Florida’s Walt Disney World Resort reopened in July 2020 following months of mandated and necessary shutdown due to the pandemic. When it reopened though it was cautiously and with a great deal of thought as new rules and practices were put into place to ensure the health and safety of cast members and guests alike. Since reopening I’ve visited a few times, the reason for which I’ll detail later in this post, and so I think I can speak from a certain position of authority when it comes to tips and best practices for visiting Walt Disney World in 2021. To be sure, visiting is very different than it was before the pandemic but in many ways the experience is even more magical.
Health and Safety
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.
Park Reservations, Hopping and Fast Pass+
In addition to having tickets or an annual pass, there is one more step you must take before even leaving home – reservations. In order to ensure that the number of people in each of the four parks is kept to their new limits, a park reservation is needed before visiting any park. The reservations are free, but they guarantee that no park will have too many people. After getting your tickets simply visit the Walt Disney World web site to obtain your free reservation for each day you wish to visit.
Once you’re in the parks you’ll notice that the process of enjoying attractions is a lot different than it used to be. First of all, there aren’t nearly as many people which translates into more reasonable wait times. To be clear, immediately after reopening there weren’t any wait times but those days are past. Still, the waits are not bad and even the most popular rides are manageable. From my recent experiences, I never had to wait more than an hour for an attraction and that only happened once; thirty minutes is the typical average with several attractions boasting no waits at all during the week.
Before the pandemic, one would have to plan out their Walt Disney World trips like a general planning battle thanks mostly to Fast Passes. These coveted spots allowed guests to skip long lines for some of the most popular attractions. Since reopening, Fast Passes have been put on hold since they’re really not needed and you know what? It has made the experience a lot more enjoyable. Freed from schedules, I’ve been able to enjoy the parks much more than in the past, pleasantly walking along and doing what I want when I want to do it. It’s a more fun and laid back experience, which it should always be. Disney has also reintroduced park hopping, although with some limitations. You must have the appropriate ticket and leaving one park for another only happens if there is capacity and after 2pm, depending. Be sure to check the site for more information.
Hotels and Resorts
Just as the parks experience is very different (but not in a bad way) from before the start of the pandemic, so is the process of staying on-site at Walt Disney World. Of course, not everyone wishes to stay on-site, but personally I much prefer it. Aside from the many conveniences and perks, I enjoy never leaving the Disney bubble from both a health perspective as well as an enjoyment one. Disney maintains its magic throughout each and every one of its many resorts, which greatly enhances any vacation.
Upon reopening, not all hotels and resorts were open and still today many remain closed albeit on a reopening schedule. Please be sure to check the Disney site to see what is and isn’t open. Even those that are open may not be completely open. The Polynesian and soon to be Contemporary are undergoing refurbishments which greatly impacts available rooms and the overall experience. Still others, like Wilderness Lodge, have only reopened certain sections of the property.
Once you arrive to your resort, still more changes will be immediately noticeable from limited dining options to a mandated use of mobile ordering for some restaurants. Like all hotels and resorts around the country though, they are adapting to the new normal as well as they can to ensure both safety and enjoyment. I’ve stayed on-site a few times since reopening and I can honestly say that in spite of some changes, I’ve had an absolute blast and have greatly enjoyed the more limited number of guests.
Hours, Transportation and Dining
Getting around Disney is just as important as ever and, yes, that too is different. The complimentary Magical Express to and from the airport is still running, although Disney recently announced the end of the program so enjoy it while it lasts. The service must be booked in advance and onboard there are Plexiglas partitions to separate guests. Guests must also now handle their own bags, which is another difference.
Transportation on-site has changed as well, with buses now more limited to the number of people allowed onboard. Each person or group is assigned their own partitioned section of seats which, while safer, greatly reduces the number of people onboard which in turn increases the wait time. Monorail service is more limited and Plexiglas partitions have been installed there as well in order to ensure health and safety. One of the beneficial changes has been to the new Skyliner service because now each individual or group gets their own car. As always, Uber is a cheap and easy alternative to all of this.
Aside from Fast Passes, dining has traditionally been the other major stress point for guests and it too has naturally changed since COVID. For sit-down restaurants, reservations are essential and can be booked up to 60 days in advance. Do not delay on doing this as they tend to vanish quickly. Not all quick service restaurants and stands are open but those that are will require a mobile order be placed via the My Disney Experience app. This is an easy process and I greatly prefer it to standing in line, but make sure you have the app downloaded before leaving home.
Since parks aren’t open as late as they used to be, you’ll have to be a little more creative about dinner either heading off campus to eat or making reservations at one of the many establishments in Disney Springs or at a resort.
Deals and Annual Passes
You can still save money though! In fact, Disney has been rolling out many amazing offers and deals since reopening in order to entice more guests to visit. The greatest savings have been seen in hotels and resorts, with up to 40% off being offered in some cases. While new Annual Passes are not being sold at the moment, current Passholders are allowed to renew and they have been offered some amazing discounts. As always, I recommend using a travel agent/specialist to book your Disney trip since it’s no cost to you and they know all the current deals.
The big question is whether or not the experience is still fun and magical and I can say without a doubt that yes, it is. 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 in the last 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.