Inside the NBA bubble: What is life like for the media on the Disney World campus?
LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — The sign stood in front of me with a message that could have left me feeling frustrated. As it has been for almost all of 2020, the moment only further reinforced my want to maintain the right perspective.
Underneath the entrance to Walt Disney World reads, "Where Dreams Come True." That message may have been accurate in normal times. As a 9-year-old, I traveled with my family down here and enjoyed all the rides at Magic Kingdom, Epcot Center and Typhoon Lagoon. With a Disney autograph book in my hand, I relentlessly tracked down Mickey, Goofy and other characters for their illegible signatures.
But now? When I arrived here Sunday, about 2½ weeks before the NBA will resume its season at ESPN’s Wide World of Sports Complex, that message at the entrance reinforced these times are not normal. Though I have attended too many games and visited too many cities to count during my combined seven years as a beat writer for the Los Angeles Lakers (2012-17) and Golden State Warriors (2017-19), nothing about this arrangement seemed familiar.
THE BUBBLE:How NBA campus has taken shape in Orlando
Yes, the NBA will start again on July 30, about 4½ months after halting operations once Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Yet, the games will take place at venues without any fans. Yes, I am among the fortunate few that can attend those games in person. Yet, I will have to remain socially distant with other reporters during games and with coaches and players during post-game interviews.
Yes, my hotel (Coronado Springs) is technically on the same site as where teams are staying (Gran Destino Tower, Grand Floridian, Yacht Club). Yet, I will still have to spend most of my time on Zoom calls instead of linking up over dinner and drinks with work colleagues and sources. Yes, Disney World has opened to the general public. Yet, I cannot revisit Disney World since I have to remain on campus. Yes, there will be daily testing for all players and media members. Yet, the league oversaw some technical glitches on Sunday that delayed health officials to conduct testing until late in the evening.
Let’s be real, though. Even in normal times, it is obnoxious to fret about first-world problems. With the pandemic causing a steady increase in deaths (more than 134,000) and the unemployed (at least 50 million), it has become significantly more important to cherish the daily wins and have empathy for those that cannot always count those. So I arrived here in Orlando more with eagerness than frustration to see what us. So even if I am sharing details about the logistics, I am not griping about the hiccups.
I first noticed the changes on Saturday when I flew for the first time since attending NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago in late February, which felt much longer than 4½ months ago. Both TSA and gate agents stood behind plexiglass to protect their mask-covered faces. Stores were either closed or almost empty. Sanitizer stations were everywhere. Delta rightfully did not have any of its middle seats filled and also required all customers to wear masks. When I arrived at a Marriott near the Orlando airport, the placed looked uncomfortably clean with seemingly more sanitizing stations than walking customers.
As I finished a socially distant lunch at the hotel lobby around 12:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, I spotted a driver holding an NBA sign with my name on it. Barring an unthinkable red-eye flight with two connecting flights, it was nearly impossible to arrive at the NBA’s campus site by Sunday afternoon when they planned to test every traveling media member for COVID-19. Since I needed to fly a day earlier, the NBA accommodated arrangements to pick me up from the airport hotel. The driver, with an NBA logo on his mask, then pushed the birdcage and loaded my three suitcases and backpack into the car. To maintain our distance, I opened the door for myself. Amid concerns about growing infection rates in Florida, that driver is also subject to daily testing and is required to stay on the campus site.
At about 12:49, the driver arrived at the Walt Disney World Entrance that displayed its unintentionally ironic message. When we pulled onto the Coronado Springs property five minutes later, it became clear the NBA and Disney made extensive efforts to make sure its campus site would remain protected. A police officer asked the driver details about my arrival. He then received access to drop me off at Veracruz Exhibit Hall, which is where I would check in to receive the Disney MagicBand. That serves as a hotel room key and a check-in for COVID-19 testing and security checkpoints. That way, the NBA and Disney can identify a person’s recent location should they test positive.
As the league waited for my room to become available, I read the varying signs in the lobby that will also be displayed all over campus. One sign advised people to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth as well as covering a cough or sneeze with a tissue before disposing immediately. Another sign stressed that "face coverings are required at all times," except when playing basketball or completing an outdoor activity (walking, running, swimming). Another sign outlined various tips to decrease the odds of contracting COVID-19, including frequent hand washing, face coverings, social distancing and cleaning frequently touched surfaces.
By 1:30 I learned my room was ready. So I was given a bag of lunch that included a Subway six-inch turkey sandwich, a bag of chips and a chocolate chip cookie. Another driver greeted me to drop me off at my hotel room. Nearly 10 minutes later, that driver dropped my bags off at the curb of the hotel. Disney employees have been advised to avoid interactions with guests, but they are around on an as-needed basis. Since I had more bags than arms, a hotel employee brought a birdcage, wiped it clean and then loaded my luggage. He took the elevator, while I walked the four flights of stairs. He then unloaded the luggage outside my room.
It only took one try for the Disney MagicBand to open my hotel room successfully. I walked into a room with two queen size beds, a big screen television promoting Disney programs, a bathroom area and a closet. No one will mistake the amenities for a 5-star hotel. During my years traveling on the NBA beat, I have stayed in much more luxurious properties. Yet, no one should mistake this for a cheap motel, either. Those places do not have a luxurious outdoor pool and a big screen TV.
I couldn’t enjoy the pool anyway under quarantine. I also remained busy enough with Zoom calls that I did not binge watch anything. Eventually, I realized I was hungry, though. Finally at 9 p.m., two bags of food stood outside my door, including pasta, chicken, rice, a house salad, apple slices, potato chips, crackers and a brownie. About an hour later, I received 28 bottles of water, three bottles of Gatorade, three coffee drinks, two bottles each of apple juice, orange juice and tropical mango, as well as three cans of Pepsi and two cans of Diet Pepsi. At 10:33, I was tested for COVID-19 with two nasal swabs and one throat swab. Though results will become available in about 15 hours, I will be tested every day for the next week to ensure I stay negative.
Presuming I don’t test positive, I will have to stay here in my room for one week of quarantine while retrieving meals placed outside my door three times a day at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m. I will be here at least for the next month, possibly longer. And after staying mostly stuck at home in Los Angeles for the past 4 ½ months, I at least remain blessed I can begin traveling again. Soon enough, I will actually witness an NBA game, something that was once a normal routine 124 days ago.
Who knows if the NBA can pull this off successfully. I became reaffirmed with the league's approach, however, with what I experienced on my first day here. The NBA has exhaustively prepared for the big things and shown enough flexibility to navigate through the smaller hiccups.
Perhaps that Walt Disney World sign remains accurate. This still is the place where dreams come true.