I Went to Disney Opening Week—Here’s What It Was Like
Yes, it's still magical, but it does feel different now that measures to stem the spread of the coronavirus are in effect.
I went to all four parks, two resorts, and Disney Springs opening week
Walt Disney World has reopened after being closed on March 15 due to the coronavirus pandemic. As a theme park journalist, I was ready to make my way to Mickey’s house to see what it was really like with all of the new changes and to see if the magic I know and love from the Disney parks is still there. After visiting all four theme parks, staying at two resorts, and strolling through Disney Springs opening week there are some noticeable differences that focus more on the health and safety of cast members (Disney speak for employee) and guests visiting the expansive resort in Orlando, Florida. While we were all staying at home, this is what was happening at Disney while the parks were closed.
There are hand washing and sanitizing stations around every corner
Disney’s main focus during their reopening phase is safety, and an essential part of that is washing and sanitizing your hands often. Because of the need to social distance, Disney has placed thousands of handwashing and hand sanitizing stations around all four parks, Disney Springs, and every Disney-owned resort. The main place you’ll see the handwashing stations are in areas of the park where there isn’t a restroom around. Hand sanitizing stations are mainly located at the entrance and exit of attractions, entrance, and exit of restaurants, and sporadically around the parks. You’ll even hear overhead announcements in each park and at Disney Springs reminding you to wash your hands regularly. After all, handwashing is known to prevent these 15 diseases.
Get ready to use QR codes
Disney is making as many things as possible contactless around the parks and resorts. That means that in lieu of actually talking to a cast member at your hotel check-in, having a tangible menu in your hands at a restaurant, or even looking at the fun opportunities at Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival with a printed booklet, you’ll be doing these things and more via QR codes on your smartphone. This cuts down on the personal interaction that Disney is known for but it does make everyone safer. One example of how push notifications are used is for checking in for a dining reservation. A push notification is sent via the My Disney Experience app and allows you to check-in while you’re on the way to the restaurant (you’ll need to make a reservation in advance) and skip checking in with the hostess. Then, you’ll get a text message that your table is ready and that it’s time to head to the hostess station to be seated. Before deciding where to dine, double-check that it’s not on the list of worst-rated Disney restaurants.
Everyone must wear a mask
As part of Disney’s new health and safety guidelines, everyone from cast members to guests must wear a mask that has ear loops or ties and covers your nose and mouth at all times while at the park’s properties unless you are eating, drinking, swimming, or in your hotel room. This rule was strictly enforced by all Disney cast members. While exploring the parks and Disney Springs I saw only a handful of people who weren’t wearing one and cast members were quick to remind everyone of the new policy and politely ask them to wear a mask. Note that neck gaiters are not a permissible option and you will be turned away if you aren’t wearing a mask that meets the requirements. Make sure to avoid these 11 common face mask mistakes.
You can still see your favorite characters
Even though you can’t go up and hug your favorite princess or high-five Mickey Mouse right now, there are still plenty of opportunities to see characters. Each of the parks has dedicated character cavalcades where you can see your favorite characters on floats or walking through the parks from a safe distance at unannounced times. You’ll spot the most characters, including Mickey Mouse and the Disney princesses, at the Magic Kingdom; while at Epcot, you’ may catch Frozen‘s Anna and Elsa; Disney’s Hollywood Studios has an entire procession dedicated to Pixar pals; while over at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park, you’ll may spy Pocahontas and Meeko on a riverboat floating around the park. Star Wars’ fans dying to get that perfect socially distant selfie with Rey and Chewbacca should head to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in Hollywood Studios where you’ll find the characters working on their ships and interacting with visitors from a safe distance. Don’t miss these 15 fun facts about your favorite Disney characters.
Social distancing markers are abundant
Throughout Walt Disney World you’ll find social distancing markers at the check-out lines in stores, in lines for attractions, in lines for food, and even on transportation. These markers are either lines that say, “Please wait here,” large green dots indicating where your entire group should stand, or numbers indicating where your group should stand for the duration of the experience. All social distancing markers are at least six feet apart making it easy to maintain the required distance if you’re paying attention to where you’re supposed to be. These 20 photos will define the era of social distancing.
