California’s forthcoming COVID-19 health and safety guidelines will determine who can go to Disneyland, how many people will be let in and when the gates can reopen once the Anaheim theme park is permitted to return following a nearly seven-month coronavirus closure.

Initial draft guidelines from the state reportedly call for reopening individual California theme parks at 25% capacity once their county reaches the least-restrictive “minimal” risk level and limiting attendance to residents who live within 120 miles of each park.

Disneyland, Disney California Adventure and other California theme parks closed in mid-March as the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses across the U.S. to shutter their operations and society to adjust to the “new normal.”

California theme parks have been left waiting on the sidelines while other segments of the economy have reopened under Gov. Gavin Newsom’s four-tier Blueprint for a Safer Economy — which proceeds from the most-restrictive “widespread” risk level through “substantial” and “moderate” before reaching the least-restrictive “minimal” tier.

Most California counties with major theme parks currently fall into the second-most restrictive “substantial” risk level — including Orange (Disneyland and Knott’s), San Diego County (SeaWorld and Legoland), Solano (Six Flags Discovery Kingdom) and Santa Clara (California’s Great America). Los Angeles County — home to Universal Studios Hollywood and Six Flags Magic Mountain — remains in the most restrictive “widespread” risk level.

What could California’s theme park draft guidelines mean for Disneyland?

The initial draft guidelines from the state for reopening California theme parks reportedly call for Disneyland to limit visitors to residents living within a 120-mile radius of the theme park.

A 120-mile radius for Southern California theme parks would roughly stretch north to Santa Barbara and Barstow, east to Palm Springs and south to San Diego.

A similar boundary for Bay Area theme parks would roughly stretch north to Mendocino, Chico and Sacramento and south to Monterey and Merced.

The theme park distance restrictions would prohibit visitors from surrounding states and essentially eliminate air travel to and from the major tourist destinations. U.S. travel restrictions temporarily limit inbound border crossings from Mexico to “essential travel” — which does not include tourism.

The 120-mile radius restriction wouldn’t be a significant issue for regional parks like Six Flags Magic Mountain, Knott’s Berry Farm, SeaWorld San Diego, Legoland California, Six Flags Discovery Kingdom and California’s Great America — which attract most of their visitors from within a 2- to 3-hour drive of their parks.

Approximately 85% of SeaWorld’s visitors come from within driving distance of its parks, according to company officials.

The distance restriction would be a bigger problem for Disneyland and Universal Studios, which draw visitors who often travel 2 to 3 hours by plane from places like Seattle, Portland, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas and Phoenix.

Those long weekend or week-long air travelers make up the bulk of the out-of-state visitors that head to California’s smaller regional parks as a second or third day option after hitting Disneyland or Universal.

The state’s initial draft guidelines also reportedly call for California theme parks to reopen at 25% limited attendance capacity.

Disneyland’s capacity was approximately 75,000 visitors prior to the addition of Galaxy’s Edge and is approximately 85,000 with the addition of the new 14-acre Star Wars themed land, according to Touring Plans, which uses big data and statistical analysis to calculate daily theme park crowd sizes.

An attendance cap of 25% would bring Disneyland’s theoretical COVID-19 capacity down to 21,250 visitors.

Disneyland attracts an average of 51,000 visitors per day, according to the Themed Entertainment Association/AECOM. Touring Plans estimates 45,000 visitors are in Disneyland at any one time on an average day.

Disney California Adventure attracts an average of 27,000 daily visitors, according to TEA/AECOM. DCA could allow 12,500 visitors a day with a 25% attendance cap, based on Touring Plans estimates.

An initial 25% attendance cap would not be a major issue for California theme parks.

Shanghai Disneyland was permitted to reopen at 30% capacity, but Disney officials said they would remain far below that threshold during the initial return of the Chinese theme park following an extended coronavirus closure.

Universal Studios reopened its Florida theme parks at a maximum capacity of 35% even though state guidelines permitted 50%, according to company officials.

The third key restriction in the state’s initial draft guidelines reportedly would allow individual California theme parks to reopen once their county reaches the least-restrictive “minimal” risk level.

Theme parks located in counties at the “substantial” level — like Disneyland and Knott’s — won’t be able to reach the least-restrictive “minimal” level for at least three to six weeks. Universal and Magic Mountain are at least six to nine weeks away — if and when Los Angeles County moves from the highest risk level to the lowest.

That means Disneyland would not be able to open until early November or around Thanksgiving — at the earliest.

The movement of counties to lower risk levels is dependent on continued improvement in reducing the number of new COVID-19 cases and the percentage of tests that come back positive. Progress will vary by county.

“We don’t anticipate, in the immediate term, any of these larger theme parks opening until we see more stability in terms of the data,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a news conference.

The state’s initial draft guidelines present two key concerns for theme parks.

First, placing theme parks in the final tier of the Blueprint for a Safer Economy means the severity of the guidelines never changes until the pandemic ends.

The color-coded Blueprint for a Safer Economy — ranging from the most restrictive purple risk level to the least-restrictive yellow — is intended to guide business sector reopening plans through the winter, according to California Health and Human Services secretary Mark Ghaly.

“This is our road map for the foreseeable future. We don’t have a plan after yellow at the moment,” Ghaly said during a news conference. “We wanted a strategy to get through the next many months, to get us through the winter flu season, especially the worst parts of it.”

Second, large California counties — where most theme parks are located — could find it just as difficult to reach the lowest-risk “minimal” tier.

Seven California counties — with a combined population of 238,000 — have reached the lowest-risk “minimal” tier. Southern California theme parks are located in the three largest counties in the state — home to more than 16 million people. California counties can reach the “minimal” risk tier once they have fewer than one daily new COVID-19 case per 100,000 people and less than 2% positive tests.


By Arlene Huff

Arlene Huff is the founding member of Golden State Online. Before that She was a general assignment reporter. A native Californian, she graduated from the University of California with a degree in medical anthropology and global health. She currently lives in Los Angeles.

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