Behind the closed gates: What’s been happening at Central Florida theme parks during pandemic closures

Theme parks remain closed until further notice

News 6 takes a look at whats been happening at Central Florida theme parks during the coronavirus pandemic (WKMG TV)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Central Florida theme parks have had their shiny entrance gates closed to guests for several months as the world tries to recover from the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Popular hotels and resorts are barren, and Orlando’s once-thriving tourism hub on International Drive is slowly trying to come out of its ghost town status. Despite the tough times, theme parks in Central Florida have been hard at work inside, waiting for guests to return in the future.

Walt Disney World

The Walt Disney Company was among the first theme parks to begin closing up on March 17. Since then, thousands of cast members have been furloughed, and the parks have since gone quiet.

Just a few weeks before the parks began closing, Walt Disney World announced that Cinderella’s Castle at Disney’s Magic Kingdom would be getting a royal makeover to celebrate 70 years of the Cinderella story.

During the final day of theme park operations on March 16, towering cranes could be seen around the castle as crews began putting a new coat of paint on the world-famous landmark.

A recent flyover revealed work has since stopped, but the castle appeared to shimmer in rose gold and pink and its lofty spires shine in hints of blue.

Work can be expected as operations begin to reopen and construction crews are brought back.

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Construction around Epcot's 'Spaceship Earth' attraction has stopped since the park's closure in March.

At neighboring Epcot, construction has paused on some of the major renovations and plans for the park.

Aerial photos show a now non-existent Flower and Garden festival. Once colorful flower beds near world showcase are now empty beds of grass, and topiaries have been removed.

Former Walt Disney World Resort President Josh D’Amaro brought peace of mind to many Disney fans and cast members during the closure.

Like many of you, I spend most days at home, but every so often I come in to thank the small group of Cast maintaining the magic at WDW. On a visit to #EPCOT this week, I was struck by the beauty and inspiration of our Flower & Garden Festival topiaries which are still here. They are a testament to how amazing our horticulture team is. Our Disney parks are places with so much emotion, memories and enormous potential – potential the world needs to believe in right now. And potential our Cast and Imagineers have anchored their lives to. I’m reminded how EPCOT stands out in this message of hope and the world coming together. And while EPCOT and other parts of our Resort are always special, they aren’t truly alive without our Cast. I know we’ll be back to make magic one day soon. #DisneyCastLife #WaltDisneyWorld #MagicHasAName (joshdamaro/Instagram)

On Instagram, D’Amaro has posted several photos and videos showing the things happening while the theme park doors have been closed to the general public.

D’Amaro also posted saying the tradition of the American flag salute is still be performed daily at Magic Kingdom, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios actually received a show-stopping minute of music for its 31 anniversary.

At Animal Kingdom, animal keepers are celebrating the birth of two new animals, and a big birthday for a baby gorilla.

Walt Disney World shares details about some of it's newest additions and celebrates the 1st birthday of a baby gorilla at Disney's Animal Kingdom park. (Walt Disney World)

Disney said on its blog that on Feb. 25 a baby porcupine, known as a porcupette, named Shelly, was born to its mother, Peri.

Trotting along the Kilimanjaro Safaris savanna is also a new Hartmann’s Zebra foal named Asha.

The foal was born on March 21 to its mother, Heidi, Disney leaders wrote on the blog.

Grace from Disney’s Animal Kingdom Gorilla Family Has First Birthday May 2020 (Disney Parks Blog)

On May 1, keepers threw a mini first birthday party for the small gorilla named Grace.

Disney said she was born May 1, 2019, at Disney’s Animal Kingdom to mother, Kashata, and father, Gino. Both were selected to breed as part of the Species Survival Plan overseen by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Meanwhile, around the parks, Disney security brought the charm and humor in early May.

Security Host Elio took to social media to show what his day is like around an empty Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Walt Disney World plans to begin its phased reopening of Disney Springs on May 20.

A Central Florida pilot flew over the happiest place on earth.

Check out the views below.

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Photo: Jonathan Michael Salazar

Universal Orlando Resort

Universal Orlando Resort sits empty April 2020 (WKMG TV)

Universal Orlando Resort closed its doors not long after Walt Disney World.

Since its closure, Universal’s furloughed employees have been auto-enrolled in Florida’s unemployment system.

Months later, Universal was the first in Central Florida to begin its phased reopening amid the pandemic.

Universal CityWalk opened to guests last week with new safety guidelines.

