We’re all glad that 2020 is behind us. More than glad. It was a very long year and we can’t’ think of anything better after enduring the constant barrage of bad news that 2020 piled upon us over and over again than an escape from the madness at that most magical of places – Walt Disney World. And while COVID has forced changes to even the most magical place on earth, it’s still Disney through and through and a wonderful place for family and friends to escape and recharge.
To help you understand some of the changes that have taken place at the World and prepare you for your next fabulous escape from the COVID-crazed world, your intrepid and dedicated Mouseketrips Travel Experts have been taking notes as they’ve visited the parks recently and have compiled a list of their top tips and tricks for visiting during the pandemic.
Book Early and Secure Theme Park Reservations
As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney has limited the capacity in each of the 4 theme parks and now requires every person entering to have a reservation for that park for that specific day. If you’re visiting for multiple days you must have a reservation for every park you want to visit on each day. If you have purchased the Park Hopper option you must have a reservation for the first park you wish to visit each day, and you can then hop to a different park of your choosing later in the day without a reservation.
In order to make a theme park reservation, you must have purchased a valid theme park admission for the day you are trying to reserve, either as a part of a vacation package or as an individual ticket. During the 2020 holiday season, many days were completely booked, and there are already days surrounding the Magic Kingdom’s 50th anniversary during the fall of 2021 that are sold out, so it’s more critical than ever to book your vacation early and secure your theme park reservations. While we don’t anticipate that the capacity limits and/or theme park reservations will continue forever, it’s best, for now, to get your arrangements secure so you don’t have to worry about not being able to get in. All of our Mouseketrips Travel Experts can easily guide you through this process and make sure you have the access to the parks you want to visit when you want to visit.
Choose Comfortable Masks and Take Extras
As I’m sure you’re aware, Disney requires that everyone over age 2 wear a mask at all times while in the park. If you need a ticket you need a mask. And they are very serious about it. Announcements are made over the PA every few minutes stating that anyone choosing not to wear a mask will be asked to leave. The only time you can remove your mask is when you are eating or drinking, and you have to be stationary when you’re doing so. No eating or drinking while you’re walking around or standing in line. There are designated “comfort stations” in each park where you can sit, relax, and remove your mask for as long as you’d like.
If you take some time to choose a mask that you find comfortable we found that it’s not that bad at all to wear one all day. After a while we didn’t even notice we had it on. The one key, however, is to take a least one extra each day. After a few hours it’s really nice to change out your soggy (and perhaps smelly) mask for a nice fresh one. This is especially true for the kids.
Start Early OR Start Late
When Walt Disney World re-opened on July 11 after having been closed for almost 4 months, several popular programs and features that had long been a part of the parks did not return. Among those were the FastPass ride reservation / virtual queue system and the Extra Magic Hours program that allowed Disney Hotel guests access to select theme parks before or after regular park hours. In addition, capacity at all of the theme parks has been limited, first to a reported 25%, and later increased to a reported 35% of total capacity.
Because of these missing features and the capacity limitations, the pattern of guest flow has changed quite drastically. It’s now more important than ever to be at the parks right at posted opening time, or, even better, 30 minutes prior to the posted opening time. Because most guests still don’t like to get up early on their vacations you’ll find that the parks are wonderfully uncrowded during the first hour of operation, and the social distancing measures (more on that later) make it feel even more open and airy. You’ll be able to experience more attractions in that first hour than you will most of the rest of the day if you can just pry yourself out of bed when the alarm goes off.
Another very interesting trend we noticed is that, because of the lower capacity and the lack of FastPass reservations compelling people to stay later in the day, many guests will depart the parks later in the afternoon and lines will decrease later in the day and into the evening. So if you absolutely can’t get out of bed in the morning you might want to wait until a bit later to arrive at the park if you’re looking for the shortest attraction lines. Do be sure, however, to check the operating hours and leave yourself enough time because many parks do have earlier closing times that normal.
