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 will be 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.
When Will Walt Disney World Reopen?
After closing its gates in mid-March of 2020, the resort is not planning to reopen everything at once: It will open in phases. For example, while you’ll be able to enter the Magic Kingdom, you won’t be able to see the signature fireworks that typically illuminate Cinderella’s Castle each evening. The phased reopening of Disney World will roll out as follows:
- 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.
- The Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme parks will reopen on July 11.
- Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot reopen on July 15.
- Reopening dates for Disney World’s water parks and other hotels will be announced.
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: Initially, Disney World is not selling new tickets. That’s because it is restricting attendance, and it is giving priority to annual passholders and those who previously purchased tickets (but have not been able to use them while the parks have been closed). Once some of the pent-up demand has been met, the resort will again make general admission tickets available for purchase.
- 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 will 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Limited hours and no Extra-Magic Hours: The parks have scaled back their daily schedules. For example, when it first opens in July, the Magic Kingdom will only operate from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. (sorry, no twinkling lights along Main Street U.S.A.) Also, Disney has temporarily halted Extra Magic Hours, which grants on-property guests exclusive access to the parks before and after regular operating hours. By remaining closed longer, this gives crews the ability to conduct deep cleanings of the parks in the off-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.
- No park hopping: Disney World passes that allow guests to visit more than one park per day are known as “Park Hopper” tickets. Regardless of the ticket you previously bought or what annual pass you hold, Disney is only allowing guests to visit one park per day. (And remember, you’ll need to make an advance reservation to visit the park.) If you are in possession of Park Hopper tickets, Disney says that you can cancel, modify, or extend the tickets and use them as intended by September 26, 2021. (Assuming Disney World reinstates park hopping sometime before that date.)
- 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, will not be 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 will present 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 will be at the parks, but guests will not be able to get close and personal with them for photos, autographs, or other interactions. Photos taken from a distance of at least six feet will be 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, will not allow new FastPass+ reservations to be made. Instead, Disney says that it will use 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: Because of the enormous popularity of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Disney developed a virtual queue program for the attraction. It required 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 is suspending the program during the pandemic
- Some shows will not be available: While most attractions will be open, a few theater-style presentations will not open its doors, such as "Finding Nemo - The Musical” and “Festival of the Lion King” at Disney’s Animal Kingdom and “Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along” and “Turtle Talk with Crush” at Epcot.
What to Expect at Restaurants
The resort has made most existing dining reservations at the table-service restaurants in its parks and hotels null and void, and it is not accepting new ones. However, you can still make restaurant reservations at select Disney Springs table-service locations. And if you have a confirmed reservation at one of the resort’s hotels, you can call to make a dining reservation at select hotel restaurants. Note that when Disney does resume reservations, it will allow them to be made 60 days in advance rather than the 180-day window it granted pre-COVID.
- No character dining: The popular character dining experiences, which are typically available at select restaurants throughout the resort, have been suspended.
- 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
Disney World is not accepting new hotel reservations (unless you are a Disney Vacation Club member). Also, only select hotels have reopened. If you have an existing reservation, you’ll need to rebook your hotel stay. 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 will be available.
Other Pandemic-Era Differences at Walt Disney World
- Some special events have been cancelled or modified: This year’s Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party has been nixed. Disney H2O Glow Nights, which were scheduled to take place at Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park, have also been cancelled. The Taste of Epcot International Food & Wine Festival will be held, but it will run much longer (starting July 15 and continuing into the fall) and will incorporate elements of the Flower & Garden Festival as well as the Food & Wine Festival. The festival’s Eat to the Beat Concert Series will not be held.
- The ESPN Wide World of Sports is closed to the general public: Note that the NBA has taken over the facility to practice and resume its season. Note also that the teams will be staying at the Gran Destino Tower at Coronado Springs, the Grand Floridian, and the Yacht Club. That’s one of the reasons why those hotels will not be available to the general public.
- No mini-golf: Disney’s two courses will not be open. (Although its regular golf courses will be available.)
- No Electrical Water Pageant: 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 ain’t happening, at least for a little while.