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Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla., will reopen Saturday, and Disney has been posting marketing videos online to highlight the safety procedures designed to protect visitors and employees.

"I feel safe because Disney has gone above and beyond what they needed to do," an employee named Sam says in one of the videos while standing near Fantasyland.

Some of the 1,000-plus responses to that video were supportive. Others were incredulous, with people using words such as "irresponsible" and "disappointing" in response to Disney World's reopening while coronavirus infections are soaring in Florida. "You gotta be kidding," wrote Alexander Jones, a Seattle motion graphics artist.

The pandemic has halted some of Disney's businesses, and reopening its signature tourist attraction -- with restricted capacity and government approval -- is a major part of the company's comeback attempt. But in doing so, Disney is stepping into a politicized debate surrounding the virus and efforts to keep people safe, with even the wearing of masks becoming a point of contention.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Complicating matters, the company is allowing people to return to a modified Disney World while other parts of its empire remain closed. "Mulan" was supposed to arrive in movie theaters July 24, but Disney postponed the release to Aug. 21 because of surging coronavirus cases nationwide and the likely unavailability of theaters in New York and Los Angeles. And California Gov. Gavin Newsom, a Democrat, recently slowed down the reopening of theme parks including Disneyland, which had been scheduled to welcome visitors July 17.

The Florida Department of Health reported 7,347 new coronavirus infections Tuesday, with 1,179 in the central part of the state, which includes Orlando. Those numbers are down from last week but still among the highest in the country, leading some to question whether Disney is being responsible in opening up Disney World.

'AGGRESSIVE PROTOCOLS'

"The world is changing around us, but we strongly believe that we can open safely and responsibly," Josh D'Amaro, Disney's theme park chairman, said in an interview. "For those that might have questions or concerns, when they see how we are operating and the aggressive protocols that we have put in place, they will understand.

D'Amaro said Disney's four theme parks in Asia had reopened "without incident." He declined to say how many people would be allowed into Disney's Florida parks, though he said visitors should expect a "sparse" atmosphere rather than the usual crowds. Shanghai Disneyland initially limited attendance to about 20% of its pre-outbreak capacity.

County and state officials have approved Disney World's reopening plan. Unions representing roughly 48,000 Disney World employees have signed agreements with Disney to return to work under rigid safety protocols. And many fans are ready to visit. When Disney began taking park reservations on June 24 -- people can no longer walk up and buy tickets, allowing the company to restrict capacity -- the surge of interest crashed the booking system. Some reservation blocks were gone within minutes.

And competing attractions resumed operations weeks ago. Universal reopened its three Orlando theme parks June 5, and SeaWorld Orlando brought back its rides and marine exhibits June 11. Legoland in Winter Haven and Busch Gardens in Tampa also have been selling tickets again. Legoland does not require masks.

But none of those places has the prominence of Disney World, which consists of six separately ticketed parks with combined annual attendance of 93 million. The two most popular ones, Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, will reopen Saturday. Disney World's other major parks, Epcot and Hollywood Studios, are set to reopen next Wednesday. Two water parks will remain closed.

Disney Springs, an outdoor shopping mall, reopened May 20. The National Basketball Association will restart its season on July 30 at a Disney World sports facility.

BIG CHANGES

For visitors, the Disney World experience will be drastically different. Parades, fireworks and most indoor shows have been suspended. There will be no opportunities to hug Mickey Mouse or other costumed characters. Fingerprint scanners will not be used at park entrances.

Disney, known for its strict style of theme park management, will require face coverings for all employees and visitors over the age of 2. Disney will take temperatures, leave seats empty on rides and run loudspeaker announcements urging people to frequently wash their hands. Plastic-glass partitions have been installed in shops and restaurants. Disney has added 4,000 hand-sanitizing stations.

"Disney's approach seems reasonable," said Dr. William Schaffner, an infectious-disease expert at Vanderbilt University who is part of a group that will review vaccine data in an advisory capacity for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "If Disney strictly enforces the safety procedures it has outlined -- no exceptions -- it will keep the risk very low for visitors and employees."

Even so, he said, anyone over the age of 60 should postpone visiting.

Business owners also are counting on Disney World.

"We're excited for Disney to reopen," said Mark McHugh, chief executive of Gatorland near Kissimmee. "Disney is so big it lifts the entire area."

McHugh said Gatorland, which reopened May 23, has experienced a roughly 40% decline in business compared with last summer.

"It's slow, but not as slow as I had feared," he said. "People are still looking for activities, although we have found that we need to continuously police and remind them to wear their masks."

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