Disney CEO explains why it’s safe to go back to Disney World

Chapek spoke with CNN Business about reopening the parks and how different they will look under the new health guidelines.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

I’m a Disney World annual passholder. Tell me why it’s safe for me and my family to go back to Disney.

Well, I think what we can say is that we’ve done everything we can to open up responsibly. Taking the guidance of local health officials, state health officials, national health officials, plus our own well qualified doctors on staff to create an environment to create new operating procedures, to create new policies, to do new training, new standards of hygiene. So that when a guest comes in we can continue the trust that guests have always had with the Walt Disney company and enjoy the parks so they can make those magical memories that last a lifetime.

What will the parks look like under the new health guidelines?

Well, the first thing that’s going look different is that our cast and guests will both have masks on, and that’s obviously something that we’re not accustomed to in the parks. But you’ll also see copious amount of tape at six foot distances in our queue lines and essentially throughout the park so that people know what six foot actually looks like. And we’re going to help our guests help us maintain that social distancing, which is so important.

Obviously Central Florida is incredibly hot during the summer. How do you plan to enforce people wearing masks inside of the parks since it’s a mandatory guideline?

Well, so far our experience has been that the guests have been very cooperative when it comes to wearing the masks. And I think that’s really going to be part of the contract of coming to Walt Disney World in any capacity. We’re going to enforce that rule. It’s for everybody’s safety. We’ve had a great experience in Shanghai. And so far the experience at Disney Springs, after only a short week, is that guests are willing to wear the masks because they know that it’s for everyone’s good… You know I’ve had this mask on pretty much the whole day, and you just forget about it after a while, and I think that’s going to be a part of maintaining the magic.

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The first phase will be at limited capacity, the plan said today, but it didn’t say how much of a limited capacity it would be. Could you tell me, is it 25%? 50%?

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Well, unlike Shanghai, where there were strict government mandates in terms of what capacity could be when we reopened, we don’t have that here at Walt Disney World. So what we’re doing is using the six foot social distancing in order to set what the capacity should be. So our industrial engineers have been busy over the last few months, trying to figure out what that would look like, and the capacity that we’re going to open up with is actually slightly below where we really think we can reside with that six feet.

Obviously it’s not profitable to operate a theme park at a limited capacity. But where would the breakeven be?

Well, we won’t open up a park unless we can cover our variable costs — essentially our cost to operate the park. So then beyond that it becomes a question of trying to cover your overhead and your capital expenses that you have. And we’ll make some baby steps towards that but we won’t be essentially losing money, as your hypothesis suggests, when we open up. We just won’t necessarily be operating in full capacity.

You’ve opened Shanghai, and now you’re planning on opening Walt Disney World in Orlando. Do we have any information about Disneyland? Or the rest of the parks around the world?

Once again, we’re taking our guidance from the local government, both the Orange County government as well as the state of California. And they’ll be advising us when we can reopen. We just learned this week that we’ll be in stage three as determined in the state of California, which I think is good news for fans of Disneyland. But specifically when that will be will be a function of how that’s all interpreted and we’ll work with our state and local officials to make sure that’s done in a responsible way as well.

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If you keep the parks closed, you eliminate the risks of any guests or employees getting sick. Unfortunately, that puts a lot of your employees out of work. How do you balance those risks?

That essentially is the million dollar question I think all municipalities as well as people that operate theme parks as large as Disney theme parks have to deal with. To some extent, there’s a trust that’s built up in the Walt Disney Company that we’ll operate responsibly when we do decide to open up. But we’ve got a myriad, layers upon layers upon layers of defenses against this virus.

We’re going to be doing temperature checks daily for our cast members when they come to work every day. But also we’ve sent [each cast member] their own personal thermometer so that they can take their temperatures even before they show up to work. We talked about masks, we talked about social distancing, we talked about things like new and improved hygiene and sanitation — even better than you’re used to at Disney. We’ve got so many layers that we believe that we can open up responsibly even though there is still a risk out there and it’s up to everybody to evaluate that risk given their own personal situation.

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Is Disney prepared to close down again if there is a significant second wave later this year?

One of the reasons why we’re moving so slowly, so deliberately and so cautiously, is that we hope to avoid that type of situation, and we think by moving very cautiously and deliberately, that we can mitigate the chances of that happening.

The last three months have been unprecedented to the world, but also to Disney World. You became CEO as the Covid-19 pandemic turned the economy and the company upside down. How are you personally leading through this crisis?

Well I think, you know, you return to your roots. You return to the fact that we have something that is the envy I think of every company, which is, one of the strongest — if not the strongest — brands on Earth, unbelievable casts that are passionate about what they do, about the magic that they deliver to our guests.

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We’ve got an unbelievable wealth of franchises and content that we can create to put on places like Disney+ or in movie theaters. So, really, our strength in the past is our strength in the future. And that’s what will drive us to that restoration of the magic. And so, I’m bullish about the future. I’m extremely bullish about the Walt Disney Company and its ability and its mission to create those magical memories that last a lifetime.

We spoke to each other this week last year. You were chairman of Disney Parks and you were opening Galaxy’s Edge. Now, you’re the CEO of Disney, and you’re reopening Disney World. If we speak to each other next year, what do you hope we’re talking about?

I think we’re going to be talking about the vibrant recovery of the travel business, the vibrant return of passionate guests to Disney experiences around the world and restoration of the magic that everybody wants so much.

When the park reopens, what’s the first ride you’re going on?

First ride that I’m going to go on? I like Pirates of the Caribbean. That’s a classic attraction and I’ll ride that any time I can.

As long as the pirates stay six feet away from each other.

Pirates have to stay six feet away from each other, yes.

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