The day Walt Disney World closed for COVID-19

BAY LAKE, Florida. – Before the threat of the coronavirus hit, Walt Disney World was moving forward with a bright future.

The theme park had just announced a number of ongoing projects, including Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, EPCOT’s multi-year makeover, Avengers Campus at Disneyland’s California Adventure, and the highly anticipated TRON Lightcycle Run roller coaster at Magic Kingdom in Walt DisneyWorld.

At the time, some of these projects were scheduled to open just in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration.

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On March 1, 2020, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that two Floridians had tested positive for the coronavirus. One was a 29-year-old woman from Hillsborough County who had recently traveled to Italy, and the other was a 63-year-old man from Manatee County who had come into contact with someone who tested positive.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speaks about the COVID-19 virus during a press conference at the Florida Department of Health Monday, March 2, 2020 in Miami. Florida officials are trying to reassure residents that the risk posed by a new strain of coronavirus remains low, despite revelations that two people have become the first in the state to be confirmed to have the virus. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

On March 4, 2020, Disney executives celebrated the grand opening of “Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.” The cartoon attraction followed in the footsteps and fanfare of when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge recently opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios a few months prior.

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It was a bright summer for Walt Disney World, but less than two weeks later, everything has changed.

In other parts of the world, Disney began closing its theme parks as the threat of the coronavirus grew. Theme parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong and even California have begun closing as a precaution. Meanwhile, Central Florida theme parks have remained open, stepping up their precautions by adding hand washing and sanitizing stations around the parks.

On March 12, 2020, Universal Orlando became the first park to announce its closure due to the coronavirus pandemic. Soon after, Walt Disney World followed suit.

The Disney World theme parks will temporarily close beginning at close of business Sunday, according to a statement from the parks.

The sudden closure of Disney parks in Florida and California was just the latest sign of a plummeting tourism industry.

It was the first time in Walt Disney World history that the parks were all closed due to illness. The first time Walt Disney World closed was in 1999 for Hurricane Floyd. In 2001, the park was closed for one day due to the September 11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the park has also been closed for short periods due to other hurricanes passing through the state.

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News 6 flew over Magic Kingdom the day Walt Disney World closed. Once bustling, Main Street USA was a ghost town.

As the threat of the coronavirus continued to grow globally, Walt Disney World announced that its parks would be closed until further notice. This left many cast members wondering — and worrying — about the future.

May 2020, News 6 took a look at Disney’s Epcot to see the changes made during the coronavirus shutdown. The flowers and topiary have since been removed from this year’s Flower and Garden Festival. (WKMG-TV)

After five weeks of paying its cast members during downtime, Disney was forced to lay off some of its thousands of employees starting in April. In May, shortly after the initial shutdowns, Disney officials announced that its second-quarter profit fell 91% to $475 million from $5.4 billion a year earlier.

Disney has announced that the company will be laying off employees whose jobs are not needed at this time amid the spread of the coronavirus.

Shut down attractions have forced more than 70,000 Disney workers to be laid off for months, plunging families into the state’s crippling unemployment system. Meanwhile, hundreds of families have turned to area food banks for help.

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As the coronavirus pandemic evolved, Florida began to cautiously reopen its economy.

Months after the shutdown, Disney laid out its reopening plans, saying some theme parks would reopen on July 11. The reopening phase would begin with Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, followed by EPCOT and Hollywood Studios on July 15.

SeaWorld and Walt Disney World will reopen in Orlando, Fla., in June and July after months of inactivity due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to plans approved by a city task force on Wednesday.

The reopening brought a series of changes, including the theme park’s reservation system and health and safety protocols.

Guests were forced to social distance on rides, experiences and attractions. Face masks were also required everywhere.

(Walt Disney World)

Since the initial reopening in 2020, Walt Disney World has changed its health and safety protocols.

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The most recent change happened this week when Walt Disney World made face coverings optional for vaccinated guests on its Skyliner system.

The company brought back thousands of cast members, reopened most of its resort hotels and restaurants, and celebrated its 50th anniversary. Some of the original experiences planned for the anniversary celebration had to be put on hold, while others opened just in time, including Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at EPCOT.

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Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom with 50th anniversary decor. (McReynolds)

Disney announced earlier this year that it was working to bring back more entertainment options for guests, including Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and a new show at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.

The Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, a two-night cruise-like hotel experience, began welcoming visitors on March 1. And later this summer, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind is set to open at EPCOT.

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Herman C. Harkins