Like so much else in the world in 2021, the success of Disney’s theme parks will largely depend on the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines.
Disney’s Parks, Experiences and Products division posted a $119 million operating loss between October and December 2020, with revenues down 53 percent compared to the same period in 2019, the company announced on its quarterly earnings call Thursday. The parks are not breaking even, but are generating revenue that “exceeded the variable costs associated with opening,” according to Disney chief financial officer Christine McCarthy.
Capacity at Disney parks is still limited to 35 percent of its pre-pandemic maximum and only two resorts — Walt Disney World and Shanghai Disneyland — were open for the entire quarter (Tokyo Disneyland was also open, but it is owned by the Oriental Land Company, not Disney).
While Disney CEO Bob Chapek said the company is pleased with demand for its theme parks during the pandemic, the outlook for the future largely rests on how quickly COVID-19 vaccines are distributed and administered.
“That seems like the biggest lever that we can have in order to take the parks that are currently under limited capacity and increase it, or open up the parks that are currently closed,” Chapek said.
Disneyland Resort in California is helping that effort, having distributed 100,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines since opening in January.
Disneyland and Disneyland Paris, are expected to remain closed for at least the rest of the current quarter, Chapek said. Hong Kong Disneyland — which has been closed for three separate periods since January 2020 — is expected to reopen yet again next month.
No one on the call mentioned reports of travel restrictions being considered for Florida. The state’s overall case count is dropping, but the Miami Herald has reported that 15 percent of new cases are of the B.1.1.7 variant strain of COVID-19 that is estimated to be more transmissible.
The vaccine rollout will not mean an immediate end to COVID-19 safeguards at Disney parks. Chapek said the company expects “some level” of face masks and physical distancing will be required for the rest of 2021 as the country and the world seeks to reach herd immunity goals for COVID-19. But that doesn’t mean these restrictions won’t eventually be eased.
“Will there be some overlap until we know that we hit herd immunity? Sure there will,” Chapek said. “But do we also believe that we’ll be in the same state of six-foot social distancing and mask wearing in 2022? Absolutely not.”
Of course, that depends on the vaccine rollout, but Chapek sounded a hopeful note on the earnings call. He said recent comments from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the federal government’s top infectious disease scientist, about vaccines potentially being widely available by April would be “a game changer.”
During the call, Chapek also addressed how the pandemic has afforded the company opportunities to change long-standing practices — namely, the Disneyland annual passholder program, which was canceled last month.
Here’s how Chapek addressed the program:
“There’s nothing like a pandemic to challenge the status quo and make you be fairly introspective about a lot of things that you’ve maybe taken as fairly dogmatic. I think you’ve all seen several new announcements about things that we’ve done recently, that may have been heresy prior to the pandemic, like the recasting of our annual pass program at Disneyland, and reconsidering the overwhelming demand we have relative to supply.
“Everything we do, the first lens we look at, is to exceed guest expectations, and it’s very tough when your park has more demand than supply, we have to put limits on it. Well, as you know, we have a wide variety of margins, depending on the nature of the guest and how they visit and when they visit. So with a lens towards maximizing the guest experience, we are now able to essentially reset many pieces of our business both on the cost and revenue side of the business, in order to say if we had a blank piece of paper, how would we set up our parks business and be a little bit more aggressive than we typically might be able to be without the impetus of, unfortunately, a year long closure.”
Longtime Disneyland passholders have not taken kindly to the program’s closure. Disney has promised a new membership program will take its place, though no details of that replacement have been revealed.