In this March 13, 2020, file photo, Katherine Quezada shows off her engagement ring as she takes a selfie with her new fiance, Fernando Carranza, in front of Sleeping Beauty Castle the during the last day before Disneyland closes because of the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, in Anaheim, Calif. Carranza proposed to Quezada in front of the castle earlier that day. Disneyland Park and Disney California Adventure park will reopen to visitors on Friday, April 30, 2021. (Jeff Gritchen/The Orange County Register via AP, File)

Disneyland opening highlights California’s COVID turnaround

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Four months ago, America’s most populous state was struggling to combat a surge in coronavirus hospitalizations that packed patients into outdoor tents and killed hundreds of people each day.

On Friday, Disneyland, California’s world-famous theme park, was set to reopen to visitors after an unprecedented 13-month closure in what tourism officials hope is a sign of the state’s rebound from the pandemic. For now, the park is allowing only in-state visitors and operating at limited capacity.

The day began with Disney officials and park employees wearing face coverings gathered in the park’s town square for the morning flag-raising ceremony.

Disney chief executive Bob Chapek thanked the colour guard for raising the flag daily throughout the 412-day closure and asked employees to “bring the magic back” for visitors about to enter the park.

“We’re not just another place. We’re not just another theme park. We’re something special and we’re something special because of all of you, because you bring magic to the world,” he said.

Many visitors had gathered outside the park since the previous night.

“It has such a symbolic nature to really quantifying that we’re finally rolling out of COVID,” said Caroline Beteta, president and CEO of the state tourism agency Visit California.

The news comes as California boasts the country’s lowest rate of confirmed coronavirus infections and more than half of the population eligible for vaccination has received at least one dose of the shots. It’s a dramatic turnaround from December, when hospitals across the state were running out of ICU beds and treating patients at overflow locations.

Now, children are returning to school, shops and restaurants are expanding business, and Gov. Gavin Newsom set June 15 as a target date to further reopen the economy, albeit with some health-related restrictions.

Theme parks were among the last businesses allowed to reopen in California, and Universal Studios and others have already thrown open the gates. That’s a contrast to states with fewer restrictions such as Florida, where Disney World’s Magic Kingdom resort has been up and running, though at lower-than-usual capacity, since last July.

Another major U.S. amusement park, Ohio’s Cedar Point, opened last summer and will do so again for the upcoming season — only this time, it won’t require masks on rides or outdoors where crowds can be avoided.

While California continues to “strongly discourage” anyone from visiting the state as tourists, the travel industry is banking on pent-up demand from its own 40 million residents for a comeback. An advertising campaign encourages Californians to travel within the state, mirroring a pitch made after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“We’re back to that playbook,” Beteta said. “It was very successful for us then, and we’re hoping it will be for us now.”

Disneyland is a major economic engine in California, drawing nearly 19 million in attendance the year before the coronavirus struck, according to the Themed Entertainment Association. It and other such attractions were shuttered in March 2020 as Newsom imposed the nation’s first statewide shutdown order. The park and neighbouring Disney California Adventure will reopen with a capacity that is currently capped at 25% under state health rules.

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