Disney’s Magic Kingdom during COVID-19: What Can Conventions Learn Here?
Here we go, folks: my third and final post about my trip to Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom in the midst of a pandemic.
- Disney’s Magic Kingdom during COVID-19: Overview
- Disney’s Magic Kingdom during COVID-19: Suggestions
- Disney’s Magic Kingdom during COVID-19: What Can Conventions Learn Here?
In the late nineties and early two thousands I worked for both Universal Orlando and the Walt Disney World Resort. In 2001 I fell down the rabbit hole of working in pop culture events (aka “comic cons” in mainstream vernacular) and, since then, it’s become my full time job. I attribute part my success in the industry to what I learned working in theme parks and applying that to events I help produce.
Right now everyone in any industry that involves mass gatherings is looking for answers. I personally visited a couple cons last month where promotors tried to kickstart pop culture events into operation again. The results ranged from doing nothing to trying some restrictions the best they could. “Because Florida,” two more events are having a go at it again this coming weekend: The Clearwater Toy Show hosted by Florida Toy Shows Expos and CollectiveCon in Jacksonville, Florida. It will be interesting to see how they fare.
Last Friday I attended an Annual Passholder preview for the opening of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom theme park the day before they opened to the public. Here are some observations that might benefit fellow event promoters/convention runners:
SIX FEET APART IS RADIAL, NOT LINEAR
The day after going to Disney World, I took my wife to lunch at a popular local BBQ restaurant in Longwood that I knew had outdoor seating. When you walk in the front door, there is a winding queue to order and pay before getting your meal and finding a seat. As we entered, I saw decals on the ground clearly stating “PLEASE STAND HERE” and, six feet ahead of me in line, another decal for the next person/party. However, it looped around and when I looked less than two feet to my left there was a person standing there.
You see, the management had set up the line to be six feet away from the next person ahead of them in line, but they hadn’t accounted for the fact that the second section of the queue put people right next to those waiting in the previous section and the next one. (The queue had three sections.)
Disney thought of this, and you should too, when designing lines for things like tickets and autograph signings at your convention. Six feet apart is a radius, not a straight line. Here’s a photo from my earlier Magic Kingdom blog post of the Jungle Cruise queue:
There are two spaces to wait in the section of queue that we are in: Shannon is standing on one and the other is at the far end of the section behind her. To the left you’ll see two spaces where people are distanced and the entire section of the queue to our right is empty.
ADDED NOTE: I did point this out to the manager at the restaurant we went to and he and his team immediately started moving elements of their line around when they realized the mistake. It’s awesome when businesses are open to feedback.
Convention vendors love creating attention so that people will walk up to their booth. This can involve playing music and videos to create energy around them so attendees feel like heading over and being a part of it. However, this means that communication – especially when everyone is wearing face coverings – can be challenging.
When we walked into stores inside the Magic Kingdom there was a noticeable lack of music that is usually being pumped in to enhance the “Disney experience” for park attendees. You know: hearing “Let it Go” for the thousandth time so you are reminded to buy that new Elsa doll. The silence, though, made it easier to be heard when a question was asked and when customers were checking out. Thus, it minimized people pulling their masks down/off to be heard.
NOTE: Sound levels are also something to also keep in mind in a Video Game Room.
A number of conventions host a “quiet room” or some sort of area where attendees can get away from the crowds. In some cases, Anime Viewing Rooms serve this purpose. Disney has embraced this idea and taken it a step further by creating a socially distanced seating area where people or families/groups can sit down, catch their breath, and take off their masks. It’s worth considering cloning this at a convention. Sure, it WILL take up a lot of space typically used for other elements, but it will give your attendees the opportunity to help manage the anxiety that inevitably will appear from time to time at COVID era mass gatherings.
SIGNS AND MORE SIGNS
While this is something I poked fun of in my first blog post about visiting the Magic Kingdom, there is merit to it – especially if you take it a step further. First off, signs work more than just being a reminder to attendees about important information. They lay the groundwork for eliminating plausible deniability. “I didn’t see where it said you couldn’t do that!” falls flat when your convention is saturated with posters, banners, and other printed materials hanging everywhere.
The one element I would take a step further than Disney did is in the design of these messages. Create signs that are multiple colors and feature a variety images. Does your event have a mascot? If so, have artwork done showing him/her/them wearing a mask and put it on a sign. Partner with cosplayers and do a photoshoot of them in costume wearing masks, washing their hands, practicing social distancing – and then feature them in signs around the event. The message may have to be redundant, but the delivery of it can be creative.
DESIGN AND SELL MASKS
Disney sells Disney masks. This isn’t new, however. One of my wife’s favorite souvenirs is a mask I bought for her from Tokyo DisneySea when I was there a couple of years ago. (She’s a big Alice in Wonderland fan.)
Wearing masks in Asian countries is normalized, and they are worn to help stop the spread germs. You think you’re coming down with a cold? In Japan, you would wear a mask all day. As a result of this, you can find a variety of themed face coverings to buy and wear when you’re there. So why not do the same at your convention? Create one or more themed face masks that your attendees can acquire. You can even include a limited edition version for anyone who pre-registers. Embrace safety by making it geeky for pop culture event attendees.
OTHER THINGS TO THINK OF
- Exit and entrance only signs for event rooms. These were a norm at all stores and restaurants in the theme park.
- Disney had announcements throughout the park’s loudspeaker system reminding everyone to wash their hands, social distance, wear a mask, etc. Do you have voice actors (or actors in general) appearing at your event? Ask if they’d be comfortable recording a message like this for your attendees and play it from time to time.
- The rules loophole some park guests would try to use to avoid wearing masks was that you are allowed to not have a mask on while eating/drinking. Thus, attendees would walk around with a drink in their hand for extended periods of time to justify going maskless. In a convention center environment, you can relegate eating and drinking to specific areas only (“No food or drink in the Exhibitor’s Hall,” etc.) minimizing the ability for attendees looking to abuse the rules. You should, of course, work with your host property to determine if this is feasible on a case to case basis.
- If you haven’t moved to a digital convention guide instead of a printed one, now is the time to consider it. Touchless pay and info via QR codes were in heavy use in the theme park and are becoming a norm for restaurants and shopping.
What do you think? Is Disney doing it right, or are there things you feel they could be doing better? What other theme park style elements do you think would work at your favorite anime/comic/geek convention?