If you know me, you likely understand how hesitant I was (and still am) to write an article with this title. But yes, I did spend 7 Days at Disney World During a Pandemic. The title sounds negative, or even quite like click bait, but in all honesty it’s the reality of the world we live in. Now, I fully understand that many are going to disagree with that fact that I traveled to a theme park as a non-local and I understand that. However, this is a part of my job, it is also an enormous part of my life, and at the end of the day I took every safeguard I could (with one exception), which I’ll mention later. This is a real recount of my experience.
Before we take a deep dive, I think it’s important to note here why we are going to the parks to begin with. So many of us are there to create memories with those that we care the most about. If this isn’t a memory you want with your family or at least not in the current form of the Disney experience, don’t go. I’m going into this with the perspective of a repeat parks guest like myself and that should be taken as the point of view on much of this.
If you’re considering making your first trip to WDW right now, I wouldn’t say to avoid the parks, but I would encourage you to manage your expectations. The low crowd levels are wonderful, the low wait times are wonderful, but there are some inevitable downsides that Disney cannot avoid. That is a part of the current Disney experience. For me, it wasn’t a huge deterrent, but it may be for many and that’s why I am writing this article. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a wonderful experience, it’s just different and that’s the only way to describe it!
I believe it is important that I make a few things clear up front before sharing any part of my experience in the parks:
1. I am not a doctor, and I respect anyone’s choice to go to or not to go to the parks. We will all be ready to return on our own timelines, and I can’t make that decision for you and certainly won’t try to.
2. I am not going to be a person going into the parks looking to take photos of the worst possible crowd I saw the entire day. Partially because I favor positivity and partially because you can’t always believe some of the photos of “crowds” you see floating around the internet. Some things are not as they appear. To those looking for crowds, I faced one crowded situation in an entire week at WDW and it was a lesser crowd than my local grocery store here in Kentucky.
So, as I start this off, I want to provide a bit of context. A few short weeks ago, I sent out a poll on my Instagram asking for questions you had about visiting Disney World During a Pandemic. To my surprise, I received tons of questions and I’ll be doing my best to try and answer many of them here today.
To add to the context of the actual trip, I travel with my immediately family, we did fly to the parks, and we did stay on property at Disney’s Beach Club Villas. To make an incredibly long article short, the journey to Walt Disney World during a Pandemic was an interesting one. It was a vastly positive Disney World experience, but it was also one with honest flaws and some downright frustrating difficulties. However, at the end of the day, it was still a vastly positive experience and one that we would (and have considered) repeating again.
Air Travel and Disney’s Magical Express During COVID-19
Out of all the questions I received when preparing for this “Disney During Covid” discussion, this was one of the most prevalent. I did fly to WDW from my usual airport departing out of Louisville, KY. I did have a connecting flight that went through Atlanta. I saw larger crowds in the Atlanta airport than I did anywhere else during my journey. Honestly, that part was a bit uncomfortable at moments, but there is only so much you can do.
Every single airport I went through had a required mask policy, I flew Delta, and upon arrival we did use Disney’s Magical Express shuttle service. We did not use it going back to the airport but that’s a story I’ll explain below and it is not at all related to our Magical Express experience.
My Delta Experience:
Flying was the one thing I could have avoided but chose not to. We live close enough to WDW that we could drive but it typically takes 2 days. So we decided we would rather roll the dice and fly than risk a strange hotel along the route. Delta is doing a fairly good job with spreading folks out on flights. It’s all relative, but on all of my four flights, the middle seats were left unused used and in most cases two seats were left empty between passengers (unless they were all in the same party or an isle separated guests).
In our case we filled an entire row with a group of five and they did not seat someone with us. Lastly, I do have to note that these were the cleanest airplanes I’ve ever been on. I took a wet wipe and wiped down my seat and came back with nothing at all on it. No black residue, nothing. I know many folks do not like Delta but I was pleasantly surprised with this experience and other recent experiences I’ve had with the airline (and I am NOT sponsored by any airline… but if they offered that might change haha).
Disney’s Magical Express COVID Procedures:
I don’t have the best advice for folks on this one. When we arrived, we were one of the last flights into Orlando that landed at well after 11:00pm. As a result we checked into the Magical Express pick up area as usual, walked down our lane of the queue and were immediately ushered out to a 9 passenger van that they used to shuttle larger groups later on in the night opposed to the typical Magical Express buses. The larger buses were being used but they were at very low capacity this particular night. We ended up being the only ones on our transport (and they mentioned it was always that way for larger groups in the smaller vehicles).
