After a nearly four-month closure due to COVID-19, Walt Disney World's theme parks are open to the public with new protocol for enhanced cleaning, physical distancing, required face coverings, temperature screenings, and more.

By Brooke Geiger McDonald
July 13, 2020
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Walt Disney World is finally opening its gates after being closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but things might look a little bit different than you remember. Disney World's Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom opened on July 11 and EPCOT and Disney's Hollywood Studios open on July 15. So far, Disney's reopened theme parks have been, in a word—uncrowded.

Disney is substantially limiting theme park capacity during this time to support physical distancing. During the first few days the parks have been open, we've seen wide-open spaces and unprecedentedly low wait times. While this might sound like a dream after your last vacation to a jam-packed Disney World, you should know that things do feel different. Some of the parks close much earlier, you won't get to end your night with fireworks, and navigating the parks' extensive network of distance markers, enforced by cast members in masks and even face shields at times, will certainly make this a different experience from your last visit.

During this unprecedented time, every family will need to choose for themselves whether they feel comfortable visiting Disney World. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), "because travel increases your chances of getting infected and spreading COVID-19, staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from getting sick."

But if you have a burning desire to be reunited with The Mouse and the spoof videos making the rounds haven't dissuaded you, then it's there for you. From extensive new health and safety protocols to modified experiences and offerings (Read: No parades!), here's what a trip to Disney World during the COVID-19 pandemic really looks like.

Planning and Booking Your First Trip Back to Disney World

First off: A number of states have travel restrictions and 14-day quarantine guidelines in place for travelers returning from Florida, so you'll first want to consult your state's guidelines and ensure that you're able to adhere to any quarantine mandates should you choose to visit.

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 World now requires guests to obtain a Disney Park Pass reservation for every day that they plan to visit the theme parks. Park Hopping, the ability to visit multiple parks in one day, has also been suspended. 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, so no need to plan your attractions and FastPasses in advance.

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.

Know Before You Go: Although you're now limited to attending only one of Disney World's four theme parks during the day, you can still leave the park and return later, giving families a chance to head back to the hotel for a nap break or a dip in the pool.

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.

Credit: Brooke Geiger McDonald

How Your Disney World Experience Will Change

From temperature reading stations to social distancing guidelines on your favorite rides, here are the biggest changes you'll see at Disney World after the coronavirus pandemic:

Face Masks Are Required for Everyone Over Age 2

All guests over the age of 2 and all Disney World cast members must wear a face covering at all times in public except when dining and swimming. The latest updated guidelines also requires guests to remain "stationary and maintain appropriate physical distancing" while eating and drinking.

These rules are strictly enforced and means even small kiddos must keep those masks on at the parks for the majority of the day in the hot Florida sun—even on rides. Note: Masks must have ties or ear loops and fit snugly to the sides of the face. Gaiters and bandanas aren't allowed.

Know before you go: If your kids don't regularly wear masks at home, be sure to have them practice before your trip. Disney operates a zero-tolerance policy, and this applies to kids too.

Temperature Screenings

Before entering the theme parks or Disney Springs, guests must undergo a no-touch temperature screening. Any guest with a temperature of more than 100.4 degrees will be directed to an area for rescreening. If after rescreening the guest still has a temperature of 100.4 or higher, they will not be permitted to enter, nor will anyone in their party.

Credit: Brooke Geiger McDonald

No More FastPass

The vast majority of Disney World's rides are still operating. Kids can still soar on Dumbo, sail on Pirates of the Caribbean, and blast off on Space Mountain. The biggest difference: FastPass, Disney's system for reserving a time to ride an attraction and skip the standby queue, has been temporarily suspended. This means all guests will now wait in the standby queue, which is a lengthier space to allow for more physical distancing while you wait. Distance markers and plexiglass barriers line ride queues and high-touch, interactive features that used to keep kids busy in line are now roped off.

