Disney during COVID-19: Is it safe?
Disney closed at the start of the COVID-19 quarantine, laying off 32,000 employees by November. After 116 magic-less days, the parks reopened July 15, just as coronavirus cases soared in Orlando. Going to Disney World right now may seem ridiculous, and perhaps it still is. Now that months have passed since its reopening, it's not quite as empty, but it's not packed either.
I'm not going to downplay the nuances of this decision to go to Disney World during the pandemic. There were cons. But to start, walking around Disney felt safer than your average grocery store. On a Thursday, during a crisp morning, the grounds of Hollywood Studios challenged my preconceived notions of how busy and crowded I thought it was going to be.
Besides wanting to know if it is safe, the second most important question is: is it worth it?
Warning: Florida coronavirus cases nearly surpass two million. While Orlando peaked over the holiday months, it's trending downward in February. Check regularly to monitor the flow of cases. The CDC also recommends against participating in anything revolving around crowds.
When to go
Unfortunately, there is just no way of knowing how busy the parks will get on any given day, but going during the week could give you better odds. At 100 percent capacity, Magic Kingdom can allegedly hold 100,000 guests. Parks are operating at 35% capacity, which is a jump from 2020 at 25%. While that is still 65% less than usual, that doesn't necessarily mean there aren't many people. You can still be in the park with around 30,000 people. When booking, pay attention to the colors of the day. Green means all the parks are still under the reduced capacity. Yellow means some parks are full, and red likely means no parks are available that day.
Disney World precautions
Disney World requires attendants to wear a mask at all times, unless sitting or standing to the side, except in line. No food or drink permitted. Lines are maintained at six feet apart. You wouldn't think this could be true, but it was. Most of the lines snaked outside, so six feet apart didn't feel forced at all. Once you got inside, they tried hard to be smart about it. If the line snaked back in the direction of other people, they put plexiglass walls up to separate you. Or, when that wasn't feasible, they alternated the line so that you were never next to someone in a different section. Depending on your party size, you might get entire rows of the ride to yourself. On rides shared between two groups, they put up plexiglass. For example, there was plexiglass between our row and the people in front of us when we rode the Mickey and Minnie Runaway Train ride. There was also a noticeable increase in cleaning. You would often see employees wiping surfaces down.
We didn't see a soul without their mask on walking around the park, which is impressive considering that going to the grocery store, you don't always see the same respect. If you get caught walking and eating, they will quickly warn you to step to the side. I don't know if this is true for all parks, but I found Hollywood Studios' layout a little strange. Strange enough to where it was hard for people not to get congested at certain parts. I wore two masks the whole time, except when on a ride (then I wore one). The congestion obviously makes everything riskier, but it's definitely not the hoards of people you would experience here a year ago. It felt more like a packed grocery, but outside. It is worth bringing your own sanitizing wipes and hand sanitizer. While the employees are wiping things down, there are a couple of rides requiring 3D glasses. Only one person uses them before they get resanitized, but they get distributed in buckets where a grabby kid could touch a bunch of them. We wiped ours down. There are plenty of hand sanitizing stations at every ride entrance and exit, and walkway, but some of them are out.
You MUST get a Disney ticket and reserve a park. This is how they monitor capacity. The park reservation isn't extra, but it is required among admission. You also need a valid ID and the card you used to purchase. If you plan to park hop, you can only change parks starting at 2 pm with the park hopper pass. If you were hoping to get a boarding group for Rise of the Resistance, you must first go to Hollywood Studios. All we wanted to do was go to Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge. Since reopening, they reconfigured how you visit the park's most popular attraction: Rise of the Resistance.
Instead of waiting in line and competing with fast passes (more on that in a second), this ride requires a boarding group. At 7 am the day of, the boarding group opens. You have to join a group that second, otherwise it fills. We didn't get it that first round (which was devastating and stressful). The only other opportunity you have is at one. Like I said, you MUST be in Hollywood Studios to be eligible to join a boarding group. Be aware of the time too. Otherwise, you might find yourself sitting in the car for Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Train, holding your phone as high as you can, trying to get enough service to join.
Meanwhile, all the employees are shaking their heads... You know, it's just something I heard happens. Luckily, we got it. Once you have a boarding group, you keep doing what you're doing because it'll notify you when they call your group. At that point, you have an hour to make it to the ride. Word of the wise, if you can go as soon as your group is called, there is less wait than at the end of the hour. Another note, screenshot EVERYTHING. You don't want to take any chances with a glitch in the system. You can only ride this ride once.
Fast passes and lines
Disney World has currently suspended FastPass+ services, which means everyone stands in the same line, except for Rise of the Resistance, as it requires the boarding pass. Some people would die at the thought of not having the FastPass+, but for spontaneous travelers such as myself, I always found them stressful and unfair. I didn't want to be waiting in line for hours either, so this left me very unsure of what the day would bring. Surprisingly, I never waited more than 40 minutes for a ride, which was only for one. The Disney World app makes a huge difference in reducing your line wait. There is a map of the park with the wait times listed for each attraction in the app. I found the best strategy to tackle all of the attractions was to go against the flow. You could see how people were navigating their day. Everyone wanted to start at the main rides like Slinky Dog or the Millenium Falcon ride. We went straight to the back of the park to Rockin' Roller Coaster and Tower of Terror. The line was only 20 minutes long! The app is updated regularly, but the best gauge is when you get to the end of the line, an employee usually stands with the wait time posted on a sign. This happened once when we went to Slinky Dog; the app stated 40 minutes, but when we got there, the line was 55. We did not get in line. We got a snack instead. When the larger rides were that long we chose to eat snacks. That way, when everyone finished and went to eat themselves, we were ready to hop in a shorter line. Most of the lines were a lot faster than their posted time. The lines kept moving too, so it never felt like we were stuck waiting around all day.
