×

Shanghai’s Disneyland on Monday became the first Disney theme park in the world to reopen in the wake of coronavirus, operating at just 20% capacity to allow for social distancing — to the delight of visitors let loose in a mostly empty park.

“It’s empty! Empty! There’s only a 10 minute wait for the Soaring Over the Horizon ride! Happiness has returned again!” an ecstatic annual pass holder  with the surname Wang told the Shanghai Securities News. 

A young girl whose face was completely obscured behind a pink face mask and bunny rabbit-shaped sunglasses told state broadcaster CCTV, “I’m so happy. That big castle is so beautiful!” Her mother explained, “Before the epidemic, I promised our daughter that we’d go to Disneyland. Today is us filling our promise.”

China is in the process of recovering from the economic standstill brought about by COVID-19, and is a few months ahead of the rest of the world in terms of its progress through the pandemic. It has shut its borders to almost all foreigners in hopes of keeping what it calls “imported” cases at bay.

The Shanghai park’s reopening comes as Disney grapples with an estimated $1.4 billion in losses in the first three months of the year. In late April, the company stopped paying more than 100,000 of its employees amidst the downturn.

In China, however, employees were kept on through the pandemic and business is now impressively brisk.

Tickets for the park’s opening day sold out in three minutes on the first day of sales last Friday, while tickets for the week sold out in an hour. Entries are scheduled in differently timed batches to further limit crowds, and a half-day option starting at 2pm is also on offer.

Disney CEO, Bob Chapek told U.S. media on Monday that ticket sales would be increased by 5,000 per week until the Shanghai park is selling 30% of its capacity.

Many took to the Twitter-like Weibo social media platform to express their frustration at being unable to nab a ticket due to sell outs or malfunctions. “I’ve been swiping for 40 minutes and constantly inputting card and ID numbers, but nothing’s working,” one groused, to a chorus of replies that “it’s like that for everyone, really! My hands are so sore, my heart is so weary.”

Searches for the keyword “Disney” have recently shot up by 400% on travel website Donkey Mama, compared to what they were during the epidemic. And out of all the 10,000 scenic spots that Chinese travel platform Ctrip sells tickets to worldwide, Shanghai Disney currently ranks first.

“The reopening of Shanghai Disneyland demonstrates the recovery of the tourism sector… which will accelerate its recovery as more and more scenic spots and tourist sites resume operators,” said Ctrip spokesman Hong Feng. “The sales of Shanghai Disneyland tickets show that Chinese consumers have a huge demand for travel and vacationing, and are still one of the most consumer groups in the world.”

The return to normal after months of being shut in has been a relief for many visitors. A young man visiting the park with his girlfriend told Chinese outlet The Paper: “After having gone through the repressive period of quarantine, China’s domestic situation is now comparatively safe, and we can come out and relax a bit.”

Park staff lined up on Mickey Avenue, the path leading to the main entrance, to greet arriving visitors with a chipper chorus of “welcome back!”

Attendees are required to wear masks at all times except while eating. To enter the park, they must pass through a tent where there temperature is taken, display a QR code proving they have a clean bill of health, show a government ID and go through a security check.

Guests are encouraged to use the 300 bottles of hand sanitizer placed around the premises and at the exit of every ride. They are also urged to pay with contact-less digital payment methods, and only touch the toys and merchandise they are sure to buy.

“We’ve enhanced our cleaning and sanitization throughout the park, so we have many more cast members out wiping down surfaces – high touch, medium-touch, low-touch objects — to make sure we are providing that safe environment for our guests,” Shanghai Disney’s senior VP of operations Andrew Bolstein told CCTV.

Most rides are open, but some performances and other experiences, like photo ops with costumed staff, have yet to be reinstated.

“We’re looking for new, creative ways to present our characters,” Bolstein explained, saying that a few parade floats with characters on them might occasionally meander around and surprise visitors. On Monday, Buzz Lightyear, Cinderella and Spiderman merely stood above the crowds on a second floor balcony and waved down at them.

Park staff have placed yellow markers on floors, railings and seats to help visitors maintain appropriate social distance. Yellow boxes indicate where parties should stand while watching performances, and yellow lines indicate which rows should be left empty and which seats may be taken on rides like “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

“It’s really reducing capacity significantly on the ride, but allowing that social distancing, which is what’s most important this stage,” Bolstein told reporters over the weekend.

The resort had already opened some of the shops and entertainment options outside the park proper in early March, including Disneytown, Wishing Star Park and the Shanghai Disneyland Hotel. It still appears to be on track to open a new Zootopia-themed Disneyland expansion next year, whose construction the Shanghai municipal government confirmed in February was moving ahead.

The Shanghai resort’s president and GM Joe Schott called the re-opening a “very special moment,” saying that amidst COVID-19, “making magic means even more to us today.”

“While this is a key step in our phased reopening, there are many more milestones to come for us and our sister parks around the world.”