Florida travel starts on long road to recovery

A surfer heads out into the water  shortly after sunrise Saturday, July 28, 2018, at Jacksonville Beach.

 Bringing back the magic will take more than a spell for Central Florida’s tourism industry. Attractions slowly resumed operations in Orlando, Tampa and surrounding areas after the COVID-19 pandemic shut them down for nearly three months, causing significant economic losses. The early days of the shutdown caused the number of visitors to Florida from January to March to drop about 32 million visitors, almost 11% fewer than first-quarter 2019 visitation, according to Visit Orlando, the state’s public-private tourism marketer. Florida has begun to welcome people back, but cautiously. Walt Disney World Resort reopened the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom on July 11 and Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios on July 15.

Disney Springs, Universal CityWalk, Gatorland, Fun Spot America and ICON Park in Orlando, along with the Florida Aquarium in Tampa and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, all reopened in time for Memorial Day. Legoland Florida Resort in Winter Haven reopened June 1, the first theme park in the region to reopen, after state leaders approved the park’s reopening plans. Universal Orlando Resort reopened June 5, followed by SeaWorld Orlando and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay on June 11.

Tourist destinations’ new normal involves limiting park capacity, requiring guests and employees to wear face masks and undergo temperature checks, and maintaining physical distancing measures.

Cruise ships are expected to be among the last of Florida’s tourism draws to resume operations.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention extended a no-sail order for ships carrying 250 or more passengers. The order, previously set to expire this month, now remains in effect at least through the end of September.

Overall, tourism industry experts expect people to travel this summer, but scale back their plans.

A traveler sentiment study released last month by AAA found COVID-19 affected travel plans for 76% of Floridians.

The survey found 57% of Floridians will take fewer trips because of COVID-19, 39% canceled travel with no plans to reschedule this year, 27% rescheduled trips to later in the year, and 13% rescheduled trips to 2021 or later.

A similar study, issued by the U.S. Travel Association, projected 77% of surveyed travelers nationwide with vacations booked within the next six months plan to change their itineraries because of COVID-19, up from 58% two months earlier.

That study, conducted by the tourism industry market research firm Longwoods International, also found 47% of travelers plan to downsize their planned travel, 45% would cancel completely, 26% would change their means of travel from a flight to a road trip and 10% would change their destinations from international to somewhere in the U.S.

And with the latest Visit Florida data showing a decline in visitors, statewide tourism in 2020 likely won’t resemble last year’s record high of more than 131 million visitors.

Moving toward reopening

Destinations large and small edged toward reopening near the end of May, but to do so, they had to submit detailed reopening plans in writing and have those plans endorsed by local officials and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

This was how Legoland and Universal became the first theme parks to set reopening days, and how smaller Orlando attractions resumed operations in time for Memorial Day.

Universal also became the first theme park to introduce a new attraction following the shutdowns: “The Bourne Stuntacular,” a live action stunt show based on the Jason Bourne book and film series. It officially opened June 30 after a soft opening period.

One sign the theme parks were working on returning to business came with phased reopenings of shopping and dining complexes.

Universal CityWalk and Disney Springs reopened in May, both on a limited basis and with enhanced safety measures such as requiring employees and guests to wear face masks.

Those restrictions carried over to the theme parks. Face masks must be worn at all times, except when actively eating or drinking.

In a meeting with Orange County officials, Universal Orlando’s chief administrative officer John Sprouls said the park’s reopening strategy involves requiring masks and temperature checks and utilizing virtual queues in mobile apps to prevent people from standing in lines for rides.

Sprouls first suggested these ideas in April in a state task force on reopening Florida prior to DeSantis announcing the phased reopening of the state’s economy.

At that time, Alan Fyall, associate dean of academic affairs with the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said he thought it was possible for theme parks to operate using social distancing measures.

Fyall was particularly encouraged by the idea of virtual queueing.

“The technology to do a lot of this stuff already exists; they’re just bringing it forward,” he said. “And it could make it a better experience for the visitor, it really is a plus.”

Universal’s proposals to space people out in all areas — from the ride seating to cars being parked in every other space — is designed to convince visitors that it’s safe to go to the park, Fyall said.

“It’s really no different from, would you feel comfortable getting on a plane all hunched together or would you rather there’s an empty seat next to you?” he said.

Before Universal made its presentation to Orange County officials, the CEOs of three smaller Orlando attractions — ICON Park, Gatorland and Fun Spot America — pitched their own reopenings with the goal of resuming their business in time for Memorial Day weekend.

All three had plans that involved limiting capacity, deploying hand sanitizing stations, and requiring face masks and temperature checks.

Fun Spot CEO John Arie Jr. said his plan also included alternating rows on the park’s rides.

Before Orlando-area attractions reopened, DeSantis reopened Florida’s state parks, which collectively are a lucrative ecotourism draw for both residents and visitors.

At Lake Griffin State Park in Fruitland Park, which reopened May 6, Park Manager Mark Knapke said attendance was soft in the first days back. But the park was “getting back to close to normal visitation for this time of year” by the first full week of reopening.

He said guests will notice some changes.

For instance, kayak rentals will be offered on a limited basis — from 9 a.m. to noon and 2 to 6 p.m. — to meet the state’s protocol for sanitizing the kayaks, Knapke said.

The effects of closing

Florida’s tourism industry is aiming to salvage what it can to make up for closing from mid-March through May due to the pandemic, causing catastrophic economic damage to businesses that depend on tourism.

The U.S. Travel Association on May 19 reported the nationwide tourism industry workforce lost 15.8 million jobs due to COVID-19. The industry unemployment rate was 51% — more than twice the overall U.S. unemployment rate during the worst of the Great Depression.

