How crowded will Disney World, Universal be after coronavirus pandemic subsides?

News 6 theme park expert Ken Pilcher looks at future of Orlando-area resorts

As the number of coronavirus cases in Florida continues to climb, Walt Disney World officials have announced that the company’s operations will remain suspended until further notice.

Even though it’s not known when Orlando-area theme parks, including Disney World and Universal, will reopen, some people are already asking: How crowded will the parks be when the coronavirus pandemic passes?

When it comes to the entertainment giants, you can be sure that planning sessions involving new safety measures are being held to prepare for all sorts of different contingencies and outcomes.

[RELATED: Disney announces furloughs amid spread of coronavirus | Cinderella’s Castle shines in blue as Disney parks thank health care workers]

The trick they face is balancing their core mission to entertain with reassuring an understandably nervous public. They have to simultaneously balance protecting that public, their employees, their public image and their bottom line. All four are crucial. If an outbreak were traced to a theme park, the public fallout would be immense.

To that end, planning is underway on new safety measures needed to reopen what are already some of the cleanest and best-maintained public places in the world.

In a recent interview with Barrons, Disney Executive Chairman Bob Iger even floated the idea of temperature checks, “...Just as we now do bag checks for everybody (who) goes into our parks."

Pointing out that those checks have already become a new normal in China, Iger added, "Let’s prepare for a world where our customers demand that we scrutinize everybody. Even if it creates a little bit of hardship, like it takes a little bit longer for people to get in. Just as was the case after 9/11.”

In fact, Disney Cruise Line started temperature checks in early March shortly before shutting down all its cruises.

Many forget there were no bag checks before Sept. 11. Disney, Universal and SeaWorld added them almost instantly afterward.

Many said Disney would never add metal detectors -- it hurt the magic and family-friendly image. But Disney did in 2015. So did Universal.

Now, most people don’t think twice about them. That’s the new normal, or it was.

Iger’s admission is not surprising. The liability would be incredible if Disney did not make changes. Still, planning to reopen -- and how quickly -- are still tabletop exercises right now.

I say that because as much as people want to vacation and escape, no one yet knows when this curve really will be flattened or squashed, not to mention the millions of potential customers who have suddenly and unexpectedly lost their jobs.

Universal Orlando announced the theme parks will be closed through April 19 amid the spread of the coronavirus.

The bottom line for me: As smart as I know teams Disney and Universal are, they cannot predict what comes next -- or when. They will start by making understandably conservative moves, I’m sure.

Disney didn’t just cancel the next wave of College Program workers and send home the rest of the international cast members without serious thought and a wrenching awareness that things won’t look like they did on March 14-15. Not for a while, anyway.

When the inevitable numbers of furloughs from the theme park giants emerge, they will likely be shocking and unprecedented.

In addition to Disney’s roughly 77,000 cast members & Universal’s 27,000 team members, tens of thousands of contractors, suppliers and vendors work on Disney and Universal property, not to mention all of the third-party shops and restaurants at places like Disney Springs and Universal CityWalk. Places that are closed indefinitely.

As the number of coronavirus cases in Florida continues to climb, Walt Disney World officials have announced that the company’s operations will remain suspended until further notice.

Let’s give Disney and Universal and SeaWorld some credit: they’ve been paying most workers their full salary -- or close to it -- for weeks.

SeaWorld’s pockets aren’t as deep. Ninety percent of staff furloughs are already well underway there. But even corporations as insanely profitable as Disney and Comcast can’t pay forever with most other revenue streams (movies, sports, t.v. production and broadcasting), also hit hard if not paralyzed.

[RELATED: SeaWorld furloughs 90% of employees amid coronavirus pandemic closures | Disney World to remain closed until further notice, company says | Universal to stay closed through mid-April]

So far, every word from Disney union negotiations says the company plans to pay full healthcare premiums and education tuition for nearly all cast members. Applaud that, too.

Late Thursday, Universal announced it won’t reopen until sometime after the lucrative Memorial Day weekend. Furloughs for part-time team members will begin May 3 so they can apply for unemployment. After April 19, most team members will be paid 80% of their salary or wage. Everyone who has benefits will keep them at full cost to Universal, a move that’s not cheap and worthy of applause, as well.

As much as many of us would love to be back at Epcot, Islands of Adventure or SeaWorld Orlando, our beloved community is feeling real pain and will be reeling for months, if not years

After September 11, Disney shut down entire hotels and wings of others for months. Pop Century’s opening was delayed for more than two years. Construction on its second half was abandoned until 2010, eventually becoming Art of Animation. Other planned expansions were canceled or pushed back, in some cases indefinitely.

Until now, the longest park closure at Walt Disney World was less than three days. Until now, there has never been a time when all Disney parks around the world shut down at once, much less indefinitely.

The parks will adapt and the crowds will come back, but it will take time.

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About the Author:

Ken Pilcher is a lifelong Floridian with more than 30 years in journalism experience. He joined News 6 in 2003 and has covered Central Florida attractions and theme parks since 1988. He currently produces News 6 at 7 p.m.