Walt Disney World Reopening Roundup: 10 Things You Need to Know

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A cast member wearing a mask in Walt Disney World. Photo by Jonathan Blackmon of @bankzsnapsdisney

Remember going places? Going places was fun. You’d gather your family or friends and jump in some mode of transportation together — car, train, plane, whatever — and breathe the same air as other people, until you arrived at some place that wasn’t your home, where you’d do things together and breathe more communal air.

Ahhh, 2019. 

Like most of us, the four months and counting of coronavirus quarantine have reminded me of some of the outings I miss the most. I miss going to the movies, eating in my favorite restaurants, and taking leisurely strolls around Target when my main objective wasn’t just to grab whatever bare necessities are in stock and then run to the register like a contestant on Supermarket Sweep. But you know the pre-Covid place I miss going the most? Disney World. 

I’ve been visiting Walt Disney World in Florida several times a year since I was a toddler, and I even spent a memorable summer working there as a College Program Cast Member. I’m a Disney World fanatic and I’m raising a miniature Disney fanatic too! To us and the millions who share our passion, Disney World is more than just an “amusement park,” but rather a symbol of timeless joy at its purest form. It is a place built upon a commitment to creating and preserving MAGIC for people of all ages and all backgrounds. 

This magic isn’t just experienced during one’s visit, but in all the preparations leading up to the visit as well. From that excitement you feel as you book your favorite character meal reservation months in advance, to the little squeal you let out when you receive your countdown emails, to the beaming smile brought on when you hear “Welcome Home” at the resort . . . every step of it is purely magical!

Visiting Disney World is like a dream — an escape from the stressors of the outside world as you “leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow, and fantasy.” So as Covid restrictions have canceled or altered so much of what we’re used to, I’ve been asking myself, “How can Disney still feel as magical during one of the strangest, most challenging periods in our planet’s history?” 

After an unprecedented, four-month-long closure which led to thousands of employee layoffs, canceled vacations (like that of yours truly), and a severe economic hit, Disney Parks announced it would officially begin to reopen its Florida theme parks on Saturday, July 11, 2020 — despite the fact that this came at a time when the state of Florida (and much of the United States) began seeing record spikes in Covid-19 cases.

It’s been a week since Walt Disney World reopened during this less-than-ideal time, and if you want to know whether the reopening was smart or a mistake, well, it depends on who you ask. While devout Disney regulars were committed to returning to their motherland, many others have mocked their faith-trust-and-pixie-dust approach to the serious pandemic our nation is battling. 

Whether or not it’s a popular decision — and whether or not the parks will stay open during the Floridian surge — right now, the fact is that Disney World is reopened in the best way it knows how under the crazy current circumstances. Many believe this is a new way of life for a while, and things just have to keep rolling. 

In an interview with The New York Times, President of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products Josh D’Amaro stated: “This is our new normal. Our new reality. Covid is here, and we have a responsibility to figure out the best approach to safely operate in this new normal.”

Interestingly, Disney seems to have gotten more flak for reopening than Universal in Florida, which actually reopened first in June. D’Amaro may have been alluding to this when he said in an official Disney statement:  “As one of the first major theme parks to close our operations and the last to reopen, we have been deliberate about keeping the health and safety of our cast, guests, and local communities top of mind.” 

In the first week of Disney World’s reopening, there’s been a ton of coverage from countless Instagrammers, YouTubers, and everyday Disney fans which shed some interesting light on Disney in the time of corona.

While I didn’t personally travel to the parks for the reopening, I’ve been socially DIStancing and safely soaking in all the coverage by some thorough folks who regularly cover Walt Disney World. Their insights, along with my own Disney observations, helped me bring you this Reopening Roundup of what I feel are the biggest takeaways from Disney World’s first week back in business. 

Whether you’re currently planning your next visit “into the unknown,” or you don’t want to be within 6 (thousand) feet of a theme park right now, this feature will give you a balanced view of everything to consider during Disney World’s historic reopening. ✨

1. Reduced Capacity Crowds

A common argument in favor of visiting Disney World right now is: “The crowds are lighter — it’s the perfect time to go!”  Yes and no. While it is true that crowds are being kept smaller than under normal circumstances, it’s only the perfect time to go if you’re comfortable with the fact that you could be exposed to Covid-19. 

