What It's Really Like to Bring Kids to Disney World During the Pandemic
In a normal year, families across the country flock to Walt Disney World to celebrate the holiday season. Parks drip with festive décor, characters are decked out in their holiday finest, and special souvenirs fill the shops. While this year is far from normal, many families are still hoping to travel to Disney World for the holidays. And they all have the same question: What will it be like?
I've been visiting Disney World regularly since reopening—mostly as a reporter covering the latest new procedures and protocols. I spent several initial visits deciding whether we'd be comfortable visiting as a family with our kids—and, more importantly, whether we'd enjoy it. With a few trips under my belt and no quarantine restrictions in place for our area at the time, we finally made a trip to Orlando as a family Columbus Day weekend and just returned again for the launch of Disney World's holiday decor and experiences.
For every trip, state and CDC travel guidelines and local quarantine guidelines dictated our travel considerations and they should for all parents. Next is knowing what to expect so everyone will have a safe and fun time. From ride wait times to where to stay, here's what you need to know if you're considering a trip to Disney World during the pandemic—from moms who've done it.
Note: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that "travel increases your chance of getting and spreading COVID-19. Staying home is the best way to protect yourself and others from COVID-19."
Things to Consider Before You Go
Disney World has had to change a lot in response to the pandemic, with some beloved experiences, like fireworks, character meet and greets, and parades put on hold. But when it comes to safety, accounts from Disney World guests have by and large been positive since reopening, making the choice straightforward for some parents. "The decision to go was easy for us once we learned about all of Disney's safety rules and procedures," says Britney Jones, a mother of two and former Disney Cast Member. "We also follow a few Disney reporters and bloggers who gave regular insight on wait times and park experience."
But even seasoned families who had Disney World trips down to a science pre-pandemic have a lot to brush up on. One key consideration ahead of holiday travel: In order to control park capacity, guests are required to have a Disney Park Pass reservation for a specific theme park for each day they intend to visit, so guests will want to check Park Pass availability before confirming their trip.
Another major consideration for families with young children: Masks are required at all times for guests age 2 and up and this rule really is non-negotiable. If your kiddos struggle to keep masks on, now's probably not the time to go. Read more about what to know before you go.
- RELATED: How to Wear a Face Mask Properly
Preparing Kids to Follow New Health and Safety Rules
Although the state of Florida loosened restrictions and moved into phase three of reopening back in September, Disney has maintained their stringent safety protocols, continuing to require masks and to operate at reduced capacity in restaurants and on rides where barriers between guests aren't possible.
My kids are 4 and 7 and we talked a lot before our trip about personal and social responsibility. I made it clear to them that the only way we could to go Disney World would be if they wore masks at all times, did their best to not touch anything unnecessary on the airplane and out in public, washed hands and used hand sanitizer regularly, and kept our distance from others—and they did great. And other moms echoed our experience. Our shared takeaway: When kids are given the reasons behind required behavior and understand that they have the power to protect themselves and others, they sometimes behave even better than adults!
Most parents I've talked to cite the restrictions as their number-one reservation about visiting Walt Disney World right now. Our kids had zero issues keeping masks on throughout our trip and my 7-year-old even called it our "best trip ever." As mom-of-three Kaitlyn Snelson says, a successful visit to Walt Disney World right now is all about "attitude and gratitude," and the sense that if we want to spend time at the most magical place on earth, we all have a responsibility to follow the rules and take care of each other. "From cast members to guests, everyone is so happy to be there," Snelson says. "The smiles may be behind masks, but they are bigger than ever."
Navigating New Wait Times and Lines
Disney has suspended FastPass, the system that allowed guests to reserve a return time for a ride or attraction, bypassing the standby line. This means all guests must wait in the standby queue for every ride except Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney's Hollywood Studios, which utilizes a virtual queue.
While many parents initially balk at the idea of slogging through long standby lines with little kids in tow, most are pleasantly surprised at the reality. Despite some posted wait times of up to 60 and even 90 minutes, on our recent trip we found real wait times to be much shorter, rarely waiting more than 10 to 20 minutes—even during a holiday weekend.
Mom Tip: Queues are clearly marked with distance markers. Teach kids where to stand and how to watch for the next marker to open up so they know when to walk. They'll take pride in following the rules and it becomes a sort of hopscotch game from one marker to the next.
