Visiting Disney World during the pandemic? Are you crazy?!
I’ll be the first to admit that when Disney World reopened amid Florida’s record-breaking coronavirus surge, I thought they were insane.
The day after they reopened, Florida reported over 15,000 new cases—that was more than most countries at the time.
As a huge fan of Disney World, I really wrestled with their decision. It just seemed so selfish, so incredibly irresponsible, and… just stupid!
And I let everyone know how I felt about it in the most 2020 fashion—through ranting news articles, tweets, and hilarious memes.
However, my entire stance soon changed.
Disney World during the pandemic
Soon after ranting about Disney’s decision-making process (as if I could do better), I spoke with a Disney World cast member who said, among other points, that she feels safer at Disney World than she does the grocery store.
While mulling this over I then read this extraordinary article from the Atlantic. Author Graeme Wood flew to Orlando to visit Disney World just after it reopened and touched on many crucial points we all may have forgotten. Such as:
Walt Disney World operates as its own self-managed entity that just happens to be located within the state of Florida. Much like Vatican City is to Rome.
Disney has its own security force, its own transportation network, its own hotels, restaurants, and shopping districts. It occupies land space 50x that of the country of Monaco.
When you enter Disney property, you essentially leave Florida. The only reminder of where you are geographically is the oppressive humidity and constant reminder to beware alligators.
Disney World is not simply a “theme park” you drive up to, park at, then enter à la Six Flags. It’s very much a world of its own. And that means it’s governed in its own unique way.
That’s when it dawned on me: Disney World may just be the safest place to be right now! It was so obvious – how did I not see it? These are points I already knew to be true, but that were overshadowed by my own close-minded assumptions and self-righteousness.
Taken at face value, opening a theme park amid a roaring pandemic sounds like the stuff Stephen King novels are made of. But Disney World is no ordinary theme park.
Why I decided to visit Disney World during the pandemic
Regardless of Florida’s mishandling of the coronavirus crisis, I knew Disney World would be safe. Or, as Wood puts it, “a little bit of Singapore in the midst of America’s Yemen.”
I talked to people who worked there, read reports of what it was like there since its reopening, and asked my friend (a Florida resident and annual passholder who had visited multiple times since it reopened) for all the details.
Besides telling me about the lack of crowds, mandatory masks, plexiglass partitions, etc., she echoed a familiar theme: she felt safer at Disney World than she did the grocery store. And here’s why:
Upon reopening, Disney World instituted a full list of new rules for visitors (which I’ll get to in a minute). But more than that, they strictly enforce them.
Since the let-up of lockdowns, many public spaces have reopened with signs reading “masks mandatory” on the front door. But, upon seeing many disobey this rule, these places will also tell you, “We don’t have the authority to enforce it.” *rolls eyes so hard I can see my brain*
But in this case, Disney World does have the authority and they are not even the slightest bit afraid to wield it. Disney has a solid reputation to maintain, especially when it comes to backing up their most controversial decision to date.
In my four days at Disney World, I only saw one man try to skirt the mask mandate. Disney staff kindly asked him to put it back on, he whined, and they immediately responded with, “If you’d prefer to not wear a mask I’m going to have to escort you off the property.” No bargaining, no arguing, just unwavering enforcement.
Disney World may be the only place in the country where you can count on 100% compliance in regards to pandemic-related rules and restrictions. (The man mentioned above did continue complying, no questions asked.)
No one is going to pay hundreds of dollars to visit these parks and choose that as the moment to protest the wearing of masks.
No one is going to risk getting kicked out or being punished with one of Disney World’s lifetime bans. Especially not a Florida resident or annual passholder for whom a lifetime ban would be a significant blow. Literally none of your distant relatives would come visit you ever again.
And at this point, no one can play dumb in regards to the new rules and regulations. Disney World is fantastic at managing expectations and they make 100% sure you know your role before entering their parks/resorts/restaurants/etc.
You’re told what feels like a hundred times before entering what the rules are. In emails, in text messages, when buying park tickets, when making reservations, by cast members, every time you open the My Disney Experience app or visit the Disney World website.
There are physical signs everywhere and audible reminders played every half hour over the loudspeakers at all parks and Disney Springs.
