Theme park masks

A masked Universal cast member dances at Universal CityWalk in Orlando on May 14.

ORLANDO, Fla. — Quarantined alone for weeks, Kristen Hariton listens to Walt Disney World ride soundtracks while she works in her one-bedroom New Jersey condo.

Her music playlist is the best she can do right now since she has lost her happiest place on Earth.

Hariton says she would do anything, including wear a mask, to return to the theme parks again.

“I truly believe if there’s anything we can do as individuals to make our collective group safer, I’m certainly willing to do that,” said Hariton, an annual Disney passholder from New Jersey who works for a real estate tech company.

Face masks could be mandatory for tourists whenever Disney World and Universal theme parks reopen. The potential policy has fueled a debate that previews some of the enforcement challenges ahead as the parks devise safety plans for the highly contagious coronavirus.

“Along with social distancing, one of the things that we are likely going to require is masks for both the cast and the guest,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in a May 11 interview on CNBC. He acknowledged the biggest challenge to reopening Disneyland and Disney World would be visitors adjusting to face coverings.

Several theme-park connected businesses are opening this month at Universal CityWalk and Disney Springs with mask requirements in place for employees and visitors.

“Yes, we are considering face coverings,” Universal spokesman Tom Schroder wrote in an email. “We will use the learnings we gain from our CityWalk reopening along with continued guidance from the CDC and health professionals to make a decision about our theme park operating protocols.”

Universal announced Friday it would reopen on June 5.

The issue of wearing masks at theme parks isn’t likely to fade soon.

The contagion doesn’t appear to be going away, said Orlando Health Dr. Patricia Couto, who focuses on infectious diseases.

“We have to learn to live with this virus,” Couto warned.

Meanwhile, theme park fans churned on social media with what-ifs scenarios. What if I’m on a high-speed roller coaster or a water ride or posing for photographs? Must I leave it on then?

Melissa Fass hasn’t forgotten about her Orlando friends who work at the theme parks, so she is glad Disney is considering precautions, such as masks, to keep them protected.

“It’s definitely a step in the right direction,” said Fass, who left her Disney World merchandising job a few months ago and now lives near Huntsville, Ala.

But she also worries about confrontations between tourists opposed to a mask policy and her former co-workers stuck enforcing it.

An Orlando Sentinel investigation last year found tourists sometimes verbally and even physically abused theme park workers, according to Orange County sheriff’s records. What often triggered visitors’ outbursts were employees politely asking them to obey the rules for FastPasses, strollers and routine operating procedures.

Could Disney workers get pushback over a more controversial policy?

“There is a potential for belligerence or other unpleasantries,” said Neal Shanske, an online marketing entrepreneur who lives in Boston and visits Disney World once or twice a year. “Every cast member becomes a frontline sheriff or deputy.”

“I don’t see how they could open without some form of mask policy, but it will be tricky to maintain … What works in Shanghai may not necessarily work in Orlando.”

Disney plans to deploy hotel employees who work at children-activities centers into the theme parks to help visitors understand the new rules.

But attractions consultant Brad Merriman believes Disney World employees will have an easier time early on enforcing a mask policy because crowds are expected to be drastically reduced.

The masks are a clear sign that Disney, the industry leader, has safety procedures in place, he said.

“(Masks) may feel new and unusual, but it gives guests a feeling of safety and security,” said Merriman, president of MR-ProFun, comparing it to the way tourists felt when Disney added bag checks and beefed-up security after the 9/11 terror attacks.

Disney’s CEO said employees and guests will have to cooperate with each other to make the mask policy work.

“Everybody knows COVID-19 is a serious matter,” Chapek said in his CNBC interview. “We’re going to do our part, and we need our guests to do their part, too.”