As the coronavirus pandemic has taken hold, the ways that we experience nearly everything outside of our homes has changed. Despite its longstanding claims on fantasy and magic, Florida’s Walt Disney World is no exception. The reality of COVID-19 has forced the theme park resort to adopt new policies and make a number of operational changes.
Since many things have changed significantly, there is plenty to consider when planning a trip. But before we jump into what will be different in the parks and throughout the resort, let’s start by reassuring you that nearly all of the E-Ticket rides and attractions you know and love are available. Whether it’s taking flight on the back of a banshee in Pandora the World of Avatar or piloting the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, there are a number of giddy experiences you can still enjoy.
What is Open at Walt Disney?
After closing its gates in mid-March of 2020, the resort has not reopened everything at once. Rather, it has been opening parks and attractions and bringing back features in phases. For example, while you may be able to enter the Magic Kingdom, you wouldn’t be able to see the signature fireworks that typically illuminate Cinderella’s Castle each evening. Here is what is open at the resort:
- Disney Springs—the dining, shopping, and entertainment district—was the first to welcome guests back on May 20, 2020.
- Select Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts (which are part of the Disney Vacation Club program), as well as the Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground reopened on June 22. Other hotels have since opened, including Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney’s Pop Century Resort, and Disney’s Pop Century Resort. You can find an updated list of the reopened hotels on Disney World’s site.
- The Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme parks reopened on July 11.
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot reopened on July 15.
- Disney World has announced that Blizzard Beach Water Park will reopen on March 7, 2021. No opening date has been given for the resort‘s other water park, Typhoon Lagoon.
Things to Consider as You Plan a Disney World Visit
Before you book a trip to Orlando, here's what you should know.
- Attendance is limited and reservations are required to visit the parks: One of the most significant changes that the resort is implementing during the pandemic is the introduction of a new park reservation system. Both guests with tickets as well as annual passholders need to make a date-specific advance reservation online. Disney is requiring the reservations as a way to limit attendance and thereby make social distancing possible within the parks. It is expected that the company will increase the number of available daily reservations (and therefore the capacity) at each park over time.
- Hours are limited: The parks had scaled back their daily schedules, although they have since expanded them. In March, the Magic Kingdom is open most days from 8 or 9 a.m. until 9 or 10 p.m. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is open most days in March from 9 a.m. to 7 or 8 p.m. Check with the resort for the actual hours.
- Download the app for the latest updates: Disney urges guests to get the latest version of its My Disney Experience app. By doing so, you will be able to stay on top of the latest updates as well as take advantage of features such as mobile ordering, digital restaurant menus, real-time ride wait times, and park maps.
Rules for Visiting the Parks
Disney World has implemented several new rules to ensure the safest possible experience for all its guests. Be prepared to make these changes.
- Face coverings: All guests ages 2 and older must wear a suitable mask throughout the resort; you won’t be able to enter the parks without one. According to Disney, you may only remove it while eating or swimming. If you forget to bring your own mask from home, the resort has some snazzy, themed face coverings available for purchase. Note that neck “gaiters” and bandanas are not allowed.
- Temperature screenings: Before entering the theme parks or Disney Springs, cast members will screen you by using touchless thermometers. If you exhibit an elevated temperature, you will not be allowed to proceed. To save time and energy, you should check your temperature at home.
- No Extra-Magic Hours: Disney has permanently halted Extra Magic Hours, which granted on-property guests exclusive access to the parks before and after regular operating hours.
- Keep your distance: In addition to limiting daily attendance, Disney is taking other precautions to ensure that guests maintain social distancing. There are ground markers and signs to direct guests in ride queues and other high-traffic areas, plus markings that block off areas where guests should not stand. The resort has also been using cast members dressed as Stormtroopers to cajole guests into complying with the rules. Their comedic attempts to maintain order helps diffuse situations and promote distancing.
- Limited park hopping: Disney World passes that allow guests to visit more than one park per day are known as “Park Hopper” tickets. When the resort first reopened, it only allowed guests to visit one park per day. Effective January 1, 2021, the resort resumed park hopping, but only allows it beginning at 2 p.m. each day. And remember, you would need to make reservations at both parks for a given day if you want to use the park hopper option.
- No Minnie Van service: You can use your own vehicle or Disney’s monorails, boats, or buses to get around the resort. But the Minnie Vans, Disney World’s Uber-like transportation service, is temporarily not available. Presumably, third-party taxis are still operating.
Changes to Major Perks and Events
Many special experiences and events have been suspended. Here's what you can expect.
- No parades: To discourage large crowds from gathering, Disney has temporarily canceled its beloved parades. Following the example set by Shanghai Disneyland, the parks are presenting impromptu, brief processions, known as "Character Cavalcades” and “Character Cruises,” featuring some of the characters.
- No fireworks or other nighttime spectaculars: As with parades, Disney World is not presenting fireworks or other nighttime spectaculars at any of its parks.
- No special experiences: Until Disney announces the resumption of its tours (such as the Behind the Seeds tour through The Land pavilion at Epcot), you cannot book them.
- No character meet and greets: The characters are at the parks, but guests are not able to get close and personal with them for photos, autographs, or other interactions. Photos taken from a distance of at least six feet are allowed.
