Swine flu another headache for Orlando theme parks

As health authorities test whether a tourist who visited Walt Disney World earlier this week was infected with swine flu, industry experts said Tuesday the giant resort and other theme parks potentially faces substantial fallout.

If the testing ultimately confirms that someone carrying the swine-flu virus was at Disney World — or any other theme park — “it’s going to have a negative impact,” said Dennis Speigel, president of International Theme Park Services, a Cincinnati consulting firm.

“I think there are going to be short-term cancellations, particularly because it’s so unknown, at this point, what really the width and breadth of this is,” Speigel said. “And, No. 2, if it does broaden and there are more cases that pop up, particularly in the destination places, it would absolutely create cancellations.”

The threat to Disney and other theme parks became more pronounced Tuesday after a top doctor at Florida Hospital sent an e-mail saying a swine-flu case had been diagnosed in a tourist from Mexico who had been vacationing at Disney. Hospital administrators quickly backed away from the email, saying no swine-flu case had been confirmed. But they acknowledged having sent a lab sample from an influenza-stricken tourist, who is either from Mexico or has been in contact with someone from Mexico, to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which will test whether the tourist has the strain of influenza that develops into swine flu. The testing typically takes about 48 hours.

A spokeswoman for Disney World declined to comment.

Should the tests show that the tourist had the disease, it will be incumbent on Disney executives to learn everything they can about both the disease and the guest, said John Gerner, managing director of Leisure Business Advisors in Richmond, Va.

That would include understanding everything from the strain’s incubation periods and methods of transmission to what facilities the guest had contact with. It’s also important that Disney — or any other theme park confronted with a similar situation — share information about what precautionary steps it has taken to soothe guests’ fears, Gerner said.

“I think operators have to do everything they can to calm these concerns,” Gerner said. “It’s always important to be upfront, to provide information, to not be perceived as hiding information.”

Ady Milman, a professor at the University of Central Florida‘s Rosen College of Hospitality Management, said any effect on local tourism could be minimal — as long as more cases of swine flu don’t emerge from a theme park. The broader concern, he said, would be whether the disease continued to spread here and lingered in the public consciousness for several weeks or more.

“A lot of people who plan to come to Orlando [in the near term] probably already have their airline tickets,” Milman noted.

But Speigel said the outbreak — and the global news attention it has already generated — is going to add to the head winds already hitting Disney and other theme parks as they try to navigate the global recession.

“It’s something that our industry absolutely does not need this year,” he said. “It’s just going to compound other issues that are impacting our business.”


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