July 11 (Reuters) - “Star Wars” Stormtroopers enforced mask-wearing and Mickey Mouse waved from a distance on Saturday as Florida’s Walt Disney World opened to the public for the first time in four months amid a surge of coronavirus cases in the state.
Walt Disney Co welcomed a limited number of guests to parts of its sprawling Orlando complex, the most-visited theme park resort in the world, with a host of safety measures designed to reassure visitors and reduce the chances of catching the sometimes deadly virus.
Executives felt confident they had developed a responsible plan for reopening in phases during the pandemic, said Josh D’Amaro, chairman of Disney’s parks, experiences and products division.
“This is the new world that we’re operating in, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon,” D’Amaro said in an interview on Saturday after he greeted guests and workers at the park.
Disney’s reopening of parks in Asia helped provide assurance about moving ahead in Florida, he added.
“I feel really good about our environment,” he added. “We’re taking this seriously.”
At the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, the two parks open on Saturday, guests and employees wore face masks, underwent temperature screenings and were told to social distance everywhere from streets to rides. Plexiglass separated rows in lines, and ground markings indicated where people should stsand.
The resort suspended parades, fireworks and other activities that create crowds, as well as up-close encounters with Mickey Mouse, Cinderella and other characters. Instead, characters appeared on floats or on horseback.
Some pictures on Twitter showed people close together waiting to get in. Disney employees, called cast members, began enforcing distancing requirements after about 30 minutes, one person said.
Florida has emerged as an epicenter of COVID-19 infections. Over the past two weeks, Florida reported 109,000 new coronavirus cases, more than any other U.S. state.
Still, many Disney fans and workers were eager for Disney World to open its gates. The resort employs 77,000 people. Disney said it had trained a group of employees, including some who play costumed characters such as superheroes from “The Incredibles,” to nudge guests who become lax about the rules. Stormtroopers kept watch for violations in the Disney Springs shopping district outside the theme parks.
“There is a shared responsibility here so guests are going to have to do their part,” D’Amaro said.
Coronavirus shutdowns have devastated Disney’s film, TV and theme park businesses. Having guests back at Walt Disney World is key to the company’s financial recovery. About 75 percent of the parks unit’s operating income comes from Orlando, Imperial Capital analyst David Miller estimates.
Florida’s governor approved Disney World’s reopening plans in late May, before the current surge.
About 750 stage performers represented by the Actors Equity union were absent because of a dispute over coronavirus testing. The union wants Disney to provide regular testing to its members, who cannot wear masks while performing.
Disney has said it is following health experts’ recommendations to focus on other safeguards. If employees seek tests on their own, Disney’s health insurance will cover it, according to a source familiar with the matter.
Seven other unions reached agreement with Disney on conditions for returning to work.
Disney did not say how many people entered Walt Disney World on Saturday, but D’Amaro said he saw “really good demand” for reservations in the short term and into 2021.
Shanghai Disneyland has increased capacity from its original limit of 20%, or about 16,000 people a day, when it re-opened in May. Guest surveys showed “exceptionally strong” satisfaction with the Shanghai experience and the safety measures, D’Amaro said. (Reporting by Lisa Richwine; Additional reporting by Lisa Shumaker Editing by Alistair Bell)