After eating lunch at one of the parks, I forgot to move my mask from under my chin to over my face. I didn’t make it two steps from my table before a cast member stopped me and reminded me to pull it up. Two steps.
Plus, the reopening of Disney World during the pandemic was a highly publicized and controversial move. If you’re going to Disney World right now, you definitely know what’s going on with Disney World right now.
There’s almost a zero chance you’ll find anyone not complying with the rules in totality.
They’re not afraid to adapt
When they first opened Disney World during the pandemic, they allowed you to remove your mask for eating and drinking purposes. However, some got around this by simply carrying drinks around with them and using that as an excuse to not wear a mask. Like a jerk.
Disney saw what was happening and changed their policy. Now, they allow you to remove your mask to eat and drink but you have to be stationary and socially distant. No more drinking while walking. And yes, I saw them enforce this.
Disney World is showing they have zero tolerance towards loopholes and I love that they’re not afraid to amend their policies and procedures when it comes to providing a safe space for visitors.
What it’s like at Disney World parks right now
Now that you know what Disney World expects of you, here’s a list of what you can expect to encounter upon a visit to Disney World during the pandemic.
Disney World during the pandemic is operating at “significantly limited” capacity – believed to be around 25% of previous numbers. (They will increase capacity limits as they feel is safe to do so.) This may be the first thing you notice upon arriving to the parks.
Besides only allowing a small percentage of visitors into the parks each day, many still find visiting Disney World right now a bit cuckoo.
These two factors combined means there are significantly fewer people in the parks right now.
Additionally, cast members now regulate how many people can enter certain indoor spaces at a time. At places like gift shops, the indoor spaces of Epcot countries, restaurants, and more you’ll now see staff members keeping count of visitors.
Mandatory park reservations
To visit Disney World during the pandemic they now require you to make a reservation to visit a park ahead of time, no exceptions. No more walking up and buying tickets. This helps them control park capacity.
Before your planned visit to a Disney World park, you’ll need to first check park availability. They offer different park availabilities for annual passholders, those who have simply purchased park tickets, and those staying at Disney resorts.
Annual passholders actually have the lowest availability of all with some parks almost impossible for them to visit without much advance notice.
You can only visit one park per day
In addition to needing a reservation, they also only allow you to visit one Disney World park per day. Yes, even if the parks haven’t reached capacity.
One park, that’s it. That means: no more park hopper passes. No more visiting all 4 Disney World parks in a single day.
However, that also means you won’t see the huge increase of dinner crowds at Epcot from 5:00 onward. And that’s a great thing.
Update: As of January 1, 2021, Disney World has resumed its park hopping abilities–but with a few changes. Read about the new Park Hopper experience in this post.
In an effort to control capacity and maintain social distancing, Disney World has temporarily suspended the use of their FastPass+ system. But honestly, you don’t need it now anyway.
The only ride you would need it for is Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance and they have a whole ‘nother system in place for that. Enter: the virtual queue.
Masks are mandatory
Just about everywhere you go now masks are mandatory. Disney World during the pandemic is no different.
You must wear a mask at all times (except when you’re actively eating or drinking and are stationary). In lines, while strolling, in the gift shops, while outside, on rides while you’re screaming bloody murder, just literally all the time. It’s not that difficult a concept.
Disney World’s mask mandate states they must:
- Consist of at least two layers of breathable material
- Fully cover your nose and mouth and secure under the chin – Nose and mouth, people!
- Fit snugly against your face
- Utilize ear loops or ties
- Allow yourself to remain hands-free
But not only that, they also mandate what kind of mask you can wear. At Disney World, they do not allow you to wear:
- Neck gaiters
- Open-chin triangle bandanas
- Masks with valves, mesh, or holes of any kind
- Or costume masks
Cast members and law enforcement personnel will enforce these rules. They will let you know if your mask has slipped down or if you’re wearing it wrong.
They’ll check you before entering the park and will even ask to confirm your children’s ages. (Everyone ages 2 and up must wear a mask. Don’t think pushing your five-year-old in via stroller will exempt you from this Karen.)
Hand sanitizer stations everywhere
There’s probably some Disney trigonometry at play here, but now you’re never too far from a contactless hand sanitizer-dispensing station.
