All of Disney’s magic won’t protect its parks from the effects of coronavirus

Disney’s theme park business generates more than a third of the company’s revenue.
Disney’s theme park business generates more than a third of the company’s revenue.
Image: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong
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Update (8:20pm ET): Disney has decided to close the theme parks at Disney World and Disneyland Paris through the end of March, the company announced. Hotels and retail stores at both sites will remain open. Earlier on March 12, it said it would also close Disneyland. All five of its main international resorts are now closed to the public. The original story about the challenge facing Disney’s parks business amidst the coronavirus pandemic appears below.

After indefinitely shuttering its parks in Asia in January, Disney tried to maintain business as usual at its resorts in the US and France amid the coronavirus pandemic. But that quickly became untenable.

Disneyland, in Anaheim, California, will close March 14, the company announced in a statement today. The park will remain closed through at least the end of March. Disney is giving guests the rest of this weekend to make travel arrangements and get home.

Disneyland Paris, meanwhile, will remain open to visitors despite three staff members testing positive for Covid-19, the company said yesterday. The park is exempt from the French order banning most public gatherings of 1,000 people or more because it’s considered a place people “pass through,” as opposed to a single enclosed space, the Financial Times reported, citing a health ministry spokesperson.

The Paris resort is limiting capacity at some shops, restaurants, and theaters, and cancelling a handful of experiences. But it will otherwise continue as normal. As of March 11, France had almost 1,800 cases of Covid-19, 33 of which have resulted in deaths.

Until today’s announcement of Disneyland’s closure, the company’s immensely popular US parks had hardly changed during the pandemic. Outside of a few extra precautions (additional hand sanitizing stations, training for cast members, frequent disinfecting), Disneyland and Disney World had both been pushing ahead.

Disneyland was not required to comply with California governor Gavin Newsom’s ban against large public gatherings, due to its “unique circumstances.” (Other theme parks, like Universal Studios, and the state’s casinos are also exempt). But the company decided to close up shop anyway.

Disney World, in Orlando, Florida, which attracted 58 million visitors (pdf) from around the world in 2018, has not yet closed. The company didn’t immediately respond for comment on Disney World’s status.

Altogether, Disney’s international theme park business is responsible for more than a third of the company’s annual revenue. In 2019, it generated $26.2 billion in revenue, most of that from its two parks in the US.

Disney’s resorts in Asia—Hong Kong Disneyland and Shanghai Disney—and its Paris park combined for about $4 billion in revenue last year, according to the company’s most recent earnings report. Disney only owns about 40% of its Hong Kong and China resorts. The company has no ownership in Tokyo Disneyland, though it does license its brand and characters to the Japanese park.

At the company’s annual meeting yesterday, executive chairman Bob Iger and newly minted CEO Bob Chapek tried to assure investors that Disney would power through the crisis. “What we’ve demonstrated repeatedly is that we are incredibly resilient,” Iger said, mentioning the company’s ability to weather crises before.

But investors are spooked. Disney’s stock is down almost 40% since the beginning of the year:

On Wednesday, US president Donald Trump announced a ban on incoming travel from European countries, except for the United Kingdom. Both Florida and California have declared states of emergency. Iger and Chapek did not offer investors guidance on the potential impact of the virus on its US parks business.

Park employees in the US are worried, and say that they haven’t heard much of anything from Disney about its response to the coronavirus, the Verge reported.

Disney’s resort in Shanghai reopened a limited number of shops this week, and is requiring all visitors to wear masks and undergo temperature screening. The reopened areas will also have reduced hours of operation. All other parts of the park remain closed.

As major sports leagues are suspended, blockbuster film releases postponed, and entire countries put on lockdown, it’s unclear just how much longer Disney can argue it’s safe to keep Disney World open. Until that day comes, the virus will not stop tourists from entering the magic kingdom. As of this week, some rides at the park still have up to two-hour wait times.

This story has been updated with the news that Disneyland will close on March 14.