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Is It Safe to Take My Kid to Disney World?

Amusement parks are crowded public spaces — but that doesn't mean they're off limits. It depends on your risk profile. Here's how to decide whether to stay or go.

fatherly logo The Decider

In the best of times, decision-making is tough for parents. Raising a well-adjusted, healthy human is complicated as hell. Toss in the COVID-19 pandemic, economic depression, and social injustice and your most basic choices become stress-inducing nightmares. There are rarely risk-free decisions or one-size-fits-all answers, but there are ways to assess and respond to risk.

Disney World is open, and it’s fighting with the state of Florida about COVID precautions. For a while, the park had a vaccine mandate for employees, but the state recently struck that down. As a potential ticket-buyer, that should scare you.

With its current protocols, is the most magical place on earth safe? “I don’t like to use that four-letter word,” says William Schaffner, MD, medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases. “Once we step out the front door, we assume some risk.”

And at an amusement park, there’s a fair amount of of risk. With many people packed together, waiting in long lines, and touching the same roller coaster handlebars, there’s lots of opportunity for transmission. But the parks are also largely outdoors, where people are less likely to spread the virus. And a trip to a theme park can be a one-day activity. “Just because of the duration of exposure to others, school and camp are going to be more hazardous,” Schaffner says. You still may worry about your family’s health though, which could make your child anxious and take the fun out of the experience. And tickets are pricey at a time when you may not be able to afford them.

That’s a lot of risks to consider. Let’s map them out.

Using a Risk Assessment Matrix to Make the Amusement Park Decision

Often used by businesses and other organizations, risk assessment matrices help decision-makers consider the riskiness of a choice at a glance. When reading a matrix, first identify the choices you’re assessing — in this case, going to a theme park or staying home. Then, identify the factors that go into making those choices. The factors we will consider are public and personal health, child psychology, family economics, and child play.

A risk matrix compares the severity of the potential consequences of a factor (from 0 to 5, or insignificant to catastrophic) to the likelihood of it happening. By putting those values into a color-coded table, you can get an immediate sense of the riskiness of a choice such as visiting an amusement park.

For each choice, the four factors can fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can make the choice without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a factor falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different choices have different mixes of red, yellow, and green factors. No choice is perfect, but the “total score” for each choice can help you get a sense of the risk associated with it. That score is calculated by multiplying the severity of a factor’s consequences (0 to 5) by the likelihood of those consequences occurring, with Very Unlikely being 1 and Very Likely being 4. The higher the total score, the riskier the choice is.

The Four Factors

If you put the decision to go to an amusement park on a risk matrix, there are four factors to assess.

  • Health: The risk that the action has on public and personal health.
    • For example, going to an amusement park puts your family at risk of picking up or spreading COVID, but you can quarantine or get tested before and after your trip to decrease the risk.
  • Psychology: The risk the action has on your child’s psychology.
    • For example, if you’re extremely worried about your kid’s health, they can pick up on that and be anxious too.
  • Economics: The risk the action has on your family’s finances.
    • For example, tickets to Disney World can be expensive at a time when your bank account has probably taken a hit.
  • Play: The risk the action has on your child’s experiences with play.

The Two Scenarios

Go to an Amusement Park

Total Score = 11

  • The health risk of going to an amusement park is lowest when you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to travel far to reach it, and COVID transmission levels are low in your community.
  • Going to an amusement park is great for a kid’s happiness, but it can make parents worry about picking up COVID.

Don’t Go to an Amusement Park

Total Score = 8

  • The family that is worried about the personal and public health risks of COVID will postpone their trip to the amusement park until we’re no longer in a pandemic.
  • Theme park tickets can be pricey, and skipping out on them this season means families can save that money for something just as fun that will make them less stressed about their health.

The Bottom Line:

When we mapped these two scenarios, going to an amusement park had a total risk score of 11. Staying home was less risky with a score of 8. However, every family is in a unique situation, so the total scores listed above won’t perfectly reflect the risk of a choice for you.

To get a risk matrix for your own family, think about a potential consequence, for example, the travel and ticket price draining your bank account for the “economic” factor. Unless you’re going to a cheap amusement park or your family hasn’t been hit hard by COVID, it’s probably “Likely” that you will suffer some financial effect. If you’re reasonably well-off, the severity rating is probably a “1.” Repeat this analysis for each factor in each scenario.

For the “public health” factor, your chance of getting or spreading COVID at an amusement park is probably “Very Unlikely” or “Unlikely,” depending on whether you’re vaccinated, the park’s precautions, where it’s located, and how much you have to travel to get there. If your whole family is vaccinated, , your severity score will be low because you will have little chance of getting severely sick or causing an outbreak.

How Amusement Parks Will Be Different:

Each park will have its own rules during the pandemic, but you can expect many to adopt a version of these.

  • You may need to fill out a health questionnaire before arrival.
  • Park staff may take your temperature upon arrival.
  • Guests and employees may be required to wear a mask at all times.
  • Park staff may clean playgrounds and rides more frequently.
  • Park capacity may be limited.
  • Characters may drive by in a golf cart. They may not be allowed to hug children or take pictures with them.
  • Shows, performances, and other events may be canceled.
  • You may have to social distance in line and on rides.
  • You may have to reserve your spot in line for a ride using your phone instead of standing in a physical line.