5 Disney World changes I hope are permanent
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Disney World was closed for nearly four months before reopening in the midst of a pandemic.
During the longest closure in the park’s 49-year history, the iconic destination made many operational and logistical adjustments that resulted in a very different theme park guest experience when the gates were officially unlocked on July 11.
Cases of COVID-19 are much more prevalent in Florida now than when the park initially closed, so there’s certainly more than 6 feet of space for very reasonable debates about whether now’s really the time for the most popular theme park in the world to reopen.
Still, after experiencing the grand reopening day at a changed Magic Kingdom, there are some adjustments Disney made for the global health crisis that I very much hope stick around long after COVID-19 is no longer a common household concern. These are the five changes I hope Disney World keeps for good.
You don’t need to plan everything months in advance
Until the March shutdown, if you wanted to make the most of your days at Disney World, you had to log on 180 days before the first day of your trip at 6 a.m. to make restaurant reservations. Then, 60 days out (also at 6 a.m.) you needed to secure your FastPass+ ride reservations. And that doesn’t even factor in making your Disney resort hotel booking.
Even if you did all that, you probably still didn’t get exactly what you wanted, so you were left to obsessively refresh the My Disney Experience app throughout your trip to see if that rare Pandora: Flight of Passage FastPass+ or coveted dining experience became available.
This weird world of Disney vacation planning can be fun for travelers who really like strategising, but it was never great for folks who planned last-minute trips; for first-time Disney visitors who had no idea all that was even necessary (and were subsequently shocked when faced with a 250-minute wait for a popular ride); or for people who just want to show up at Disney and have a good time.
Now, because of the pandemic, FastPass+ is out, and you just wait for a line the old-fashioned way. (Or, rather, it’s old-fashioned waiting in a new socially distanced way.) But still, it doesn’t require advance planning or reservations for each individual ride.
Advance dining reservations are still accepted and are often necessary with restaurants having reduced occupancy, but those reservations are now only accepted 60 days out, not 180 days. This levels out the playing field a bit for travelers who don’t plan trips half a year in advance.
There are no pre-dawn wake-up calls
In December, when I took my girls to experience the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction, we had to get up at 4:30 a.m., leave the Orlando-area hotel by 5 a.m. and arrive at Disney’s Hollywood Studios by 5:45 a.m. in order to be toward the front of the crowd to enter the park and snag a virtual boarding pass position when the gates opened around 6:30 a.m.
If you didn’t do that, you couldn’t ride the new attraction. Period. You can imagine how tired everyone gets by mid-day when that was the norm on a pre-coronavirus Disney trip.
That may be an extreme situation for a new attraction, but a successful Disney World strategy usually involves getting up early (and sometimes also staying up late) to maximize rides when wait times are low.
Right now, however, you can’t do that. Transportation to the Magic Kingdom wasn’t even running until 8:30 a.m. for reopening day, so there wouldn’t be a mass of people waiting at the gates for the park to reopen at 9 a.m.
And at this time, the park closes for the day at 7 p.m., forcing guests to go to bed early — or, at least, enjoy lounging around the resort pools at night. While a slightly later closing time will be nice eventually, a trip to Disney without the early morning pressure is glorious.
Characters aren’t hidden away behind lines and parades
Seeing a character at Disney World (think: Mickey, Princess Tiana or Winnie the Pooh) usually requires either burning a FastPass+, waiting in a long line, spending lots of money on a special meal or lining up early for a crowded parade to get a good view.
But due to the global health crisis, parades and lines for photos with characters are out and have been replaced by frequent, surprise character appearances around the park. I can tell you it’s much more magical to see the Country Bears chilling in Adventureland and spot Mickey ambling down the road, than to have them hidden away at the end of big lines and busy parades.
Even the reimagined character meals where Mickey, Minnie and friends dance around and wave from a distance were much more enjoyable than a meal where they came by each table for a brief photo. Sure, the photo can be nice to have, but if you (or, say, your tween) didn’t want a photo, it was always awkward and forced everyone to stop eating, get up, sit down and repeat when the next character came along a few minutes later.
With the new encounters, you can enjoy the characters, take a selfie (if you want) and keep enjoying your meal all at the same time.
The crowds are very thin
I know this can’t possibly stay the same when the pandemic is over, but I can’t help but mention how great it was to visit Disney World without throngs of other people (and having your ankles clipped by one too many strollers).
With so few guests, comparatively speaking, it’s possible to enjoy a much deeper appreciation for all the details, themes and even the background music at Disney.
If there comes a time when the virus is much more under control, but the general public hasn’t yet returned to Disney en mass, it really is special to explore the parks with fewer, thinner crowds.
When park visitation eventually rebounds, you can always have a similar experience early in the morning or late at night for an added charge. But seeing the park roads empty during peak park hours is something else entirely.
It’s easier to slow down and enjoy the moment
For most visitors, Disney World has always been about maximizing every available minute in the day. From making FastPass+ bookings to riding as many attractions as possible to seeing all the parades, shows and more, there was always more to do during a day at Disney than could ever possibly be done.
But that didn’t stop people from trying. (Even I’ve tried to experience every ride at Disney World across all four parks in a single day.)
During this new, more cautious and slower reality — marked by the suspension of some Disney attractions and the need to avoid crowds — we found ourselves doing things we’d never done before at Disney. And we loved them.
We browsed Main Street, searched for outdoor hidden Mickeys, watched the original Walt Disney-era animatronics in the Enchanted Tiki Room and even went on an open-air riverboat cruise. We actually skipped Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain because of the larger crowds, and found that we didn’t miss them.
This was a different Disney, and I can it’s much better suited to helping visitors savor the simple moments, rather than the frenetic, packed park we left behind in March.
The improved touchless bag-check process and abundant hand sanitizer stations across Disney World are probably here to stay — and that’s a really good thing. But some other pandemic-era changes we noticed across the parks are a far more significant and refreshing change, even if they came into being because of a virus we all sincerely hope is temporary.
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I’m not sure when I’ll be back at Disney World, but whenever that happens, I’ll be thrilled if characters are still making surprise appearances, the pace is slower, the planning stress is dialed down a few notches and the mornings start a bit later.
All images by Summer Hull / The Points Guy.
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