Indeed, Disney has reduced the capacity of its Florida parks by implementing a reservation system. So anyone with a ticket will need to go online in advance and secure a reservation for a particular day and time frame.  This system, incidentally, is said to be in place well into 2021.

In addition to implementing park reservations to reduce crowds, Disney has changed its dining reservation system to limit restaurant capacity, and temporarily eliminated Park Hopper options and all Fast Passes to give more guests a fair shot at more rides while in the parks. Many have noted that a benefit of the reduced crowds is the significantly shorter standby wait times for rides.

While the parks are indeed less crowded than usual, some visitors reported that the crowds were still more than expected for reduced capacity during a pandemic.

YouTuber Prince Charming Dev felt more comfortable at Magic Kingdom than he did at Hollywood Studios, where he would’ve preferred guests were in a galaxy far, far away from him. Perhaps the reason was the fact that Magic Kingdom is a larger park with more space, but he wondered if Disney let in too many guests to the Studios that day. 

YouTuber Tim Tracker noted that there were long lines of cars waiting to get into the parks in the mornings at opening, but crowds seemed lighter in the afternoon. 

Instagrammer Michael of @michaeldoesdisney had a lot of honest insights about his few days in the parks, and noted that crowds seemed noticeably larger during reopening than during the Annual Passholder preview days which preceded reopening. That’s undoubtedly true, as it seems likely that Disney would gradually let more guests into the parks than during its limited Passholder preview days. If so, guests planning trips in the near future should expect to see more crowds  than the sparse amounts seen in videos during the preview days. 

2. Safety Precautions

There’s a lot of new rules in the most magical place on Earth, but they’re in place to keep guests and cast members safe. As someone who could spot high-germ practices long before the coronavirus, some of these new precautions are long overdue common sense measures that make me so happy. In my opinion, many of these simple, sanitary practices protect people under any circumstances and should stay in place! Read on for those ideas: 

  • Face masks with earloops (not neck gaiters) are required in all areas of the resort except for swimming pools, guests’ hotel rooms, designated mask-free relaxation stations, and in restaurants while actively eating and drinking. Interestingly, the last rule was modified this weekend after guests were walking around with their masks off while snacking and sipping water. Disney recognized the danger of this loophole and has since changed the rule to require guests to find a place to sit socially-distanced from others while they remove their masks for a snack or water break.  It is commendable that Disney is paying attention and modifying rules as needed during this learning period. 
  • Temperature checks are scanned upon entrance to the parks. Some find this comforting while others point out that guests may have recently been exposed to the virus while not yet showing symptoms.
  • Entering the park now only requires scanning your magicband or pass, as fingerprint scanning has been eliminated. If you’ve watched a kid pick his nose in front of you on line like I have, you’ll be rooting for this touchless method to be permanent too!
  • Cast members physically checking inside bags are being phased out. Hopefully carrying bags through the metal detectors with us is sufficient security check.
  • Motion-sensored hand sanitizer stations and hand washing stations are available all throughout the park. Use them!!
  • If you’ve ever tried to throw away your garbage and found someone’s Dole Whip dripping down the outside of a trash can door, you’ll be happy to know trash can doors are now propped open. While I suppose Disney prefers to cover the cans to keep out birds or animals, open cans are a welcome, sanitary practice.
  • I’m a huge fan of the cleanliness of contactless payment, and it’s being encouraged in Walt Disney World, where it’s been in place for years. I’ve found mobile wallet pay options are available at almost every store, quick service restaurant, and even kiosk in the resort.
  • Mobile food ordering is being encouraged and long lines like those at Cosmic Ray’s are being consolidated and moved outdoors. I have always used the mobile order feature wherever it’s available and hope it will be expanded to more locations throughout the resort. It reduces contact with others handling money and the wait time is much better.
  • New scannable menus in restaurants enable guests to view menus from their own phone, without touching a menu that everybody and their toddler has previously handled. Seriously, menus have always been germ factories, and handling them right before eating is  especially unwise. I’d love to see scannable menus stay for good, with a small amount of paper menus available for guests without smartphones. 
  • Some popcorn purchases offer free refills, which means the popcorn scoop touches a guest’s refillable, saliva-covered container. (Honestly, it’s why I shy away from popcorn in the parks and microwave it my hotel room instead.) Apparently Covid made Disney wise up to this gross factor, since refills are now offered in the form of a paper bag. Woo-hoo! This is one precaution to stick with, Disney! 
  • New plastic utensil dispensers that don’t require pushing buttons have been placed in quick service locations and are genius! Just grab the utensil that is sticking out. Let’s definitely make these the dispensers of the future.
  • Disney was thinking like a mom when it looked around the parks for germ-filled “don’t touch that” surfaces. They’ve turned off certain high-touch, interactive experiences, and even removed things like handles from crank games on the Big Thunder Mountain line, to prevent people from touching unnecessary high-contact surfaces.  
3. Social DIStancing 

