Here’s an understatement: the last year has been something. On top of the COVID-19 pandemic itself, the places that we all usually go to escape reality — Disney Parks — were shut down entirely for some chunk of time, and when they did come back, they came back with modifications to how things are done. We know that Walt Disney World has been open for a while now, but now, as vaccine rates climb and restrictions start to loosen, more and more people are deciding it’s time to go back to Disney, and we’re accordingly getting these questions A LOT:
“So, what has changed? What do I need to know to plan a trip these days?”
We’re covered a lot of this in piecemeal fashion in other blog posts, but we thought it would be helpful to have it all in one spot in one handy-dandy Walt Disney World Post-COVID planning guide for easy reference. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to planning every aspect of a trip, but it will give you a leg up on those that have no idea what has changed and what they need to plan for, and will let you know where and when to direct your focus. So, without further ado, let’s jump in, starting with Walt Disney World!
Despite titling this article as a “post-COVID” planning guide, the reality is that COVID remains an issue, and there are still restrictions in place to help keep people safe. Disney has made several changes to its COVID policies since reopening, but the current restrictions and protocols that impact how you as a guest behave are as follows:
- Masks are required for all guests 2 and up in all indoor locations, except when actively eating and drinking at restaurants
- Masks are required when entering and while experiencing all attractions, including theaters
- Masks are required when using Disney transportation
- Masks are not required when outdoors in common areas
- Masks are not required on pool decks
- Masks are not permitted on water slides or in the water
Physical distancing remains in place, and while there are reminders around Walt Disney World, actual markers are slowly being removed. Guests in groups of more than 10 will be asked to split into smaller groups to help facilitate distancing. The use of cashless payment options, including MagicBands, is encouraged.
At restaurants, scannable QR codes are used to allow you to view digital menus on your phone.
These restrictions and practices are subject to change without notice. For the most complete and up-to date protocols, consult Disney’s site.
Tickets and Park Reservations
This is a biggie. Remember when you could just roll up to Walt Disney World and just go to whatever park struck you that day? Well, you can’t do that anymore. Now, Disney requires you to have both a ticket and a park reservation for that day to be able to visit any given park. Park reservations are free, and need to be made in advance.
The Park Reservation system is easy enough to use and with sufficient advance notice, reservations are pretty freely available, with the exception of special events. For example, right now, almost all of August and September are wide open, but right around October 1, 2021, a/k/a the launch of the 50th Anniversary celebration, there is already no availability at the Magic Kingdom and EPCOT. If you’re going for some sort of special event, make sure you’re planning well in advance.
The key language here, however, is “with sufficient advance notice.” Expect there to be very limited, if any, availability for the next 2-3 weeks at any given time. In addition to creating issues for locals who are accustomed to going to the parks whenever the mood should so strike them, it makes last-minute trips tougher to justify, as you could come down only to find that the park you want to visit isn’t available. Here’s what availability looked like as of June 3, 2021:
Hopefully this will change as more park capacity is added, but in the interim, make sure there is availability for the parks you want to visit prior to purchasing your tickets and locking in other plans.
The process for making a Park Reservation is covered in detail here, but briefly, the progression is as follows:
- Check the Park Reservation availability took to ensure that there is availability when you want to go
- Purchase your tickets
- Immediately make your Park Reservations
Think of it all as a single process and you should be fine (i.e., don’t buy your tickets and then come back weeks later to make your reservations). You can make changes to your reservations after you have made them, subject to availability.
Park hopping is now available for guests, but the Park Reservation system still comes into play. For the first park, you will need to make a Park Reservation as above, just like any other park guest. After 2 p.m. after you have visited your first park, you are able to hop to other parks who still have available reservations for that day. With that said, notwithstanding the shortage of reservations for initial park entry, we haven’t had difficulty park hopping, even on sold out days, You can find more detail on the park hopping process through Disney, or get our take on it here.
Officially, Annual Passes are not available; your only option is to purchase regular tickets. Anecdotally, we are aware of several instances where former passholders who had active passes at the time of the March 2020 shutdown but later canceled have contacted customer service and been provided with the opportunity to get an annual pass. Accordingly, if you have several trips coming up and an Annual Pass makes the most sense for you for whatever reason, it’s worth placing a call to Disney to see if there is a work-around for your situation. Obviously, the policy is what it is and they can certainly say no, but nothing ventured, nothing gained, as they say. It’s worth a shot.
Theme Park Experience
Suffice it to say that while most of the attractions at Disney World are indeed operational, a LOT of the other experiences are currently dark, especially entertainment. There are no fireworks, no parades, no entertainers as you’re walking around World Showcase at EPCOT, and no streetmosphere like you may be used to in the past.
Character greetings are currently dark as well, which could be of particular importance if you have small children (okay, or adults) in your party that are really excited to meet a particular character. Instead, Disney has created what are known as Character Cavalcades, which are impromptu mini-parades where characters appear and roll by (or float by, at Animal Kingdom), waving at guests. The spontaneity of them is actually really fun, but they aren’t on any particular schedule, and they do not allow for the sort of one on one interactions of a traditional character meet and greet.
