Visiting Walt Disney World During the COVID-19 Pandemic? Here's What to Expect

Families can expect changes at Disneyland and Walt Disney World because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Here's the latest protocols regarding masks, sanitizing, meeting characters, and more.

If you're planning to make a trip to the House of the Mouse, you're not alone. Millions of people travel to Disneyland and Walt Disney World every year. But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, things have changed at the proverbial "Happiest Place on Earth." Protocols ranging from social distancing and mandatory masks have been implemented and lifted. Character meet-and-greets and other similar experiences have been altered and, in some cases, shows have been cancelled. Fireworks just returned a few months ago. But how will these changes impact your vacation?

Here are the current health and safety restrictions in place at Disney—in both Florida and California—and what you can expect from your next trip.

Planning and Booking Your First Trip Back to Disney World

When it comes to booking your vacation, Disney has substantially altered a number of key components to the traditional Walt Disney World vacation planning process. Most notably, Disney now requires guests to obtain a Disney Park Pass reservation for every day that they plan to visit the theme parks. Dining reservations can now only be booked 60 days in advance (previously the window was 180 days), and the FastPass system has also been suspended, though Disney Genie+ and Lighting Lane selections are now available.

Not every Disney World resort hotel has reopened yet or has a scheduled reopening date, so if you already have a trip booked, be sure to contact Disney or your travel professional to modify or confirm your plans.

As the global health crisis continues to evolve, be sure to consult the Walt Disney World website for the most up-to-date information before your trip.

Masks at the Animal Kingdom Villas Kidani Village Pool_Brooke Geiger McDonald
Brooke Geiger McDonald

How Your Disney World Experience Will Change

Here are the biggest changes you'll see at Disney World during—and after—the coronavirus pandemic:

Face Masks Are Optional for Fully Vaccinated Guests, Except on Transportation

As of February 17, 2022, face coverings are optional for fully vaccinated guests. "We expect Guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in all indoor locations, including indoor attractions and theaters," a statement reads. This includes children under the age of 5 and other unvaccinated minors and adults in both Florida and California. However, proof of vaccination status is not required.

"Face coverings will still be required by all Guests (ages 2 and up) on enclosed Disney transportation, [however]" the statement continues. This includes Disney buses, monorails, and on the Disney Skyliner.

No More FastPass Service—But There Are New Options, Like Lightning Lane and Genie+

While the vast majority of Disney World's rides are operating—kids can still soar on Dumbo, for example, or set sail on Pirates of the Caribbean—the biggest difference is how. FastPass, Disney's system for reserving a time to ride an attraction and skip the standby queue, is a thing of the past. The decision to suspend service was announced when the park reopened in June 2020, and months later, the program was terminated.

But before you panic about having to wait in line for everything, know that Disney has been doing their best to keep lines moving—and managed. The park's reduced capacity has helped. The company also announced two alternates to FastPass, known as Genie+ and Lightning Lane. Both are paid programs which allow you to select a return time for many of the parks most popular rides, including Space Mountain and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

Sanitizing on Rides

Hand sanitizer stations are positioned at ride entrances and exits, and throughout the park. Cast members also sanitize rides periodically, but typically only every two hours, so it's a good idea to ensure you're using the hand sanitizer before and after each ride.

Know Before You Go: Disney's Rider Switch system is still operating. The system allows families with smaller children or other guests unable to ride attractions with height restrictions to split up so that one adult can bring the older child on the ride while the other hangs back with smaller kiddos, then adults can swap and the big kid gets to ride twice. Simply let a cast member know before you join the queue that your family needs a Rider Switch return time, and when the second group rides, they'll be sent through a separate queue with no wait.

New Resort Rules

Guests are encouraged to use Online Resort Check In on their My Disney Experience app to bypass the front desk and head directly to their room upon arrival. Disney has also implemented a Virtual Chat support feature on the app so that guests can ask questions and make requests remotely, avoiding unnecessary trips to the front desk.

In the room, high-touch surfaces like remote controls and refillable toiletry dispensers are sanitized, bagged and marked clean between guests. Extra pillows and blankets are zip-tied in a sealed bag to reassure guests they've been cleaned. Items traditionally not cleaned between guests, like throw pillows and bed skirts, have been removed from rooms.

Every open Disney World resort has at least one pool open, though some children's splash areas remain closed. Lifeguards are present and complimentary towels and life jackets are still available. Waterslides are open, and poolside activities, like games, movies, and trivia, are still happening.

Royal Princess Processional_Brooke Geiger McDonald
Brooke Geiger McDonald

Modified Character Experiences

While you can't hug your favorite characters anymore, there are still plenty of ways to spot them, wave, and snag a physically distanced photo. Individual floats featuring many of Disney's most beloved characters, from Mickey and pals, to Winnie the Pooh and friends, to favorite Disney princesses, appear on Magic Kingdom's thoroughfares at impromptu times. Over at Animal Kingdom, characters appear on boats cruising Discovery River throughout the day. There are also several cavalcades in Hollywood Studios, with one procession featuring Buzz, Woody, and the infamous toy soldiers.

Know Before You Go: Think these modified character experiences are a bummer? Think again! There are some major pros to these changes. For example, the unexpected appearances are a fun surprise—no waiting required—that many kids will love just as much as a parade.

Dining Changes and Character Meals

Although some of Disney World's most popular restaurants remain closed, most have reopened. Guests dining at table-service restaurants are asked to use the new Mobile Dine Check-In feature to avoid queuing at the host stand. Once seated, you'll be given a QR code to scan and open a digital menu on your phone, eliminating the need for contact with menus. And guests dining at quick-service locations are asked to use Mobile Order, which enables you to order and pay from your phone. Once you receive a notification that your meal is ready, you can proceed to the restaurant entrance where you'll be directed to a numbered pick-up location. You may then find a table.

Character dining, another favorite way for families visiting Disney World with kids to interact with characters, was suspended for some time; however, modified experiences have returned to several locations, including Tusker House, Topolino's Terrace – Flavors of the Riviera at Disney's Riviera Resort, and Garden Grill Restaurant. Reservations are highly recommended.

Updated by Kimberly Zapata
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