ORLANDO, Fla. – In a roundtable with theme park executives in Orlando on Wednesday, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis touted the parks’ success in restarting operations and welcoming back guests during the coronavirus pandemic.
“They’ve gone to create a very safe environment for the families that come and visit,” DeSantis said at Universal Orlando. “I think what we saw when the pandemic hit was a radical, radical change in what was going on in Central Florida. The parks, really in an unprecedented step, closed in the third week of March.”
Disney is the largest employer in Central Florida, with Universal Studios and SeaWorld not far behind. Their closures resulted in tens of thousands of people out of jobs.
“If you look statewide at unemployment, it’s hit everywhere at least somewhat, but here in Central Florida it’s been arguably the most pronounced, particularly with Orange and Osceola counties,” the governor said.
The governor pointed to a drop in tourism as an added financial strain for the theme park companies that are working to bounce back economically. He said from March 1 to June 30 when comparing numbers year over year, people visiting Central Florida decreased 67%. In that same period, room demand decreased by 75%, according to DeSantis.
“You have a ripple effect,” the governor said. “When things slow down they stopped the ripple effect, went in the other direction, so that had a huge impact on employment in the area and on people’s small businesses.”
DeSantis said despite the harsh financial hit the theme park companies and related businesses experienced during the pandemic, their ability to adjust and reopen, while seemingly not contributing to the spread of COVID-19, is a “success story.”
“As you know, Disney came online as Florida was at its apex in terms of coronavirus infections and then it’s gone down. We’ve seen declines in all the key metrics,” he said. “I think that’s testament to the lengths that they’ve gone at these parks to create safe environments.”
DeSantis’ visit to Universal came as Florida continues to see a drop in new daily cases of coronavirus. Wednesday marked the 11th straight day the state reported fewer than 5,000 new cases.
Since March 1, when coronavirus was first detected in Florida, the state has reported more than 608,000 cases. Officials said 10,872 Floridians have died due to the virus; another 139 nonresidents have died in the state.
During the roundtable, executives confirmed they’ve been able to bring back about 90% of their full-time staffs. They said they hope the governor will increase capacity to potentially bring back members of their part-time or seasonal staff.
Executives also outlined their efforts to adhere to strict COVID-19 guidelines and increase sanitization protocols within their attractions for the comfort and safety of guests, saying if more people understood their strategy it would continue to build public trust.
As parks work with state regulations, they say they haven’t forgotten the small businesses that also add magic and wonder to their experiences.
“We understand that we are an important part of our region’s economy and we have a long tradition of tapping into the creativity, innovation and diversity of our local business community,” said Leonard Spencer, Walt Disney’s World’s senior manager for supplier diversity.
Spencer spoke about Disney’s approach to tap into local food businesses in the area to help bring sporting events to their campus in a safe and mutually beneficial way.
“We’ve been able to partner with along with the NBA and Major League Soccer with the local business community to help create this bubble. And from an NBA perspective, they’ve actually been able to contract with local restaurants here in the region to give them revenue in these challenging times to really help them get that boost when they needed,” he said.
When the governor asked executives what their biggest challenge is now that they’ve reopened, they said awareness and assurance.
“I think we’ve been able to prove, all of us, that you can operate safely and we can create not only a great environment for guests but a safe environment,” a SeaWorld executive said. “We get that message out so more people feel comfortable coming here. It’s what’s going to help all of us, it’s what going to help Central Florida.”
The governor responded during the roundtable, saying he and his office are going to do what they can to help bring more business to the theme parks and tourist attractions.
“We think that the capacity can be increased,” he said. “When you have the protocols that they have in place, you know, we’re very comfortable at the state level.”