Choosing Where to Stay
With park hopping currently suspended, most families will find themselves spending more time at their resort than pre-pandemic. When selecting a resort, consider prioritizing one that is closest to the park or parks where you plan to spend the most time. This will make it easier to head back to your hotel for a nap or afternoon swim and will reduce your use of transportation.
I always recommend staying on property at Disney World because the convenience factor nearly always justifies any additional cost. Now, during the pandemic, I've added safety to my reasons for staying at a Walt Disney World resort. The same safety procedures and regular sanitation measures happening in the parks extend to Disney resorts and resort transportation, and our family, as many locals have noted as well, feels much safer on Walt Disney World property than elsewhere in Florida.
Mom tip: If you're staying at a Disney resort that's further afield, you may want to consider renting a car. In normal times, Disney's resort transportation is a hands-down perk of staying on property. But for now, Jones and Snelson both said they'd opt to rent a car next time. With reduced capacity on resort transportation, wait times can be long and unpredictable. A car provides flexibility and reduces exposure to other guests.
Planning Where to Eat
With Disney World restaurants operating at reduced capacity, dining reservations are a must, especially during peak travel weeks like Thanksgiving and the week between Christmas and New Year's. Dining features on the My Disney Experience app like Mobile Order at quick-service locations and Mobile Dining Check-In at table-service restaurants help reduce contact, and a new Walk-Up reservation feature makes it easier to snag same-day dining reservations. But, with kiddos in tow, it's a safer bet to have something booked in advance.
"With not all restaurants open and limited seating, it's imperative to know where you're going," says Snelson. She also recommends allowing extra time for Mobile Order to avoid hunger meltdowns. "Mobile ordering is great, but at busy times, you should plan to order 30 minutes to an hour ahead of time."
A fun, festive spot that parents will love (and kids won't mind!) is Jock Lindsey's Hangar Bar at Disney Springs, which has been transformed into Jock Lindsey's Holiday Bar for the season. The Indiana Jones-themed family-friendly lounge is bursting with holiday décor (in addition to plenty of hidden Indy details), plays great holiday music, and serves inventive cocktails, including seasonal specials like Jock's Holiday Nog and the Mistletoe Mule. There's no kids menu, so this spot is better for bigger kids up for sharing small plates flatbreads, apps, and tacos with parents.
Pro tip: With no park hopping, planning a special dining experience at a resort or Disney Springs is a great way to change it up after a day at the park. For a fun pre- or post-dinner activity, try the Christmas Tree Stroll at Disney Springs. Pick up a map and go on a scavenger hunt to find all 12 trees, themed to Disney characters and stories.
How Disney World is Celebrating Christmas 2020
Guests were disappointed by the cancellation of seasonal ticketed events—first Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, now Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party, but most families, including ours, have been pleasantly surprised by Disney's modifications. Here's a rundown:
Disney World Christmas Decorations 2020
Halloween décor was a bit scaled back this year, but the halls are definitely decked for the holidays. A massive Christmas tree welcomes guests to Magic Kingdom, where Main Street, U.S.A. is lined with holiday greens, lights, and Mickey wreaths.
Each of the four theme parks and Disney Springs gets their own unique take on holiday decorations and background music, in line with park's vibe and theming. Magic Kingdom is classic Americana; Disney's Hollywood Studios is retro kitsch — just like Grandma's house; Disney's Animal Kingdom's décor is as diverse as each of its lands and perfectly themed to each; and EPCOT will celebrate holidays around the world when the 2020 Taste of EPCOT Festival of the Holidays launches Nov. 27.
Disney World Holiday Processionals 2020
Now in their third iteration since reopening, Disney World's holiday processionals are the most impressive yet, featuring seasonal highlights at Magic Kingdom like Goofy's Scrumptious Cavalcade starring Goofy, Max, and Clarabelle Cow, flanked by Gingerbread Men; Mickey and Minnie in their holiday finest; and marching Toy Soldiers accompanied by the Main Street Philharmonic. These regular appearances bring festive music and a sense of excitement and anticipation to the day that my kids, who lack the attention span for a lengthy parade, absolutely loved.
On the hunt for Santa? There won't be any sitting on his lap this year, but you can still spot the big guy in cavalcades at all four parks plus Disney Springs, Disney World's shopping, dining and entertainment district.
Mom Tip: There's no need to seek out cavalcades or stake out a spot to watch them. They come by regularly enough that you're sure to spot all or most of them over the course of a day. Just listen for the music to get louder and get that camera ready!