Universal theme parks have been closed since March 15, and according to the company website it will stay that way till at least May 31.

The Florida Department of Health said Universal Orlando invited the agency to examine the steps it has taken to prevent the spread of the coronavirus before it reopened CityWalk on Thursday.

During a more recent flyover of the park the entrance, gate arches have been stripped of any Mardi Gras decorations, and the park sits empty ready for normal day-to-day operations.

The big story at Universal Orlando is the ramped-up construction of the unannounced Jurassic Park roller-coaster.

Check out the construction below.

Flying over Universal’s Islands of Adventure, crews have made significant progress.

Support beams went vertical last week and show buildings are beginning to take shape.

Universal has not announced what the coaster is, but in an earlier blog post Universal told readers to keep their “eyes and ears peeled to the rumblings” happening over in the land.

Near the end of April, Universal leaders decided to press pause on the construction of its fourth theme park, Epic Universe.

Comcast CEO and Chairman Brian Roberts announced in a conference call Thursday morning that as the coronavirus pandemic continues to shutter theme parks, Universal Orlando Resort will pause construction on its Epic Universe project.

The company also postponed the grand opening of its newest hotel Endless Summer: Dockside Inn and Suites.

For guests missing the parks, Universal started posting point of view videos of some of their thrilling attractions on social media.

Buckle up and get ready to ride!

[Related Articles: Comfort foods take over menu at Universal’s Endless Summer: Dockside Inn and Suites | Disney fans get creative and make homemade magic during coronavirus pandemic]

SeaWorld Orlando

FILE - This Jan. 31, 2017, file photo, shows the entrance to SeaWorld, in Orlando, Fla. SeaWorld Entertainment is furloughing 90% of its workers because the novel coronavirus had forced the company to close its 12 theme parks. The employees will be paid through the beginning of next week. After next week, the workers will be off without pay for an uncertain time, the Orlando-based company said Friday, March 27, 2020, in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File) (Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

Like most of the other Central Florida theme parks, SeaWorld Orlando was also forced to make the difficult decision to furlough 90 percent of its workforce.

Although most of its staff was cut, a limited number of people remained to take care of its greatest assets, its animals.

On March 26, Sasha, one of SeaWorld Orlando’s Atlantic bottlenose dolphins gave birth to a new calf.

The park has been giving updates on social media, and even allowed guests to name the new calf, now named Spark.

Check out the video below.

Just like its mission of education inside the park, SeaWorld has lend a helping hand for parents and teachers during these unprecedented times.

On March 31, the company launched a series of free educational resources online where students K-12 can learn and explore the wild world of animals all from the comfort of their own home.

While the parks are closed, SeaWorld’s rescue team continued their efforts to rescue and rehabilitate animals.

On May 8, the team released five endangered green sea turtles off the Florida coast. That release was followed by a Mother’s Day weekend rescue of a pregnant manatee that was struck by a boat.

She later gave birth to a healthy calf at SeaWorld’s rescue center.

Prior to closing, SeaWorld was also nearing the opening of its newest roller-coaster "Ice Breaker” near Shamu stadium and its Wild Arctic attraction.

Named after the icy Arctic summits, Ice Breaker will feature four launches, both backward and forward, culminating in a reverse launch into the steepest beyond vertical drop in Florida — a 93-foot tall spike with 100-degree angle.

When News 6 flew over the park last week, it appeared the roller coaster was fully completed.

Sky 6 flies over SeaWorld's Ice Breaker roller coaster.

According to SeaWorld’s website, the coaster is now scheduled to open sometime in 2020, instead of its original spring grand opening.

When Ice Breaker opens to guests, it will be the SeaWorld Orlando’s sixth roller coaster.

[Related Articles: How crowded will Disney World, Universal be after coronavirus pandemic subsides? | Need a Disney break? Watch new Disneyland parade to add a little magic to your day]

Legoland Florida

Lego Movie World at Legoland Florida (Merlin Entertainments)

Legoland Florida closed its doors to the public on March 15th.

Since the closure, park leaders have announced that they hope to open the new pirate island hotel on June 1.

Leaders have tried to build some hype with pirate themed social media posts, as well as online lego building videos on their Facebook page.

About the Author:

Landon joined News 6 in 2017. He grew up in Southern Illinois and graduated from Southern Illinois University with a bachelors degree in TV and digital media. When he is not at work you can catch him at one of Orlando's theme parks or the beach. Before working at News 6 he worked for stations in Miami and Fort Myers.