Disney Parks chief on reopening: 'We are in a new normal'

Walt Disney World reopens its gates on Saturday. But should it?

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Frank Pallotta
, CNN Business
CNN — Walt Disney World reopens its gates on Saturday. But should it?

Josh D'Amaro — the new chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences and Products — says the resort is safe and ready.

"We are in a new normal," said D'Amaro, who started the job in May. "The world is a different place, but we feel really prepared to operate in this new environment."

D'Amaro spoke with CNN Business on Saturday about reopening as coronavirus cases surge in Florida, the criticisms around opening "The Most Magical Place on Earth" in the middle of a pandemic and their recent decision to retheme the racially problematic Splash Mountain.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

Coronavirus cases are surging in Florida, why is Disney World reopening right now? Isn't reopening in this climate unsafe?

We are in a new normal right now, so what's happening outside of the gates of Walt Disney World is our new world. I think you know we were one of the first theme parks to close, and we'll be about the last to open. And we spent every minute of every day thinking about how to operate in this new normal that we're in.

I'm exceptionally proud of this group in terms of what they've put together from a protocol perspective and being able to open in a phased and really responsible way. I had a chance to walk Main Street just a few minutes ago. It feels really good in the park. So yeah, the world is a different place, but we feel really prepared to operate in this new environment that we're in.

What guarantees can you offer to guests that they'll be safe inside of your park?

We've got a screening process, for example. When folks enter the park, they'll be temperature checked. Everyone will be wearing a mask. Sanitizers are basically everywhere in the theme park. We've programmed the environment with six-foot social distancing everywhere that you go, whether that's on an attraction, in the merchandise shop, in the food and beverage [areas.]

The experience will look different. So, you won't necessarily see fireworks anymore, but you still will feel some of that magic that people are accustomed to experiencing at Disney. Our training is really aggressive with our cast members. I had a chance to speak with cast members over the course of the last couple of days. They're incredibly prepared.

What else?

Communication to our guests, who also have a responsibility here, has been really pervasive as well, so they come prepared with their face masks and understanding what social distancing looks like. And then, we're in control of the environment. We have a reservations system that we've put in place that allows us to control how many guests are inside of our parks. And then finally we're doing this in a phased fashion. We will, take our time and with the right way and make sure that guests feel comfortable and that we're feeling comfortable with the operation.

Speaking of guests: Two of the safety requirements for Disney World are wearing masks and proper social distancing. But how are the parks going to make sure that guests are following these guidelines? We've seen many across the country avoid these rules. How do you guys plan on enforcing them?

So first of all, from a communication perspective, we've been incredibly aggressive in communicating to our guests. We've actually had a little bit of fun with that as well, using our intellectual property and The Incredibles, letting the guests know that they have a part in this whole process.

The other thing that we have the benefit of is parks around the world. And we've had a chance to open parks around the world and watch how guests are behaving and shift our operations as necessary. In fact, Disney Springs just opened recently right here in Orlando, and we've had the benefit of working with our guests and our cast members to make sure everybody's doing their part. And they are.

We've been really impressed with guests understanding when they come into this environment that it is a new environment and they have a responsibility as well. And it's working really well. And again, just walking around Walt Disney World this morning, everybody looks fantastic in their face masks, and they all have them on.

But some people may refuse to wear a mask. Some people may take it off and not put it back on. Do you guys have any structures in place to deal with this situation when people break the rules?

We've actually seen incredible cooperation from our guests, first of all. And if anybody loses sight of what's necessary when they're in the park, we have cast members, again, that are exceptionally well-trained. In fact, we have very specific cast member groups, I think we call them "The Incredi-Crew," leveraging the communication that I talked about a little bit earlier. And they'll very nicely remind somebody, "Pull your face mask up," or, "If you're not eating or drinking, make sure you have your face mask on." And that seems to be working pretty well.

Did you, at any point since announcing the reopening date, reconsider opening Disney World as cases in Florida spiked?

Listen, we are watching the external environment really carefully. But what we've done here is we've built an operations protocol. We've phased this opening. We put ourselves in complete control. But our confidence has always been high that independent of what's happening on the outside of our gates, we're in a position to open responsibly. And again, it's validated when you go and you talk to our cast members and you see the guests coming in this morning. So, we're really confident with our approach.

If the situation gets worse in Florida, at what point would Disney consider re-closing Disney World?

Well, first, what I'm focused on right now is getting the park open, which I'm really proud of and, again, seeing the guests come in this morning. We built our operation, so we can flex. And so, we'll flex with what's happening on the outside from, again, controlled attendance to training our cast members to kind of watch the motions inside of the park.

Disney has a workforce of about 75,000, which makes it America's largest single site workforce. And many of them may be worried or even scared about returning to work. What do you say to those cast members?

Well, I had the benefit yesterday of walking around both of our parks, and I talked to literally hundreds of cast members, and this is a new environment for our cast. When they come back, they're getting trained in a brand-new way. I think I see the confidence in the cast members' eyes. I hear it in what they're playing back to us.

There's no doubt that at some point people might feel a little bit nervous, but once we train them and help them understand the protocols that we have into place, the way in which they're going to interact with guests, the way that we've programmed the whole operation, their confidence is incredibly high. And this is something I take very seriously. We do have a lot of cast members here. This is our number one priority, to make sure that they feel equipped to do their job in the best way possible.

There's been criticism about Disney reopening in this climate. Do you think that's fair?

I can understand people's criticisms, but again, I am incredibly confident about where we are from an operations perspective. And when guests are ready to come, they can come. It's their choice. We will be ready and open for business and ready to make that magic that we always make.

Disney announced it would be re-theming Splash Mountain into "The Princess and the Frog" from the controversial "Song of the South." What role did the Black Lives Matter protests and conversations about race in recent weeks have in influencing the timing of the announcement?

We actually have been working on it for well over a year. In fact, I was a part of those conversations over a year ago. Listen, our stories evolve all the time. I mean, back from when Walt started Disneyland back in 1955, he stated that if we would continue to evolve our stories, that they're never ending, that they'll always be contemporary. And I think that that's what you're seeing with Splash Mountain.

I keep using the same word, but I'm really proud of this team and what we're doing on this front. I think Splash Mountain, no doubt, is a sacred attraction to many of our guests. And I think you're going to love what we're doing in making the attraction even more contemporary.

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