What It’s Like Going to Disney World During the PandemicPhoto courtesy of Unsplash Travel Features disney world
For seven months I was as cautious as anybody could be. I didn’t eat at a restaurant once between March 11 and October 11. We still get most of our groceries delivered. If I have to leave the house I always have a mask on, and sometimes two. So my decision to go back to Disney World wasn’t made lightly. I’ve read so many on-the-ground reports about the parks’ covid precautions, watched videos and listened to podcasts, and although there’s obviously still risk in any situation involving groups of people, what I’ve read about the parks made me feel just comfortable enough to test it out for myself. So in September I booked a couple of nights at the Caribbean Beach Resort, and two weeks ago I made the drive from Atlanta to Orlando. (There’s still no way I’m getting on a plane.) And surprisingly I felt more comfortable at Walt Disney World than I thought I’d be.
One of the biggest concerns I had was with mask-wearing in the parks. My drive down confirmed that, for many people, this pandemic apparently just doesn’t exist. I limited my stops on the drive down, but I still had to get gas and use the bathroom, and I saw too many people at gas stations who weren’t wearing any facial coverings at all.
Fortunately that doesn’t fly in the theme parks. I spent two days at the parks, one at the Magic Kingdom and one at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and mask compliance was almost universal at both. There were a small handful of people at Magic Kingdom who’d maybe have the mask below their nose, but twice I saw a cast member ask somebody to pull the mask above their nose, and both parks had employees who’d regularly walk around holding signs reminding guests to wear them properly. There was this one family who drove me nuts at Hollywood Studios—I saw them repeatedly throughout the day and neither the mother nor her three pre-teen sons were ever wearing their masks properly. Sometimes they’d be off entirely while they were eating or drinking, which the rule is you can only eat or drink if you’re stationary and not around other people. Sometimes they’d just have ‘em below the nose. I kind of have a personal vendetta against this family now—they just seemed like a stereotypical suburban clan who felt super entitled and like the rules didn’t apply to them. Fortunately they were never within 10 feet of me, and again, they were the only people in either park on either day who I saw repeatedly flout the mask rules. Other than this one family, everybody else I saw at the parks took the mask rules seriously.
Of course there weren’t a lot of people there—especially compared to what you’d see when we’re not in a pandemic, but even with me expecting a much smaller crowd, I was still surprised at how empty the parks were. At least the Magic Kingdom was noticeably less crowded; Hollywood Studios felt a good bit busier, presumably because all of the most recent additions to Disney World are there, and also it’s just a smaller park, so there’s less room for a crowd to spread out. The longest line I waited in at the Magic Kingdom was for the chicken and waffle sandwich at Sleepy Hollow. It took about 20 minutes to get on Splash Mountain, and no other ride took more than that. Granted I didn’t even try to ride the Seven Dwarves Mine Train, which always has the longest lines in the park, but even with other rides that usually have long waits, like Peter Pan’s Flight, The Haunted Mansion, Big Thunder, etc., the lines took only as long as it did to physically walk through them. Now, again, I was there on a Wednesday, in the morning, during a school week. And lines definitely grew longer throughout the day, with Haunted Mansion’s queue getting especially backed up (this was the week of Halloween, after all). Still, from a waiting perspective, it felt like an entirely different decade at the Magic Kingdom.
The lines were longer at Hollywood Studios, where there’s less to do and much of it is new. Even at rope drop the wait for Mickey and Minine’s Runaway Railway was close to an hour. I waited maybe 30 minutes for the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. I didn’t even try the Tower of Terror or Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, because those rides just seem inherently less safe from a covid perspective than others—they’re both sitting in a small, enclosed space with others for several minutes. I was able to snag a boarding pass for Rise of the Resistance, as I had my phone in my hand and the app ready to go a few minutes before 10 a.m. struck; they lasted for mere seconds before all being claimed.
There were moments in Rise that gave me pause. They distanced guests out in the interrogation room scene, and aboard the shuttle, but in both cases I was still in a small, enclosed area with between six and 12 other people. I’m not sure what the solution should be for that ride, though—it’s still new, so most guests haven’t experienced it, and those moments and that story are so crucial to the ride’s power. I’m not sure how the ride would feel if you had guests just walk through those scenes without stopping. That’s how Disney has handled the Haunted Mansion—you’ll just cut right through the stretching room, with no preshow, and get right onto the omnimover. Yeah, I missed the ghost host’s speech, but I’ve also ridden this one probably a hundred times in my life, so I can handle it. Rise of the Resistance, though, would be a noticeably inferior show without the full sequence of events. They did install plexiglass partitions in some of the preshow areas, and had a plexiglass divider between the front and back seats of the ride vehicle. Most rides had ample space between riders, with only the first and last rows being used on rides like Pirates or Splash Mountain, and with two empty cars between every occupied car on Big Thunder and the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. With the high demand for Rise, and the lack of a guarantee that you’ll even be able to get a boarding pass for it, Disney seems reluctant to reduce capacity any more than it already is. I would’ve felt safer if I had been in a vehicle by myself, and the plexiglass didn’t really make me any more comfortable. But these are all thoughts I had after the fact—I was totally swept up in the ride and wasn’t really thinking about this during it.