Disney has clearly made strong efforts to ensure that guests maintain a safe distance apart from each other. They’ve placed markings on the ground for waiting in lines, installed plexiglass to separate the switchbacks in the ride queues, and, as YouTuber TMPVids showed, they’re only filling every other row on rides and in theatre shows like Muppet Vision 3D. Having a train all to yourself on Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway sounds great to me.

But despite these efforts and the reduced crowds, if you’re heading to a theme park, keep in mind social distancing might not always be possible. Michael of @michaeldoesdisney made an excellent point about one challenge to social distancing. Florida is known for frequent, intermittent rain, and we’ve all seen those poncho-prepared guests who feel one raindrop and scramble for shelter like the wicked witch fearing a meltdown. Michael noticed guests cramming into stores and covered areas when it rained, which makes social distancing nearly impossible. 

4. The “Temporarily Unavailable” List is Long

We all have our list of favorites that we need to check off on every trip to Disney World. But when you think about how much involves close contact, you’ll understand why Disney had to suspend a lot temporarily. Don’t expect parades, fireworks, character meet and greets, buffets (duh), traditional character dining, or anything that makes social distancing impossible. Most live entertainment is temporarily closed, which in Hollywood Studios makes you realize how much that park relies on shows. Expect to see certain attractions or interactive experiences closed, as well as many eateries and kiosks.

Disney has also suspended some means of transportation, including trams in the parking lots, so plan to walk to the parks from your socially-distanced car. While the monorails are running, I personally feel it’s not the safest option during Covid, so I would stick with walking or boats wherever possible. The skyliner may be a good option if you are able to have your party in one car without others. 

5. Modified Magic

Has Disney World changed? Ummm, have you seen Cinderella Castle’s new paint job? The new color scheme is as divisive as the opinions on Disney’s reopening. Personally, I’d compare the Castle’s makeover to New Coke . . . and if you’re old enough to understand that reference you know that means I’m just waiting for Disney to realize they made a mistake. Nevertheless, I’d like to see it in person, since many say its makeover must be seen to be appreciated.

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Yay or nay? Crystal clear capture of the Castle’s new look photographed by Jonathan Blackmon

So yes, Disney World has changed, because it didn’t have a choice. But naturally Disney is trying its best to offer some modified magic, and it seems that people who embrace that new magic are the ones making the most of it.

While there aren’t parades, there are frequent cavalcades of characters (which I think still pose some issues with crowding around.) Instead of character meet and greets, there are cute performances from atop the Castle and random, socially-distant placements of friends like Winnie the Pooh, with whom you can take a selfie from several feet away.

A few years ago at a Chuck E. Cheese buffet, I saw a little kid lick one of the serving spoons and then put it back, and I still flinch a little whenever I see butterscotch pudding. So yeah, canceling buffets in the coronavirus era is necessary, and maybe even going forward. But Disney is thinking outside the box and has turned one of its most popular buffets, Chef Mickey’s, into a family-style breakfast, so guests won’t miss some of the restaurant’s favorite dishes. Hopefully other popular buffets (like our favorite Hollywood & Vine) will reopen in the same way.   

