Some Disney Influencers Take Unfamiliar Stance: Don’t Go
Disney Instagrammer Adriana Redding was smack in the middle of the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida when she learned the theme park would be closing. On Thursday, March 12, the CDC had recorded 938 total cases of COVID-19 and 29 deaths in the U.S., prompting Disney to announce not just the closure of its flagship park, but also Disneyland resort in California, Disneyland Paris, and new departures from the Disney Cruise Line. It was Redding’s first media event, for the Disney Dreamers Academy for children, scored thanks to her work showcasing how one can live an affordable, magical, Disneyfied life on @bibbidibobbidi_broke to over 17,000 followers. While the news was announced a few days before the park’s closure, Redding said it was that afternoon that Disney sent the kids home.
“I felt like, Okay, this is my last time being able to go to the park for a while,” she remembers.
Disney influencers faced a unique challenge when Disney shut its gates.
“Suddenly it’s not relevant anymore how many FastPasses you can book or FastPasses in general because there's no more FastPass,” 26-year-old Geoffrey Koester, who runs @themeparkmillennial, says over the phone.
The bloggers improvised, learned PhotoShop, and scoured their camera roll for #latergrams. During it all, a creator in the Disney community, Joshua Obra, died of coronavirus. Then, on Saturday, July 11, Walt Disney World Resort reopened as Florida recorded 10,360 new COVID-19 cases—11 times higher than the total U.S. number that prompted them to close their doors in the first place (Disneyland Paris opens July 15, while Disneyland resort in California remains closed except for a phased reopening of the Downtown Disney District). As patrons filled the park in now-viral images, prompting Twitter backlash, Redding and Koester were nowhere to be found.
“I thought Disney was making the right choice at first,” Koester says of Disney’s initial plans, announced back in May. “As we got closer and closer to the opening, I started thinking, Okay, these case numbers are still going up. How are they still opening?”
Over the past few months, states across America have implemented phased reopenings after some almost entirely shut down in order to prevent the spread of the pandemic. Reopenings are forcing some people to choose between risking their health by going back to work or losing their jobs in the midst of mass unemployment. Disney influencers are facing a similar predicament: Now that the park is open, choosing not to go for sake of their own health puts them at a disadvantage in terms of content—and their careers.
“How do I keep up?” asks Koester, who lives in Indiana and therefore decided against the risks of air travel to attend the reopening. “How do I still do what I need to do to be a part of this community and be this creator while also not going and making that choice?”
Ultimately, Koester knew he wouldn’t be able to convince his audience not to go (“It's kind of this unspoken rule to be positive,” he says, referring to the community), so instead he’s sharing as much information as possible to make sure those who are flocking to Orlando follow safety protocols.
“Even in my content that I'm shooting in my living room, I'm wearing a mask in it lately because that's what we expect them to do in the parks,” he says. “Especially if I'm tagging Disney World as the location or I'm using those hashtags where it's going to appear next to other photos that are actually in the park.”
Redding, who lives in Orlando, found a different compromise. While initially she was going to wait a few weeks until after the reopening before she visited, the park later announced a special preview for Disney passholders in the days prior to the official reopening. She realized that might be her only chance to experience Disney with the smallest possible crowds, so she put on her special Disney mask from Park Candy and entered the gates.
“I felt pretty comfortable,” she says of her visit, which included lots of hand sanitizer, virtual queues, and extremely low wait times. “It's not necessarily a Disney thing. It's a people thing.”
One YouTuber made headlines for documenting her return to Disney while also complaining of shortness of breath and vomiting. She maintains it was an allergic reaction, but her refusal to go to the hospital when advised by a medic at the park could be a dark omen for patron behavior during the next year.
This isn’t to say those on the ground aren’t also skeptical. Carlye Wisel, a theme park journalist who declined to comment for this piece, has been diligently reporting from the park this past week. She tweeted on Monday night that mask-wearing at Magic Kingdom was “stunningly bad,” but stressed that overall people have been complying with new protocols.
mask wearing at the end of the day at magic kingdom is stunningly bad. there’s no staff back by Frontierland, PhotoPass shot people not wearing masks (!) and when we asked a lead why people aren’t being stopped, she said she could either tell them or finish talking to me.— 🍭 carlye wisel (@carlyewisel) July 13, 2020
Wisel also pointed out something that’s been frustrating a number of Disney influencers during the current backlash: Disney was not the first theme park in Florida to reopen.
“I understand because it's on the heels of it being the highest-reported case day ever and obviously Disney couldn't have predicted that, but we didn't see this backlash three weeks ago when Legoland opened and they don't even have to wear masks there,” Redding pointed out. (Starting tonight at 5 p.m., Legoland has announced that it will start requiring patrons eight years and older to wear masks indoors, including indoor attractions).
Of the creators I spoke to, there seems to be a similar feeling: Maybe don’t go to Disney World right now. Especially if you’re coming from out of state.
“I say people shouldn't go,” Redding reluctantly advises. “But the reason why I say they shouldn't go is because of the cases in Florida, [not] any reflection of what Disney has put in place.”
“Florida has now been labeled as the epicenter of the coronavirus,” Koester emphasizes. “New York had that designation back in April, and no one would have dreamed of going to New York at that time.”
It’s a weird position for influencers dedicated to promoting the parks to be in. While they don’t necessarily make their income from the job—Koester works in higher-education full-time—they sometimes work with brands to promote Disney-adjacent products and services. Mostly, though, they post about Disney because they love it. But it’s hard to love Disney right now: Koester feels not only like a Debbie Downer, but a defacto health official due to the lack of official leadership during the crisis.
“The number one question I got leading up to this past week was, ‘Should I cancel?’” he says. “‘This is my first visit. This is my third visit in so many years or so many months, should I cancel? I don't know what to do.’ And I'm just like, well, I can't tell you what to do.”
But Koester understands why people want to return to their happy place, especially in the midst of such a trying year.
“I totally get wanting to go to Disney. I'm right there with you,” he admits. “I have a couple different trips booked for the fall right now. I'm dying to go.”
Just not literally.