Disneyland opening highlights California’s COVID turnaround

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A family takes a photo in front of Sleeping Beauty's Castle at Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif., Friday, April 30, 2021. The iconic theme park in Southern California that was closed under the state's strict virus rules swung open its gates Friday and some visitors came in cheering and screaming with happiness. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)

ANAHEIM, Calif. – Disneyland swung open its gates to cheering visitors donning sequined Minnie Mouse ears and snapping selfies Friday, marking a dramatic turnaround in a state so overwhelmed with coronavirus cases just four months ago that patients were being treated in outdoor tents.

California's world-famous theme park, which reopened after an unprecedented 13-month closure, is admitting only state residents and operating under a limited capacity for now.

Once inside, guests decked in Disney gear waved excitedly at employees tidying up the park's hallmark Main Street, which was lined with hand sanitizing stations and signs reminding people to wear face coverings.

After spending the year mostly teaching her third-grade class from a tent in her backyard, Libby Birmingham was thrilled to be there. The 38-year-old, who attended the park regularly before the pandemic with an annual pass, took the day off work to make the trip down from Pasadena with friends.

“Disneyland is like my happiest place, to be totally honest,” she said. “It’s one of those places that I can always enjoy, and it lets me be the kid — not always be in charge of the kids.”

The reopening highlights a big shift for the nation's most populous state from just months ago when COVID-19 cases were surging, hospitals were running out of ICU beds, and hundreds of people died from the virus each day.

Now, 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. Children have been returning to in-person classes, 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.

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