Character dining, where available, (like the Garden Grill) is being run from a safe distance, so you’ll see your favorite furry friends while you dine, even if you can’t squeeze up close for a photo.

While I do miss the live shows in Hollywood Studios, these images from AllEars.net made me excited to see Buzz Lightyear cruising down Hollywood Boulevard in his own Buzzified convertible.  I Want. That. Car!

Buzz-Lightyear-Character-Cavalcade-Hollywood-Studios-Reopening-700x453Minnie-Mouse-Character-Cavalcade-Disneys-Hollywood-Studios-Reopening-2-700x370

6. Sanitizing and Cleaning

Disney has stated that rides and other high-contact surfaces are being sanitized every two hours. YouTuber Tim Tracker shared intermittent announcements on rides like the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train which paused guests’ entry while cast members cleaned the rides. 

While cast members are obviously trying their best, Michael of @michaeldoesdisney shared that he felt a bit unsure about the frequency of ride cleaning, and found himself wiping down seats and handles himself before entering. Tim Tracker also noted that he saw surfaces being wiped down/sanitized more often when he recently visited Universal than during his reopening visit to Disney World. Conversely, Steve of @thedisneyfox showed video of a cast member at Disney Springs meticulously sanitizing everything down to the mailbox handle. As with anything else, it depends on who is working and what guests see. But perhaps the frequency standard set by Disney needs to be increased.

7. Room for Improvement

As Oliver & Co. taught us, Perfect Isn’t Easy . . . and adapting the entire Disney operations to meet the demands of a serious pandemic is never going to result in perfection. Disney has made a lot of great efforts, and much credit should go to the cast members who work hard and still wear a smile under their masks.

But there are some things which I feel do need to be improved or stepped up:

  • More frequent cleaning. Expecting rides to be cleaned after every use is just not practical, but more often than 2 hours seems necessary and feasible. 
  • Hand sanitizer is provided at the entrances and exits of rides but its use is only “encouraged,” not required. Asking each rider to sanitize before entering rides where they will be holding lasers and pressing buttons would greatly decrease the spread of germs throughout the parks. 
  • Shanghai Disneyland handed out thin, plastic gloves on rides with lasers and buttons, and perhaps Disney World should do the same.
  • Water fountains are still on in the parks and they should not be. As someone who avoids water fountains pandemic or not, I urge thirsty guests to steer clear of those saliva playgrounds and instead request the free cups of water which are available to guests at restaurants throughout the parks.  
  • Speaking of drinks, refillable cups and cup washing sinks should be discontinued. I have always thought this was unsanitary and it is now moreso than ever.
  • One-use disposable or recyclable paper 3D glasses for rides would be a safer replacement for the plastic glasses still found on rides like Toy Story Mania. 
  • Relaxation stations for taking a break from mask-wearing should only be located outdoors. 
8. Best for the Locals

Considering all the risk factors of Disney World’s reopening, I can’t help but think about the risk factors involved in interstate travel to and from the parks. While the whole country is still actively fending off Covid-19, it’s important to remember that certain areas are hotspots, and right now Florida is one of them. Traveling to and from Florida only presents the potential to bring more cases to Disney or back to guests’ home states.

As someone who is not a Florida local and resides in an area that has finally seen improvements, I don’t feel it makes any sense for me to visit Disney World right now, regardless of the exemplary efforts the company and its cast members are making to keep guests safe. I’ve rescheduled our 2020 trip twice already, because I’m not jumping on a plane anytime soon only to be faced with a mandatory two-week self-quarantine upon my return. 

But that’s how I feel as a non-Floridian. I think if I were a local, I may feel much more inclined to visit the outdoor areas of Disney right now.  In his reopening coverage this week, Disney Inatagrammer Steve of @thedisneyfox, who resides in the Orlando area, made an excellent point when he noted that being outdoors at a socially-distanced Magic Kingdom felt safer to him than being at his local grocery store. I’m sure when handled carefully, a visit to Disney World is indeed safer than many other options Florida locals have.