Enjoy the Social Distancing Measures and Smaller Crowds
As mentioned above, capacities at all of the parks has reportedly been limited to 35% of total capacity. While some of our agents question this figure based purely on our own observations (it sure seemed like a lot more than 35% to us on some days), there are most assuredly fewer people in the parks than normal. The walkways are less crowded, you can more easily stroll without feeling rushed, there are empty benches if you want to sit and rest, and you can find a spot to stop and snap a photo without other people in the background.
Another aspect of the changes to the park that we really enjoy and wish would stick around post-COVID are the social distancing measures Disney has put in place in all of the attraction queue lines. In each line, there are markers placed on the ground 6 feet or more apart, and your party is supposed to use these markers to stay separated from the party ahead of you. Our experience has been that most people do a great job of adhering to these measures and it greatly adds to the comfortable atmosphere in the parks. Not being jammed in crowded lines all day is a much more pleasant experience.
Life without FastPass, queue lines, and wait times
We’ve had a love/hate relationship with the new FastPass+ service ever since it debuted. While we like the ability to pre-schedule FastPasses, we don’t like the loss of spontaneity and the impossibility of obtaining a FastPass to certain attractions. We liked the old paper FastPass system a lot better and even wondered if a return to the way-old-way of no FastPass at all might even be better. Well, we’ve now had a chance to try it, and while it’s not quite the nirvana we remember, there are several things we do like about it.
- First, because of the social distancing measures in the queue lines mentioned above, be aware that almost all of the lines look way way way longer than normal. The first time you approach your favorite attraction and see the queue out the door and down the street may shock you, but don’t be alarmed. With 6 feet between each party, the line simply takes a lot of space it moves really quickly. In fact, in most queues, you don’t stop moving at all, and it’s amazing how much shorter the line seems when you’re constantly moving as opposed to standing still.
- Because of those long lines, you have to carefully look for the end of the line. You’ll usually see a Cast Member holding a sign showing where the queue entrance is, and it may be a great distance from the actual entrance to the attraction. Don’t make the mistake one of our agents did and unknowingly enter at the building entrance right in front of a very long line of none-too-pleased guests who had already been waiting quite a while to get to that point.
- Another unexpected benefit to not having FastPass that we really enjoyed was getting to experience the full queue at each of the attractions. We can honestly say that we have never seen the entire queue at Avatar: Flight of Passage until this last trip, and it was well worth a few extra minutes in line to be able to have that experience. The level of detail and theme in that queue is stunning, and it really adds quite a bit to the story of the attraction. Almost all of that is missed when using the FastPass line which is the only way I’d ever done the ride previously.
One final comment on the lines is that the wait times you see posted at the attractions and on the My Disney Experience app are often overstated, often substantially. We rarely found that we waited the number of minutes indicated, and it was often 25% – 50% less than the time shown. That may change as Disney gets better at estimating wait times with the new procedures in place but we thought it was worth mentioning.
Get to Know and Understand the Disney App
The My Disney Experience app on your smartphone is your best friend to make the most of your visit with the current procedures in place. You can use it when you arrive to check in to your Disney hotel so that you never even have to visit the front desk. It will notify you when your room is ready, show you your room location and room number, and you can use the Bluetooth function on your phone to open your door.
In the parks, you can use the app to display a park map to show you where any attraction, restaurant, shop, restroom, first aid station, or anything else in the park is located, and where you are currently located in relation. The app will show you current wait times at each attraction and will show you if an attraction is closed or temporarily down for maintenance.
For Star Wars fans who want to experience the newest (and most unbelievably amazing) attraction in Galaxy’s Edge, Rise of the Resistance, the only way to gain access is through a virtual queue obtained on the app. To be honest, it’s a somewhat difficult and frustrating process due to the overwhelming popularity and limited capacity of the ride, but it’s very well worth it. Our Mouseketrips Travel Experts have done it enough times now that we can certainly help you with the tips and tricks to give you the best shot at getting a spot on the attraction.
You can also see property-wide park hours, shop hours, and details on pretty much everything else that’s going on at Walt Disney World. We highly recommend that you spend some time downloading, installing, and familiarizing yourself with this app prior to your vacation. Knowing how to use it can greatly enhance your efficiency. Plus, even from your couch at home, you can check on the wait times of your favorite rides and dream about your upcoming trip.
