The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every life on earth be it through the losses from the virus itself or the many lives that prevention measures throw off track. While the pandemic is still raging in countries around the world, in the United States there is a cautious sense of optimism as vaccinations continue to be given and deaths continue a new, steady decline. It has been well more than two weeks since the CDC issued the guidance that has led to the end of many mask mandates and other precautions, which is widely acknowledged as the time frame after which we often see the results of any particular point in time relating to COVID-19 cases. The US has seen a steady and significant decrease in cases as well as the metrics that are most significant, hospitalizations and deaths. Vaccines are clearly working as a near miracle to protect from COVID-19 and we would like to thank all the forces that contributed to their safe and speedy creation.
With the CDC guidance as well as the overwhelming evidence of the effectiveness of the vaccines, Disney in the United States has begun rolling back the extra measures it had implemented to stop the spread of COVID-19. Both Walt Disney World and Disneyland as well as all remaining Disney Stores have dropped their mask mandates except for transportation. Both US Disney parks have also almost entirely dissolved social distancing, including the return of the beloved phrase “fill in all the available space.” I just experienced this on my most recent trip to Walt Disney World, and for the most part guests are back to normal.
Disney has most recently freed their cast members from some COVID-19 restrictions, most prominently the lift of the mask mandate for cast while outdoors. This includes cast members in outdoor roles where they come in close contact with maskless guests. As for the topic of this post, the characters, you would think they are all elderly, immunocompromised, and lacking access to vaccines. At this point everyone 12 and older in the United States can get a vaccine if they wish to do so, which applies to every single Disney parks employee. While we love all of the entertainment teams at Disney, they are not so special above other departments that they must be treated like they are at some particularly higher risk. Since the start of Walt Disney World’s reopening, waiters at restaurants have come right up to your table and often lean in close to hear what you are saying. This similarly applies to many other positions, even more so now that the requirement for social distancing has been removed in almost every area except entertainment. Why would Disney endanger these cast members by forcing them to stand so close? The answer is actually two-fold: First, the risk for a fully vaccinated Disney cast member is very small. Second, it is a necessity of their job position. Disney of course has equipped its cast members with the health tools they needed, but ultimately expects them to still perform their jobs without cutting corners. Characters up to this point have been a special case as they cannot be seen to be aware of the problems within our lives and as such cannot take almost any COVID-19 safety precautions, such as wearing masks. However, at this point in the pandemic for the United States, it is time for meet and greets to return in full.
We would never advocate for a policy that endangers our character friends or any of their helpers, however Disney should remain consistent in how it deals with health and safety in the parks. If it is considered safe by Disney for large crowds of maskless people to all congregate indoors and outdoors without social distancing, it is likely not very dangerous for those same people to meet characters. As for the characters themselves, everyone in entertainment has had a chance to get a COVID-19 vaccine which is the best possible protection and has been shown to be very effective. Some have brought up those who are unable to take the vaccine due to allergies or other medical issues as a reason to hold off on regular meet and greets. While it is likely true that there are some cast members who fall into this category, it is likely a very small contingent and one that has existed among the many other departments that have continued to fully perform their job functions. If these cast members are not willing to perform one of their primary job functions long term, which would be the case given that there is no solution to their dilemma on the horizon as far as we know, this would perhaps be a good time for them to reevaluate their career. We certainly do not advocate for Disney forcing these cast members out of the company, but it should not hold up one of the signature entertainment offerings at Walt Disney World for this relatively small contingent. This is in addition to the fact that given that almost all of life in America is back to normal, these cast members will be forced to confront these types of risks in their lives outside of the parks and as such many may choose to stay even if regular meet and greets return. While this may sound harsh, it is equivalent to Disney hiring a chef who then tells you they do not feel comfortable handling knives and using hot stoves or ovens. You would certainly not want to fire them, but at the same time if they can’t perform their job there isn’t much choice.
Many have expressed disappointment with Disney and other companies for not requiring some type of proof of vaccination as a condition of entry. While it is true that no vaccine is perfect and you still have some risk of getting COVID-19 which is logically increased somewhat when around unvaccinated people, the change in risk is minimal and based on the CDC guidelines for vaccinated people, not even worth a mention. Nowhere in the CDC guidelines do they even mention any concerns about the environments in which vaccinated people engage, so much to the point of explicitly stating that vaccinated and unvaccinated people can mix in small groups. While they stop mentioning vaccination status after that line on their “Choosing Safer Activities” visual, you would think they would have included some sort of mention of the need for a completely or even majority vaccinated environment if that was truly needed as a condition of vaccinated persons safety.
Shanghai Disneyland and Hong Kong Disneyland have both, since the beginning of the pandemic, allowed characters to be closer to guests than in the US parks as well as letting the characters be as close to each other as before the pandemic. Tokyo Disneyland and Disneyland Paris have also allowed characters to be closer, albeit only slightly, to both guests and each other than in the US parks, while still maintaining some distance. Disneyland Resort has also recently, and quietly, relaxed its distancing rules between characters as well as having characters moving closer to guests, particularly in Avengers Campus. COVID-19 does not actually spread differently in different parts of the world and so the lack of uniformity is annoying at best. Beyond Disney, other parks have recently been adjusting operations based on new CDC guidelines and the widespread availability of vaccines in the United States. Many Six Flags parks, both Nickelodeon Universe parks, and Hersheypark have resumed normal character meet and greets. In addition to these, many smaller amusements such as the Cartoon Network Hotel and some Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resorts have offered normal meets throughout the pandemic with only slight modifications such as the elimination of hugs while still allowing guests to stand as close to the character as in pre-pandemic times. As far as I am aware, there has not been one single guest or employee who has died or even gotten COVID due to these relaxed distancing rules or meet and greets. Given the political tension around COVID-19 as well as the social media incentives to get clicks, there was, and is, a great incentive to report on any links between COVID-19 and theme parks or other recreational activities. The fact that there has yet to be one reported outbreak directly tied to a park, much less a hospitalization or death, is truly reassuring.
With all of this in mind, it seems rather foolish for character meet and greets to be one of the only safety precautions to remain for a substantial period of time. Walt Disney World to this day appears to be mandating that characters, regardless of being outdoors or indoors, maintain six feet of social distance both from each other and from guests. Once fully vaccinated, your chances of getting (not hospitalization or death) COVID-19 drop to about as likely as dying in a plane crash. Knowing this, it seems to be time to have characters join waiters and other cast members in being required to do their job in the US parks. Character meet and greets as well as entertainment more generally is one of the hallmarks of Disney Parks and what separates it from other places. As capacity continues to increase, the entertainment offerings must as well and bringing back real meet and greets are an important part of this as well as being imperative to the Disney experience more broadly.
Who knows, perhaps moves like this could even be a good way to encourage those friends of characters who are on the fence about getting vaccinated to choose to do it now that they will be returning to their normal positions. Vaccines work and with all characters, cast members and most guests being offered the chance to be vaccinated, it is time to bring back meet and greets to Walt Disney World and Disneyland.