On Wednesday, a sobering decree was issued by California Governor Gavin Newsom in regards to the state’s response to COVID-19 aka the coronavirus: any gathering of more than 250 people should be canceled. Newsom reinforced the importance of “social distancing.” Ultimately, those large groups just weren’t worth the risk. But the announcement came with a bizarre and fascinating exemption: on Thursday, Newsom said that he had spoken with outgoing Disney CEO Bob Iger and had exempted Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, from the ban. Newsom told press that it was a “complex” and “unique” situation.
But by midday Thursday, the announcement came that both parks would be shuttered until the end of the month. Other areas of the resort, like the shopping and dining district Downtown Disney, would remain open, and the hotels would remain open through the weekend so that visiting tourists could properly prepare. The news felt inevitable, especially during the whirlwind of Thursday, but was something that Disney was trying to avoid at all costs. In short, nothing like this has ever affected the Disney company on this scale and at this level.
When the COVID-19 outbreak was finally acknowledged by the Chinese government, Disney Parks were already facing trouble overseas: Hong Kong Disneyland, already seeing dramatically decreased attendance thanks to the region’s political protests, announced it would be closing “indefinitely” starting on January 26th. This in the midst of the popular Lunar New Year holiday season. (Just like in California, the three hotels on property would remain open.) Shanghai Disneyland, the world’s newest Disney Park and Iger’s lavish entry to the lucrative market of mainland China, also closed in January although in the past few days the dining and entertainment district of that park reopened, more than a month after the rest of the park was closed. And at the end of February, it was announced that Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea would close as well. Initially the closure of the two Japanese parks, largely thought to be the most imaginative and technologically advanced of all the Disney Parks, was announced for two weeks. This week though that date was pushed “though early April.” On Thursday, Disneyland Paris also announced that its two parks were also closing. The European parks will remain closed until the end of the month. And as I was preparing this piece to send, Disney announced that, by Monday, all of the Walt Disney World parks (Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom) will be closed, along with the Disney Cruise lines. So as of Monday, March 16th, every single Disney park in the world will be closed.
This is an unprecedented moment for Disney Parks; hundreds of millions of dollars is already being lost in a segment of the company that has been steadfastly reliable for year-over-year profits (God knows my annual pass isn’t getting any cheaper). Coupled with the news that several high profile projects have been pulled from the release schedule indefinitely, including a costly, PG-13-rated remake of animated classic Mulan (producer Jason Reed told the Hollywood Reporter, “The stakes couldn’t be higher”) and you have a company, known for its composure and its resolute, almost supernatural ability to turn a profit, in a state of hurried messiness and financial uncertainty. Keep in mind that Disneyland closing is only the fourth time it has shuttered for outside reasons (the park used to be closed on Mondays until the early 1980s – this scheduled closure was partly the basis for John Hughes’ “Vacation ’58,” a story that eventually became National Lampoon’s Vacation). Before Thursday, Disneyland had only closed because of the John F. Kennedy assassination, the Northridge Earthquake, and 9/11 (when it was assumed Disneyland and Walt Disney World could be potential terrorist targets).
What makes the situation even more fascinating and surreal is that Disney Parks does not currently have a leader. Bob Chapek left his position as chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products on February 25th, when it was hastily announced that he’d be taking over for Bob Iger as CEO of the Walt Disney Company. While Iger stayed on as chairman and promised to oversee creative aspects of the company (along with appearing in press releases for Peter Jackson’s new Beatles documentary) until his official retirement next year, it left a void in Disney Parks, Experiences and Products. Before coronavirus struck, it was already a shaky time for Disney Parks, coming off of an uneven opening for their $1 billion Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge project and turning towards a slew of ambitious new initiatives that would culminate in 2021’s glittery 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World, an event hugely important not just to the Floridan resorts but to the company as a whole.
The timing, of course, could not be worse. Earlier this week, Disney unveiled plans for phase one of its Avengers Campus land at Disney California Adventure, a brand-new land in an area of the park formerly themed to A Bug’s Life, dedicated to the superheroes that populate Marvel Cinematic Universe. Along with highlighting the attractions, food and retail that would be coming to the new land, they also announced an opening date of July 18th. It’s unclear if construction workers and Imagineers will still be working while the parks are closed, but if they’re sent home too that will put additional strain on what some are saying is an already unreasonably tight schedule. The Avengers might be earth’s mightiest heroes but even they might find it tough to make this deadline, especially if the closure continues past the end of March and into April or beyond.
