Rachel Stamford

MY parents have a box filled with pictures of me and my siblings as little kids on a typical Saturday, which consisted of us running around Magic Kingdom in flip flops, red-faced from the sweltering Floridian summer and chocolate Mickey Mouse-shaped ice cream bars melting down our arms.

To many holiday-makers around the world, theme parks such as Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort hold similar memories. Approximately 114.8m people visited Florida from overseas in 2019 and 26.5% of them were from Europe, according to Visit Florida, which is the state’s official source for travel planning. It's estimated more than 100,000 of them were Scots. But this year coronavirus has crashed into the dream; closing parks and cancelling holiday plans.

Many overseas visitors view Florida solely through a tourists’ sunscreen-smudged lens. When tourists are done sunbathing and park-hopping, they fly back home. Disney World becomes a cherished memory; a fantasy they may save up for and return to in a few years. But for the Floridians like myself who live here year-round, the tourist destinations are more than a once-in-a-lifetime holiday: they represent jobs and surrounding local businesses that support our state’s economy.

The future of these beloved theme parks seem to be up in the air – but not for fears that they will close. The hard truth is Florida couldn’t afford it. Not only are properties owned by Disney, Universal and SeaWorld collectively valued at about $10.7bn, according to the latest available figures, but the companies pay 7% of Orange County’s property taxes, which amounted to $135m in 2016. That revenue helps to finance law enforcement, schools and public health programs.

Phase 1 of Florida’s reopening saw Univeral's CityWalk, the dining, shopping and entertainment hub, open on May 14. Disney Springs, its equivalent outdoor leisure quarter, followed six days later. Of the main tourist attractions, Universal's theme parks were set to reopen yesterday with Disney's parks following on July 11. However, theme parks are not allowed to open until Phase 2, which means the parks’ announcements do not technically comply with state guidelines and the decision to commence Phase 2 on the theme parks’ timeline rests with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Many Floridians feel his decision will show just how much the government heeds our theme parks.

I attended CityWalk’s reopening, and the humid air at the gate smelled like sunscreen, popcorn and chlorine. It’s an acquired scent, something one either loves or hates, but as a Floridian it just feels like home. I was curious how the newly implemented sanitation procedures would change my nostalgia.

There was a temperature check upon arrival. My dad registered a 109-degree Fahrenheit (43 degrees Celsius) fever. The employee laughed, smacked the thermometer against the table and took his temperature again: a healthy 99 degrees. He said the batteries had been dying.

Inside CityWalk, a band played drums on the overhead walkway, and the echo from their microphones made me feel like I was listening to the music through a memory. One woman with an Australian accent asked guests to stay six feet – or three minions-length – apart from other parties. In front of the Universal Cinemark were posters advertising movies that never made it to theatres.

Wendy Wellman was among the Floridians who attended CityWalk’s first week reopening to celebrate her birthday. She runs a Facebook group of over 7,300 members to help those who have annual passes schedule park meet-ups and said most people she knew were “chomping at the bit” to get back to the parks.

“Because we’ve been passholders for so long we know the calibre at which [Universal] operates,” Wellman said. “We didn’t feel worried or scared.”

Wellman said the group fluctuated around 20 people throughout the night and they followed CityWalk’s guidelines. These rules require face coverings at all time – which includes both masks and bandanas – and respecting floor markings to maintain proper distancing.

However, a selfie she took with people not wearing masks received online backlash. She explained that those people were eating and therefore allowed to take off their masks but it didn’t stop others from claiming she was being irresponsible.

“People were like, ‘I can’t believe you’re going there,’ but they took precautions that felt right to them and so did we. Everybody has to live their own life,” Wellman said.

Wellman described the employees’ energy as “top notch,” which was similar to how passholder Briana Posner defined her evening at CityWalk. Posner, a recent graduate from the University of Central Florida, said she felt comfortable returning to CityWalk for mini-golf because of how transparent the company was about their safety guidelines.

“The people directing traffic were dancing in the street,” Posner said, and she laughed remembering what that looked like. “Everyone was glad to be there. Even as [employees] gave out social distancing guidelines, they were bantering, and it felt like a Universal show rather than an automated message.”

What she did have a problem with, however, was the mandatory face coverings.

Posner has asthma, and the humid weather coupled with her mask made it hard to breathe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends cloth mask coverings because a significant number of people do not show symptoms but can still pass Covid-19 to others. However, the CDC cites exemptions for people with breathing problems. Additionally, summers in Orlando have been known to reach highs of over 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius), which is made worse when the sun reflects off the pavement.

Posner said she wouldn’t return to the headline theme parks when they reopen unless they lifted the mask requirement. However, she said the parks should still open because of the jobs they bring.

Posner is one of the many Floridians who are now unemployed due to Covid-19. Data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity shows 1.2 million Floridians lost their jobs in March and April, which brought the state’s unemployment rate to 12.9%.

The Florida unemployment system was not built to handle those numbers and has the slowest processing times for filed claims in the country. Additionally, the website has been described as confusing and glitchy. There was even a data breach that released the full names and social security numbers of 98 people. They were not alerted until weeks later, according to The Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

“I don’t qualify for unemployment and I don’t qualify for the stimulus check,” Posner said, noting that many recent college graduates did not get the one-time stimulus check of $1,200 [just under £1000] from the federal government. “They want me to stay home for two months or more not working and still expect me to pay rent, bills and health insurance. It’s very difficult. I need things to open up.”

While many passholders seemed eager for theme parks to return, the employees I talked to were less sure.