Live entertainment, parades, and nighttime fireworks are on hiatus
To prevent crowds at all four Walt Disney World theme parks, there are no live entertainment shows, parades, or nighttime fireworks. There are still some theater-style shows that you will be able to see, but they don’t use live actors; think Mickey’s Philarmagic and Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress at Magic Kingdom. If you’re missing the fireworks, try watching them virtually from home or your hotel room.
Restaurants have limited menus
During Disney’s phased reopening, all Disney-owned and some third-party restaurants are operating on a limited menu to keep costs down. (You may want to peruse menus online or on the Disney My Experience app before making a dining reservation to be sure it’s currently serving items that meet your needs.) Across Walt Disney World some restaurants haven’t even reopened, including popular ones like Cinderella’s Royal Table at the Magic Kingdom, Woody’s Lunch Box at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Jaleo at Disney Springs. Plus, all restaurants are limited in seating capacity to maintain social distancing measures, which makes it even more important to book dining reservations in advance.
You can be confident your hotel room is clean
At each of the Disney-owned hotels, you’ll notice certain key changes to your room. For one, the TV remote is wrapped in a single-use plastic bag with a label saying it’s been cleaned and you’ll find the same labels on the pumps of the shampoo and conditioner containers in the bathroom. You’ll also find a small notice of each surface and item that has undergone extra cleaning and sanitation steps in your room. One thing to note: if you are using a Murphy bed or pull out couch, the extra bedding bag will be sealed with a tab to indicate that it’s been cleaned, sanitized, bagged, and tabbed at Disney’s washing stations. You’ll need to pull that tab off before using the bed. You’ll also want to know these 10 things about staying at a Disney hotel right now.
Plexiglass is used almost everywhere
To help keep people from getting to close to one another in lines for rides or to keep a barrier between guests and cast members Disney has installed plexiglass throughout the properties. In most attractions plexiglass is used in the queue and in the loading area so that groups don’t come into contact with each other. Plexiglass is also used on some ride vehicles like the Jungle Cruise at the Magic Kingdom and Soarin’ Over The World at Epcot to maintain social distance. Inside shops, restaurants, and at hotel check-in desks you’ll find plexiglass at the registers as a barrier between visitors and cast members.
Some attractions did not open
Even though the vast majority of rides did open at Walt Disney World, there were some that did not. At Magic Kingdom the PeopleMover and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor did not open, but will hopefully be opening soon. More notably, Disney did confirm that amid the reopening some attractions and shows are closing for good including Primeval Whirl and Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom and Stitch’s Great Escape at Magic Kingdom. These attractions are now a distant memory, just like these 10 discontinued rides at Disney.
You still need a boarding group for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance
The uber-popular attraction Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance still requires everyone who wants to ride join a boarding group—this virtual line allows you to explore the rest of the park until it’s your turn. There are three opportunities to get a boarding group throughout the day at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m. The only way to get a boarding group is to access the function through the My Disney Experience app. Note that there are currently some issues with the app not recognizing that you or some people in your traveling party are in the park, even though you are. The only way to fix this is to go to guest services, but they will not give you a boarding group number because of the inconvenience. Before snagging that boarding pass, go behind the scenes at Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Ride queues will close if they reach capacity
Another new procedure that Disney has implemented is that it will close ride queues temporarily if they reach capacity, instead of letting the line extend endlessly. I saw this the most at the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Before the park officially opened for the day at 10 a.m. the queue was closed because it was at capacity. If this happens go to another attraction and check back later; odds are that the line will have died down and you will be able to enter the queue. Until it’s your turn, see if you can spot all the hidden Mickeys along the new ride.
Park reservations are required
For the time being, everyone who wants to visit Walt Disney World is required to reserve a park pass with Disney’s new Theme Park Reservation System. It’s very similar to making a FastPass+ selection, but instead of what time you want to ride a specific ride, you are picking what day you want to visit what park. This helps keep the number of guests down, which makes social distancing easier. To make a park pass you must also have a park ticket, valid for the date you plan to enter the park, linked to your My Disney Experience account. These are the 12 things you must know if you’re planning on visiting Disney World in the near future.
For more on this developing situation, including how life might be different post-lockdown, see our comprehensive Coronavirus Guide.