As Disneyland Reopens, Visitors and Many Workers Eager to Return: ‘I Can Already Feel the Magic’

Elaine Low
·6-min read

After shuttering for 13 months amid a devastating global pandemic, Disneyland is reopening — and David Vaughn, for one, is excited.

Before COVID-19 hit, the 36-year-old would visit theme parks about twice a month. In line to enter Disneyland on Friday morning, he described the atmosphere as “incredibly relaxed,” with other eager visitors wearing masks and staying socially distanced.

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“Disneyland is also piping out songs like ‘Be Our Guest’ on the speakers so I can already feel the magic,” Vaughn told Variety while waiting outside the park with his sister, Chrissy. “She’s humming along to the music. It’s just that sort of fun, early morning vibe.”

The year-long closure of Southern California’s theme parks as a safety measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus has struck an enormous financial blow to companies like the Walt Disney Company, translating to a $6.9 billion hit to its parks revenue in fiscal 2020 and 32,000 in parks layoffs. The entertainment conglomerate — as well as the Disney enthusiasts yearning to return — have been anticipating this day, with Disney Parks head Josh D’Amaro teasing the reopening with Marvel Studios chief Kevin Feige earlier this month, complete with a very real-looking lightsaber.

The huge logistical feat also means the return of about 10,000 parks staffers who had been furloughed since March 2020.

Glynndana Shevlin said she was looking forward to going back to the iconic theme park and resort — for work, not for play. But she misses it all the same.

Shevlin started working at the Disneyland Hotel in Anaheim, Calif. on Sept. 13, 1988 at 28 years old, as a hostess-cashier at a restaurant once known as Caffe Villa Verde. (It was later remade as Stromboli’s, and is now known as Goofy’s Kitchen.) Since 1991, she has been a food and beverage concierge in a VIP area of the hotel that serves continental breakfast, hors d’oeuvres and desserts, where she has also received introductory sommelier training. What she misses most is interacting with her fellow “cast members,” as the park’s workers are known, and Disneyland’s many visitors.

“It was a conversation. You get to know these guests, and my guests come often,” Shevlin said. “I have guests that plan every year to come at the same time and you start to know them. And I miss them. So that’s what I’m looking forward to the most.”

In the meantime, she has been working as a caregiver for the last six months. While Shevlin, who is fully vaccinated, has not been given an exact return-to-work date yet — Disneyland Hotel has not yet announced an opening date — she is waiting for the call.

Yet there remains anxiety among some Disneyland workers, particularly those who have not yet been vaccinated but want to get back to work, said Chris Duarte, president of Workers United Local 50, whose 5,000 total members include Disneyland’s food service employees. About two weeks ahead of the opening, he expected about half of the local union chapter’s furloughed members to be called back to the theme park.

“From the ones we’ve talked to at the resort who have said yes [to going back to work], the majority are excited to be back,” he said. “It signifies a return to normalcy.”

Ines Guzman, who has been working in housekeeping at the Disneyland Resort for five years, is “super excited” to head back.

“They’re doing social distancing, the temp checks, wearing masks, and sick pay… as long as Disney continues with the safety measures, I think we’re gonna be set,” she said.

The reopening marks a turning point for Southern California, as the state’s COVID-19 rates continue to drop dramatically from the post-holiday surge just a few short months ago, when California was logging as many as 74,000 new coronavirus cases in one day. By contrast, the most recent daily data from state officials reflect 1,897 new cases — and notably, 29.8 million vaccines administered statewide. Orange County, Calif., where Disneyland is located, is now considered at a moderate risk level — the second-least restrictive tier — in which theme parks can open at 25% capacity and only to in-state visitors.

The constantly evolving federal and state guidelines have meant some confusion over the rules — when and where to wear masks, whether they must be worn outside, and so on. The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now allows for fully vaccinated Americans to go mask-less while running or walking outside, though they must continue to wear face coverings while in crowded outdoor areas.

At Disneyland, a slew of new safety guidelines are in place for the phased reopening: reservations are required, and only California residents can visit in groups spanning no more than three households. There are temperature screenings at the door, increased cleaning, and cashless payment is encouraged; the park is maintaining its rules around masks, i.e. face coverings for all visitors age 2 and up.

Meanwhile, local peer and competitor Universal Studios Hollywood has taken a modified approach to its reopening. According to its website, the theme park will now accept out-of-state visitors who can show proof of vaccination for COVID-19.

Food-service staffer Jose Cano, who has worked at Universal Studios Hollywood for almost 24 years, was living on a “pretty tight budget” while the park was closed. He returned to work on March 11, nearly a full year after Universal closed, for the park’s food event, Taste of Universal. The full reopening on April 16 was “business as usual.”

“Now that there’s rides open, just hearing the crowds laughing or screaming is bringing the sense of normality back to where we were at before,” says Cano. About 95% of visitors he’s observed have complied with masking guidelines. “For me, it feels pretty safe, much safer than going out to the supermarket or any other stores.”

Hardcore theme parks enthusiasts have been streaming back into parks, as evidenced by the celebratory videos on social media Friday.

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Burbank resident Christian Bladt, 45, decided not to join the opening day crush, but has already bought tickets for mid-May for his wife and two young children.

“We’re of course excited to go back, but curious what it’s like with all the safety protocols,” he said. “And to be honest, we’re really looking forward to there only being like a quarter of the people there as normal.”

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