- No Fastpass+ reservations: Before the pandemic, guests could use Disney World‘s planning app to book up to three reservations per day for rides, attractions, shows, and other experiences as early as 60 days in advance of a visit. However, Disney has canceled all existing FastPass+ reservations and, for now, is not allowing new FastPass+ reservations to be made. Instead, Disney says that it is using the queue space devoted to the Fastpass+ program to manage capacity for rides and maintain social distancing among groups.
- No single-rider lines: At some attractions, Disney offers a single-rider line option that allows guests to separate from their park posses, bypass the regular standby line, and wait in what is typically a much shorter line. They get to fill in available seats and experience the attraction with strangers. To help promote social distancing, Disney has temporarily halted single-rider lines.
- No virtual queues (except Rise of the Resistance): Because of the enormous popularity of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Disney developed a virtual queue program for the attraction. It requires guests to make reservations and receive assigned boarding groups on high-demand days (which were virtually every day after the attraction opened). Despite rumors that Disney would expand virtual queues for other attractions to help promote social distancing, it initially suspended the program altogether. It has since resumed issuing boarding groups for Rise, but has not expanded the program for any other attractions.
- Most shows are not available: While most attractions are open, nearly all stage shows are suspended. These include the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Beauty and the Beast-Live on Stage at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Finding Nemo - The Musical at Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
What to Expect at Restaurants
After it reopened, the resort initially cancelled most existing dining reservations at the table-service restaurants in its parks and hotels and did not accept new ones. It has since resumed its reservations system. In order to make a reservation at one of the in-park restaurants, you will need an advance reservation to enter the park. And reservations for restaurants at the resort’s hotels are now required for parties that are not registered guests at the hotel. Reservations can be made 60 days in advance rather than the 180-day window Disney World granted pre-COVID.
- Modified character dining: Most of the popular character dining experiences, which are typically available at select restaurants throughout the resort, have been suspended at nearly all locations. A modified character experience is offered at Topolino’s Terrace in Disney’s Riviera Resort, Hollywood & Vine at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Chef Mickey's at the Contemporary Resort, and the Garden Grill in The Land Pavilion at Epcot. Characters such as Chip 'n' Dale greet guests from a safe social distance at the dining spots.
- No dinner shows: Presentations such as Disney's Spirit of Aloha luau at the Polynesian Resort have gone dark.
- Digital menus: Instead of hard-copy menus, Disney has scannable codes at table-service restaurants so that you can view menus on your digital devices.
- Use mobile ordering: Rather than placing orders onsite, Disney is encouraging patrons to use mobile ordering at counter-service restaurants.
- Cashless and contactless payments: Although Disney World is not requiring it, the Mouse is strongly recommending that guests use cashless or contactless payment methods to settle restaurant bills (and for all other purchases). These include credit cards, debit cards, gift cards, mobile wallets, mobile ordering, and MagicBands that have been linked to payment sources.
What to Expect at Hotels
When it first reopened, Disney World was not accepting new hotel reservations (except for Disney Vacation Club members). You can now make reservations at select hotels. Some other things you should know about staying on property during the pandemic:
- Use Online Check-In: Disney is urging guests to bypass the front desk altogether and use its nifty Online Check-In Service. By going online or using the My Disney Experience app, you will receive a notification when your room is ready for occupancy.
- No in-room food delivery: Sorry, you’ll have to get out of your jammies and go hunt down your own sustenance.
- Cleaning protocols: Disney has modified its housekeeping procedures. Changes include more thorough cleaning of high-traffic and high-touch areas, double-cased pillows, and individually wrapped glassware. Note that housekeeping will service rooms every other day unless you decline it (to keep people out of your room).
- No dining plans: If your existing reservation included a dining plan, Disney World has cancelled it.
- No valet service: Guest will temporarily have to use the hotels’ self-parking lots.
- No Club-level service: The extra touches will not be available.
- No in-room celebrations: Another amenity that the pandemic has thwarted
- No dry-cleaning and valet laundry service: You’ll have to use the self-service laundry.
- No arcades, playgrounds, campfires, character experiences, spas, salons, or marina rentals: Note that pools (with limited capacity), fitness centers, and select other activities are available.
Other Pandemic-Era Differences at Walt Disney World
- Some special events have been cancelled or modified. The Taste of Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival is being held March 3 through July 5 2021. But the Garden Rocks concert series has been nixed. (Although scaled-down live entertainment is still being presented at a few locations.)
- The ESPN Wide World of Sports is closed to the general public: Note that the NBA did take over the facility to practice and resume its season in 2020, but no visitors outside of the “bubble” were allowed to enter.
- Mini-golf: Disney initially closed both of its courses (although its regular golf courses have been available). The resort eventually opened the Winter Summerland Miniature Golf and Fantasia Gardens and Fairways Miniature Golf.
- The Electrical Water Pageant has resumed: You know that delightful, colorful, floating procession you happen to catch on some enchanted evenings at Walt Disney World while you’re riding the monorail or relaxing at your Magic Kingdom-area resort? It was temporarily halted, but has since returned. Yay!