ANAHEIM, Calif. — For nearly 65 years, Disneyland was a place where millions came for a joyful reprieve from the outside world.
Then the coronavirus hit, and Fantasyland became impossible. Walt Disney Co. shut down its two theme parks and three hotels in Anaheim on March 13, furloughing tens of thousands of workers and vowing not to reopen until a safe plan to move forward was ready.
The theme parks are still closed, but Disney’s retail center, Downtown Disney, reopened this week to huge crowds and immediately became a flashpoint for the larger debate about whether California is reopening too quickly even as it sees record numbers of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations and rising death tolls. Orange County has been hit particularly hard, with hospitalizations increasing nearly 100% in three weeks.
At the same time, the county remains a hotbed of the coronavirus resistance. Cities sued to keep beaches open. Politicians openly scoffed at the suggestions of health officials that residents wear masks in public places. Residents hectored the county’s chief health officer into resigning; videos of customers who berated store employees for not allowing them in without a mask went, well, viral.
On Friday afternoon, hundreds of people wandered around Downtown Disney, a strip of restaurants and shops that ends at the gates to Disneyland and its sister park, Disney California Adventure. It had reopened the day before to such demand that security had to close the adjacent Simba parking lot to keep people away.
“We just wanted to get out and start living again,” said Kimberly Poff, an annual pass holder who proudly held up her newest purchase: a navy blue 65th anniversary long-sleeve shirt that sparkled in the sunlight. She was equipped with hand sanitizer and disinfectants.
“For those of us who love Disney, it’s sad to see the parks closed,” said Missy Pebley, who was there to celebrate her 48th birthday. “We’ve been waiting since the day it closed.”
At first glance — and ignoring the fact that everyone was wearing masks, per Disney’s requirement — the scene was like any other day at “the happiest place on Earth.”
Families wore T-shirts with Disney characters — Donald Duck, Stitch, Iron Man. Workers were chipper and dressed dapper. The wait to enter the World of Disney store ranged from 15 minutes to an hour.
But these attempts at normality only heightened how off everything felt.
All driveways into hotels were blocked off, with a five-layer barricade in front of the road that led to the theme parks. Guests had to pass through four checkpoints — a temperature-reading station, a K-9 dog, a security guard and a metal detector — before being allowed to enter. Workers stood around to see if any scofflaw took off a mask or got too close to a stranger.
And loud instrumental versions of Disney standards like “Turkey in the Straw” and “You’ve Got a Friend in Me” served as a dissonant soundtrack.
Art Yero of Fontana came to pick up his family’s favorite cookies after they had sold out the day before. His 4-year-old son, Peter, wanted to take pictures outside the park’s gates. Years ago, Yero sold popcorn in Disney California Adventure.
“There’s very much a nostalgia thing to it,” he said. “As far as health safety, I was not worried…. I was more worried about, ‘Am I going to be able to get in?’”
“I think as long as everyone stays away and respects each other’s social distancing, it should be good and continue to be good,” said Ashley Rodriguez, a Disneyland worker who wore Mickey Mouse ears along with a red Minnie Mouse mask, and a yellow skirt and black shirt decorated with the cartoon character to match. The Monterey Park resident and her husband, Nicholas, spent their first date, wedding and honeymoon at the park.
Nicholas said he felt safer in Downtown Disney than other public spaces.
“Here they’re scrubbing down things,” he said. “I’m not too sure the worker in JCPenney is really watching what’s going on.”
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“I think right now the world could use a little happiness,” said Hayley Petzoldt, manager of the Salt & Straw ice cream shop in Downtown Disney. The store quadrupled expected sales during Thursday’s reopening. Inside, tape on the floor marked safe distances. Plexiglass separated workers from customers over the ice cream display.
“It’s a little different, but it’s a new reality we’re all starting to become accustomed,” the 31-year-old Santa Ana resident said, as the theme song to the Main Street Electrical Parade clanged outside. “We’re making it work. You can still smile with your eyes.”
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Just a couple of hours later, Orange County health officials announced the county had experienced its second-highest daily coronavirus case total, and its fifth straight day topping 1,000 cases. Among cities in Orange County, Anaheim has the second-highest case total.
The Disneyland Resort’s continued closure over the last four months was a psychic wound for its fans, but it also hurts Orange County.
It’s the largest private employer in the county, with over 30,000 workers, most of them now furloughed. A 2019 Cal State Fullerton study found that the resort brought about $8.5 billion into the Southern California economy the year before.
Anaheim, long reliant on Disney for its tax base, faces a $75 million budget deficit. Storefronts outside the resort on Harbor Boulevard, usually bustling with tourists, are empty or boarded up.
Disney carries such weight here that Gov. Gavin Newsom originally exempted Disneyland from his order prohibiting large gatherings, sparking an outcry that ended after Disney announced it would voluntarily shut down.
In mid-June, Disneyland announced it would reopen in time for the park’s July 17 anniversary even as coronavirus cases in California began to rise again. But with the coronavirus surging, that’s now on hold.
The opening of Downtown Disney this week upset Ada Briceño, chair of the Democratic Party of Orange County and secretary of Unite Here Local 11, which represents the resort’s hotel workers.
“It’s very disappointing to see that they opened when Orange County is seeing super-high numbers of people with COVID,” said Briceño, who had to quarantine herself in March after her son contracted the disease. “Disney must think of protecting workers, their families, and our communities before profits in the middle of a pandemic.”
But she was a lone voice amid the rush to congratulate the move.
In a tweet, Anaheim Mayor Harry Sidhu hailed Disney’s plans to slowly resume business as a “major milestone in the recovery of Anaheim, California and our nation.”
The city’s chief communications officer, Mike Lyster, also expressed support.
“It’s a unique time for anybody reopening, and naturally it comes with a lot of concerns, but the way they’ve done it has been an example,” he said. “Of course that has to be done in a safe way, and we know we won’t go back to where we were a year ago.”
“It was very emotional,” Disney spokeswoman Liz Jaeger said of the reopening. “Guests were thanking us as they came in. We’ve been waiting for this day for a long time.”
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For those who showed up, the coronavirus was just a passing thing — a joke, even.
“I know it’s stupid for us to be out during a pandemic, you know, we’re here today to catch it,” cracked John Cirelli, 38, who was browsing with his husband, Jarrod, for a place to eat.
Nearby, Jordan Parker waited in line with his family at the Lego store with his two daughters who were in need of some entertainment. He was “a little concerned” about the coronavirus but felt that it had died down.
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But even Andrea DeAvila, a Whittier resident who came “every day” to Disneyland before the pandemic, felt that despite everyone’s best effort, things just weren’t normal.
“Downtown Disney is a subtle version of Disney,” said the 17-year-old, sporting mouse ears. “It starts to fade off as you walk through.”
Her friend, Maya Lee of La Habra, agreed. She said that her “only personality trait is coming to Disney.” “A lot of my friends were like, ‘What are you doing during quarantine?’” without trips to the theme park, said the 16-year-old.
Maya wore a bucket hat lined with Mickey Mouse’s silhouette. She wouldn’t normally spend so much time in Downtown Disney, but now she had no other choice.
“It feels different.”
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