2020 is a year that felt like a decade, and one that none of us will forget, as much as we may wish otherwise.
Amidst all that sadness and loss, the theme park industry still provided interesting stories, the kind we like to tell here at Theme Park Tribune. Let’s take look back at our five most-read stories from 2020, in chronological order:
Before COVID-19 dominated nearly every story, 2020 brought a resolution to the strange saga of Patrick Spikes, known to the online Disney community as “BackDoorDisney.”
The former Disney World employee-turned-trespasser had been charged with five felonies related to allegations that he snuck into Magic Kingdom’s Haunted Mansion, stealing and later selling items from the attraction. Spikes had been entangled in the investigation of the still-unsolved theft of the Epcot animatronic Buzzy, but he was never charged in that case; when it came to the Haunted Mansion, however, police had photos seized from Spikes’ phone showing him and his alleged accomplice, Blaytin Taunton, wearing stolen items, and the cooperation of the items’ buyer who had paid Spikes thousands of dollars.
In the end, Spikes’ case never went to trial. He pleaded no contest to a single count of trafficking and was sentenced to 250 hours of community services, two years of probation, and $25,000 in restitution and court fees, which he told Theme Park Tribune that he paid immediately.
Months later, Spikes spoke to the Orlando Sentinel, saying he had moved to North Florida and looking to put his criminal case behind him.
“It’s over now,” Spikes told the Sentinel. “I’m living life. I’m doing my thing.”
Well, didn’t this age poorly?
The same day that Patrick Spikes was in court, Disney held its quarterly earnings call — and for the first time, addressed how the coronavirus outbreak in China may affect its U.S. theme parks.
By this time, both of Disney’s resorts in China had been closed, so the company was anticipating a hit to earnings in the next quarter. But it dismissed concerns about a major impact in the U.S. due to Asian markets not being among the top drivers for foreign attendance to Walt Disney World.
When the story was published, there were only 11 documented cases of the novel coronavirus in the U.S. (though evidence now strongly suggests it was already silently spreading here). The traffic that Theme Park Tribune saw on this story shows that readers were hunting for information on how the coronavirus would affect Disney World before the term “COVID-19” even existed.
The situation would rapidly worsen over the next six weeks, turning into a full-fledged pandemic and leading to Disneyland and Disney World shutting down. By the time of Disney’s next quarterly earnings call in May, the company was talking about massive furloughs and cost-cutting measures — all thanks to the disruption caused by a virus that seemed like only a regional concern three months earlier.
As the pandemic became more politicized amid early calls to reopen businesses as quickly as possible — COVID-19 risk be damned — theme parks were not immune to these culture wars.
Any talk about face mask requirements appeared to attract heated responses, fueling conspiracy theories or misinformation. While some parks, such as Legoland Florida, didn’t require masks until their local governments mandated their use, the likes of Disney, Universal, SeaWorld, and Cedar Fair all included face coverings in their reopening plans.
While some denounced these rules as an illegal infringement on personal liberties, there was no legal merit to those beliefs, and parks will continue to require masks into 2021.
Lost in the living nightmare that was 2020 was a significant anniversary: 30 years since the opening of Universal Studios Florida.
Theme Park Tribune got the chance to look back at the planning process for the park, as well as recount its error-riddled opening day with Peter Alexander, who was the park’s show designer and executive producer.
“Everything broke down one after the other,” he said.
One of the significant stories that Theme Park Tribune followed this year was the COVID-19 policies at Orlando’s Fun Spot America.
That reporting began with identifying anti-face mask misinformation spread by the amusement park chain’s founder and owner, John Arie Sr. We later obtained private “secret shopper” inspections showing the park wasn’t following its own rules aimed at limiting the spread of COVID-19 among guests. Later, county inspectors found violations of the county’s mask mandate, which had been flagged by the county health officer in an email a month before inspectors visited Fun Spot.
To wrap up months of reporting on this subject, Theme Park Tribune obtained emails sent by Arie in May downplaying the pandemic.
“I believe it is more likely to be a case of fear generated by the media and our government than reality as based in facts, statistics and numbers,” Arie said.