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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 a pandemic, economic depression, and civic unrest 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.

Florida has moved into Phase 3 reopening, which means “theme parks may return to normal operations with limited social distancing protocols.” Yikes. Disney World, which has been open for months, hasn’t reneged on its safety protocols yet. But it is is reevaluating. And 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, 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 lot 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 coronavirus. 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 actions you’re assessing — in this case, going to a theme park or staying home. Then, identify the potential consequences of those actions. The consequences we will consider are to public health, child psychology, family economics, and child play.

The matrices compare the severity of a consequence (from 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 an action. Of course, these risk matrices require a bit of guesswork. COVID-19 risk varies from community to community.

The consequences in the matrix fall into three different color categories: green, yellow, and red. Green means that the risk is low enough that you can take the action without worry. Yellow means that you can go ahead with some precautions. If a consequence falls in the red, be afraid. Stop and reduce risk before moving forward.

Different actions will have different mixes of red, yellow, and green consequences. And each action’s consequence, should it happen, will have a different severity rating from 0 (insignificant) to 5 (catastrophic). No choice is perfect. The total score listed below the matrix is a number to help you get a sense of the total risk associated with the choice.

Different families will have different risk tolerances. Wealth families can take on economic risk. Healthy families can take on some risk of exposure. These matrices should be read in light of personal considerations, not as generalized risk maps.

  • Public health: The risk that the action has on public health.
    • For example, going to an amusement park puts your family at risk of picking up or spreading the coronavirus, 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.

Mapping the Risk

Total Score = 15

The family that takes their child to an amusement park doesn’t live with anyone at high risk of severe COVID-19. They recognize the risk their day of fun poses on public health, so they quarantine for two weeks before and after the trip or get tested before and after. While in Florida, they avoid other high-risk locations such as restaurants. The parents have a bit of cash to spare at the moment, or they bought a ticket or season pass they haven’t been able to use yet. They aren’t too anxious about being in public spaces, and they’re in dire need of a day of roller coasters and sun.

NOTE: This public health score is based on Disney’s safety protocols before any changes based on Florida’s advancement to Phase 3 reopening. If the park raises capacity and stops requiring masks, the risk is going to go up.

Total Score = 5

The family that delays their theme park visit probably includes a household member with an underlying condition. Picking up COVID-19 is too much of a risk for them. They may also not have the cash to spare on ridiculously priced tickets — especially because the payoff will be lacking. They recognize that they’re missing out on one of their child’s favorite parts of summer and will make it up with play at home.

Making the Decision:

Now that you have a better sense of what the risks are, you can use this decision tree to get a personalized recommendation about whether your family in particular should visit Disney World or any other amusement park. Because your family is unique, and you have unique needs. This decision-making tool is here to guide you.

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.

  • At first, only season pass holders and those with canceled tickets may be allowed in.
  • Tickets and season passes bought before the pandemic may be valid through next summer.
  • You may need to fill out a health questionnaire before arrival.
  • Park staff may take your temperature upon arrival.
  • Guests and employees may need 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.