The Aerosmith coaster blew my masks off my left ear. Fortunately I was able to grab them before they flew off my right one, too. “Love in an Elevator” rocked my masks off.
I was willing to take the risk of going to the theme parks, but there were some things I’d normally do during a Disney World trip that I avoided. I never used a resort bus once, instead driving my own car to the parks both mornings. I skipped the monorail, instead taking the ferry to the Magic Kingdom; they had markers on the ground to keep guests several feet away from each other, and as an open-air vehicle I wasn’t especially concerned. I only ate indoors once, in an almost completely empty PizzeRizzo; otherwise I always sat outdoors or took food back to my room. Mobile ordering is enforced almost everywhere, and since you’ll already have the Disney app on your phone anyway, it’s not in any way annoying to use. Mask compliance wasn’t quite as universal at the Caribbean Beach Resort—you don’t have to wear masks while swimming, and some people would seemingly forget to put them back on after leaving the pool area. Again, though, those situations were rare, and that resort is sprawling enough where I never had a problem finding an outdoor seat with nobody else within 30 or so feet of it. I did have a drink inside the Abracadabar, but again, other than the bartenders, who all wore masks, it was basically empty. Once more people showed up I finished my drink and made my exit. And the Skyliner, with its natural ventilation, and given that it’s already usually just one party to a car, might be the ideal transportation during a pandemic.
It’s been 10 days since I left Disney World, and so far I’ve shown no symptoms. Of course I’m still within the incubation period for a few more days, so I know I’m not out of it. It’s possible I caught something. I had two masks on everywhere I went, and ate all but one of my meals in my room or on an otherwise empty patio. I’m feeling optimistic, but again, it hasn’t been 14 days yet. I was surprised at how comfortable I felt there, though. I never worried that much. It was impossible to not occasionally walk within six feet of others, but those were always fleeting moments, maybe a second or two of being near each other while walking through the park, and always with people who were wearing masks.
I’m not sure if I’d go back, even if I don’t wind up catching anything. Being in the parks and on resort had that instant sense of calm that it usually does for me. I go to these places all the time when there’s not a pandemic—I was last at Disney World the week before everything shut down in March—and despite the crowds and the heat and all the things that can make it uncomfortable, I’m still always absolutely charmed when I’m there. A peace just overtakes me, and I forget about everything that’s stressing me out, whether it’s work, life, an election, or anything else. It’s an escape from reality, sure, but sometimes you need one. I still felt that this trip, despite the masks and the pandemic.
It wasn’t completely the same, though. I avoided anything that would have me sitting still indoors with others for more than a few minutes, so I had to skip out on some of my favorite things to do there—like the Enchanted Tiki Room and the Country Bear Jamboree. It was always fraught going into a store; distancing tended to break down inside them, and even with masks on I didn’t necessarily like when a stranger would get right in my personal space because they wanted to look at the same item I was looking at. There was still some entertainment in the park, like Halloween floats with Nightmare Before Christmas characters or Mickey Mouse and his friends that would appear around the Magic Kingdom throughout the day. The Cadaver Dans circled the main hub on a streetcar, singing Halloween-themed barbershop songs. As pleasant as those were, they only served to underscore the problems the parks are facing; seeing a single float with three socially distanced characters on it highlighted the lack of an actual parade and character meet and greets. It was also disappointing for the parks to close as early as they did—when I was there the Magic Kingdom closed at 6 p.m. It wasn’t even getting dark yet.
Even though I was able to enjoy the atmosphere of the parks, and the rides that I went on, It was also impossible to not think about all the employees who have been laid off—or how Disney execs restored their full compensation in August before conducting mass layoffs. The Magic Kingdom is a bittersweet place right now, not just because of the masks and plexiglass and social distancing, not just because the number of attractions that are currently closed (no PeopleMover, no steamboat, no railroad), and not just because it’s still as expensive as it always is despite having less to do and less time in which to do it. Visiting the Magic Kingdom today gives me mixed emotions because of the deplorable way this company treats its employees. The remaining cast members were as joyful and gracious as ever, but almost every interaction with one made me think about the ones who just lost their job, about their friends and coworkers who are now out of work during a pandemic and in a state with widespread and prolonged problems processing unemployment benefits.
There’s an inherent charm to the Magic Kingdom, and Disney World’s other theme parks, that’s almost impossible to dispel. I felt many moments of joy and excitement and serenity at Disney World two weeks ago. I felt safe enough that I’m even open to going back during the pandemic, assuming I don’t still get sick from this trip, and once the parks return to longer hours. But as substantial as the company’s struggles have been during the pandemic, it’s still negligent to talk about these theme parks today without pointing out how the company treats its employees—while, again, restoring the ample compensation packages bestowed upon its executive suite. Disney World might be the happiest place on earth when I can shut my brain down for a moment, but it’s also an incredibly visible monument to inequality in a country that’s absolutely lousy with it.
But hey, that’s me. If your conscience is unburdened by such thoughts, and you aren’t entirely stressed out by being in the proximity of mask-wearing crowds, you might enjoy a trip to Disney World, even during a pandemic.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.