You may have heard that Disney is currently operating at reduced capacity, which is true but a bit misleading, in that it implies that you’re always going to see lighter crowds than normal. When Disney refers to operating at X% of capacity, it is a reference to the actual capacity of a park — which is a pretty high number — not necessarily the expected crowd for that time of year. On traditionally busy days, limiting capacity will mean that there are less people than there would otherwise be, but on a random day, the artificially limited capacity could be the exact same number of people we would expect to see on that day. In other words, you might see lower crowds, but you might not notice a difference. The early days of the park reopening, where parks were empty and you could walk on many attractions are largely over.
Remember how before the pandemic, you’d log in to the Disney site when you were 60 days out from your trip and make your FastPass selections? You don’t do that anymore. Not at 60 days, not at 30 days, not at all. Things seem to be in a constant state of flux right now, but as this goes to press, there is no FastPass, and we’re not aware of any plans to bring it back any time soon. You’ll be kicking it old school in the standby queue.
Certain attractions do use virtual queues in lieu of asking you to physically wait in line. As of now, the only attraction at Walt Disney World that uses “boarding groups” is Rise of the Resistance, but there are rumblings that more could be added going forward, so make sure you check before your trip. For more detail on how to get a boarding group for Rise of the Resistance, click here. Note that this is the ONLY way to experience Rise; there is no standby queue, just as before. Since we’re talking about Rise of the Resistance, if you plan to experience Rise, you absolutely have to have a Park Reservation for Hollywood Studios for that day, i.e., you cannot park hop to Studios to ride.
The absence of FastPass makes it all the more important to have a good plan in mind when attacking the parks each day. If you’ll pardon the shameless plug, our Personalized Touring Plans and the Lines app are great tools to see as much as possible with minimal waiting, even without FastPass. Make sure you have them locked and loaded before you head to the parks!
Dining, Hotels and Shopping
Dining has also seen a dramatic change from an advance planning standpoint. For one thing, the Disney Dining Plan is not currently available (and accordingly, you aren’t going to see the very popular free dining promotion offered). Also, while you used to make advance dining reservations (ADRs) as early as 180 days prior to your trip, and that is no longer the case. These days, you still make your ADRs in advance, but the earliest you can make them is at the 60 day mark.
As capacity remains limited for the time being, ADRs are strongly recommended. Note that if you would like to eat at one of the resort restaurants, an ADR is required — they are not accepting walk-ups from people not staying at the hotel (and even if you are staying at the hotel, you should get an ADR).
Places that would typically be buffet dining are currently offering food family style, or have moved to menu-based offerings. Character dining bears special mention here. One-on-one character interactions are not happening right now, and that remains the case even at character meals. Instead, the characters will roam through the restaurant at a distance (and will allow remote photos to be taken), but they do not stop at the tables to chat with you.
Also, Disney has suspended some character dining altogether, and meals that were previously character meals are now traditional meals — for example, one of the 800 pound gorillas of the character dining world, Cinderella’s Royal Table, is not currently a character meal like it was with myriad princesses in attendance (although Cinderella does often make a socially distanced appearance). As this goes to press, character dining is limited to Garden Grill Restaurant, Hollywood & Vine, Topolino’s Terrace – Flavors of the Riviera, Chef Mickey’s and Tusker House Restaurant. Similarly, dinner shows like Hoop De Doo Revue and Spirit of Aloha are not currently operating.
While more and more things are opening up each day, it remains the case that not all restaurants, resort hotels, and shopping locations are open, and those that are open may have operational changes, or may not be offering all typical services. A detailed rundown of all of those departures from the norm is outside of the scope of this article and would likely be outdated the moment it went to print anyway, as changes are occurring on a near-daily basis. The point is, if a particular experience is critically important to you, make sure that you check in advance to make sure it is being offered.
As of now, Disney’s Magical Express remains an option for free transportation between Orlando International Airport and Walt Disney World for guests staying at Disney resorts. That continues through January 1, 2022. Despite pictures on the internet of massive lines and occasional isolated horror stories, our data shows that generally speaking, the system continues to work reasonably well.
For those that would prefer not to use Magical Express (or that are staying offsite), car rentals remain an option, but be aware that prices have soared in the wake of the pandemic. What was once more or less an afterthought for many guests is something that you should actually consider for budgeting purposes. Plan accordingly, and if you don’t actually need a car for any particular reason once you get to the resort, consider whether using a rideshare service like Lyft or Uber would make more sense. Even before car rental prices skyrocketed, you could often save money by just going that route, even if you had to use rideshare for a trip or two over the course of the trip when Disney transportation wasn’t a great fit.
Umm, That Sounds Pretty Different, Is It Still Worth Going?
To state the obvious, these changes and the absence of some classic components of the Disney Park experience have had a noticeable impact upon the park atmosphere, and if you’re wondering if it’s disappointing to not have these things, well, it is. With that said, millions of fans have come to Disney World under these conditions and still had a great time, so it definitely doesn’t necessarily torpedo the experience entirely. If this is your first time to Disney World and you’re planning a big trip, maybe you will want to wait until things are more “back to normal,” but veterans will still find plenty of what they know and love about Disney Parks. It is still very possible to go to Disney World and have an amazing time, but it helps to have your expectations anchored in reality before arriving.
In closing, I want to throw a huge shoutout to Rikki Niblett, Savannah Sanders, and Dani! Their detailed posts on these topics are linked herein, make sure you check them out! Also, stay tuned for the companion article directed to Disneyland changes, to be published soon!
Have any questions or comments? Let us know!