ORLANDO, Fla. — The year 2020 brought images of Orlando never seen before.
Interstate 4, the eternally traffic-clogged 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.
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.
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.
And some of the things that make Disney special, such as hugging Mickey Mouse or watching fireworks 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.
By spring, Boyd said he predicts the parks’ social distancing rules will relax, allowing fireworks 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 SeaWorld 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 all this comes right back on,” Speigel said.
So far, the Orange County 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.
2021 ride lineup
What could entice visitors back to the parks next year are new thrill rides and the nostalgia for Disney World’s 50th-anniversary celebration.
Busch Gardens will debut its dizzying 206-foot-tall Iron Gwazi coaster that goes 76 mph. SeaWorld Orlando gets the family-friendly Ice Breaker coaster, too.
Universal is building its Jurassic World VelociCoaster at Islands of Adventure that is set to open in the summer and has generated a buzz on social media as people followed the construction.
Universal declined to say when it plans to continue construction on Epic Universe, its third Orlando theme park, after officials at parent company Comcast announced they are waiting for the economy to improve before resuming what’s estimated to be a multibillion-dollar project.
“The folks in Comcast, the ones who will be signing the checks that trickle down to NBC Universal, they want assurances that this is actually going to work. And in fact, all eyes right now are on February 2021, what happens in Universal Japan when Super Mario Land opens up,” Hill said. “If it is the success that they think it’s going to be, that will power the decision to turn the key that much faster for Epic Universe.”
Perhaps the biggest seller for families to come to Disney World is its 50th anniversary, Boyd said, predicting the celebration could last up to two years tied to the Oct. 1, 2021, date.
The milestone helps Disney fire up its machine “in a really big way,” he said.
Disney also is building new rides, the soonest to open in 2021 is expected to be the “Ratatouille” family ride at Epcot.
Two thrill rides, one of the world’s longest indoor coasters based off “Guardians of the Galaxy” at Epcot and the Tron coaster at the Magic Kingdom, are also under construction with no official ride opening dates and analysts expect them to open in late 2021 or beyond.
‘The heart is missing’
The story isn’t just how the parks and hotels recover from the upheaval in 2021. How will the employees left behind heal?
Thousands of people lost their Orlando jobs or were indefinitely furloughed in sweeping cuts that decimated Disney, Universal and SeaWorld, from hotel housekeepers to the designers planning the next big thing to ride attendants, performers and salaried managers.
At Disney alone, nearly 18,000 employees in Florida were laid off during massive cuts to the theme park division.
The Fowlers were among them.
Ashley McKay Fowler and Kyle Fowler, both 35, toured and performed on Disney Cruise Line until they moved to Central Florida in 2015, eager for the stability of living in a house and earning a paycheck doing what they loved.
The couple booked multiple gigs in some of the iconic shows at Disney World. Kyle performed in Finding Nemo The Musical and in Dapper Dans, the barbershop quartet at the Magic Kingdom that has enthralled him since he was a kid. Ashley sang in the long-running Hoop-Dee-Doo Revue dinner show at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort.
“It fills your cup,” Kyle said of being a performer. “There are certain things that you can’t quite explain, except you just know that it fills an aspect of you that isn’t filled somewhere else.”
In mid-March, Ashley was in the middle of a Hoop-Dee rehearsal, relearning her place on stage with social distancing when the show was abruptly canceled.
Disney World was closing for maybe two weeks, the employees thought.
“We’ll be back. That’s kind of how everyone felt,” Kyle said.
The performers left, unaware this was their last time on a Disney World stage.
The first month of furlough felt like a weird vacation, waiting to get called back to work.
“We were glued to Facebook groups and group chats,” said Ashley, who had to wait five months to collect her unemployment benefits. “We were all just clinging, ‘Have you heard anything?’ ”
Life went on even as their careers were frozen. Their beloved dog died of cancer, and they went through a miscarriage. They wished they were back at Disney again with the distraction of a workday.
In July, Disney World reopened without them, and scores of other actors and singers.
“The heart is missing,” Ashley said. “Because you can ride rides anywhere.”
The Fowlers received their termination notices effective Dec. 31, with the possibility of being recalled in a year if Disney shows resume. The Fowlers said they can’t wait for that because of all the unknowns.
At first, they looked for different lines of work, but they struggled to find good-paying jobs. So they focused on their side hustles.
Ashley worked on her voice acting business, and Kyle his financial coaching, a passion he found after the couple paid off their debt before the pandemic happened.
By the end of the year, good things were happening again. Kyle landed a job with a mortgage lending company that starts next year. The couple got a French bulldog puppy.
With their Disney careers on hold, the Fowlers booked gigs with a Tampa-based Frankie Valli Tribute band.
At their first concert back in front of a masked crowd, they felt the thrill of finally singing again, and a release of the emotions they had experienced in 2020.
“I left it all on the floor,” Kyle said.