Here's what the tourism recovery actually looks like

EXCLUSIVE: Live from Walt Disney World in Orlando, a preview of summer travel

If you want to know what the tourism recovery looks like, you have to visit a theme park. Not just any theme park, but the bellwether of American tourism, Walt Disney World in Orlando.

So that's what I did.

Last week, I drove 2,000 miles from Arizona to Florida in search of answers. How were people traveling now? How had the travel experience changed since the outbreak? 

And what I discovered was both encouraging and troubling. It's encouraging because — the debate on this newsletter notwithstanding — things finally seem to be heading in the right direction. But it's troubling in the sense that so much has changed and will probably never go back to the way it was before.

The changes seem minor if you just parachute in for a day, as many of my media colleagues have. But stick around for a little while and you'll see that they're extensive and maybe irreversible. Also, they're kind of funny.

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🎧 EXTRA: Listen to the podcast version of this commentary.

Aren Elliott masks up before entering Disney’s Hollywood Studios. We actually saw someone get escorted out of the park who refused to wear a mask over his nose.

What's happening at Disney World?

Disney's four Orlando theme parks are running at about 35 percent capacity. But they look as crowded as ever because of social distancing protocols, which require guests to stand six feet apart. You have to book your visit to each theme park visit in advance. And some popular rides like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Hollywood Studios also require a reservation.

Guests told me they're grateful Disney's Florida theme parks are open. Disneyland in California has been closed during the pandemic. If you need a Disney fix in the United States, this is pretty much your only option. And visitors didn't complain about the strict mask rules in the park. You can only remove your mask to eat and take pictures.

Park officials told me they've tried to focus on the future. They're busy promoting the new Star Wars attractions at Hollywood Studios, and they're also halfway through an ambitious renovation of EPCOT.

For a day visit, Disneyworld feels almost normal — except maybe for the masked guests. But much has changed during the pandemic.

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Changes are everywhere

Many attractions are closed. Live performances such as the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios are shuttered. That's understandable. Having a crowd of guests gather anywhere during the pandemic seems like a bad idea. It looked like 30 to 40 percent of the attractions were temporarily out of commission. Which ones will stay closed, and for how long? No one knows.

Many restaurants are contactless. A lot of on-site restaurants require that you scan a QR code and order online. Delivery times are significantly slower. At the Regal Eagle Smokehouse, wait times for a sandwich were more than a half-hour. At the ABC Commissary at Hollywood Studios, it took almost a full hour to get food yesterday. Longer wait times have become the norm, for the sake of safety.

Cast members have become the mask police. Again, for obvious reasons, everyone has to wear a mask. The cast members (Disney-speak for employees) have to enforce these rules. But in the Florida heat, even the best mask can start to feel stifling. Pro tip: Check the "relaxation stations," where you can remove your mask and take a breather.

Mass transportation has gone socially distant. Taking a bus from your hotel to a theme park is a little weird. The buses are running at about 50 percent capacity. Drivers exit the bus at the stations and usher people onto the bus one group at a time. I talked to someone this morning who says he waited more than an hour for a ride from Saratoga Springs to the Magic Kingdom. He finally decided to drive his own car. As my son said, "They really took the mass out of mass transportation."

Character photos are now "distant selfies." You can't pose with Mickey or Goofy anymore. Instead, they parade these characters through the theme parks in horse-drawn carriages. Guests can then take "distant" selfies with the characters.

Some of these changes will almost certainly be permanent. For example, some lesser-known attractions that shut down during the pandemic may just stay that way. It's a good opportunity to do some house cleaning, anyway. If you can train your guests to use online ordering, why not keep the more efficient system? But crowded buses will return, and cast members will probably be relieved to be off mask patrol.

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This is pretty funny

There were a few times when I caught myself laughing at some of the transformations. I lived in Orlando for 12 years and thought of myself as an expert on the Disney parks. But I managed to get myself lost twice in a day. Once, I pulled into a bus terminal instead of the main parking lot, and another time I got hopelessly turned around at EPCOT because of the construction. I was more than a half-hour late for a meeting.

I kept asking myself why everyone had a sunburned forehead. Last night, the answer revealed itself when I peeled off my facemask, which I'd worn all day. I had a swimsuit tan — on my face.

There's also the irony of enforcing social distancing and mask requirements, but then having a jam-packed Hollywood Boulevard or World Showcase. I'm no doctor, but it seemed as if guests were obeying the rules but still putting themselves at risk by being in a crowd. 

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What this means for your next trip

Remember how I said Disney is a barometer for the rest of the travel industry? It's probably more true now than ever. As attractions, hotels and restaurants reopen this summer, they'll be looking to examples like Disney for how to do it. Expect to see mask requirements, contactless options, mandated social distancing — and forehead tans.

But it remains to be seen how effective these changes will be. Orange County, Fla. (where Disney is located for the most part) is seeing a slight uptick in COVID-19 cases. But if someone is infected during their visit to the park, chances are they'll return home before they get a diagnosis, so it wouldn't count as a Florida case.

Some travelers will avoid a place like Disney World this summer because it's just too risky. They're the ones who last week firmly supported a no-vax/no-travel rule in the comments section. Others believe COVID-19 doesn't exist, so Disney shouldn't have any restrictions on visitors. 

Fortunately, my kids and I are still healthy after a weekend at Disney World. Ideally, I would have waited for the pandemic to fade a little more, but we didn't have that choice. Our road trip must go on.

Over to you. Should Disney World have opened in Florida, or do you think California set a better example by effectively closing its theme parks? What do you think the summer travel season will look like? Will more companies follow Disney's example — or go in a different direction?

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