“While our national economy is in a recession, the travel industry is already in a depression,” U.S. Travel Association spokeswoman Cathy Reynolds said.

In a corporate earnings call prior to Disney World’s reopening, the Walt Disney Company announced a $1 billion loss in parks, experiences and products revenue in the first quarter of 2020.

The company’s $5.5 billion in park revenues for the quarter was down 10% from the same period in 2019.

Executives acknowledged that attendance and guest spending at its U.S. theme parks — Disney World in Orlando and Disneyland in Anaheim, California — were higher than it was a year prior until COVID-19 forced the parks to close in March.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has had an appreciable financial impact on a number of our businesses, we are confident in our ability to withstand this disruption and emerge from it in a strong position,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said.

But the $1 billion loss came during a quarter in which Disney World was closed for 16 days. The second quarter could prove more devastating to the company as it reels with the consequences of its flagship property being closed for an entire quarter.

Comcast’s first-quarter earnings showed a nearly 32% drop in Universal theme park revenue to $869 million. The figure reflects all of Universal’s theme parks around the world, including its Orlando resort.

SeaWorld stated in its first quarter 2020 earnings report that 2.3 million guests visited from January to March 2020, 1 million fewer guests than the same period in 2019. Total first quarter revenue dipped $67 million compared to a year prior.

COVID-19 disrupted what the company expected would be a record quarter for visitation and total revenue. Attendance in January and February increased 9%, and total revenue increased 12%, from the first two months of 2019.

“While the world is experiencing an unprecedented global health crisis that has impacted nearly everyone on the planet, we are confident in the resiliency of our business, our ability to weather this crisis and that we will emerge an even stronger company,” said Marc Swanson, SeaWorld Entertainment’s interim CEO.

Traffic at Orlando and Tampa’s international airports was down more than 90% from last year as airlines operate fewer flights.

Phil Brown, CEO of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority, told airport officials in a July 15 meeting that short- and long-term passenger traffic forecasts suggest Orlando International Airport will end 2020 with about 31 to 33 million passengers for the year. That would mark a drop from last year’s record traffic of 50.6 million passengers.

Monthly passenger totals aren’t likely to rebound until next spring, and it could take as long as 2026 for traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels, Brown said.

Airlines For America, an airline industry trade group, found about 73% of U.S. airline flights were flying with less than half their passenger capacity.

Total enplanements from Florida’s airports from January to March 2020 dropped more than 11% from the same period in 2019, according to a Visit Florida report. Out of 19 airports whose data was compiled for the report, only three reported an increase from the prior first quarter: Sarasota (26%), Punta Gorda (4.3%) and Key West (3%).

Demand for hotels dropped by almost half, the report showed. Hotel occupancy in March 2020 was 46.4%, down from about 85% from the same month in 2018 and 2019.

The cruise industry voluntarily shut down in mid-March, causing millions of dollars in losses to cruise lines that sail from and are headquartered in Florida.

Following the CDC’s extension of its no-sail order for cruise ships, Royal Caribbean International and Norwegian Cruise Line announced they would suspend sailings through September, expecting to resume operations Oct. 1.

Carnival Cruise Line announced its plan to resume a limited number of sailings in October prior to the new CDC guidance. These sailings include trips aboard two ships from Port Canaveral and three from PortMiami.

Despite the setbacks facing tourism statewide, nationwide and globally, Fyall thinks Florida has a slight advantage over other tourist-dependent destinations for attracting visitors after the pandemic.

That’s because of the state’s appeal to in-state and out-of-state domestic tourists, he said.

Will people come back?

Not right away, travel experts suggest.

Summer travel, including a “record low” Memorial Day weekend, will likely be suppressed because of current health conditions, according to AAA, the Auto Club Group. The group did not issue its annual Memorial Day weekend travel forecast because COVID-19 affected the accuracy of its booking data.

AAA issued a report last month forecasting Americans will collectively take about 700 million summer trips from July 1 to Sept. 30. The outlook marks a 15% decline from 2019 summer travel volumes.

A study released May 25 by Destination Analysts, a tourism industry research and marketing company, found American travelers felt marked improvements in feeling safer from the virus but were not ready for large scale travel.

More than 57% of Americans plan to take staycations this summer and more than 32% plan to wait until 2021 to travel again, the study found. The vast majority plan to take road trips; many Americans don’t plan to fly on an airplane until mid-2021 or later.

Even if people aren’t comfortable traveling this year, early outlooks suggest 2021 could be different, AAA spokesman Mark Jenkins said.

“There is significant pent-up demand right now,” he said. “As businesses and attractions reopen, there will be a mix of people who are anxious to visit these businesses and others who are still uneasy.”

However, COVID-19 will likely remain a factor in people’s travel plans until a vaccine is produced, Jenkins said.

For now, the travel industry is taking measures to identify ways to make travelers feel comfortable traveling despite COVID-19, he said.

Health and safety precautions the theme parks and attractions are taking now count among those measures.

Taking those steps aims to ensure consumer confidence in Central Florida’s tourist attractions and that they will be safe to visit, Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings said in a May meeting of the county’s economic recovery taskforce.

“What I do know for our residents to feel safe, to re-engage and patronize businesses, they want to see an abundance of sanitary measures put in place,” he said. “... And I believe that, given the totality of what I’ve heard from the attractions at this point, they should be able to meet that high-bar standard that our residents are looking for and ultimately will become their patrons.”

Regardless of when and how attractions reopen, meeting that challenge will determine whether they see visitors come back after reopening, said Ady Milman, a professor with Rosen College.

“If families disappear,” he said, “theme parks disappear.”

Senior writer Michael Salerno can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5369, or michael.salerno@thevillagesmedia.com.