A pre-post note: I don’t need to reference the latest COVID-19 statistics to convey how severe the situation is globally. Many would consider theme parks in Orlando operating to be a controversial issue, and back in July, I was one of them. After a few days at Disney in early December, I can say I believe they’re doing everything possible to protect Cast Members and keep visitors safe. To put things in perspective, I felt safer at Disney, with all of their restrictions, than I have in grocery stores, shops and even takeaway restaurants across Ireland, as well as in Georgia and Pennsylvania. All this to say, the below post is a recap of my experience, and only that. In no way am I encouraging unnecessary travel at present- especially with holiday surges in COVID cases and the emergence of a more transmissible virus strain.
When Disney re-opened its parks in Florida, I recall exclaiming, What are they thinking? Cases are rising in Florida and the rest of the States, how can they operate safely with crowds?!
With the divineness of the past year felt across everything from racial injustices, to elections in the US, to how to handle a deadly global pandemic, I’ve been working hard to understand the opinions of others before reacting. And, so, even though Disney’s decision to re-open in July cued anxious thoughts, I sat back, watched and listened to those with first hand experience.
Back in July, I was comforted to hear the same level of skepticism in potential to operate safely from the Disney pod hosts I listen to monthly. They too, said they weren’t in a rush to get back to the parks given COVID concerns, but were curious to better understand how Disney had planned re-opening with safety at the forefront.
At this point, I should confess I’m not a huge Disney fan, but my mom and sister are. In service to my mom’s passion for all things Disney, we’ve been on more family vacations to the parks than I can remember off-top. While I usually enjoy visiting Disney- especially as an adult when the agenda is more laid back- my sister is the one who inherited my mom’s love for Disney magic. Even when the parks re-opened, I wasn’t considering visiting Disney in 2020. Back in the summer, I assumed my next visit to House of Mouse would be when RunDisney races resume.
As the weeks went on, no reports of ‘super-spreader’ events were traced back to Disney. Everything I heard from online personalities who visited, as well as from friends in Florida who ventured to the parks was overwhelmingly positive- everyone felt Disney was taking safety seriously.
Still, I was skeptical. I questioned if the parks being open encouraged travel during a time when people should be restricting movement, and how entering a space with thousands of people could be done safely, especially in the US where adherence to pandemic guidelines varies widely.
Over the course of 2020, I, like most of the world, began to figure out how to adapt to the ‘new normal’. With a job that fortunately could be done remotely and the ability to have groceries delivered, I still sought to figure out how to travel safely around Ireland (when permitted), and went on regular walks to support local cafes and small businesses. Staying home indefinitely may be the ‘safest option’, but it simply isn’t possible for a majority of Americans (and others around the world).
My guiding rule?
As long as I could wear a mask, keep my distance from others and sanitise, I felt okay. Throughout the entire pandemic, I’ve erred on the side of caution- spending most of my time at home, avoiding indoor dining and travel outside of Ireland to other parts of Europe even when permitted, and routinely consult news from varying sources to pin together advice from multiple experts.
In September, I started discussing returning to the States for the month of December with my family. With annual leave banked, plus the ability to work from another country for a couple weeks, we worked out a plan that would allow me to ‘isolate’ with my sister and her boyfriend (both healthcare workers with regular, potential exposure to COVID) for a few weeks before driving north (Georgia to Pennsylvania) to spend time with my parents.
Around the time of figuring out logistics for an end of year visit, my sister and her boyfriend (who live three hours from Orlando) drove down to Disney for a weekend. Their reports echoed everything I’d heard and read- they acknowledged visiting wasn’t a necessity for them, but treated it as a calculated risk. Visiting on a Saturday in October they did everything in their power to remain safe- masks, distancing, no indoor dining, sanitising, and limiting exposure to others where possible pre/post trip. Both reported they felt safer visiting Disney than they do in the healthcare systems they navigate daily, because of Disney’s strict adherence to safety precautions and forced visitor compliance.
Planning to fly into Orlando from Dublin, we decided to pencil in an early December visit to Disney. The plan, so to speak, would be for me to arrive a week in advance and stay at a hotel where I could order coffee and food via UberEats, and be close enough to walk to a Walgreens. We bought tickets and reserved park days, but discussed the possibility of cancelling if any of us became ill.
Fortunately, all went to plan and we came back from Disney COVID free. I’ll share a bit more below about what to expect and my thoughts on visiting the parks, but I do think it’s important to express even though we had a positive experience, I wouldn’t advise planning a vacation just to visit Disney, flying there, and counting on being well enough to visit the parks.
Part of the reason we formed our plan was the flexibility associated with it. The reason I flew back to the States wasn’t to visit Disney- two days in the parks just happened to be something I did as part of coming back for a few weeks. We knew there was financial risk with cancelling our park days if needed and were okay with that trade-off.
Opinions will differ, but I don’t think I’d be willing to take the same health or financial risks if I were planning a holiday to Disney from somewhere in the States- e.g. a quick trip, where the sole purpose was visiting Disney World. There’s so much to consider- what if you don’t feel well upon landing? what if you need medical care while in Orlando, will your provider cover hospitals in that network? what if you’re unable to visit the parks as planned and you’ve paid for a week’s worth of activity?, and so on.