To be honest, I would put the transport vehicle in the “reasonably clean” category. AKA… less clean than the airplane but more clean than a taxi or a typical Uber/Lyft. Per the usual, the Magical Express experience is/was fine. I’ve never been a huge Magical Express fan because of the time commitment it requires getting back to the airport hours ahead of time, but Disney has always had the best interest of the guest in mind while requiring that. Also, it’s worth noting that much of that experience is operated by the Mears group rather than Disney transportation that you experience to and from the parks.
Disney’s Beach Club Resort – The Disney World Resort Experience
Without sounding like an unapologetically positive fanboy for Disney, I do have to say that this part of the experience far in a way exceeded my expectations. The experience isn’t perfect and trust me, I’ll explain the negatives as well, the overall experience is incredibly top notch. So much so that Disney’s attention to cleanliness exceeded a recent stay I had at a Hilton Grand Vacations property on Hilton Head Island back in June. While that won’t sound like much of an accomplishment, as much as I love Hilton, it is an accomplishment when previously that Hilton room was the cleanest I had ever been in (including WDW properties in the past).
The Disney Resort Hotels Commitment to Cleanliness and Guest Safety
Disney states it first in foremost that their greatest commitment is to the safety of guests. I certainly believed that before but even more so now. I kid you not, every single time I walked out of my resort room, I saw someone cleaning. From hand rails, to door handles, to flooring, to pool chairs, to any other form of touch point you can imagine, a surface was not left for more than a few brief moments before someone came by and cleaned it.
Even the pool staff had a clip board they carried around and appeared to time stamp when surfaces were being cleaned. It exceeded my wildest expectations and already high preconceived expectations of cleanliness. I’m not a neat freak, but I was impressed.
The Resort Experience at the Beach Club
The check in experience was no different and equally as impressive. Check in was online, but if you needed bell services or had an issue with a room key or any other reason you’d need to approach the desk, every precaution was in place and the staff was a resounding team of what appeared to be the best of the best Disney had to offer.
The resort room itself was spectacularly clean. Literally, the flooring was so clean it appeared to have been recently deep cleaned to an extent most of us would never spend the time to do in our own homes… We stayed in the 2 bedroom villa and all the dishes were perfectly clean, soaps and other supplies that you would need in excess right now were very much available/stocked, and there were only two downsides to the resort experience.
The Downsides of Resort Stays During COVID
The first downside is the food. It’s the same great dining experience you expect from Disney and of course everyone is taking precautions with masks and face shields over masks at every dining location. I have heard that any cast member that would be within three foot of a guest is required to wear both, but I cannot confirm the authenticity of that statement. The food is fine, but the hours are problematic.
Everything has shortened hours and it’s not that big of a deal during the day or even in the mornings but later on it becomes an issue. If you want to leave a park and grab dinner after your park day, catch an ice cream at Beaches and Cream, or stroll the Boardwalk for a snack, think again. They will all be closed by 9:00pm with very few exceptions.
The second downside is the limitations this situation puts on transportation options. We learned this the hard way and we even knew it was coming and couldn’t avoid it. With the parks closing so early in the day, transportation to resorts to dine at a resort other than your own for breakfast or dinner is quite difficult. If the parks aren’t open, it’s very difficult to get to other locations on property without a rental car because 1. Uber is few and far between right now in Orlando for obvious reasons and 2. Disney transportation has a firm cutoff. So, to better explain, let me tell a brief story:
On two different days of our trip we went and ate at Whispering Canyon at Wilderness Lodge. Once for breakfast and once for dinner. We knew breakfast was going to be a challenge because with the parks opening later in the day transportation to Magic Kingdom is not running as it would with a typical hours structure. If the park opens at 9 or 10, there’s no chance you make an 8:30am breakfast (for example) utilizing the Wilderness Lodge Bus or Boat leaving Magic Kingdom.
In our case, we worked that into our budget and knew that we would have to phone a friend or allocate a few extra dollars for a town car service. In our case, we worked out a deal with a company we had used before and managed to get a return ride to the airport and a ride to Wilderness Lodge one morning for $100 plus a tip for the driver. We thought that was fairly reasonable with all things considered and it was the cleanest vehicle I’ve been in beyond my own in a very long time (there was even a Lysol can in the cupholder).
