The elephants are flying again.
On Monday, one of the Walt Disney Company’s 14 closed theme parks, Shanghai Disneyland, reopened to visitors on a limited basis, offering a first peek into the kind of escape Mickey Mouse can offer in the age of face masks, social distancing and disinfectants.
“It has been an emotional morning,” Joe Schott, president and general manager of the Shanghai Disney Resort, said in a phone interview. “There is light at the end of the tunnel.”
From a business standpoint, Shanghai Disneyland will be operating far below its potential. The Chinese government has limited capacity at the park to 24,000 people daily, fewer than one-third of its pre-outbreak capacity. Bob Chapek, Disney’s chief executive, said last week that Disney would reduce ticket sales even further — “far below” the government’s limit, in his words — to make sure that employees can enforce new safety rules, including temperature checks for ticket holders upon arrival. Fewer ticket sales mean decreased food and merchandise sales.
Yet the reopening carried immense symbolic importance. It sent a message to Disney’s furloughed park employees — 43,000 in Florida alone — about the future: There will be one.
Investors have been relieved. Disney shares have climbed 8 percent since May 5, when Mr. Chapek announced that Shanghai Disneyland would reopen, perhaps paving the way for similar actions at Disney resorts in the United States, Japan and France. The limited number of tickets that Shanghai Disneyland put on sale for this week sold out within hours, suggesting that people are willing to resume public activities, even without a vaccine.
Time will test the ability of Disney’s theme parks to program out negative aspects of life and emphasize the positive.
When the Shanghai resort reopened on Monday, according to videos of the event, cast members — Disney’s term for employees — lined Mickey Avenue, which leads to the castle and aerial Dumbo ride, and waved madly as they greeted attendees. Belle, Minnie, Woody, Duffy and other costumed characters appeared with welcome banners as a marching band played an upbeat “Mary Poppins” tune.
“Life can get you down,” Mr. Schott said. “Our brand is about hope.”
To safely reopen, however, Shanghai Disneyland had to allow some of the grimness of pandemic life to puncture the utopian fantasy. All guests and park employees must wear face masks. Costumed characters are the only exception, and they now pose for photos from afar. The park is dotted with garbage cans dedicated solely to used face masks.
Parades have been suspended because people crowd sidewalks to watch them. Theater shows also remain closed. For now, Shanghai Disneyland will offer an evening castle show but no fireworks. To discourage people from bunching up in line as they wait for rides, Disney has placed purple social-distancing mats on the ground.
“So far, guests are being very, very respectful about social distancing,” Mr. Schott said.
To ward off germs, Disney has decided to leave rows of seats empty on rides like Pirates of the Caribbean. Employees have been deployed to constantly disinfect ride vehicles and lap bars. Want to hop on Buzz Lightyear’s Planet Rescue, where riders zap targets with hand-held blasters? You now must wear plastic gloves.
Attendees noted the muted atmosphere. Online they wrote that the park felt empty and that the line for the Tron Lightcycle Power Run, one of the most popular attractions, was only five minutes long instead of the typical time of more than an hour.
Noting the canceled attractions, some people said they would stay away. “I planned to go to Shanghai Disney for a third time, as flights from Xian to Shanghai are super cheap, but I’d rather wait,” a Disney fan from northern China said. Said another, citing safety concerns and the city’s shuttered elementary schools, “How come Disney can open again while schools in Shanghai are still closed?”
But some fans were delighted. “The princesses who fled can go home now,” wrote one.
The Shanghai Disney Resort began to reopen in early March. First, an adjacent shopping mall, Disneytown, resumed operations. Lego, Build-a-Bear, Swatch, Nike and Starbucks have stores there. Two other areas of the resort, a lakeside area called Wishing Star Park and the upscale Shanghai Disneyland Hotel, also gradually reopened before the theme park itself.
Disney owns 43 percent of the $5 billion resort, with the majority stake held by a Chinese state-controlled consortium. Disney owns 70 percent of the management company that operates the property.
Shanghai Disneyland attracted roughly 12 million visitors last year, an 8 percent increase from 2017, its first full year of operation, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. To compare, Disney’s No. 1 park, the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in Florida, had about 21 million visitors last year. The troubled Hong Kong Disneyland had attendance of 6.5 million.
It is unclear when Disney’s other theme parks may start to reopen. But Disney has signaled that its vast resort in Florida could be next. The shopping mall there, Disney Springs, will begin phased reopening on May 20.
Lin Qiqing contributed research.