2 years later: The day Walt Disney World closed for COVID-19

Orlando theme parks closed March 15, 2020

ORLANDO, FL - MARCH 23: Walt Disney World remains closed to the public due to the Coronavirus threat on March 23, 2020 in Orlando, Florida. The United States has surpassed 43,000 confirmed cases of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) and the death toll climbed to at least 514. (Photo by Alex Menendez/Getty Images) (Alex Menendez, 2020 Alex Menendez)

BAY LAKE, Fla. – Before the threat of the coronavirus came about, Walt Disney World was steaming ahead with a bright future.

The theme park had just announced a number of projects on the way, including the Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser, the multi-year transformation of EPCOT, Avengers Campus at Disneyland’s California Adventure and the highly-anticipated TRON Lightcycle Run roller coaster coming to Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World.

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

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

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis speaks about the COVID-19 virus during a news conference at the Florida Department of Health on 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 leaders celebrated the grand opening of “Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway.” The cartoon attraction was following in the footsteps and fanfare of the recent opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disney’s Hollywood Studios just months prior.

The summer looked bright for Walt Disney World, but, less than two weeks later, everything changed.

In other parts of the world, Disney began shutting down its theme parks as the coronavirus threat grew. Theme parks in Shanghai, Hong Kong and even California began to shut down as a precaution. Meantime, Central Florida’s theme park’s 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 it was closing due to the coronavirus pandemic. A short time later, Walt Disney World followed suit.

Theme parks at Disney World will temporarily close starting at the close of business on Sunday, according to a statement from the parks.

The sudden closure of Disney’s Florida and California parks were just the latest sign of a tourism industry in freefall.

This was the first time in Walt Disney World’s history that the parks had all closed due to an illness. The first time Walt Disney World closed was in 1999 for Hurricane Floyd. In 2001, the park’s closed for a day due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Since then, the park had also closed for short times due to other hurricanes that rolled through the state.

News 6 flew over Magic Kingdom on the day Walt Disney World closed its gates. The once bustling Main Street U.S.A. was a ghost town.

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

May 2020, News 6 took a look over Disney's Epcot to see changes made during coronavirus closure. Flowers and topiaries have since been removed from this year's Flower and Garden Festival. (WKMG TV)

After five weeks of paying its cast members during the down time, Disney was forced to furlough some of its thousands of employees beginning in April. In May, shortly after the initial closures, Disney officials reported its second-quarter profit dropped 91% to $475 million, down from $5.4 billion a year earlier.

Disney has announced the company will furlough employees whose jobs are not necessary at this time amid the spread of the coronavirus.

The shuttered attractions forced more than 70,000 Disney workers to be furloughed for months, placing families into the state’s crippling unemployment system. During this time, hundreds of families turned to area food banks for assistance.

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

Months after closing, Disney presented its reopening plans, saying select theme park’s would reopen 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, Florida, in June and July after months of inactivity because of the coronavirus pandemic, under plans approved Wednesday by a city task force.

With the reopening came 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 modified its health and safety protocols.

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

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

Cinderella Castle at Disney's Magic Kingdom with 50th anniversary décor. (McReynolds)

Disney announced earlier this year, that it is 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 scheduled to open at EPCOT.

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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.