I was at Disney World’s grand reopening day — here are 7 things that have changed

Jul 13, 2020

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Editors note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials’ guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.

It’s been 117 days since the Walt Disney World Resort closed on March 16 due to coronavirus. At that time, Florida had 166 diagnosed COVID-19 cases.

On Saturday, July 11, the most popular — and iconic — theme park destination in the world officially reopened to both cheers, anticipation and outrage. Florida now has over 250,000 diagnosed cases of COVID-19. The county where Disney World largely sits, Orange County, had over 16,000 confirmed cases on the day of the grand reopening.

When Disney World announced its reopening on May 29, the state had just one-fifth of the number of confirmed cases that it did on reopening day. But unlike at Disneyland where the parks’ initially announced mid-July reopening date was ultimately delayed, Disney World went forward with its reopening as initially announced.

With a mix of my own fear and doubt surrounding being in public with coronavirus clearly more prevalent today than it was when the parks closed, my 10-year-old and I spent Disney World’s grand reopening day in the Magic Kingdom. We set off not just to ride a few rides and eat a pineapple Dole Whip, but to see what had changed, if it felt safe and whether with all the new precautions things still felt … magical. Armed with a variety of masks, ample hand sanitizer and plans to bail if we felt things were too crowded or unsafe, we again walked down Main Street U.S.A, a place that is very familiar — and altogether different.

Here are seven ways that Disney World has changed — and thoughts on whether these changes are enough.

The crowds are gone

Disney World made it clear that capacity would be limited for the reopening, though it never publicly announced a new maximum occupancy number for the parks. And as previously reported, guests now must make an advance reservation to enter one of the parks.

We walked right onto many rides — and not just the bottom-tier attractions. Even Space Mountain was a virtual walk-on ride with no wait at times. Some rides, like Splash Mountain and Mine Train, did have longer waits that peaked in the 35 – 40-minute range, but wait times often moved quicker than was advertised; the lines just looked long due to distancing.

But it’s not just attraction wait time numbers that tell this story. Here’s a shot of Main Street U.S.A. around 4:30 p.m. in the afternoon of reopening day.

Related: Inside Universal Orlando’s reopening day

Here’s the street at the same time of day in March 2019.

In normal times it gets even busier. Here is it in November 2018.

Parades are out, cavalcades are in

What’s Disney World without big parades and nighttime fireworks? Truth is it was just fine. Sure, fireworks would be nice, but the parade situation — which usually causes crowds — was nicely under control.

Instead, Disney World was offering smaller character appearances that weren’t long enough to draw a big crowd but happened frequently enough that you’re still almost sure to see your favorites waving from a building, on a float or even on horseback.

Yes, horseback. That part was pretty cool.

Having characters integrated into the park instead of being available in long, congested parades, shows, or at the end of a long line or pricey character meal was something I’d vote to become a permanent change.

Related: What to expect at a reopened Disney World hotel

No more FastPass

With all the changes and technology that Disney is relying on, waiting for a ride went back to the old-fashioned approach. If you want to ride something, you simply got in line and waited. No virtual queue, no FastPass+, no planning out and reserving every component of your day 60 days in advance. Just simple, socially-distanced waiting.

Because they are spread out, lines looked quite long. But they really weren’t, especially since there wasn’t a FastPass line also feeding into the main line.

However, one of the bigger risks at the park was when a line for something was longer than it’s socially-distanced markings. This reportedly happened at one point at guest relations to get in the park and when people didn’t have visual queues on where to stand, they didn’t always get distancing right.

No more filling in all the available space … unless it rains

If you’ve been to Disney in the past, you’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase “Please fill in all available space” a hilarious number of times. Whether you were boarding a ride, waiting in line, sitting down to see a show or ordering food, you were told to squish together.

But now, distance is your friend, and you won’t be squished up next to a stranger if Disney has anything to do with it. Seats in shows, like Enchanted Tiki Room shown below, were frequently blocked to encourage staggering. The same was true on Disney buses, boats, restaurants and … basically everywhere that Disney could control.

The Central Florida weather, however, was beyond Disney’s control. Even in a weird new world, afternoon thunderstorms are still common in Orlando. And when it pours at Disney World, those seeking a dry roof over their heads did’t have many places to go. Stores operated with social distancing and even virtual queues when needed, so refuge seekers couldn’t just flood them. You couldn’t go into some of the quick-service restaurants unless your mobile order was ready, and there were simply fewer buildings open than in the past.

Odds are high that during rain there will be crowding under bridges, on porches and pretty much anywhere with a roof. (Pro tip: The loading dock for the Liberty Square Riverboat makes for a better-than-average refuge due to its size.)

Related: Ultimate guide to visiting Disney World

You’ll need a phone to order food

Disney has had a mobile food ordering system in place for a few years. Tap a few buttons on your phone and your food is paid for and prepared while you finish up a ride, shop or take a seat at your table. Historically, it was a way to save time. Now it’s a way to reduce touchpoints and it was pretty much required if you wanted to order from some of the quick-service restaurants.

At the Pinocchio Village Haus restaurant in the Magic Kingdom, guests weren’t being allowed into the building until their mobile food order was ready, with a designated pickup window assigned in the My Disney Experience app.

But it wasn’t just the quick-service restaurants where a smartphone and Disney app was an essential tool.

