Disney World in the Late Pandemic: How the Most Magical Place on Earth Is Adjusting to CovidPhoto courtesy of Disney Travel Features disney world
Last October I went to Disney World. During the pandemic. Not quite at the height of the pandemic, but fairly close to it—I was there a few weeks before that terrible holiday season spike that ran across the last two months of 2020 and into January. No, it wasn’t smart to go to the world’s busiest theme park at that point in time. But as a professional whose job is at least tangentially related to some concept of “journalism” it felt like something I had to do. I write about theme parks; this was a unique, once-in-a-lifetime (hopefully) situation for the entire world, and writing about how it impacted theme parks seemed like an obligation. Also, after seven months in quarantine, I was just desperately ready to go anywhere. So I put on a mask, put on a second mask, packed like a dozen more masks and a box full of hand sanitizer bottles, and drove down to the most magical place on Earth. (No way would I have flown without a vaccine.)
At that point Disney World had been open for about three months since closing for the pandemic. Capacity was still very low, masks were still mandatory everywhere except when actively eating or drinking at designated locations, and as somebody who obviously wasn’t vaccinated yet and who was also super cautious—maybe paranoid—about the virus, I kept two masks on the whole time. I only took them off to eat outdoors or in my hotel room, and avoided any attractions that required sitting stationary indoors for more than a few minutes. I didn’t catch anything, and I actually felt pretty safe the whole time. Disney took its precautions seriously, and as a result I had a very entertaining and relatively stress-free trip during an otherwise miserable year.
Fast forward to earlier this week. I am fully vaccinated. I flew for the first time in 14 months earlier in May for this piece, and if I wasn’t vaccinated I would have been absolutely freaking out the entire time. The airport and plane were both absolutely packed, but people wore masks and I knew I had the vaccine in me so I generally felt safe. Still, I was relieved that the next trip I had lined up—the one to Disney World that I just got home from—was going to be by car. Covid rates are dropping fast, but until it’s mostly disappeared it’s still safer to travel in your own vehicle than on a giant metal tube with dozens of strangers.
Well, I was going to drive to Disney World. And then some hackers commandeered a pipeline and everybody freaked out over gas shortages. When the gas panic hit late last week I quickly scrapped plans to drive and booked a flight to Orlando, because I didn’t want to get stuck somewhere in south Georgia or north Florida without gas. I know the pandemic is not over, I know there’s still a risk doing anything like this, but if I’m going to trust the science I should also probably trust the science of the vaccine and start to feel safe getting back to something that more closely resembles what life used to be. And for me, yes, that means flying a few times a month, and going to Disney theme parks way too often.
So: what’s Disney World like today, in the late spring of 2021, in what are hopefully the final days of the pandemic? How’s it feel on the ground and in the parks, and what do you need to know before you go? Here’s what I saw earlier this week, and what you should probably keep in mind if you’re weighing a trip to Disney World.
First off, if you plan on going inside one of the theme parks, you still need to make a reservation in advance. You’ll need a specific reservation for each park for every day you hope to attend. Park hopping is back in limited form—halfway through the day you can move from one park to a second park, and that’s it. The old days of hitting your favorite rides at all four parks in a single day are currently gone. They’ve raised capacity since I was there back in October by a noticeable degree, but you still need that advanced reservation, and as travel continues to pick up I imagine it could become difficult to get those for high-demand days. I would not be surprised if next weekend, Memorial Day weekend, is already booked up. Also, if you want to do anything within the parks or the Disney World complex that require a separate reservation—whether that’s Oga’s Cantina or the Savi’s Workshop lightsaber experience at Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, or just getting a reservation at any of the sit-down restaurants in the parks or hotels—you’ll need to be on top of that well in advance. I scheduled my trip this past week over a month beforehand, in mid-April, and at that time it was already hard to get a reservation at most restaurants inside the parks, or the higher-demand hotel restaurants. There are no fast passes, so if you’re used to trying to nail those down 30 or 60 days in advance you won’t have to worry about that, but you absolutely need to channel that fast pass mentality for any other reservation in the resort.
Many of the usual entertainment offerings are still paused. There are no meet and greets, although characters still make appearances throughout the park for distanced photo opportunities. Parades, fireworks, and other night-time shows haven’t been restarted yet. Some restaurants remain closed. Most attractions are operational, though, and the live Lion King stage show at Animal Kingdom just reopened in May in a slightly modified form. There’s more to do there today than when I last went in October, but it’s still not the full Disney experience just yet.
If you went to Disney World earlier in the pandemic, and appreciated how sparsely attended it was, you need to know that capacity has definitely increased since the fall. And with it has come a far more relaxed attitude towards physical distancing. You’ll see markers on the ground in every queue and throughout the parks reminding you to keep your distance, but you absolutely can not count on others to actually observe that distance—or on cast members to enforce it. If you don’t think you’re ready to handle a constant crowd surrounding you, getting right up on top of you while waiting in line for a ride, then you might not want to go.
