Disneyland reopening highlights California's Covid turnaround

Reopening comes four months after the state struggled to combat surge in coronavirus hospital admissions

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Disneyland, California’s world-famous theme park, reopened to excited visitors Friday after an unprecedented 13-month closure in what tourism officials hope is a sign of the state’s rebound from the pandemic.

The reopening came four months after the nation’s most populous state was struggling to combat a surge in coronavirus hospital admissions that packed patients into outdoor tents and killed hundreds of people each day.

Some visitors cheered and screamed with happiness as they entered Disneyland.

Disney chief executive Bob Chapek told employees during a morning gather: “We’re not just another place. We’re not just another theme park. We’re something special and we’re something special because of all of you, because you bring magic to the world."

For now, the park is allowing only in-state visitors and operating at limited capacity. The park now has hand sanitising stations and signs reminding visitors to keep their distance and wear masks. Benches are marked as “designated dining areas” where visitors can remove face coverings to eat.

Many visitors had gathered outside Disneyland since the previous night.

“It has such a symbolic nature to really quantifying that we’re finally rolling out of Covid,” said Caroline Beteta, president and chief executive of the state tourism agency, Visit California.

The news comes as California reports the country’s lowest rate of confirmed coronavirus infections and that more than half of the population eligible for vaccination has received at least one dose. It’s a big turnaround from December, when hospitals across the state were running out of intensive care beds and treating patients at overflow locations.

Now, children are returning to school, shops and restaurants are expanding business and Governor Gavin Newsom set June 15 as a target date to further reopen the economy, albeit with some health-related restrictions.

Theme parks were among the last businesses allowed to reopen in California, and Universal Studios and others have already thrown open their gates. That’s a contrast to states with fewer restrictions such as Florida, where Disney World’s Magic Kingdom resort has been up and running, though at lower-than-usual capacity, since last July.

While California continues to “strongly discourage” anyone from visiting the state as tourists, the travel industry is banking on pent-up demand from its own nearly 40 million residents for a comeback. An advertising campaign encourages Californians to travel within the state, mirroring a pitch made after the terror attacks of September 11, 2001.

Disneyland is a major economic engine in California, drawing nearly 19 million people the year before the coronavirus struck, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. It and other such attractions were shuttered in March 2020 as Mr Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide shutdown order.

The park and neighbouring Disney California Adventure will reopen with a capacity that is currently capped at 25 per cent under state health rules.

Reservations are required, hugs and handshakes with Mickey and other characters are off limits, and the famous parades and fireworks shows have been shelved to limit crowding.

California currently allows residents and fully vaccinated out-of-state visitors to attend theme parks. The state could open its economy more fully on June 15 provided vaccine supply is sufficient and hospital admissions remain stable and low.