The closure also puts a big dent on revenue Disney was hoping would help turn the tide on Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, a lavish, highly themed land (and the largest expansion in Disneyland’s history) that opened last summer in a flurry of anticipation and hype and saw a lackluster response and virtually no crowds. (It led the company to try just about anything to get guests’ attention, including slashing ticket prices and offering limited-time events like parades and a character-filled afternoon flash mob.) With the second attraction now open in the land, despite a distinct lack of atmosphere and live entertainment, the tides seemed to be turning on Galaxy’s Edge, with “boarding groups” for the new ride fully distributed by park opening and rapturous responses from critics and guests. That, too, has come to a screeching halt.
Compared to California, though, the upcoming shutdown in Florida could be even more catastrophic. The entire Walt Disney World resort, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary, is getting, in Walt’s words, “plussed.” Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, an inventive, “2 & ½ D” attraction at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that replaced the beloved Great Movie Ride, opened the first week of March. By the end of the summer Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, a clone of an attraction that debuted at Paris’ Walt Disney Studios park, should also be open (this time at EPCOT), along with the inventive Space 220 restaurant located next to the Mission: Space pavilion (also at EPCOT). A focal point of the 50th anniversary, EPCOT is going through the most dramatic overhaul in its history, swapping the education and discovery model of old for something more exciting to modern guests, and as such whole swaths of the park are closed, with walkways restricted and construction in overdrive. Should the coronavirus slow down work in EPCOT and the rest of the vacation kingdom of the world, it could jeopardize the entire 50th anniversary celebration. Plans for the celebration were, um, ambitious before the outbreak. Now they might be downright impossible.
Also worth considering: the Disney Parks position in the larger, synergistic Disney machine. Walkaround versions of the characters from Pixar’s Onward are already in the parks, as is tons of merchandise for the movie (currently the #1 movie in the world and not facing much competition until next month); cast members are walking around Downtown Disney and the parks themselves with iPads, able to sign any guest up for the company’s hugely important direct-to-consumer streaming service Disney+; new Mulan merchandise has already flooded the store shelves in anticipation of the new movie.
The Disney Parks are a key fulcrum that other business units can pivot around, exposing brands and properties from across the company to millions of guests who are already enveloped by the Disney magic and thusly, say, more willing to listen to a song by a new Hollywood Records recording artist or watch a clip from the latest season of Disney XD’s DuckTales. Its importance as both an entertainment destination and a distribution mechanism for other parts of the company cannot be overstated. And now, all of that exposure, all of those synergistic touchpoints, they’ve all been shuttered for at least another two weeks. The Marvel movie Black Widow was the next corporate priority that would have benefitted from some additional oomph; it remains to be seen if it’ll meet its May 1st release date, although trying to shift around a movie that operates rigidly within the Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline is downright head-spinning.
All of this could not have come at a worse time for the company. 2020 was always going to be tough. Theatrically, it had to follow 2019, a year that featured an unprecedented amount of smash hit films, culminating in a record-breaking box office haul that, amongst other things, delivered the #1 most successful film of all time with Avengers: Endgame. And the 2020 slate just isn’t as surefire, eschewing proven franchise films for more esoteric, unproven material. Even Pixar and Marvel Studios, two of the more dependable brands in the company’s stable, are coloring outside the lines, with Pixar delivering two very original concepts and Marvel Studios dipping into more obscure characters. The company also had to try and continue the momentum of the Disney+ launch, with few truly inspirational titles until this fall, when The Mandalorian returns and is joined by new Marvel Studios projects (although one of the shows, The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, had its shooting postponed due to the coronavirus). And the integration of the Fox portfolio continues to be more difficult than originally envisioned (one of the troubled films Disney was saddled with, The New Mutants, seems particularly cursed as it was just delayed for the fourth time). The coronavirus just isn’t helping anything.
So, yes, come Monday you won’t be able to watch tiny dolls sing a utopian song of harmony from the comfort of your slowly moving boat anywhere in the world, but the impact the closures will have on the entire company is huge and far-reaching. In the past, no matter what was going on in the world or what state the rest of the company was in, you could at least be guaranteed an opportunity to ride Space Mountain or grab a corn dog on Main Street. But next week, when the world is most desperately in need of escapism and magic, the doors will be closed. Which is the right decision no doubt—public health and safety comes first, of course. But no matter how disappointed you are, just imagine what they’re feeling in the company’s corporate headquarters in Burbank.