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My family and I are huge fans of all things Disney, and we typically frequent the Disneyland Resort in Anaheim, Calif., as annual passholders. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, has put the kibosh on our and many patrons’ local merriment as our “Magic Kingdom” — with the exception of the Downtown Disney District — remains closed.
Still, the novel coronavirus did not stop us from taking a five-night trip to Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fla., which is open to visitors. The resort experience was both expectedly and surprisingly different. Here is what you can expect from visiting Walt Disney World during the pandemic.
New Hotels and AttractionsDuring our visit, we were able to sample the resort’s newest offerings. My aunt and cousin are Disney Vacation Club members, and Disney's Riviera Resort is one of their home properties. This allowed my family and I to join them at the fresh hotel in a spectacular Three-Bedroom Grand Villa with quick and easy access to the new Disney Skyliner transportation system.
Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway was also new to us, and the attraction is adorable and technologically amazing. For future visits, we greatly look forward to attractions that are in the works, including TRON Lightcycle / Run, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser.
Signage and AnnouncementsOur recent visit proved that a Disney experience is always a magical one — even with COVID-19 safety protocols in place. The most noticeable changes are several signs outlining safety precautions and reminding guests of health requirements prior to entering the parks. There are even PA announcements reiterating guidelines once every hour or so.
To that end, some signs appropriately read, “Help Us Protect the Magic,” and guests were happy to do so.
Temperature and Security ScreeningsPleasantly, one of the easiest checkpoints now is actually the bag check and temperature screenings following the initial signage. Contactless thermometers make quick work of scanning foreheads, and artificial intelligence scanners replace most manual bag checks and traditional metal detectors. This system allows guests to simply walk past, save for the occasional secondary screening. Lines here can sometimes appear long but empty quickly.
Mask WearingAmong its current measures, Disney does require all guests (ages two and up) to wear face coverings at all times except while swimming or actively eating or drinking when stationary. Anyone who has visited central Florida before knows how hot and humid it can get, even when it’s overcast and raining, so mandating that visitors strap on a mask inside, outdoors and also on rides is not an insignificant ask. Suffice it to say masks make the park-going experience steamy, and clients should come prepared. Pro tip: A neck fan helps a lot.
Despite mask challenges, frequent breaks to sip a cold drink or sit down for a meal alleviate their discomfort, and there are several “Relaxation Stations,” some of which are air conditioned indoors, that permit visitors to take them off even without eating or drinking.
Reduced CapacitiesFrequently discussed are the parks’ capacities and ensuing wait times. We visited all four parks at the resort — Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom (the pair of waterparks is still closed) — when the resort was switching from 25% to up to 35% maximum capacity. Compared to a typical high season, each park felt far less cramped overall but occasionally looked busier than expected.
The reason for this is individual attractions are also limited in capacities and queues are spaced for physical distancing, so fewer people are inside and instead spill out when waiting. However, clear plexiglass dividers between vehicles have recently been installed, which is allowing certain rides to safely increase capacity, and thus reduce their wait times.
Shorter Wait Times and FastPassThe combination of lower park and attraction attendance might result in wait times on par with regular operations, but shorter queues have actually emerged since the pandemic. Abbreviated lines are definitely a boon, but keep in mind that this is the case with the temporary suspension of Disney FastPass+, which may affect clients’ daily planning.
Customers should also be aware that attraction pre-show rooms are currently bypassed to avoid gatherings, which does abridge Disney’s signature ride narratives. Otherwise, queue floors are fully punctuated with six-feet-separation markers, and as lines get physically tighter towards loading stations, plexiglass walls help offset close proximities.
Limited Hours and Park HoppingAlso restricted for the time being are park hours. Parks are not open as long as usual and park hopping is not scheduled to return until January 2021. Visitors must reserve a specific park to start at each day.
Cute Character CavalcadesIn order to avoid the forming of unnecessary queues and crowds, Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse and the rest of the gang are not available for meet and greets and photo ops, and there are no scheduled parades, main live shows or fireworks performances right now. Instead, characters are revealed in unannounced spurts in shorter cavalcades or waving from railings above.
This is one of the pandemic-era changes we hope continues beyond. It’s delightful to see Pocahontas and Santa Claus seasonally floating down the rivers of Animal Kingdom, Chip and Dale spontaneously heading down the main drag of Hollywood Studios or even a small live band occasionally performing tunes from a float.
Superior SanitationDisney properties are already known to be relatively spotless as custodians perpetually clean everything, but Disney World is being sanitized to a degree never before seen. For example, I once spotted a cast member scrubbing the inside of a Disney Skyliner aerial cab and its surfaces with a car wash-grade extension brush.
A placard at resorts also indicated the enhanced cleaning of hotel door handles, pulls and knobs; light switches and controls; closet amenities; beverage area; bathroom fixtures and surfaces; bathroom amenities; thermostat and electric controls; bedding; electronic devices; hand surfaces and flooring; and cleaned and wrapped amenities.
Following this protocol is an expected closure of any interactive touch elements throughout the parks. In their place is an emphasis on using the My Disney Experience app for everything from checking in at the resort and mobile food ordering to displaying wait times and snagging a boarding group for the extremely popular Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride.
Disneyland Is Still ClosedOn the West Coast, most of Disneyland Resort remains closed due to California’s extended lockdowns. So, Walt Disney World Resort is currently the only domestic option for enjoying Disney parks in the foreseeable future.
Despite a multitude of logistical challenges, Disney has done a remarkable job at maintaining the magic, as well as prioritizing guest safety and health through it all.
The DetailsWalt Disney World Resortwww.disneyworld.disney.go.com