(Much like how Disney World trash cans are never more than 30 feet apart. A distance derived from an experiment to determine the average number of steps taken before a person is ready to drop trash. An experiment overseen by Walt Disney himself.)
These are sensor-driven hand sanitizer dispensers and you’ll find them all over the parks, at the entrances and exits of rides, at the resorts, all over Disney Springs, always near high-touch areas, and everywhere in between.
I actually came to adore these little machines and now I’m sad my everyday life doesn’t have these everywhere I go.
Before entering the parks cast members will take your temperature via the contactless forehead method. And no, this is not the most fool-proof solution to controlling the pandemic, but it’s better than nothing and still may weed out a few sicklies.
They will also take your temperature before entering Disney Springs and many restaurants as well.
No sharing of anything
On your trip to Disney World during the pandemic, you won’t have to share a thing. On rides, only your party will ride together.
Yes, you’ll have the entire Millennium Falcon to yourself and whomever you’ve brought with you (choose wisely)! They won’t shove you into a seat or compartment with other families.
On the new Skyliner, each party will have its own car. On roller coasters, there will be a full row (or more) between parties.
Update: On some of the rides they have now installed plexiglass partitions in between the rows to allow for more people to ride at a time–thereby reducing wait times.
So much distancing
They’ve installed 6-foot markers over just about the entirety of Disney World property. All gift shop registers, park entrances, ride lines, and just generally everywhere people could congregate are marked every six feet. And, for the most part, everyone adheres to the suggestion.
Sections they usually have roped off, “VIP”, or closed to the general public are now open to allow visitors to Disney World during the pandemic more room in which to spread out.
Plexiglass partitions are set up at cash registers, resort check in desks, and at popular rides where the lines wind back and forth (like the brand new Mickey’s Runaway Railway and It’s a Small World).
So much cleaning
Every so often, the rides shut down so cast members can clean and sanitize things. (This doesn’t take too long, so don’t expect a long wait.) You’ll also see staff constantly cleaning and sanitizing high-touch, high-traffic areas and equipment.
After leaving the pool at my resort, a staff member immediately came over and cleaned my lounge chair and the handrails I touched getting in and out of the pool.
I mean, I hadn’t gotten any more than 20 feet away before he was on it. I realize this is not a park-specific reference but I did see the same kind of attention given to sanitization at the parks.
No character meet-and-greets, parades, or fireworks
Disney World during the pandemic has done away with the ability to meet the characters up-close. Instead, the characters intermittently walk or are driven through the parks. Some on horse-drawn carriages, some in tricked-out cars. All waving, all jolly.
Fun fact: I actually saw way more characters this time than ever before and some that I’ve never even seen at all.
Additionally, all of Disney World’s grand parades and fireworks/nighttime spectaculars have been indefinitely suspended.
During this strange phase we’re living in, Disney World has reduced their operating hours. Back in September 2020 they reduced them a lot but have since extended them to almost-normal numbers.
As of February 2021, the hours are:
- Magic Kingdom: 9 am to 7, 8, or 9 pm depending on the day
- Epcot: 11 am to 8 or 9 pm depending on the day
- Hollywood Studios: 9 am – 7 pm every day
- Animal Kingdom: 8 am – 5 or 6 pm depending on the day
To get accurate park hours for the day of your visit, check out the Disney World hours calendar.
What it’s like at Disney World resorts right now
Many of the same aspects of visiting the parks is apparent at Disney World resorts as well. Just like the parks, Disney World resorts are also limiting capacity, offering hand sanitizer stations throughout the properties, utilizing plexiglass partitions, and requiring masks at all times.
But not only are Disney World resorts limiting their occupancy, many of the resorts haven’t yet reopened at all. You can find a list of currently open Disney World resorts here as well as anticipated opening dates for others.
Disney World resort pools are open. And with the reduced capacity, they’re downright dreamy. (However, hot tubs are still closed.)
Pool lounge chairs are all separated in groups to ensure social distancing. Pool railings, seats, tables, etc. are sanitized thoroughly and often.
Mask mandates are still in effect in pool areas (unless you’re in the pool or in your chair). Or you’re that one guy who cannonballed into the pool with his mask on. I don’t get it, but I applaud his over-adherence to protocols.
Does the thought of swimming in a pool with strangers during a pandemic weird you out? I used to feel that way too… until more information on the subject came to light.
