New CDC mask guidance could be a big boost for Disney parks

Disney’s parks division, one of the company’s foundations since the opening of Disneyland in 1955, is trying to rebound after a challenging year that brought extended closures and significant layoffs. However, the unit received news Thursday that could give Disney’s parks a much-needed boost.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that people who are fully vaccinated against Covid-19 do not need to wear masks or practice social distancing indoors or outdoors, except under certain circumstances. The new guidelines could have huge consequences for Disney’s attendance numbers and the theme park industry as a whole.

In fact, the mask decision could come very soon for Disney. Universal Orlando Resort, a competitor of Disney’s in Florida, announced Friday afternoon that it was updating its Covid safety measures and now saying that masks are not “mandatory” while outdoors but are still “required in all indoor locations including shops and restaurants” and required at all attractions.

While it’s not yet clear how and if Disney will change its park policies, a Disney spokeperson said in a statement Thursday that the CDC guidance is “extremely positive news” and that “as soon as is practical, we will implement updated guidelines across our businesses.”

Robert Niles, editor of ThemeParkInsider.com, agreed: “This is potentially a huge deal for Disney, but as with everything that we’ve dealt with over the past year and a half, it’s all going to come down to the details.”

According to Niles, the mask guidance matters more to Disney tourists than it does to customers at Walmart or Starbucks because of the length of time they have to wear a mask.

“You’re not doing this for 30 minutes … Disney is an all-day commitment for most people,” he said. “There are a lot of people who have said, ‘You know what? I’m not going to come back until I don’t have to spend 12 hours in a mask, particularly outside in Florida where the weather can be nasty in the summer.'”

He added, “if Disney can get beyond having to require that, that’s potentially a big deal for the company.”

Mask or not to mask?

Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the announcement is “very big news for us” while on the company’s earnings call with analysts on Thursday.

“Particularly if anybody’s been in Florida in the middle of summer with a mask on, that can be quite daunting,” he said on the call. “We think that’s going to make for an even more pleasant experience. And we believe that as we’re now bringing a lot of people back to work, that it’s going to be an even bigger catalyst for growth in attendance.”

Chapek also announced on the company’s earnings call that Disney has already “started to increase our capacities” at Walt Disney World in Florida, though he didn’t say by how much.

He also told CNBC on Thursday that the resorts have seen “no shortage of demand whatsoever.” So allowing more people in their parks could actually have a more meaningful impact than tourists who might be delaying their return due to mask requirements.

Disney generated more than $26 billion in sales at its parks division in fiscal 2019, the year prior to the pandemic, representing 37% of the company’s overall revenue. Returning to those levels would obviously be a boon to the company.

Whatever Disney ultimately does will also have a domino effect on the rest of the theme park industry since the company is an industry leader, Niles said. Still, it also comes with a lot of complications.

“I think what’s keeping Disney from making an immediate change is that there’s no way right now that Disney can easily tell who is fully vaccinated and continue to know that through the entirety of someone’s visit,” he said. “The entire industry is struggling with that right now, but Disney’s guidance can be very helpful on how to manage this.”

“They’ve got to find a way to make parents feel comfortable”

Another concern for Disney in terms of requiring masks or not is that its parks are centered around children, who aren’t as broadly vaccinated as the US adult population.

Vaccines have been approved only for children as young as 12. That means that those not old enough to get the vaccine still need to wear their masks, according to Dr. Fauci.

This issue could further complicate matters as Disney parks adjust their rules as the pandemic evolves.

“This is not a big deal for, say, a Las Vegas, but for Disney, this is huge,” Niles noted. “The safety of children is probably the biggest issue that’s going to affect the success of the Disney theme parks going forward. They’ve got to find a way to make parents feel comfortable bringing their kids to a Disney theme park.”

And since Disney is such an interconnected company, what happens at the parks division impacts the rest of the business.

So if going maskless helps Disney’s parks drive higher attendance, it could help the company’s entire media empire rebound after a particularly rough year.

“This is the next step in their recovery,” Niles said. “They’ve built a foundation at the parks that they can expand upon. I don’t think you’re really going to see the result of that expansion in 2021, but you’re going to see the beginning of it. I think this is a positive development for Disney.”