Understand Dining Changes
Going hand-in-hand with understanding the My Disney Experience app are the changes to dining at the Disney theme parks. While most of the restaurants are open and operating (there are a few that are still closed), most are at reduced capacity and/or have changed their procedures.
As of right now, Disney has discontinued all of the Disney Dining Plans that used to be available, so any meals have to be purchased out of pocket. We anticipate that the dining plans will return sometime in 2021, but that’s all going to depend on how soon things return to a more normal state.
The other major change is that the table service restaurants now only accept reservations 60 days in advance rather than 180 days in advance (hooray!). We find it much easier to plan what we’d like to eat a couple of months from now rather than 6 months from now, but maybe that’s just us.
Another issue with the table service restaurants is that most are operating at a reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. This has made it even harder to get reservations for the more popular locations than it used to be. One tip we’ve really enjoyed is found in the My Disney Experience app. When you’re near a table service restaurant, you can go to the park map and click on that restaurant and if that location is accepting walk-up diners it will tell you how long the wait is. In most cases, you can even place your name on the wait list right there in the app! We were able to eat at several restaurants for which we were not able to get advance reservations using this method and found it to be a fantastic resource that not many people know about.
For counter service restaurants you’ll want to be aware that mobile ordering is now required. It’s no longer possible anywhere (at least anywhere that we found) to just walk up to a counter service location and order at the window. You must access the app, select a location and time, place an order using the online menu, and then show the paid receipt on your phone to the Cast Member at the restaurant in order to pick up your order.
Plan Ahead for Transportation
While most Disney transportation options are running as normal, each is limited in capacity due to social distancing measures. This is particularly important at busy times like park opening and closing. No longer can buses be crammed full with every seat full and the aisle full of standing room only guests. The same goes for monorail cars and boats. Disney is doing what they can by running extra buses, boats, and monorails, but there’s only so much that can be done and lines do get long.
We found that it’s best to avoid using Disney transportation during very busy times. Either plan to go early and leave early or go late and stay late, or perhaps use a ride share or other alternate transportation if you happen to need to get around when the bus/monorail/boat/Skyliner lines are long.
Be On the Lookout for Unscheduled Surprises
Because Disney can’t operate the normal parades, meet-and-greets, and other offerings that promote mass gatherings or close personal contact, they have instead implemented “Character Cavalcades” and other impromptu appearances. These are unscheduled and happen at random. A single parade float may appear with a Disney princess and some of her associated characters and roll down Main Street. Or Mickey and Donald may float down the river at Animal Kingdom and wave at the crowd. Or Mary Poppins and Bert may appear on the lawn at the UK pavilion in Epcot and converse with guests from a distance. We found these events to be a great deal of fun and, for many of us, a much better experience than a parade. They’re much more personal and special and tend to stick around in memories more than a large parade. Again, you have to be watching because they’re not announced and you won’t find a schedule for them anywhere.
One final word: I can tell you that, to a person, each and every one of us felt very safe and secure visiting Walt Disney World. The measures that have been taken to clean, sanitize, social distance, train the Cast Members, and otherwise keep each guest safe have gone above and beyond and none of us ever felt at risk.
Well, that’s it for now. While not an exhaustive list those are the tips and tricks that our Mouseketrips pros thought it best to pass on. If you’re considering a trip to Walt Disney World and wondering if it’s still the same magical, marvelous place that it’s always been, the answer is yes. Things are different to be sure, and there are some safety measures that intrude somewhat, but it’s still very possible to have a fantastic time and make some great memories to last a lifetime. As always, your Mouseketrips Travel Expert is here to help you make that dream a reality – and at no cost to you! Contact us today for more details on any of the tips we’ve shared here or many more.
If you would like more information about traveling to Walt Disney World in 2021 or would like to check on some options and prices for a vacation. please feel free to contact us for a free, no-obligation Mouseketrips quote.