Now, according to the CDC, it’s known that “There is no evidence that COVID-19 can be spread to humans through the use of recreational waters”… as long as you maintain a good social distance.
For more on the CDC’s recommendations for aquatic venues, check out their page here.
Daily housekeeping at Disney World resorts has been suspended for the time being. Instead, they will only service your room after you’ve checked out on the last day.
However, should you need anything like extra towels, trash pickup, etc., you can still call and request whatever you need.
Checking in and out
Like everywhere else you may come into contact with a cast member, Disney World resorts utilize plexiglass partitions at check-in desks, as well as in resort gift shops, at cafés, etc.
The girl checking me in even sanitized the credit card machine before she’d let me use it.
To check out, I texted my name and room number to the hotel. Simple as that.
What it’s like at Disney World restaurants right now
Much like the rest of Disney World, their restaurants mandate masks at all times except when seated at your table, provide hand sanitizer, and may or may not check your temperature upon entering.
Tables and chairs are spread apart with some tables blocked off completely to allow for social distancing, both indoor and out.
At every bar and restaurant I visited, servers and bartenders wore masks and face shields and provided only digital menus available through a QR code.
They also touched nothing with their bare hands and used tongs for handling everything from straws to fruit.
At Disney Springs, many restaurants will provide little bags for holding your mask while you eat and drink. This was the first time I’d seen this and I found it delightful!
At restaurants inside the parks, you order and pay via the My Disney Experience app, then only enter after your order is ready. While you’re welcome to eat your meal inside the restaurants, this helps eliminate lines and crowding.
You can also expect sanitary disposable utensils, wherever disposable utensils are found.
What it’s like on Disney World transportation right now
As you may know, Disney World operates its very own property-wide transportation network. You can get from the airport to the resorts and back, to the parks, to Disney Springs, to other resorts, and more all for free, quickly and safely, via:
- Disney World shuttle buses
- Magical Express to and from the airport
- The Monorail
- The Disney Skyliner
- Water taxis (aka, “Friendships”—try really hard not to roll your eyes here)
This is one of my favorite aspects of staying at a Disney resort, especially seeing as how I go specifically to attend an all-day drinking festival. No need to rent a car, no need to drive, no need to call an Uber.
In 2021, things are only a little bit different.
On the shuttles, you’ll find plastic partitions between many of the seats and some seats blocked off completely. There are numbered seating sections so the drivers can help regulate where parties sit and more than adequate airflow. However, we were alone on almost every shuttle we took anyway.
On the Disney Skyliner, each party gets their own gondola car. You get a car! And you get a car! Everyone gets their own Skyliner car!
The free Magical Express shuttle to and from the Disney Resorts is still operating, but I didn’t use it so I can’t speak on the experience. (More on that in a minute.)
Does it feel like the magic is gone?
When Disney World announced its reopening, many people were all, “I’m not going to Disney World if I have to wear a mask!” and “No characters? No fireworks? No way!” And to them I say, “Thank you!”
Some feel that a visit to Disney World during the pandemic has lost its magic, but I disagree. If anything, it’s more magical.
It may seem like this long list of requirements and protocols is a lot to remember. But honestly, these are all things we’re used to now: wearing masks, using hand sanitizer ad nauseam, staying away from people. This is all second nature at this point, no?
What is it you’re missing exactly? The vast crowds of overtired toddlers? The feel of a stranger’s hot breath on the back of your neck while waiting to ride Space Mountain? Touching the same surfaces that thousands of other potentially snot-covered hands have touched?
To me, visiting Disney World during the pandemic has been the most ideal time to visit Disney World.
Why visiting Disney World during the pandemic is the best time to visit
If the above paragraph didn’t illustrate my point clearly enough, visiting Disney World during the pandemic has been the most ideal time to visit Disney World.
It’s Disney World at its safest, its cleanest, and its most accessible. Maybe ever in history. What’s not to love about that? Here are some of the reasons I feel right now is the best time to visit Disney World:
Not having to share rides with other families/groups is seriously fun. No more awkwardness of getting stuck with strangers.
The lines for the rides at Disney World are now virtually non-existent. For the first time in all my visits I finally got to ride the Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster because the wait was only 25 minutes. For reference, on all previous visits to Hollywood Studios the wait for this particular ride was three hours.
