “ready to act as needed.”

In the wake of the first three convention cancellations, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings at a news conference Thursday said the county remained free of confirmed cases. He called the risk to the community “very low,” adding that leisure travel remained strong.

“We invite families and others to consider vacationing here, especially during spring break,” said the mayor, the husband of U.S. Rep. Val Demings (D). “We are still open for business here in Orange County.”

a group of people posing for a photo: Children with Chinos Cause for Cancer pose with a princess at the Magic Kingdom. (Jamie Bachant) © Jamie Bachant/Jamie Bachant Children with Chinos Cause for Cancer pose with a princess at the Magic Kingdom. (Jamie Bachant)

But elsewhere in the Sunshine State, even areas without confirmed cases were seeing tourism ramifications. On Friday, Miami leaders called off Ultra Music Festival, a three-day event set to begin March 20. With about 170,000 attendees last year, the festival’s economic impact in Miami-Dade County has been estimated at $168 million.

Some in the Orlando tourism industry said they fear for the spring and summer months. Orlando Travel Company owner Ashley Moss, whose family has been in the business for three decades, said she had been moving “full steam ahead” — until the second half of the week.

Bookings remained stable, but her optimism slipped as she read news reports and contacted vendors about availability for April and beyond.

“The hard part about this is there’s really no way to prepare for it, and there’s really no way to tell which direction this is going to go,” Moss said. “Is it going to get worse, or is it going to get better at some point? I’ve never seen anything like this. My family’s been doing this for 30 years, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

At Fun Spot, a small, family-owned park just off the touristy International Drive, carts of people sped up and down the White Lightning and Freedom Flyer roller coasters. It was a normal day, said John Chidester, the park’s vice president of marketing. There had been no downturn in sales or interest.

“I think we’re all waiting,” he said. “We’re waiting to see how the story unfolds. I don’t think anyone is taking it any further than that, because nobody knows what will end up occurring. Are we hopeful? Yes.”

Albert Ko, a professor of epidemiology and department chair at the Yale School of Public Health, said the country appeared to be entering a phase of the virus where people might need to consider reducing unnecessary travel and avoiding large gatherings in close quarters.

At that stage, he said, it’s important to be proactive rather than reactive.

“When do you pull the trigger?” Ko said. “That’s kind of the unknown, or the uncharted territory.”

For now, Orlando International Airport remained crowded with visitors. Demings, the Orange County mayor, said in an interview he was optimistic leisure tourism would stay strong, believing that even amid a public health crisis “people will want to travel, will want to relax in environments where they feel safe.”

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Disney World still was still ending each day with its “Happily Ever After” fireworks show. The Most Magical Place on Earth was still the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Major decisions were being made behind the scenes, where parks officials watched the virus closely. Late into the week, the situation didn’t seem significant enough to warrant closure, said Dickson, the former executive. But that could change.

Disney officials have to balance keeping people safe against causing unnecessary panic, Dickson said. And they have to consider the impact on the 85,000 employees who count on them for a paycheck.

“It’s a difficult thing because there are huge economic consequences, but there are also huge safety and health consequences,” he said. “So you’ve got to make your decisions based on the best interests of both.”

Disney’s actions, whatever they might be, could send ripples across the entire entertainment industry, the Motley Fool’s Munarriz said, telling The Post: “All eyes have to be on the mouse.”

To go or not to go?

Tourists in Orlando, for their part, ranged from nonchalant to concerned about the virus — but not concerned enough to change their vacation plans.

Alex Riddell, visiting from Ontario with his wife, was unfazed, telling a reporter, “It’s a sickness. It’s going to eventually either be cured or peter out.” Local Armando Torres, at the Magic Kingdom for his son’s birthday, argued that “every few years there’s a scare.” Jokingly, he added, “You’ve got to die of something.” Others said they believed now was the time to travel, in case the situation worsened.

“It almost made me not want to come,” said Prentis Davis of Alabama, who was celebrating his son’s seventh birthday and wore a shirt with the word “Daddy” over Mickey’s face. But, he added, “I figured it was going to get bad regardless.”

Jake and Rachel Beren went back and forth in the days leading up to their flight: Should they still go? Should they still bring their boys, one a toddler and the other 4 months old? In the end, they reasoned they hadn’t worried about SARS or the flu or H1N1. They stocked up on hand sanitizer and made the trip from New Jersey to Florida.

As he watched his towheaded son frolic at a waterfront area in the Disney Springs shopping complex, Jake Beren said he was glad they’d come. Still, his worries hadn’t fully dissipated.

“Every time we see someone sneeze, we’re like, ‘Hold your breath; run away,’” he said, recalling a man in line at Animal Kingdom who had sneezed “like six times.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Children with Chinos Cause for Cancer pose for a photo in front of Cinderella's Castle. © Jamie Bachant/Jamie Bachant Children with Chinos Cause for Cancer pose for a photo in front of Cinderella's Castle.

Liner, of the Cancun-based cancer charity, said his organization was “conscious of what’s going on” and insisted it would never put the kids at risk. The group, which included six juvenile cancer patients, felt secure with the doctor’s presence, he added, and many of the kids already had face masks.

They planned to visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios and several other parks during their week-long trip. Everyone wore matching shirts with the children’s names arranged into 53 — the number Chinos Cause for Cancer has taken to Disney since getting started in 2015.

The virus, Liner said, “would never stop us from coming to make the dreams of the kids.”

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