Now, our dinner situation was one we did not expect. We figured if we left our dinner before Hollywood Studios closed we could just ride the Hollywood Studios bus back to the park and switch to the Skyliner back to the Beach Club. Unfortunately, that wasn’t an option and once a bus unloads guests after park close, they are not allowed to transport guests back to the park. At least that is true currently. So, as a result, your only option is to ride to Disney Springs, and then connect and ride back to your resort from that location. If it’s still open.
Overall, this isn’t a flaw in what Disney is doing at all, it’s just something to be aware of if you’re planning on visiting anytime soon.
The Incredible Positives of Touring Disney World During COVID
It’s not all sunshine and lollipops in the parks right now all the time, but if you can set aside the mask requirement, you can truly enjoy a stay at Walt Disney World right now. Here’s what we found:
The Resorts Are Incredibly Quiet Right Now
When I sit here and say that the resorts are quiet, that is probably the understatement of the day. Our room was on the first floor of the resort and each day we walked past rooms to exit (both inside and outside), and it was rare to pass anyone before you got to a common area of the resort. It didn’t matter what time of day. It was simply empty.
Quite possibly the only exception to this general reality was the resort pool, but in our case the Yacht and Beach Club had two pools operational. One stayed fairly busy, the other was empty or close to it 90% of the time.
At times, especially at night, it’s borderline creepy how quiet it is but it is an experience you’ll only get to see at WDW in a few select circumstances. This being one of them for unfortunate reasons.
The Crowds Are The Lowest They’ve Been In Years
Once you arrive at the parks, you’ll quickly realize that they aren’t quite the same as they once were. Security has changed to a largely touchless experience and unless you’re carrying lots of metal objects, you typically won’t be pulled aside to empty anything out of your bag. Of course, traveling with camera gear, I was stopped on more than one occasion.
Now, I will say this procedure was very new when I arrived at the parks. However, I was borderline harassed a few different times by over eager security staff insisting I empty my entire camera bag… down to a loose tissue. I applaud them for doing their job thoroughly, but don’t ask me to walk through a scanner with my camera in my bag and then have the next security cast member reprimand me for not taking a camera out of my bag. Get on the same page my friends. I’m the first one to be complimentary of Disney security and dealing with those of us who carry camera gear, but don’t contradict yourselves.
As you step in the parks, it’s admittedly different and it has lost something. However, it has also gained some things as well. The experience is, first and foremost, incredibly safe. I’m not one that’s going to nit pick a dirty piece of plexiglass, but I am somewhat conscious of obvious safety concerns. I did not find any unavoidable circumstances that made me feel unsafe or that felt unclean at WDW. I expected nothing less.
The in park experience is about the same as it has always been with obvious efforts to distance including queue markings at 6 feet, plexiglass between tight rows, loading every other row on ride vehicles (at minimum), and the obvious changes to overall capacity. With those things in place, it doesn’t really detract from the Disney experience we’ve come to love if you go into it with a reasonable set of expectations. Some things are pulled or not open, but they’ve also been replaced by things you’ve never seen before. I would call that a benefit more than a downside in most circumstances. Fireworks and parades are hard to loose, but it’s a small price to pay in order to be back.
On a related note, the park hours are my biggest gripe. When crowds are low, you can get an incredible amount done in a very limited amount of time. However, loosing all night hours in a Disney park is a little hard to wrap your mind around at times and you don’t fully understand it until you’ve experienced it. There’s nothing weirder than leaving a Disney park before the glow of the castle lights up, the neon of Sunset Boulevard comes on, or before Spaceship Earth is reflecting off of the lagoons. It’s simply weird. Most nights, you’re walking out of the park as the sun is setting.
For those concerned about crowds and any form of crowds, there are some choke points in the parks with unavoidable crowds. It is the nature of the beast and there’s nothing Disney can do about it. However, as a guest, you can avoid them if you choose to. For example’s sake. The photo below was taken at around mid day in Magic Kingdom. No photoshop, no aggressive editing, just an empty park. Two hours later, if you walked towards Pirates of the Caribbean, you would have seen about a 20 foot section of folks standing around, likely too close together, and grouped fairly tightly by comparison. Long story made short… If you look for crowds… you’ll find them. If you choose to avoid crowds… it’s easily doable!
