Coronavirus concerns: As theme parks announce they will close, local businesses brace for the impact

Coronavirus

POLK COUNTY, Fla. (WFLA) – No waiting in line for rides. No need to get Fast Passes. No sounds of delighted screams emanating from theme park walls.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, Walt Disney World, Universal Studios, SeaWorld, Busch Gardens and LEGOLAND Florida have announced they will close Monday, March 16 through March 31.

Those decisions not only impact vacationers, but people’s livelihoods, too.

“What better address than across the street from Legoland? It’s in all my advertising,” said Cindy Mokbel, owner of Mediterranean Fresh Grill in Winter Haven.

Mokbel and her husband opened the new restaurant six months ago in the Winter Haven Square plaza.

She chose the location for its proximity to the Polk County theme park.

“Unusually when they’re here, they eat here every day because we’re the only Mediterranean restaurant around here,” she said.

The regular traffic has kept her restaurant full. That is, until the coronavirus came along.

“The last couple of weeks, we’ve seen some slowdowns, particularly lunch. Like right now, we’d be just packed and needing probably another additional server so it’s quite a difference,” said Mokbel. “As a new start-up business, financially, that’s not a good thing for sure. But we’re ready to brace it, no matter what.”

It’s businesses like hers that, experts say, could suffer the most during these closures.

“The restaurants, the gas stations, maybe the theater, the arts, and culture, it could be any number of things. Sure they rely on that, year after year, month after month and they budget accordingly,” said Mark Jackson, executive director of Polk County Tourism & Sports Marketing.

Jackson tells 8 On Your Side, there are 8,000 rental units in the northeast part of the county for visitors traveling east or west to theme park attractions.

“When that is delayed, then they have cash flow problems. Employees don’t get hired, you have that trickle-down sort of negative multiplier that really can impact but we just need to brace for it,” he said. “Most of the time, these events or even the attractions, the demand is just gonna be delayed. It doesn’t go away. It’s not perishable.”

As for the theme parks themselves, Walt Disney World officials say they will be paying cast members throughout the closure.

The resort is extending its annual passes for the number of days the parks will be closed.

Tickets and resort stays can be refunded.

For more information, visit https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/travel-information/

Universal Studios has created flexible problems for people who booked visits.

Guests can call (877) 801-9720 or visit https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/terms-of-service/operations-update.

LEGOLAND Florida says its employees will continue to work on site as scheduled.

“We have flexible options in place for guests who have booked travel packages or tickets with us. Guests can email llf.experience@legoland.com for more information,” wrote a LEGOLAND spokesperson in a statement.

Busch Gardens and SeaWorld will also be closed from March 16 through the end of the month.

“During this time essential personnel, including animal care experts, will continue to look after the health, safety and nutritional needs of the animals in our care. Our animal rescue and rehabilitation operations will also continue to operate,” a statement reads from the SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment website.

Full-time employees will also be paid throughout the closure, the company said.

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