At the sit-down restaurants, instead of a printed menu, Disney placed a single-use paper with a QR code on the table. You scanned the code with your phone to display the restaurant’s menu, thus reducing another touchpoint. Thankfully, that process was as simple as going to my iPhone’s camera and pointing it at the code, as if I was going to take a picture. It’s my understanding that Disney does have limited printed menus available upon request.

Related: Best restaurants at Disney World

Sanitisation is increased … to a point

No, Disney was not cleaning the ride vehicles between each guest.

When you board Space Mountain and pull down the lap bar, fasten the seat belt on Aladdin’s Magic Carpet or fire off the blaster at Buzz’s Space Ranger Spin, someone may have touched that same spot just seconds before you. Even at a quick-service restaurant, no one was sanitising every table between guests. Nor was anyone wiping down the machine that scans your MagicBand when you paid and had to enter a four-digit code to complete the transaction.

It’s great you no longer have to scan your fingerprint to get into the park, but there were plenty of other shared touchpoints that simply weren’t (and probably can’t be) cleaned every few minutes.

However, I did see cast members spraying down rides at certain intervals, which also meant attractions do go down with more frequency for brief cleaning. There was hand sanitiser stations absolutely everywhere. There must have been hundreds of them in the park, so you can easily sanitise your hands before and after any attraction, in addition to periodic stops you make for a true hand-washing. Portable hand wash stations do exist in the park, though at a much lower frequency than sanitiser stations.

You’ll be wearing masks in the Orlando heat

All guests ages two and up must wear a face mask while inside, outside and essentially everywhere at Disney World. Frankly, this is the one reason I kept my Disney World trip even after cases climbed — and climbed. If everyone will truly wear a mask while having fun, that puts Disney well ahead of my own hometown in Texas.

That said, it is hot in the summer at Disney World no matter what, but it’s even hotter with a mask covering your mouth and nose. However, my 10-year-old and I did it all day without passing out or deciding it was too uncomfortable to bear. I even saw very young children successfully wearing their masks.

My advice is to get a neck fan, seriously consider a midday break and have a plan for when you need a few minutes to drink and cool down. You can take your mask down for meals and drinks, but you shouldn’t walk around with it down for a prolonged period of time just sipping on a drink. Find a mask-free relaxation station with distanced tables or similar when it is time for a cool down.

Interestingly, the merchandise item that seemed in the shortest supply (second only perhaps to Splash Mountain merch that was being scooped up for resale on eBay in advance of the retheming to Princess Tiana), were Disney-themed face masks in the coveted adult size. Perhaps Disney can actually help normalize mask usage for kids and adults alike.

The problems that remain

The largest non-Dumbo branded elephant looming is that coronavirus cases are surging, and unfortunately, there’s likely no number of health questions or temperature screenings can prevent the virus from entering the gates of the most magical place on earth. So, since the current approach isn’t to hunker down, but rather operate in the midst of a pandemic, there are a few other issues that stand out.

It was pretty easy to distance while in lines, on rides, or at Disney restaurants. But Disney’s not telling you where to stand while browsing the stores, washing your hands or while walking down the streets. The densest crowds I was in at Disney World were in the bathroom, or occasionally in a tighter section of a store. You can minimize this by being very choosy about which stores you enter and searching for off-the-beaten-path bathrooms, but if you aren’t careful, there won’t even be two feet separating you and another parkgoer in those type of spots.

Another holdover feature from what feels like a bygone era is the required four-digit pin you must manually type into the processing machines to pay for food and merchandise with your MagicBand. You can avoid this pin when you pay with your Disney app using mobile ordering, but I’d love to see Disney find a way to eliminate the pin entry with other purchases.

Finally, there were a small number of visitors who forgot they had their mask down, or otherwise weren’t following protocol. This was a very small percentage of visitors, but they exist. I saw mixed experiences with cast members reminding guests to put on their masks when they were down, especially when the ones with masks down were children. My hope is that they will be very hard-line with this rule as it really is a make or break factor.

Did Disney World feel safe?

I’m clearly not a scientist or public health expert, so those are the experts who should be deciding if Disney can truly operate safely in the midst of surging coronavirus. I can only speak to whether it felt safe as a visitor.

If you take away how crazy it may sound to be in a theme park right now, and instead break it down into individual distanced activities that made up the day — waiting in a distanced outdoor line, sitting with the seats around you blocked off, and briefly walking up to a counter to retrieve your food — it did feel as safe as possible.

Disney truly did an amazing job finding a way to manage thousands of people in a manner that still permits fun, but keeps them spread apart. For that, my Mickey-eared hat is off.

But, I had an undercurrent of anxiety. Is what Disney is doing enough? Is it enough especially when the virus is so prevalent in Florida right now? While I hope Disney can successfully put smiles on the faces of guests in the midst of all that is happening, I’m personally unlikely to return for a true vacation until the virus is better under control.

Bottom line

Disney World is indeed still Disney World even with masks, distancing and some suspended offerings. In fact, that’s part of the danger.

At a place built around fun, like Disney, it’s easy to just relax and fall into your old habit of walking, lining up and browsing — despite the ample signage and periodic recorded announcements about distancing and masks. Then suddenly you snap-to and realize that while the pixie dust and pirates might be an illusion, the pandemic is still very real and in full effect.

I went to the Magic Kingdom for one day, in large part, to see how Disney is managing operations and be able to aid others who are considering whether or not to take a trip. Logistically, I can say it’s totally possible to have a fun trip to Disney World. But only time will tell whether or not any amount of distancing and precautions are sufficient to bring thousands of people together for a dose of fun with an invisible microscopic danger more prevalent than ever.

All images by author.

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