Workers praise Disney virus safety, but will visitors come?

A tent outside the Magic Kingdom screens arriving guests during the first days of reopening at Walt Disney World, Saturday, July 11, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ORLANDO, Fla. – Every week, it seems, Kaila Barker, her husband and their five children change their minds about whether to travel from their home in Connecticut to Florida's Walt Disney World as planned in September.

On the one hand, the lack of crowds means more opportunities to go on rides without long waits. On the other hand, Connecticut and Florida have implemented pandemic-related quarantines for each other's residents and visitors, and the Barkers worry whether the Disney “magic" will get lost with mandatory mask-wearing for visitors and workers, temperature checks and no parades, fireworks shows or up-close “meet-and-greets" with costumed characters.

“We keep going back and forth. It's such a hard decision to make," Barker said last Tuesday.

Two weeks after Disney World started opening its theme parks for the first time since closing in March because of COVID-19, the Barkers' quandary affects not only Disney World's future but that of central Florida's tourism-reliant economy.

More than 75 million visitors came to Orlando in 2018, mostly due to its reputation as a theme park mecca, which also includes Universal Orlando and SeaWorld Orlando. But the coronavirus has upended Orlando's status as the most visited place in the U.S.

In the week that Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom started welcoming back visitors, occupancy of hotel rooms in the Orlando area was down more than 60% from the previous year, a much deeper drop than the state as a whole, which declined more than 41%, according to STR, which tracks hotel data.

Less than half of Disney World's 43,000 unionized workers have been recalled to their old jobs, contributing to two Orlando-area counties having the state's highest unemployment rates last month — Osceola at 22.9% and Orange at 17.2%. Disney World has an overall workforce of 77,000 employees, the nation's largest single-site labor force.

Many of those still-furloughed workers are about to lose federal benefits at the end of the month.