Before you panic like I did about having to wait in line for everything, know that Disney has limited capacity so massively that during the first couple days since opening, the majority of rides have been walk-ons, with wait times being little or no more than the time it takes to walk through the queue. This even includes Disney World's most popular rides, like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom and Flight of Passage at Disney's Animal Kingdom, which, prior to the closure, regularly posted wait times of more than two hours.

Credit: Brooke Geiger McDonald

Social Distancing and Sanitizing on Rides

On the rides themselves, guests are spaced out to support physical distancing. Rows and ride vehicles that would otherwise put guests too close together are left empty between parties, and many of the preshows that required guests congregate in enclosed spaces, like the Stretching Room on Haunted Mansion, are now being by bypassed completely.

Hand sanitizer stations are positioned at ride entrances and exits, and cast members 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.

One exception to the new standby-only queue is Disney World's most popular and ambitious new attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance in Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge at Disney's Hollywood Studios. This ride will use a Virtual Queue.

Credit: Brooke Geiger McDonald

Seating Restrictions on Transportation

Disney World's extensive transportation system between resorts and theme parks is also still operating with modifications for safety. Monorail capacity is limited to two parties per cabin; buses are limited to six parties who are each assigned a numbered section separated by barriers and empty seats; the Disney Skyliner is limited to one party per gondola; and boats are outfitted with distance markers and seating restrictions to support physical distancing. Disney's Magical Express still provides complimentary airport transportation to and from Orlando International Airport to official Walt Disney World resorts.

Know Before You Go: Because capacity is so limited, transportation can take a little longer, but because there are also fewer guests, wait times haven't yet increased significantly. Still, it's a good idea to allow a little extra time for travel.

New Resort and Pool Rules

Disney's safety precautions extend to resorts as well. Masks must be worn at all times in public spaces like the hotel lobby and pool deck. 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 include distance markers in the queue but, if you're not hitting the slide with your kiddos, it's a good idea to take them through the line and point out the spacing so they know how to adhere to the distancing guidelines while they wait. Poolside activities like physically distanced games and trivia are still happening. Guests are encouraged to keep their masks on while on the pool deck, but they aren't required. Guests are also asked to wear their masks when visiting the pool bar to order food or drinks.

Know Before You Go: Because pool and theme park capacity are both limited and often have reduced hours, pool demand has been high at certain resorts and times of day. Be aware that you could be asked to wait in line or to return at a later time if your pool is at capacity. So far, this has been the exception rather than the rule and, in most cases, guests have been able to access their resort pools at their leisure.

Credit: Brooke Geiger McDonald

Modified Character Experiences

Character meet and greets, once a mainstay of a Disney World vacation with kids, have been temporarily suspended. But, 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. I couldn't believe how frequently these cavalcades appear—it seems every time you turn around another float or boat with characters is passing by, and there's never any crowd that forms to watch them.

Know Before You Go: Think these modified character experiences are a bummer? Think again! There are some major pros to these changes that this mom is loving. First, our family rarely watched parades at Disney World because my kids don't have the patience to stake out a spot and wait an hour in the blazing sun, only to lose interest halfway through the parade. These 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, particularly those which featured buffets, remain closed, there are still plenty of table-service and quick-service dining options to choose from. 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.

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. Once seated at a table, guests are permitted to remove masks to eat.

Character dining, another favorite way for families visiting Disney World with kids to interact with characters, has been largely suspended for the time being. Two exceptions: Topolino's Terrace – Flavors of the Riviera at Disney's Riviera Resort and Garden Grill Restaurant at EPCOT are both offering "modified" character experiences. This means no characters coming right up to your table to dish out those hugs, but characters parade around the room and do stop by tables at a safe distance so you can still get some personal interaction and snag some cute photos.

Know Before You Go: If you found character dining to be a little bit stressful, constantly worrying about racing back from the buffet lest you miss a character or having to jump up and wipe syrup off your kids' sticky fingers before they hug Mickey, you'll love this new experience. I found it to be more relaxed, and my kids hardly noticed the difference from a traditional character meal!

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