If you genuinely don’t like crowds at all right now (like grocery stores, restaurants, etc.) I would not recommend going to Disney Springs at night. It can get quite busy in the early evening on select nights. It did not bother me much but at moments there are some “oh, this is a bit more crowded than I’d like for it to be” moments. World of Disney was perhaps one of the most crowded areas I saw during my entire experience.
The Standardization of Things Helps The Abnormal Feel More Normal
This element of the experience is something that I didn’t really expect. The best example I can give is if you’ve been to a local restaurant in your area. Every restaurant you go to has different standards and different expectations. At Disney right now, that is not the case. Everything is standardized in 98% of situations.
The results of that standardization make you somewhat immune to the precautions after a while. You start to expect cast members in restaurants to be wearing face shields on top of masks, you expect to see plexiglass at every register in shops, and you expect for a few things to be closed along the way.
The standardization helps you adapt quickly and without being obstructive to your Disney experience. With the exception of wearing a mask in 90+ degree heat, you get used to the procedures rather quickly when you are surround by them 24/7. So much so that when you leave Disney property and are back home, it border line feels a little odd not to be wearing a mask at moments. It’s like that “my face is naked” moment and it’s really strange. You also become very cognizant of when you’ve forgot to put one on when you leave your resort room. If you don’t notice it, a cast member will be quick to tell you.
This Lead to Some of the Best Cast Member Interactions I’ve Had In Years
From my experience, this was one of the oddest things I encountered. I know that Disney has only invited select cast members back, but it appears that they’ve invited the best of the best they have to offer back first. This trip accompanied some of the best cast member experiences I’ve had years and there was no pattern to it. Everyone seemed to want to do something extra special for you and your family.
It’s a wonderful feeling and truly the only bad cast member experience I had was on our very last day and I think it was more of a circumstantial situation driven by heat and exhaustion than anything else. Overall, the cast is going above and beyond.
Your Questions About The Parks From Instagram
So, let’s finally dive into the questions YOU were asking because those are the ones that truly matter! Now, be aware that I’m answering these questions having visited in late July/Early August of 2020. As the year draws closer to the Holiday season my guess is crowds may pick up or change some, and the experience may shift slightly compared to the mindset I’m using to answer these questions. However, I think the park experience is going to continue to shift in a positive direction as some things come back “online” for Disney as they nail down their current precautions to an even greater degree.
How hard was it to wear a mask all day?
There’s no easy answer to this question. No matter who you are and what your thoughts are, mask are inconvenient in nearly every situation. However, Disney deems them necessary for the foreseeable future for guests so compliance is required and it isn’t that bad if you’re even remotely flexible (especially with the cooler months arriving soon).
If you research and order good masks, you will greatly alleviate that burden during your vacation. With the right type of mask, it’s far less uncomfortable than walking around in a paper mask or extremely tight face covering. Personally I use and recommend Marine Layer’s Adjustable Sport Mask and that is not an affiliate link.
Honestly, they are the softest, most breathable masks I’ve used that don’t pull on your ears and that have an option adjust for a tighter fit or to skip normal ear loops and opt for ties instead. Right now, they may be on back order, but if you can get your hands on some, they’re an incredible value for the money. I had 3 of them and rotated throughout the day during my stay and washed them in dish soap and air dried them each night (they will survive a washing machine as well).
To make a long story short, make sure you have multiple masks. There is nothing nastier than sweating through a mask, going to a restaurant, and then having to put a damp mask back over your face. Throw an extra in your pocket or in a backpack and thank me later!
Can you resort hop at Disney during COVID?
The short answer is yes to this, but the longer answer is that they’ve made it very difficult beyond the Monorail resorts. If you can walk to a resort it’s no problem at all. In the Crescent Lake area, you can walk from Beach Club to Boardwalk all day with no issues. Now, you can even walk the further jaunt over to the Swan and Dolphin as well.
On Disney’s side of things they are not preventing anyone from visiting any resort that is currently open and accepting guests. Your limitation is transportation. Buses are running and at a fairly normal and functional pace. However, boat services are limited and when I was there the internal loop of Wilderness Lodge, Fort Wilderness, and the Contemporary was not operational. Only routes to and from Magic Kingdom were in service.
Again, bus services operate around park closing times so be aware of how you’ll get back to where you came from or how you will return to your “home resort.” That’s super important!
Is the magic still there despite the precautions?
Again, the short answer is yes for this. The long answer is that it is truly a different experience. It’s still a great and magical experience but it is different and you have to expect that. When you get on a bus and the driver seats you in sections so that you’re spread out, that’s odd no matter what your expectations are. But, as with anything new, most people will adapt and get past it pretty quickly. If that type of thing bothers you, I’d suggest not going to the parks right now. Otherwise you’ll really enjoy the experience.
There is also something worth mentioning here that’s very important to me. The “magic” so many of us experience isn’t about the park procedures, it’s not about the wait times, and it isn’t about what the resort room is like. At the end of the day that “magic” we feel is more often than not a result of the people we brought with us that we care the most about and enjoy spending time with. Disney is just the playground, the memories are created because of the people you share the experience with that you care the most about. Never forget that.
How empty are the parks for photos?
As touched on briefly before, it’s kind of hit and miss. If you keep moving you’ll find a lot of tucked away, very quiet, areas. Sometimes it will genuinely shock you. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom, are shockingly empty at moments. Hollywood Studios tends to be oddly crowded but I think part of that is due to the layout of the park and the many choke points it creates. Crowds are light in the morning, build at mid day, and tend to fall as closing approaches.
If you are looking for the more empty areas, I’d advise avoiding Hollywood Studios. It’s crowded (albeit that word is variable) most of the day. With most shows not currently operational, it doesn’t seem to absorb the crowds quite as much as the other parks.
Is it hard to enjoy yourself at Disney while navigating the pandemic safety rules?
Maybe I’m a little bit bias, but I did not face this at all. Sure, a mask gets annoying in high heat, but the heat will fade into the fall and winter eventually and I wouldn’t consider it a deterring factor. I expected to hate wearing one, but you do get used to it to an extent if you buy a well fitting and fairly comfortable mask. If you show up in one of those throw away paper masks with the waxy coating, it will be a long day. Go prepared, see my recommendations above, and it won’t bother you quite as much as you expected. It’s not wonderful, but it’s not that bad either.
The other items in place become rather passive by design anyway. Hand sanitizer is an easy habit to adopt and is readily accessible. The other procedures in place won’t bother most people in my humble opinion. Again, the standardization and uniformity helps substantially.
Did you see people not following the rules? If so, how did the cast members handle it?
This is a simple question but a worthwhile one. I did not see many intentional offenders in the parks. Now, the airport was a very different story when leaving Orlando International Airport… Atlanta, by contrast, was a more crowded but more compliant experience.
If Disney sees it, a cast member will promptly and proactively ask you to please put it back on. In fact, it was hard to adjust your mask at moments, even sitting still, without being called out for it in a friendly way. The no eating while moving rule is also rather well guarded and proactively being reprimanded in a friendly way.
In all reality, that rule is frustrating at times. When you’re standing in an attraction queue when it’s 96 degrees outside trying to drink a water bottle and a castmember says something to you, it’s a bit frustrating. I know why they do it, but it’s something to be aware of and I’d rather have a guest risk a ten second drink of water to stay hydrated in 90+ degree heat. Unfortunately, a few taking advantage of the system ruined that for the rest of us.
Do the Disney Parks crowds seem to be growing?
If you would have asked me this same question while I was there I would have said yes. Now, after having watched things a bit more and following some trends, it looks like the crowds are remaining very weak. Also, resorts aren’t reopening quite as soon as planned, and in some cases like the Polynesian, the reopening has been pushed aggressively for non DVC rooms.
To explain my original comment, crowds seem to be varying quite a bit from day to day and from one day of the week to another. When you’re there you do notice distinct days with higher crowd levels present. Overall, there doesn’t seem to be a growing trend over time. I have heard that bookings are picking up on into September, October, and November, but I don’t see that holding true with the nature of cancelations right now and the ever changing park hours.
What is it like without Fastpasses at Disney right now?
Fastpasses really aren’t needed right now. Why? Because everything in the parks are more often than not under 30 minutes. On top of that, the posted wait time isn’t always reflecting accurately at the moment with many wait times being substantially less than what they are posted at. I did not miss Fastpass+ and it gave the experience a much more “free” feeling. You’re not tied to timeframes and it’s actually quite nice.
Looking to Travel at the Moment?
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