Similarly, mask usage is very much optional throughout much of the resort right now. Disney has been rightfully criticized for how it has handled its mask mandate over the last week, after the CDC advised that fully vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks outdoors. In response to that, Disney announced around 10 p.m. last Friday night that, as of the very next day, guests at Disney World no longer had to wear masks outdoors unless they were waiting in line for an attraction. And that’s all guests, whether they’re vaccinated or not. The change was announced after the parks had closed for the day, effective the very next morning, which was not nearly enough advanced warning for guests who maybe only felt safe at the parks as long as everybody was masked, or, more worrisomely, cast members, who are already in a fraught position having to work for a living in a job that puts them in constant contact with customers who may or may not take proper precautions. So, as you can imagine, almost nobody wears masks while walking through the parks anymore. Cast members are generally on point when it comes to making people mask up in line, on rides, or indoors—every ride at Magic Kingdom, for instance, had multiple cast members stationed throughout the queue to remind people to keep their masks on, and cast members at the entrance of every store or restaurant. Still, while you’re outdoors, you’ll be heavily surrounded by people who are not wearing masks. So if you are not yet fully vaccinated, or still worried about catching it even if you are vaxxed, just be warned about that mask situation.
Obviously masks aren’t going to be a permanent part of our daily lives going forward. And it’s harder to wear them in the heat of a Florida summer than in the fall, when I was last there. Still, the way Disney went about changing that mask mandate—they announced it with about 10 hours notice before the parks reopened, after some of its employees, the people most impacted by the change, were probably already asleep for the night—is really disappointing. That’s the kind of major policy change that deserves a decent amount of lead time, both to let cast members prepare for it, but also so guests can make an informed decision about whether they feel safe traveling to the parks. Again, I’m fully vaxxed, so I would still have booked a trip regardless of the mask mandate, but it was a surprising and honestly kind of irresponsible call for Disney to make—the CDC’s guidance said fully vaxxed people are safe without masks outdoors, while Disney (and other theme parks—they are absolutely not alone in this) just immediately said “okay, everybody can go maskless, whether they’re vaxxed or not.” Obviously there are tremendous obstacles when it comes to verifying if a customer is vaccinated or not, but perhaps it’s best to err on the side of caution and keep the mask mandate in place for all guests, until the CDC says everybody can go maskless? Just a thought.
Again, I, personally, didn’t feel unsafe. I ate indoors, I drank indoors, I drank outdoors, I drank alone in my hotel room—I had a really good time. I even found a new favorite restaurant, the Skipper Canteen in Adventureland. (Seriously, it’s worth the reservation.) Who knows if I caught anything—if I did, hopefully this vaccine keeps it from becoming something serious—but I’m at the point where if the alternative is just staying at home, still, after 14 months of doing nothing, well, I can’t abide by that.
At Tomorrowland I enjoyed Carousel of Progress for the first time in a few years. If you haven’t experienced this show, created by Disney for the 1964 World’s Fair, you’re missing out on some classic Disney entertainment—it’s a little schmaltzy, a little too earnest, entirely cornpone, equally in love with the past and the future, with nostalgia and the gleaming promises of science, and a perfect summary of the mid-century utopian optimism at the heart of so much of Walt Disney’s work. It’s a show explicitly about how science makes our life better, if we only trust in it. And that’s how I feel about right now, about the vaccine, about trusting in the science that delivered it to us and stepping back into the lives we’ve put on hold, not with abandon, but cautiously, smartly, safely, aware of the risks but also secure in modern medicine and the protections it should bring us. I’m not going to tell you what to do, or say what you should be safe with—well, I will tell you to get the vaccine, because as many people need to get it as possible to get us past this pandemic—but I’m also not going to say you should feel safe going to Disney World, or any other place with large amounts of unmasked people, until we are further out of this crisis than we currently are. What I can say is that I was there for four days earlier this week, and because I’m fully vaccinated, I felt safe. Even if I was exposed to the virus, hopefully the vaccine will keep it from becoming anything serious, and I similarly trust that I won’t be able to give it to any of the people I love because, like me, they are all vaxxed, too.
I was bummed Trader Sam’s was closed, though. The Polynesian Lodge is being refurbished, so no tiki bar at Disney World right now. At least Abracada Bar is still chugging along at the Boardwalk, and the Nomad Lounge at Animal Kingdom, and Jock Lindsey’s Hangar Bar (also known as the Indiana Jones bar), and, uh, the speakeasy Enzo’s Hideaway at Disney Springs. Look, I really enjoy the bars at Disney World. I probably need to write about that, huh?
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.