9. Use Your Own Discretion and Common Sense

I’ve always been vigilant about the health and safety of myself and my family. As someone who never had any qualms about whipping out a Lysol wipe on a ride long before Covid, I strongly encourage Disney guests to follow their best discretion right now. Wash your hands often and especially before eating. If you think you touched something dirty, grab some sanitizer. If a ride feels too crowded, trust your gut and get off. 

As I watched the reopening coverage this week, I was impressed to see many guests make personal decisions that took their safety to even higher levels than what Disney has in place. Tim Tracker was candid about the fact that he wasn’t going on any indoor rides and also chose not to eat in the parks because he didn’t want to take his mask off around other diners. Those are things that made his visit more comfortable for him, and if people decide to venture to the parks, it’s important for everyone to do so as safely and comfortably as possible. If others disagree with your safety choices, so what? Erring on the side of caution during a global pandemic should not even be a topic of debate. And it’s also the kind of caution which will slow the spread of this vicious virus.

10. A Whole New World

In the official Disney statement before reopening, Josh D’Amaro suggested that businesses and families need to accept Covid’s presence and find safe ways to move forward. While Disney World’s reopening has understandably been met with mixed opinions, if there’s any company detail-oriented and meticulous enough to tackle the challenges of safety in the time of corona, it’s Disney. 

While millions of optimists like myself continue to hope a vaccine is right around the corner, maybe it’s true that we need to learn to live with these challenges for the time being. If so, I hope Disney continues to be vigilant, listens to guests, and adapts where necessary to prepare for the days when we can all enjoy the parks again without fear. After all, “there’s a great, big, beautiful tomorrow, and tomorrow’s just a dream away.” 

4 thoughts

  1. I appreciate this post and I read it before our own trip to Disney and it had me scared but we are back now and I thought I’d write to correct some things because it is inaccurate and you really need to actually go there in order to write about it. First of all, the crowds are definitely lighter and most rides are walk on. So that’s not accurate. I have several pictures of vacant Disney even more less crowded than the preview days.

    Also, the cavalcades posed no issues to social distancing. Nor did the rain.

    Disney is very safe. I felt safer here than at home in the grocery store etc. you said that it is good for locals but there is no difference in the risk. Disney is very strict about enforcing masks and social distancing. They also frequently disinfect rides and offer hand sanitizer everywhere. Also, there are no refillable cups allowed or cup washing sinks.

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    1. Hi there! Glad to hear your trip went well. It’s important to keep in mind that this piece was part news (updates about the new safety modifications) and part editorial, so some points were opinions of those I followed or myself.

      I’ve followed the reopening news coverage extensively, and in actuality many writers did not visit the parks. Unlike those writers, I chose to do a roundup of coverage from people who did visit, as a more fair way to present some first-hand observations. So points about – for example – the cavalcades presenting social distancing challenges, were observations by some of the people I covered. While I do agree with them, it doesn’t mean it will be everyone’s experience (I also shared several examples of things some found well-run while others didn’t…not everyone’s impressions were the same.) Crowds are indeed smaller and wait times shorter now (which I stated in the article) but I noted that these things vary by individual experience, depending on the day and time of a visit.

      As I said throughout this piece, I do believe Disney is doing their best, and I agree that Disney is taking great safety precautions, many of which I hope stay in place. My point about traveling to and from Florida is a widely held view, because it is in fact the 2nd highest covid state in the nation, but it’s definitely not a knock to Disney. While a majority of the reopening articles out there honestly have been quite cynical and even critical of Disney, I consider Disney a responsible company and give them credit for the efforts they’re making.

      Thanks for reading the article and stay well!!

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  2. Loved this, really nicely written. I totally agree that they need to keep the new cleaner methods (even after everything is over.) We don’t feel ready to visit yet but I enjoyed hearing the perspectives of some other guests. Looking forward to being back in the Disney magic!

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    1. Thank you! It’ll be great if some safer, more sanitary practices come out of this crazy period. And yes, everyone is different so it’s important to go when you feel safest! Thanks so much for reading!

      Like

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