Also, getting spots on the impossible to ride rides is such a blessing. Our group of 4 was able to snag the first spot of the day on the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride. This would normally be almost impossible on a ride of this scale this soon after its debut.
If all the talk about Disney World’s limited capacity didn’t put a twinkle in your eye, I’ll reinforce the point here.
It’s Disney World… but with hardly any people. Is that not the dream? Have you ever tried to get into the Cantina at Epcot’s Mexico? Usually it’s so packed you don’t even have enough room to take a deep breath. Now, blissful.
You’ll have entire resort pools to yourself and the ability to get last minute reservations with ease at highly sought-after joints like Oga’s Cantina.
You can visit on a weekend
I once visited Disney World on a Saturday and lemme just say that was a mistake I’ve only made once in ten years. But this year, I knew it wouldn’t be an issue. And it wasn’t.
This year, I visited Epcot on a Saturday and only for about an hour the whole day did it seem “crowded.” And that was only up at the bottleneck near Mexico.
Only in that particular area and only for an hour around 5 pm or so was it the most crowded. And even then, it still wasn’t “crowded.” Seeing as how traffic was constantly moving, I was never actually “in a crowd.”
Park entrance is a breeze
Despite temperature checks, you’ll never encounter a line to get into the park. Gone are the days of security checks that include a police officer going through your purse and the six backpacks + stroller of every family in front of you.
In lieu of this, they’ve added metal detectors at the entrances and uniformed police officers and their sniffing-dogs throughout the parks. (Disney World but with more dogs? Also the dream!)
Everything is so clean!
I never considered myself a germaphobe, but things are different now. I’m suddenly hyper-aware of every. single. time. I touch my face (literally just touched my face), of all the surfaces I touch, of everyone who enters my 6-foot bubble.
Now, as someone who deals quite often with getting sick while traveling, I’m more than thrilled at how clean everything is! Especially a place that’s dominated by children and the parents who wipe their butts and help them blow their noses.
It really is as magical as ever
Despite all the new regulations, Disney World during the pandemic is still the happiest place on Earth. Maybe now so more than ever. It’s apparent Disney World cast members have never been so happy to see you.
One of my favorite aspects of visiting Disney World as a childless adult is that the magic is very different for me than it is for a six-year-old. While they ooh and ahh over seeing Cinderella and riding in the Mad Hatter’s teacups, I think we can all agree the most magical part is Disney World’s deviation from reality.
Kids care about characters, but show me a staff who smiles at me, opens doors for me, and never fails to tell me to have a magical freaking day and I’m in Heaven!
Clean streets and peppy music. No complaining or eye-rolling or sighs from the staff. No lenience regarding the proper wearing of masks whatsoever. Color me smitten!
The downsides to visiting Disney World during the pandemic
Regardless of all that is good and magical at Disney World right now, there are a few downsides to visiting Disney World during the pandemic.
Many of the resort restaurants are closed
There are so many restaurants within the collection of Disney World resorts. But, right now, most of them are closed.
Where you used to have an almost endless list of dining options, now you have only a few. (They’re still great btw, but still.) This will definitely make dinner planning a little tougher and require a little more planning. Disney Springs restaurants are wide open though!
Many of the shows and events have been suspended
Many of Disney World’s most popular shows and experiences have been indefinitely suspended. Shows like:
- Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular at Hollywood Studios
- Fireworks / nighttime spectaculars at all parks
- Eat to the Beat concerts at Epcot
- Jedi Training Academy at Hollywood Studios (the BEST by the way)
- Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party at Magic Kingdom
- Plus a load of dining experiences and more
Luckily (for me) the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival was OK’ed to continue as planned. Well, a modified version of course.
So, reduced capacity at Epcot means lines for the Food and Wine booths are shorter. (Yay!) However, because of this they’ve also reduced staffing so the waits may still be longer than they should be. (Booo!)
How to safely visit Disney World during the pandemic
Have I convinced you to visit Disney World during the pandemic yet? Or do you now think I’m insane, irresponsible, and just plain stupid?
Well, if I have, here are a few of my biggest tips on how to safely visit Disney World during the pandemic. (And if I haven’t, well, you do you and thanks for reading this far.)