For me, it’s just not worth it for a quick trip just to ‘go on vacation’. We knew the risks we were taking- I obsessively checked the New York Times incidence rate tracker in the weeks leading up to our trip- and planned ways to take care of ourselves, and ensure we were doing our part to keep others safe.
The final thing I’ll note before I get into other tidbits- I felt safer during the time I spent on Disney property than I have in any other situation in the States or Ireland. Disney isn’t messing around when it comes to observing safety precautions- so much so, that I genuinely believe if other businesses took operating cues from Disney, transmission rates would look a lot more hopeful.
What You Need to Know About Visiting Disney During COVID
I’ll reiterate here- I’m not advising making a trip to Disney before a vaccine has been readily rolled out. I’m simply sharing my experience for those interested or seeking to understand a bit more about how Disney is operating during this time.
- First things first, attendance caps are in place. At the time of writing, attendance is capped at 35% of each park’s capacity. Even visiting during the beginning of the holiday season, the parks were no where near as crowded as prior visits in early December.
- Temperature checks are required to enter the parks and Disney Springs- anyone with a temperature above 100.4 F will require additional screening and may be denied entry.
- Disney is strict in face mask compliance and specific in what kind of mask must be worn– masks must be made of at least two layers of breathable material, fit snugly against the side of your face and under your chin, and be secured with ties or ear loops that fully cover your nose and mouth. Masks must be worn at all times, unless eating/drinking and stationary. They’re even required for photos. During my two days in the parks, Cast Members had no issue reminding visitors the necessity to comply with this rule. Was absolutely everyone in compliance? No, but I’d estimate 99% were, and for the handful of visitors who weren’t, I kept my distance and let a Cast Member handle.
- Attraction queues are primarily distanced and outside, which makes some seem a bit longer than they are, since they tend to wrap around places. In queue areas that are partially enclosed or inside, plexiglass has been installed to limit exposure to surrounding parties.
- Social distance floor markings, signs and barriers are present throughout the parks.
- Hand sanitiser is available throughout the parks, as well as before and after all ride entrances/exits.
- Reservations are required to enter the parks, and must be made in advance.
- Many restaurants, especially QuickService ones, are operating on a mobile ordering system through the My Disney Experience app, which helps with crowd flow and dining queues.
- Cleaning frequency for rides and public spaces has been increased throughout the day.
Nearly everyone I encountered during my two days in the parks complied with Disney’s safety restrictions. Of course, there will always be people who try to push the limits, which is why Disney makes it well known anyone refusing to comply will be removed from the parks.
A few times I had to remind people to keep their distance in queues, but that was more so because judging which marker you’re heading to can be challenging if the line moves a lot. In fact, whenever I asked people to step back and respect a minimum of six feet, most quickly apologised.
There were only two incidents that I’d class as ‘less than ideal’ during my two days in the parks, and neither left me feeling like my safety was at risk.
First incident: In a queue for a ride in Animal Kingdom, we hung back as the line moved because we could see the floor markings alternated rows to ensure six feet of distance on all sides. If you’re not paying attention though, that kind of detail can be easy to miss, and honestly, I’d rather Disney just install plexiglass than try to do this kind of ride distancing, because it is somewhat confusing. When we didn’t move up in this one instance, a group of people behind us started complaining that we were being ridiculous, that the distancing didn’t matter and we should just move up. We simply told them we were following the ride distancing markers to keep ourselves and others safe.
Second incident: The other questionable incident was at the Magic Kingdom, where I watched a Cast Member ask a mom to pull up face masks on her children (looked to be ages 4 and 6). The Cast Member was respectful in her request, which the mom completely ignored. After the Cast Member tried asking several times, she went directly to the children (they were about 30 feet away from the mom, posing for a photo), and at this point, the mom went ballistic, screaming at the Cast Member the mask mandate was ridiculous thing to ask of children. Thankfully, the grandmother was nearby and intervened to fix the children’s masks, before encouraging the mom to move on. This entire exchange took place in the proximity of dozens of other families and their young children- all of whom were in compliance. I know asking children to comply is tough, but it’s not impossible, and it’s certainly not required to visit Disney during this time.
Aside from those instances, nothing really raised an eyebrow. There were a few instances of people with masks below their noses at times, but Cast Members were always nearby to ask them to comply. A few times in Animal Kingdom, we even witnessed Cast Members patrolling with megaphones, reminding people of the rules and calling out anyone not in adherence.
What to Keep in Mind During a Disney Visit During COVID
Beyond Disney’s restrictions, there are a few other things to keep in mind if you’re going to be visiting Disney before COVID is fully behind us.
There’s risk in visiting: This much should be obvious, but with COVID spreading uncontrollably in the States, that’s reason enough to rethink a visit to Disney (or anywhere) right now. I felt safer on Disney property than I have during weekly grocery store runs, but there’s risk nonetheless.
