As Walt Disney World reopens, here are some new health and safety measures you may see.
According to Eddie Sotto, the only people wearing masks at theme parks should be the actors playing anthropomorphic rodents, ducks, dogs, and assorted other characters. Yes, he knows there is a pandemic raging. No, he’s not some anti-mask crusader.
Sotto spent 13 years as a Walt Disney Imagineer, the term that the company uses to describe its army of designers, writers, engineers and other creative and technical professionals who create its theme park experiences. During that time, he had a hand in developing some landmark attractions including the Indiana Jones Adventure at Disneyland in California and the industry’s first trackless indoor dark ride, Pooh’s Hunny Hunt at Tokyo Disneyland.
Sotto, now president of his own eponymous design studio, believes that social distancing, face coverings, sanitizer stations, deep cleaning of shared surfaces, and the other remedies that parks and attractions have introduced to deal with COVID-19 just aren’t cutting it.
“You can’t treat people like they are in a hospital,” Sotto says, referring to the attempts to keep people safely apart at what are inherently social spaces and the practices that disconnect visitors from theme park magic. “It’s a death spiral for the industry.”
Guests at Universal Orlando’s theme parks must wear masks while aboard roller coasters such as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit. (Photo: Universal Studios)
Indeed, attendance at parks that have reopened amid the coronavirus pandemic has generally been disappointing. Florida’s Walt Disney World, which was already operating its four theme parks with reduced hours, moved to an even shorter daily schedule this month. And some parks, such as Kennywood in Pennsylvania and its corporate cousin Story Land in New Hampshire, called it a season on Labor Day.
Sotto’s radical solution? Only allow visitors through the turnstiles who have been cleared of infection. Then let them scream to their hearts’ content aboard roller coasters and party like it’s (pre-pandemic) 2019. No masks. No distancing.
To help make these COVID-era oases possible at parks, cruise ships, stadiums, and elsewhere, Sotto plans to incorporate rapid-result testing as part of a screening process. He envisions a minimally invasive procedure, such as providing a saliva sample or blowing into a Breathalyzer-like device, coupled with on-site equipment that could accurately diagnose coronavirus infection within a few minutes. And he wants to make it a fun experience.
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The technology isn’t quite there yet, but it is advancing rapidly, and should be ready for prime time soon. Sotto says his goal is to be able to apply the strategies next season, possibly by spring.
Pre-COVID, children at Universal Orlando’s Islands of Adventure got Captain America’s autograph. Now such encounters are socially distanced or off-limits. (Photo: Universal Studios)
Is the concept viable? Perhaps.
“I’m a believer in rapid tests and their ability to help open communities up more,” says Dr. Morgan Katz, an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins University and an infectious disease expert. But she says she is also a strong advocate for wearing masks and other preventive practices.
“Do I think you can do one or the other?” Katz continues. “At this point, no. It needs to be a combination of efforts.”
Still, she agrees there are merits to the idea of establishing a protective bubble and points to the success the NBA has had with its social cocoon at the ESPN sports complex located at – ironically enough – Disney World. And Katz notes that coronavirus tests have been evolving at an impressive rate, pointing to the recent rapid antigen card test developed by Abbott Labs, which was given emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, as a promising example.
Given time, it may be possible for rapid tests to deliver more accurate findings and reduce inaccurate results. By next spring, Katz says that Sotto’s mask-free proposition just might work, adding, “I don’t think it’s completely off the table.”
Walt Disney World theme parks, such as Epcot, require visitors to wear masks. (Photo: Kent Phillips/Disney)
For Sotto, the “aha” moment came when he was considering airports and TSA security checkpoints. Once passengers pass the screening process and enter the sheltered bubble of the terminal, they feel protected from the threat of terrorism. Likewise, one of the primary tenets of Imagineering is to provide reassurance to theme park guests.
“Making people feel safe and happy is the chief objective at a park,” Sotto says. “They can’t enjoy an experience unless they are reassured.”
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Airports may have provided the inspiration for developing COVID-free bubbles, but with their imposing screening devices and processes administered by grim TSA officers, they also offered a case study in how not to treat guests. Sotto believes they are destroying the desire to travel.
Former Disney designer Eddie Sotto wants to make rapid antigen testing for COVID-19 more fun. Think more animated Disney movie, less sci-fi horror flick. (Photo: Tauseef Mustafa/ AFP via Getty Images)
Instead, he plans to use a “secret weapon” that attraction designers have in their tool kits: creating fun experiences. His COVID-screening procedure would be seamless, enjoyable, and above all, whimsical. It’s the imagination side of the Imagineering equation.
As an example, Sotto says that a Breathalyzer-type device could be disguised and themed as a bubble maker. He describes a fanciful, interactive experience with guests blowing virtual bubbles that encase their images and follow them through a colorful space. All the while, they are actually providing a sample that is collected and evaluated. At the end of the experience, their bubbles could glow green to indicate they are infection-free.
“That’s what Imagineers do,” Sotto says. “We never settle. We ask why can’t we make something better and more fun.”
Might the need for screening systems disappear once a vaccine is developed and deployed? Sotto doesn’t think so. He again points to airports, noting that nearly two decades after the Sept.11 attacks and even some failed terrorist plots, airline passengers still have to go through security checkpoints and remove their shoes. Likewise, he thinks the pandemic has precipitated a new normal.
Parks and other places will want to be prepared for future pandemics and other events, and visitors will continue to want to be reassured before they engage in shared experiences. That’s why Sotto calls his screening division Futureproof Experiences.
“Our goal is to restore the happiest places on Earth to be the safest places on Earth,” he says.
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