In July, Walt Disney World in Florida reopened after several months of COVID-related shutdown. When it did finally reopen it wasn’t without a fair amount of controversy, even in spite of the many changes and precautions the company took in order to ensure the safety and well being of its guests. I decided not to visit during those first few weeks of reopening, but I did fly down in August and again just a couple of weeks ago. My goals were simple, to see what changes had been put into place, how guests were reacting to them and whether or not the so-called Disney magic was still there in spite of these necessary but significant changes. While the two experiences were very different from one another, both were incredibly positive and so today I want to offer a brief look at my experiences in the Most Magical Place on Earth and why I think limited and responsible travel is appropriate as we near the end of the year.
It may seem odd to some that I even visited Walt Disney World in the first place. First of all there are the inherent risks of any travel in 2020, much less to a theme park. Prior to my Florida trips though I tackled two shorter trips and even hopped on a plane again. Those were important in my own process of reentering the world. I firmly believe that 2020 has been traumatizing for us all, whether we realize it or not. From afar, I have seen many people attempt modest trips only to be somewhat overwhelmed by the experience. It’s going to take all of us a while to once again travel without fear, but in the meantime if we take every necessary precaution, get tested and be mindful of others, then I think the experiences can be safe and fun; more on that later in this post. Second, I’m a professional traveler and live in one of the most interesting countries in the world from a travel perspective. Here in the U.S. we have a little bit of everything and certainly enough to fill many lifetimes of experiences. So why then would I visit Disney World not once but twice since the end of strict lockdown? Simply said, I needed it.
Although I’m new to the Disney Parks, they have very quickly made a significant impact on my life. Ever since my first trip to Disneyland just two years ago, I have been pleasantly surprised at how transformative the experience has been for me. I’ve been to 100 countries and all seven continents, but in the Disney Parks I have discovered something totally unique. Once I enter through the gates the real world instantly melts away and in its place is a universe of pure, innocent fun and acceptance. It’s remarkable and I never imagined I would feel this way, but here we are. Since that first trip to Disneyland I have been to that first park many more times as well as several visits to Walt Disney World and even Disneyland Paris. Every minute spent in the parks has been the mental salve I didn’t know I needed. When the stark reality of COVID began to truly hit home in March, I knew that I would need to return to the parks as soon as possible as part of my own mental recovery. I needed to feel happy again; something to which I think we can all relate in this most terrible of years. It was my personal pilgrimage and thankfully, although different, I did indeed find that magic for which I was so desperately searching.
Even though it was an incredibly positive experience, there were precautions I had to take in addition to learning how the parks have changed in response to COVID.
Precautions & Changes to the Disney Experience
Before I left home (and again once I returned) I of course tested myself for COVID, thankfully the results were negative both times. I also packed much differently than ever before. Half of my carry-on bag was devoted to masks, hand sanitizers, wipes and other accouterments that are now normal in 2020. Even before leaving for the airport, my travel decisions were made much differently than in the past. Ignoring my elite status with various airlines, I instead opted for Southwest due not to their price, which was reasonable, but their nonstop flight options and how they have responded to COVID. Within the travel industry it’s fairly well accepted that Delta and Southwest have had the best policies in this weird new normal, and the policy of blocking middle seats is what ultimately won me over. (They sadly will not continue doing this in the near future.)
I also had to plan my Disney experience a little differently than previously. Disney made significant changes to their own visitation experience in order to ensure the health and safety of their guests and to minimize the risk of spreading the contagion. This means that perks like park hopping and fast passes don’t exist currently, and in their place a new parks reservation process to ensure that the four theme parks in Walt Disney World stay at a reduced capacity.
If you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World, you will need to buy tickets in advance (unless you’re an Annual Passholder) and then you will need to make a separate park reservation for each day of your trip. The park reservations are free of course, but necessary in order to visit. Initially the attendance levels were shockingly low, but as locals have become more comfortable with being out and about the parks are getting busier, necessitating planning in advance as much as possible.
To be clear, the process of going through an airport and flying anywhere right now isn’t a whole lot of fun. Let’s be honest though, unless one was flying in First Class on Cathay Pacific, it wasn’t all that enjoyable before COVID either. What’s different now is the tone. Everyone is more somber and distant. There’s less joy in the travel environment today, which at first worried me for the Disney experience. As mentioned, Disney has instituted a wide array of health measures and I wasn’t sure if in so doing they had stripped away the fun. Just some of those measures 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.
Finding the Magic
My two trips to Disney World were different in tone, but during each I was indeed able to find that solace for which I was so eagerly searching. In August the crowds were still very low, allowing me to have the run of the parks and encountering few if any waits for the attractions. In late October though, the crowds had certainly increased, but still nowhere near what they were just a year ago. Disney recently announced that they have increased the maximum number of people allowed in the parks from 25% capacity to 35% capacity. What this means though isn’t very well understood. Capacity is the total number of people that may safely be in a park and still allow for guests to enjoy themselves. In the Magic Kingdom this number may be as high as 100,000 people and is a number seen traditionally only a few days a year. Even though the capacity today has been increased, the parks aren’t hitting those numbers, certainly not during the weekdays when locals are at work and school. So don’t let misleading news reports fool you, the parks are honestly not that busy. The longest wait time I had over four days was when I spent an hour in line for Flight of Passage, one of Disney’s most popular attractions and which last year typically saw wait times anywhere between 2-4 hours.
Food is always an incredibly important part of the Disney experience for me and most of that has returned as well, just differently. Mobile ordering is how most quick service restaurants are serving meals and snacks and restaurants have reduced capacity so advanced reservations are key. What I was thrilled to see return though are the famous food festivals featured in Epcot throughout the year. The themes change, but they’re practically omnipresent now, allowing guests to meander around the park, socially distanced and enjoying small bites and drinks safely outside. (When eating or drinking guests must remain stationary and distanced from others.) These festivals have long been a fixture at Epcot but are now suddenly more desirable than ever.
Most importantly though yes, I was able to escape from the horrors that have comprised 2020 and lapse back into Disney mode. Being in the Disney bubble itself is nourishing, and even though I couldn’t see the smiles through the masks, I know everyone I passed had one firmly fixed upon their faces. Disney has also added a few extra touches to help remind people of the magic. Random (and distanced) character appearances throughout the day have included Winnie the Pooh with a butterfly net stumbling through the grass and Joy from “Inside Out” prancing around Epcot. There are also random cavalcades to replace the planned parades and many more extras that do indeed surprise and delight. It’s wonderful to experience and I hope they keep these brief moments of joy in place once COVID is a distant memory.
Most importantly, on each trip I was able to spend four days not worrying about things. To be clear, everything bad that could happen to me this year has happened to me. It’s been a psychic shock to the system and I know will take me years to recover. Ultimately, that’s why I needed Disney right now. I needed to be reminded that there are good experiences and good people left in the world, I needed to remember that joy and happiness is inherent in all of us if we take the time to look for it and I needed to know for a fact that I could be happy again, even in this most terrible of years.
Whether you’re a “Disney Person” or not, this is the sort of magic we all need right now. So, if you are inclined, I would strongly recommend you consider your own pilgrimage to recover that part of your soul that hasn’t had a lot of work this year, the part that embraces joy and the magic that life has in store for all of us.