Some experiences may be missing: Loads of people have written about missing the Magic Kingdom’s fireworks, as well as character meet and greets, but for us, neither was a significant trade-off to visiting.
Dining options will be limited if you’re avoiding indoor dining: For me, indoor dining is a non-starter- transmission rates have shown to be much higher, and it’s not a risk I’m willing to take. And, if outdoor dining isn’t appropriately distanced, I’m not comfortable with that either. We tried to eat before/after peak times so that outdoor spaces would be less crowded.
Wearing a face mask all day can be uncomfortable: The Florida heat is nothing to shrug off. We were lucky with milder temps during our days in Orlando, but wearing a mask all day in 90 F heat sounds pretty damn unpleasant to me. Whether it’s hot or not, bring extra masks so you can swap in fresh ones, or have back-ups if your mask breaks.
Bring your own sanitising spray and wipes: Yes, there’s hand san everywhere, but sometimes it’ll be empty while Disney works to refill it. And, I’d rather have guaranteed / instant access to my own than rely on finding a station nearby.
There are no FastPasses: Queues for some attractions are unbelievably short, and others feel nearly as long as if you were visiting pre-pandemic. We were in the parks to enjoy the holiday decor and atmosphere, so the wait times didn’t bother us, but if you’re visiting Disney for the first time or trying to ride a lot of attractions, now likely isn’t the best time for efficiency.
Visiting Magic Kingdom, I arrived around ~10:30 am and left around ~7 pm to avoid crowd swell at park opening/closing. At MK, I rode seven rides and caught a few character cavalcades, plus visited a few shops. Wait times for the rides I went on, based on starting a timer at the beginning of the queue until getting on the ride itself:
- Space Mountain: 20 minutes
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: 20 minutes
- Haunted Mansion: 10 minutes
- Jungle Cruise: 50 minutes
- Pirates of the Caribbean: 45 minutes
- Mickey’s PhilharMagic: 25 minutes
- Carousel of Progress: No wait
And, during our day in Animal Kingdom, we arrived at 11 am and left around 7 pm. As we recall, wait times were:
- Na’vi River Journey: 50 minutes
- Avatar Flight of Passage: 60 minutes
- Kilimanjero Safaris: 15 minutes
- It’s a Bug’s Life: 25 minutes
- Dinosaur: 15 minutes
- Expedition Everest broke mid-afternoon so we were unable to ride
By and large, wait times were less than what was posted outside the attraction- sometimes by 20+ minutes, and sometimes only by 5-10 minutes. If a queue was too long, I simply tried again another time later in the day- another bonus of visiting Disney as an adult and having the flexibility to just wander the parks.
In terms of park crowds, it should be no surprise Animal Kingdom felt far less populated than Magic Kingdom. I visited Magic Kingdom on a Friday, and although I didn’t feel unsafe, I also had moments of having to mindfully avoid crowds and re-position myself. Our day in Animal Kingdom was much chiller- there were far fewer people in the park, so observing distance was a lot easier. We were even able to relax while enjoying frozen peppermint mochas and holiday treats in a tucked away, back corner of Africa.
In terms of transit to/from the parks, we felt fine using the buses- there are dividers between seat groups, open windows, and parties are seated with distance in mind. Twice, we called Ubers to help save time in getting to/from the parks since we had to route through Disney Springs and walk to our hotel.
What About Disney Springs?
We stayed in the The Wyndham at Lake Buena Vista, which is a quick five minute walk to Disney Springs.
Why the Wyndham? Nightly rates were affordable, and it’s conveniently located adjacent to the Springs. It was our first time staying there, and we loved it. It’s on Disney property, so their COVID restrictions are fully enforced. There’s a Joffrey’s in the lobby, plus great snack and drink options at a small shop. And, it’s super easy to have UberEats from any of the nearby restaurants (Chipotle, Panera, Starbucks, etc.) delivered to the lobby.
With our hotel so near the Springs, I visited three times during my week on property. Once to visit on my own mid-week, roaming around stores, and leaving with treats from Amorette’s Patisserie to enjoy in my hotel room.
Another time with my sister so she could pop in a few shops and get takeaway from Chicken Guy.
And, one more time early Sunday morning for an outdoor brunch at Wine Bar George. We brunched early (10:30 am) because we wanted to eat before a lot of people showed up, and because we had to travel back to Georgia early afternoon.
As we expected, the Springs were more crowded on the weekend- so much so that, if that was the only time I’d visited, I don’t think it’d be worth it. My mid-week visit was my favourite because there were far fewer people, so everything felt calmer, safer and more enjoyable.
If you’ve made it this far, I usually hope my posts inspire a bit of trip planning for future travel. With this one, I’m less aiming for inspiring trips to Disney in the near-term, and more sharing my experience, because COVID isn’t going away anytime soon, and I believe 2021 is going to bring more instances of businesses and countries adapting to the ‘new normal’ while we wait to move beyond in entirety.
Whether you’ll visit Disney later this year or it takes you longer to venture to the ‘happiest place on earth’, I hope your next trip is full of magic- we all need some these days.
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