Disney during COVID-19: Is it safe?
Those who choose to go during COVID will see an entirely different side of Disney… an intimate one. With little to no lines and entire rows to yourself on rides, it's the exact opposite of the Disney experience we've come to know.
Disney closed at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine, laying off 32,000 employees by November. After 116 magic-less days, the parks reopened July 15, just as coronavirus cases soared in Orlando. Going to Disney World right now may seem ridiculous, and perhaps it still is. Now that months have passed since its reopening, it's not quite as empty, but it's not packed either.
I'm not going to downplay the nuances of this decision to go to Disney World during the pandemic. There were cons. But to start, walking around Disney felt safer than your average grocery store. On a Thursday, during a crisp morning, the grounds of Hollywood Studios challenged my preconceived notions of how busy and crowded I thought it was going to be.
Besides wanting to know if it is safe, the second most important question is: is it worth it?
Warning: Florida coronavirus cases nearly surpass two million. While Orlando peaked over the holiday months, it's trending downward in February. Check regularly to monitor the flow of cases. The CDC also recommends against participating in anything revolving around crowds.
When to go
Unfortunately, there is just no way of knowing how busy the parks will get on any given day, but going during the week could give you better odds. At 100 percent capacity, Magic Kingdom can allegedly hold 100,000 guests. Parks are operating at 35% capacity, which is a jump from 2020 at 25%. While that is still 65% less than usual, that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't many people. You can still be in the park with around 30,000 people. When booking, pay attention to the colors of the day. Green means all the parks are still under the reduced capacity. Yellow means some parks are full, and red likely means no parks are available that day.
Disney World precautions Disney World requires attendants to wear a mask at all times, unless sitting or standing to the side, except in line. No food or drink permitted. Lines are maintained at six feet apart. You wouldn't think this could be true, but it was. Most of the lines snaked outside, so six feet apart didn't feel forced at all. Once you got inside, they tried hard to be smart about it. If the line snaked back in the direction of other people, they put plexiglass walls up to separate you. Or, when that wasn't feasible, they alternated the line so that you were never next to someone in a different section. Depending on your party size, you might get entire rows of the ride to yourself. On rides shared between two groups, they put up plexiglass. For example, there was plexiglass between our row and the people in front of us when we rode the Mickey and Minnie Runaway Train ride. There was also a noticeable increase in cleaning. You would often see employees wiping surfaces down.
Safety We didn't see a soul without their mask on walking around the park, which is impressive considering that going to the grocery store, you don't always see the same respect. If you get caught walking and eating, they will quickly warn you to step to the side. I don't know if this is true for all parks, but I found Hollywood Studios' layout a little strange. Strange enough to where it was hard for people not to get congested at certain parts. I wore two masks the whole time, except when on a ride (then I wore one). The congestion obviously makes everything riskier, but it's definitely not the hoards of people you would experience here a year ago. It felt more like a packed grocery, but outside. It is worth bringing your own sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer. While the employees are wiping things down, there are a couple of rides requiring 3D glasses. Only one person uses them before they get resanitized, but they get distributed in buckets where a grabby kid could touch a bunch of them. We wiped ours down. There are plenty of hand sanitizing stations at every ride entrance and exit, and walkway, but some of them are out.
Planning You MUST get a Disney ticket and reserve a park. This is how they monitor capacity. The park reservation isn't extra, but it is required among admission. You also need a valid ID and the card you used to purchase. If you plan to park hop, you can only change parks starting at 2 pm with the park hopper pass. If you were hoping to get a boarding group for Rise of the Resistance, you must first go to Hollywood Studios. All we wanted to do was go to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Since reopening, they reconfigured how you visit the park's most popular attraction: Rise of the Resistance.
Instead of waiting in line and competing with fast passes (more on that in a second), this ride requires a boarding group. At 7 am the day of, the boarding group opens. You have to join a group that second, otherwise it fills. We didn't get it that first round (which was devastating and stressful). The only other opportunity you have is at one. Like I said, you MUST be in Hollywood Studios to be eligible to join a boarding group. Be aware of the time too. Otherwise, you might find yourself sitting in the car for Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Train, holding your phone as high as you can, trying to get enough service to join.
Meanwhile, all the employees are shaking their heads... You know, it's just something I heard happens. Luckily, we got it. Once you have a boarding group, you keep doing what you're doing because it'll notify you when they call your group. At that point, you have an hour to make it to the ride. Word of the wise, if you can go as soon as your group is called, there is less wait than at the end of the hour. Another note, screenshot EVERYTHING. You don't want to take any chances with a glitch in the system. You can only ride this ride once.
Disney World has currently suspended FastPass+ services, which means everyone stands in the same line, except for Rise of the Resistance, as it requires the boarding pass. Some people would die at the thought of not having the FastPass+, but for spontaneous travelers such as myself, I always found them stressful and unfair. I didn't want to be waiting in line for hours either, so this left me very unsure of what the day would bring. Surprisingly, I never waited more than 40 minutes for a ride, which was only for one. The Disney World app makes a huge difference in reducing your line wait. There is a map of the park with the wait times listed for each attraction in the app. I found the best strategy to tackle all of the attractions was to go against the flow. You could see how people were navigating their day. Everyone wanted to start at the main rides like Slinky Dog or the Millenium Falcon ride. We went straight to the back of the park to Rockin' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror. The line was only 20 minutes long! The app is updated regularly, but the best gauge is when you get to the end of the line, an employee usually stands with the wait time posted on a sign. This happened once when we went to Slinky Dog; the app stated 40 minutes, but when we got there, the line was 55. We did not get in line. We got a snack instead. When the larger rides were that long we chose to eat snacks. That way, when everyone finished and went to eat themselves, we were ready to hop in a shorter line. Most of the lines were a lot faster than their posted time. The lines kept moving too, so it never felt like we were stuck waiting around all day.
Getting food Like I mentioned earlier, the best way to eat is to go while everyone else is in line for a ride. This is just smart theme park etiquette but also great for COVID-19 safety. For a sit-down experience, the restaurants are seating at a limited capacity and should socially distance (we didn't do this). Most of the restaurants also require a reservation with limited walk-up availability. If dining is important to you, these reservations need to be made weeks in advance. Oga's Cantina, by far the coolest dining experience for Star Wars, had nothing available for us. *Sigh* But that didn't stop us from having a great experience. All of the made to order vendors required you to order on the app first and then show the host your meal is ready before you are allowed to enter, limiting lines and exposure to people. We ate in between crowds, too, so we could feel more comfortable sitting down. Some were indoor-outdoor spaces, and some were just indoor. The app is super easy to use, and it will also help you scout out all the dining options. Note, some spots are closed because of COVID-19.
So… was it all worth it? Was the magic still there? The answer is that it kinda depends. There are no fireworks shows in Magic Kingdom, arguably one of the most magical parts. You also can't meet any of the characters. Every now and again, you can spot one on top of one of the sets. We saw Chewbacca and Ray hanging out, but it wasn't quite the same. They were standing six feet from each other, and other than staring at them, there wasn't any interaction. You couldn't even get a good picture. They did have a mini-parade in Hollywood Studios with the Incredibles walking down the main street. Again, it wasn't the spectacular show and energy you are used to, but getting to experience all of the attractions before the day was up because lines were short? That was pretty cool. At this point, almost a year into COVID-19, our perceptions have changed so much. Our perception of crowds, time spent, life in general. For me, I thought it was great just getting to experience little moments of magic.