Laurie, who asked to have her name changed for privacy, has worked as a ride operator and entertainment character at Universal for four years. Her biggest fear is that reopening the parks too soon is an unnecessary risk, and a large part of that has to do with the realities of sanitising after every guest. Laurie believes that while guests may feel comforted by the theme park’s new sanitation measures, they aren’t realistic.

“What it boils down to is the lap bars, handrails, gift shop counters, chairs and lockers. It’s impossible to create a sterile environment,” Laurie said. “You can’t wipe down every single thing unless there are lots of team members in each venue, and that’s adding more people to the equation.”

A personal issue Laurie worries about is that even if employees like her follow every guideline, she doesn’t have the same protections as guests. She said she would wear a mask to protect parkgoers but doubts every tourist would wear one for her. Interactions with unmasked and possibly asymptomatic guests not only puts Laurie at risk of Covid-19, but her family and roommates as well.

“I’d be returning [to the parks], but not happily,” Laurie said. “The rush to get back to the parks is just a mindset I’m not personally in. I don’t even understand it.”

These sentiments were also shared by other park employees. Before Covid-19, Isaac, who asked that his name be changed, was a waiter at a restaurant in Disney Springs. Isaac said he enjoyed his job but does not feel comfortable serving guests who won’t wear masks.

“Is it worth sacrificing the health and safety of the working class for the few people who are going to be profiting off it?” Isaac asked me. I told him I wasn’t sure, and he said no one was.

As businesses were forced to close, some unemployed Floridians began protesting for Florida’s economy to reopen without restrictions, and counter-protesters in masks called for a longer lockdown. The answer to which was more patriotic was divided between staying home to slow the curve, or reopening businesses to keep families afloat.

The headlines were jarring – and almost comical – for international readers. “Florida man stalks beach as Grim Reaper to protest reopening amid pandemic” was met with “Protesters do push-ups to call for Florida gyms to reopen”.

Florida State Representative Anna Eskamani, who says she is so busy she now sleeps on her couch to be closer to her computer, doesn’t find the humour in the situation. She said the real issue the pandemic has shown is that Florida cannot pride itself on prioritising its social safety nets.

Even as small businesses struggled with closures in March, Florida’s largest corporations pocketed a $543.2m tax refund as part of the state’s newest budget proposal. A spokesman for Governor DeSantis said the money, “will inject capital back to employers at a time when they need these dollars to continue operations and employment.” But with Florida’s economy frozen and thousands filing for unemployment, critics said it wasn’t right that the state’s largest companies were guaranteed a payout as the economic forecast for small businesses continued to worsen.

Not only were small businesses left in the dust, but Eskamani said many vulnerable communities in Florida were also forgotten. There are an estimated 750,000 undocumented immigrants living in Florida, according to the Florida Policy Institute. Not only do they not qualify for social services, they are often afraid to seek medical treatment for fear of deportation.

“[My team] is supporting the non-profits who help the undocumented and vulnerable who may not be able to leave their homes to get tested,” Eskamani said. “We’re trying to identify folks who live in hotels and motels to get them tested as well.”

I asked Eskamani if theme parks were a luxury or integral part of Florida’s economy, and if either made them a priority to reopen. Eskamani said that Florida is reliant on sales taxes and property taxes, which puts the state in a difficult spot during the pandemic. This is because the few businesses that reopened in Phase 1 were mostly services that are not taxed – such as haircuts at salons – and therefore not enough to keep the economy afloat.

“Theme parks are difficult to maintain strong public safety,” Eskamani said. “But I think that when it comes to the economic side of it, sales tax is needed and that’s what breaks my heart.”

If anyone abroad is wondering what will happen to the theme parks, they should expect the changes already being implemented. Visitors will need to social distance in line. They will order food through an app on their smartphones. As of now, they will wear masks in the summer, but may take them off to eat or drink.

However, the answer to if Florida itself will be different after lockdown is staring us right in the face. It’s in every headline on Florida’s unemployment system. It’s in the statistics that show 2,233 Floridians have died from Covid-19; just 520 fatalities shy of those who were killed at the site of the World Trade Center on 9/11. It’s written on the signs of every protester and nestled in the masks of Florida’s essential workers with no choice but to ask an unmasked visitor if they want paper or plastic.

My local Orlando TV station added in its breaking news report when Disney closed that this was the first time in decades the “It’s a Small World” song wasn’t playing somewhere in the world. It seemed fitting, maybe because with every country's border closed, we as a people couldn’t be further apart.

But just as Scotland is more than stereotypes of bagpipes and haggis, Florida isn’t just theme parks and beaches.

After the mass shooting at Pulse nightclub claimed 49 lives in 2016, thousands donated blood and an estimated 50,000 people packed into Lake Eola Park for a candlelight vigil wearing rainbow pins in solidarity with our LGBTQ+ community.

I’ve seen Florida come together once. I know we can do it again.

Tourists will one day return to the parks. They will sunbathe on our beaches. They will kayak the Everglades. They will watch rocket launches along the Space Coast.

And when our state opens in the future, I hope those abroad not only visit in good health but return to a Florida that had been both patient and understanding to all its residents.

In the words of Mickey Mouse, Florida will see ya real soon.

Can Scots visit Florida this year?

Florida is coming out of lockdown and the theme parks are reopening with social distancing guidelines. For instance, there won’t be any parades or character meet and greets or fireworks – basically anything that creates crowds.

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office has advised against all but essential travel and the US government has temporarily suspended estas and visas for UK citizens. The picture for holidaymakers is further confused by the British Government’s announcement that all travellers to the UK, including returning citizens, will have to quarantine themselves for 14 days from June 8. This advice will change over the coming weeks.

See www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice