After two months of closure due to the COVID quarantine, the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida reopened its gates and once against welcomed guests to the Most Magical Place on Earth. It did so of course with a lot of changes and restrictions in place to ensure the health and safety of its cast members and guests. Disney also reopened as Florida’s positive COVID numbers were rising at an alarming rate, creating a perfect storm of bad luck and bad press. The fact is though that other Orlando theme parks had already reopened before Disney and all of the parks have taken extraordinary measures to ensure that they won’t be the cause of the next COVID spreading event. Although I wasn’t there during opening week, I did travel down a few weeks later to see for myself what the experience of visiting the parks is like after lock down and whether or not the magic is still there. This is what I discovered.
What to Know Before You Go
As one would imagine, a lot has changed since Walt Disney World reopened and even if you consider yourself a Disney pro, you’ll need to do some research before your visit. Prior to reopening Disney, and all other theme parks, had to submit plans to the state outlining how they would ensure the health and safety of their guests while still creating a fun theme park experience. It’s a delicate balance for sure and it means that a little additional planning is required before you even book your flights.
Like all theme parks at the moment, Walt Disney World is controlling the crowd size to around 20-25% normal capacity. To maintain these numbers, a new parks reservation system has been put into place. The reservation itself is free, but it is of course necessary to also have tickets or an annual pass in order to access any of the four parks. An availability calendar has been added to the Walt Disney World web site so you can check out what is still open to guests on your chosen dates. There are a few things important to note about this process. There appears to be greater availability for those who stay on-site at a Disney Resort hotel or one of the Good Neighbor Hotels than for, let’s say, annual passholders. So if you’re traveling from out of state it should be fairly simple to visit the park of your choice on any given day. However, you should make these reservations as soon as you have locked in your travel dates and purchased your tickets. There is also no park hopping at the moment. So, you are relegated to visiting just one park per day. There are of course pros and cons to this system but, personally speaking, I really like it. Sure, it’s annoying that I can’t go to Animal Kingdom in the morning and Epcot for dinner, but it also forces guests to slow down and better appreciate everything each park has to offer.
I will outline the various measures Disney has implemented to ensure the health and safety of its guests during this public health crisis, but in my opinion the scariest part of the entire experience was getting there. Maybe it’s because I know a large company wouldn’t put itself at undo liability or perhaps I have Mickey colored glasses on and just inherently trust Disney, but I knew my well-being would be ensured once I arrived inside the Disney Bubble. It was everything in between that made me pause. Flying at its best isn’t always a fun experience, but add in a pandemic and it’s become sort of miserable. Some airlines though are doing a better job than others and after a lot of research I decided that Southwest was the best option for me. They have nonstop flights to Orlando from the DC area and have gone to great lengths to help maintain comfort and health inflight. In addition to their cleaning protocols, boarding is now done in groups of ten and they are extending their policy of no middle seats so that folks don’t have to be on top of each other in flight. The result was a somewhat comfortable experience that, while not relaxing, didn’t terrify me. So I suppose that’s something.
We live in different times with different rules that are all in place for everyone’s benefit. Where I live, that means wearing a mask whenever outside of one’s home, social distancing and general common sense measures. This is not the same throughout the country and so some people may be surprised by the rules that are strictly enforced at Walt Disney World. It is incumbent upon the traveler to do their research and abide by all the rules. Disney is not a public service, we elect to go there by choice. Therefore, do not be surprised when cast members ask you to follow those rules that are there to protect you and others. Some of these new rules and protocols include:
- Enhanced Cleaning – Teams of people now spend all of their time cleaning everything throughout the massive resort, especially high traffic areas like elevators, handrails, benches and more. In the resorts housekeeping services have been modified to enhance cleaning and reduce contact.
- Physical Distancing – Signage and ground markings are everywhere, clearly delineating distances of six feet almost at every turn. Where not possible to properly socially distance, physical barriers have been erected to further promote strict physical distancing guidelines.
- Face Coverings – Mandatory for all guests above the age of 2. The masks must be at least 2 layers, fully cover the nose and mouth and be secured with ties or ear loops. Guests may lower the masks while eating or drinking, but must remain stationary and away from others.
- Temperature Screenings – All guests entering the theme parks, Disney Springs and table service restaurants at Disney Resort hotels must undergo a no-touch temperature screening. Those with a maintained temperature of 100.4F or higher will not be allowed entry.
- Plus much more.
What I Thought About the Parks Experience
Making the decision to return to Walt Disney World wasn’t an easy one. I had taken a couple of short trips since the end of strict quarantine and while the experiences were fine, they were oddly stressful. I didn’t know what to expect from a COVID-era Disney experience, especially since I visited just as a spike in positive cases was announced in Florida. Admittedly, I had terrible timing. I am though a responsible citizen, at least I like to think so, and there were a number of precautions I took even before leaving home. This included testing negative for COVID (and two more tests upon my return), packing as many masks and hand sanitizers as I could and mentally preparing myself for the trip.
It may sound odd to say that I had to mentally prepare, but life is not what it used to be and that is certainly true in the travel experience. For months we have been taught what to do and not to do in order to minimize the threat of contagion. That’s scary stuff and anytime we leave our homes we increase the odds of something happening. There’s a reason why so many people have reported panic attacks in their local grocery stores – life is scary today. Then there’s wearing a mask all day every day. To be honest, I didn’t think this would be a big deal but after awhile it did in fact become very annoying. More about that in a few paragraphs, but let me just say that Disney should not be your first post-lockdown trip. You need to work up to it. Yes, Disney is doing everything exceptionally well, but you need to be mentally prepared for traveling, being around other people and everything else that accompanies the travel experience in 2020.
Ok, the parks! The short answer is that I had an amazing time visiting Walt Disney World even with the current restrictions. In fact, I’m part of a growing number of guests who love some of the new regulations put into place and the effects they’ve had on the overall experience.
Onsite transportation still exists, just differently. Buses have long been the central transportation artery for Walt Disney World and even in the best of times they had their issues. With COVID though, the bus system is safer but far less efficient. The buses are divided into zones with Plexiglas barriers, with each traveling group allotted their own space. It’s great for social distancing, but terrible for efficiency. It’s a system that sort of works when few guests are there, but should those numbers increase this will be a terrible choke point.
Transportation really wasn’t an issue for me though thanks to where I decided to book, the Swan. This on-site property is a Westin, managed by Marriott, but enjoys all of the perks associated with any Disney Resort hotel. It’s also very conveniently located in the Epcot zone, which meant I could easily walk to both Epcot as well as Hollywood Studios. When I did need a bus, they were plentiful and generally empty and the few times I decided to instead use an Uber, the wait was only a few minutes. The Swan and Dolphin hotels are my go-to picks whenever I’m at Walt Disney World and staying there was the perfect choice for my big return to the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Since the parks are limited to around 20% capacity or so, the experience is much more pleasant than it has been in recent years. When Disney announced the Fast Pass system would not be rolled out along with the reopening, there was a lot of skepticism since it has served as an important way to mitigate long wait times for popular attractions. Truly though, with the reduced numbers, there is very little need for Fast Passes or any other way to speed through the parks.
I started my return to Disney at the Magic Kingdom; I thought it important to reconnect with the original spirit of the Disney Parks and to enjoy some pure and innocent fun. At first I rushed around, still stuck in my old ways of trying to beat the crowds but almost immediately I noticed something, hardly anyone was there. Not only has Disney reduced the crowd size, but guests have also been very slow to return for a number of reasons. With Florida’s dubious response to the crisis and a prohibition on international travel, for the most part Disney is leaning heavily on those who can easily drive to the parks, especially Florida residents. In the first few weeks of reopening this has meant, on average, busy (ish) weekends and not very busy weekdays. That was my experience as well and while I have no idea how long it will last, it was wonderful to enjoy.
Attractions are on a strict cleaning schedule and a combination of Plexiglas barriers and social distancing markers are in place to ensure guests don’t accidentally interact. Character experiences are on hold for the moment, but they still appear throughout the parks from a safe distance. While it sounds odd, I much prefer this and appreciate the ingenuity that has gone into planning them. Unannounced short cavalcades replace parades and fireworks are on hold, all to prevent crowds from assembling. The experiences in the parks are very different, but still a lot of fun.
In the Magic Kingdom the longest wait I encountered was for the park’s most popular attraction, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and that was just under 20 minutes. Longtime Disney fans will know this attraction usually has a standby wait time of 2-3 hours, so the difference is stark. I walked on to every attraction I wanted to enjoy, had lunch and left a lot earlier than I had planned. I didn’t leave because I wasn’t having fun, I had a great time, but I had done everything I wanted to do. This experience was pretty much repeated across the other parks with one exception, Hollywood Studios. Due to the incredible popularity of several attractions there, this park has been the busiest but it is still certainly very manageable.
I have a lot of thoughts about my time spent in the COVID-era Walt Disney World. Many visitors have all been repeating the same line over and over, that the Disney Bubble feels safer than their local grocery store, and I agree. But that’s also not the point. I had no doubt whatsoever that once in Disney, I would feel safe and that they would strongly enforce their rules. No, the issue for me and thousands of others like me is in the getting there. Whether you drive or fly, there are many touch points in between leaving one’s home and arriving at the Walt Disney World Resort, each one potentially dangerous. Locals in Florida keep emphasizing the incredible health measures in place not only in Disney, but in all of the theme parks and that’s fine, but I had different concerns. The issue here is the fact-based fear of going through an airport, flying, taking an Uber, checking into a hotel and so on. I know I’ll be fine in Epcot, it’s in that Uber backseat where the real fear resides.
That being said, if you’re fine with the getting there, as I was, then the parks experience right now is still a lot of fun and yes, the magic is still very much there. I admit that wearing a mask all day, particularly in the heat and humidity of Florida, was more challenging than I had anticipated, but overall it was fine and mostly a mental issue. I brought enough so that I could change them out during the day and that proved to be critical. Yes, snacking and eating meals is different and almost everything is now done via mobile orders, except for sit-down restaurants, but that process too was easy. But it is different and if you decide to visit then you have to prepare yourself for that fact.
If you’re a Disney fan and have visited the parks before then I do think it’s a fun time to visit that most will enjoy. However, if you’re considering your first ever trip to a Disney property now is probably not the time. There are many long cherished experiences on hold at the moment and even though it is Disney, there is still a certain tension running through the guests and cast members alike, making it a little more uncomfortable than it should be. No, this should not be your first Disney experience but if you do decide to go then do your research, acknowledge that it will be a little weird at first but also allow yourself to fall under the Disney spell and just have fun. That’s why I love Disney so very much, for the brief opportunity to forget real world stressors and in 2020 that has never been more important.