Don’t leave Disney property
Admittedly, I wrestled with my decision to travel (period) pretty intensely. But I knew there had to be a way to do so safely and responsibly, while still having an incredible time.
For me, the biggest thing was not leaving Disney property. As stated like 4,000 words ago, Disney World is its own thing governed its own way. Though there are many more things to do in Orlando, I decided to skip them all for this first trip out of lockdown.
I knew there would be strict adherence to protocols and 100% compliance. And that’s something the rest of Florida could not promise.
I felt totally safe and carefree on Disney property, even at Disney Springs (which doesn’t require admission and is open to the general public). They still treated Disney Springs like every other Disney World park and resort.
But what about the airport?
Yes, the one thing that weighed on my mind was that I would still have to travel through the Orlando airport and who knew what fresh Hell awaited me there.
But guess what? It was empty. Almost everyone who was actually there wore masks. Almost all gift shops and restaurants are closed. Social distancing was not a problem.
Book a private airport transfer
As I said earlier, Disney’s Magical Express (the free shuttle between the airport and the resorts) is still currently operating. So why not take this?
First of all, I stayed at the Swan/Dolphin and, though it’s unofficially a Walt Disney World resort, it’s officially not. It’s one of the only (if not the only) Disney resorts that doesn’t offer use of the Magical Express. So, I had to find another solution.
However, even if the Magical Express had been an option for me, I would’ve passed. Why? Because it’s still a shared shuttle. And as of March 2020, I no longer like sharing.
But because the Swan/Dolphin doesn’t use the Magical Express, they offer visitors a special (super great) rate with their partner Mears Transportation. So why didn’t I take this? Because it’s still a shared shuttle. And as of… yeah you know.
So, my husband and I booked a private transfer from and back to the airport. Yes, this cost more but I felt safe knowing we wouldn’t have to share a confined space with strangers.
And for me, this was a worthwhile way to spend my money. Peace of mind is priceless, especially to someone with high-functioning anxiety.
Access Line Transportation
While planning my trip to Disney World during the pandemic, I vetted just about all the Orlando-based airport transfer companies I could find, specifically on their Covid-related policies. I ended up booking with Access Line Transportation based on their incredible Tripadvisor reviews and I am so happy I did!
I could not have been more impressed with the level of service Access Line Transportation provided. From top the bottom, this was a wonderful experience.
Our driver Carlo was incredible. What a positive attitude! He gave us great Disney World advice (as an annual passholder himself), was prompt, polite, kind, and very well-dressed (that includes a mask). The car was clean, cool, and we had to wait for nothing.
By booking a private transfer, we were able to get the hell out of the airport the minute we landed (carry-ons only). We didn’t have to wait for other parties to show or wait to check in. We could just GO.
Bring a lot of masks
Look, Disney World may be its own universe, but it’s still subject to the heat and humidity of Florida (for now—who knows what the future will bring lol).
Because of this, you’ll want to bring lots of masks with you to switch out when they become sweaty and gross. And they will become sweaty and gross.
The day we visited Hollywood Studios (granted, this was in August), it was 96°F with a heat index of 107°F and a dew point of 79! Needless to say, my first cloth mask of the day didn’t make it past 11 am.
Plus, I found my soaking wet cloth masks hard to breathe through in such oppressive conditions. I found the disposable surgical masks I brought much lighter, easier to breathe through, and able to stay drier longer.
Prepare to quarantine afterwards
Many states, including my own of Massachusetts, have strict post-travel quarantine laws, especially if you visit Florida. Know that safely visiting Disney World during the pandemic also includes what you do afterwards.
Prepare to follow all state-required protocols after returning from your trip and/or consider getting testing after returning home.
If you’ve done everything right and followed all the rules, your chances of bringing anything home are surely low. However, asymptomatic carriers are a thing and it doesn’t hurt to be 100% sure before you integrate back into society. (What is this post-apocalyptic talk?)
I hope the details of my experience have helped paint a picture of what Disney World during the pandemic is like. And maybe reminded you of the fact that Disney World always knows what they’re doing, no matter how insane, irresponsible, or just plain stupid it may seem to us mere mortals.
Do you have plans to visit Disney World soon?
Let me know below!
But first, pin me ⇣⇣⇣