Like I mentioned earlier, the best way to eat is to go while everyone else is in line for a ride. This is just smart theme park etiquette but also great for COVID-19 safety. For a sit-down experience, the restaurants are seating at a limited capacity and should socially distance (we didn't do this). Most of the restaurants also require a reservation with limited walk-up availability. If dining is important to you, these reservations need to be made weeks in advance. Oga's Cantina, by far the coolest dining experience for Star Wars, had nothing available for us. *Sigh* But that didn't stop us from having a great experience. All of the made to order vendors required you to order on the app first and then show the host your meal is ready before you are allowed to enter, limiting lines and exposure to people. We ate in between crowds, too, so we could feel more comfortable sitting down. Some were indoor-outdoor spaces, and some were just indoor. The app is super easy to use, and it will also help you scout out all the dining options. Note, some spots are closed because of COVID-19.
So… was it all worth it? Was the magic still there? The answer is that it kinda depends. There are no fireworks shows in Magic Kingdom, arguably one of the most magical parts. You also can't meet any of the characters. Every now and again, you can spot one on top of one of the sets. We saw Chewbacca and Ray hanging out, but it wasn't quite the same. They were standing six feet from each other, and other than staring at them, there wasn't any interaction. You couldn't even get a good picture. They did have a mini-parade in Hollywood Studios with the Incredibles walking down the main street. Again, it wasn't the spectacular show and energy you are used to, but getting to experience all of the attractions before the day was up because lines were short? That was pretty cool. At this point, almost a year into COVID-19, our perceptions have changed so much. Our perception of crowds, time spent, life in general. For me, I thought it was great just getting to experience little moments of magic.
Theme parks are back, kinda
The country is still taking its time reopening after months of closings due to Covid 19. Though each state is still deciding on its own timeline for letting people get back to their lives, and large group outings are still shunned in much of the country, theme parks are beginning phased reopenings after shutting in March. Obviously, things will not be going back to normal yet, so it will be interesting to see what things look like in this new, coronavirus, world. Here then is an update on the country's most popular parks, and what you need to know before you and your family decide to plan a visit. ©Robert Noel de Tilly/Shutterstock Disney World Let’s start with the Happiest Place on Earth. Depending on the location, Disney’s many parks have different opening dates, rules, and regulations. For instance, limited shops and restaurants in Orlando’s Disney Springs began opening on May 20, and Universal Orlando opened on June 5—albeit accompanied by a warning on their websites. Disney Springs includes this, “An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present. COVID-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can lead to severe illness and death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, senior citizens and Guests with underlying medical conditions are especially vulnerable. By visiting Disney Springs you voluntarily assume all risks related to COVID-19. Help keep each other healthy.” Not exactly the usual warm and fuzzy we expect from Disney. Disney World, also in Orlando, will begin opening on July 11, with Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios delayed until July 15. The Top Things You Should Know section of https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/experience-updates/ outlines important health precautions, like required face coverings for anyone over the age of 2, random temperature screenings and physical distancing (that means you parades, shows and fireworks). Disney Land In California, Governor Gavin Newsom will not allow Anaheim’s Disneyland parks to open until Stage 3 of the four-stage reopening road map—with no firm date in place. UPDATE: Disney Land has announced that its reopening plans are postponed, and that it will no longer reopen to visitors on July 17 as planned. Universal Orlando Universal Orlando Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure (Including the Wizarding World of Harry Potter) will open to the general public on Friday, June 5. The park has been outfitted with new social distancing markers directing park goers to new flows and lines. The park has also been updated for contactless payment to protect visitors and staff from direct interactions. Attendees will be require to pass a temperature check when they enter the park, and people are encouraged to wear masks at all times. King's Island Kings Island makes the largest amusement and waterpark in the Midwest. Located in Mason, OH, neither park has announced a firm date for reopening, though a message from Mike Koontz, VP and GM of Kings Island on its website is touting the opening of its newest Orion roller coaster, with a drop of 300 feet, as well as a promise to put the safety of its guests first. The park’s Grand Carnivale nighttime parade and its Summer Nights block party, are both being pushed back until 2021, as well as all 2020 Season Passes and add-on products. Six Flags Six Flags is the largest regional theme park company and the largest operator of water parks in North America—with 26 venues in all. Though kids all over the country are disappointed they won’t be able to freely ride the coasters and waterslides from coast to coast, the Oklahoma City-based Frontier City opened its doors on June 5, with a 3-day preview mode for Members and Season Pass Holders only. Attendance levels will gradually increase during the month and Six Flags President and CEO Mike Spanos believes the park can easily manage guest throughput for social distancing. Other health restrictions include thermal imaging for temperature checks, advanced security screening technology for touchless bag checks, and expanded mobile food ordering. In addition, guests over the age of 2 will have to don masks and all guests must make a reservation to attend the park at www.sixflags.com/reserve www.sixflags.com/reserve. The only other Six Flags park open at this time is the Cream Ridge, NJ-based Wild Safari Drive-Thru Adventure. This too needs a reservation at the above website, and the COVID-19 rules include maintaining space between cars, a 5 mph speed limit and no bathrooms, food or gas availability. Stay tuned for more openings as the summer progresses. Dollywood Dollywood Dolly Parton’s extravagant Dollywood park, set in the Knoxville-Smoky Mountains metroplex in Pigeon Forge, TN, will begin a phased reopening on June 17, while the DreamMore Resort & Spa opens on June 10. The website’s “playsafe” message includes a similar warning to Disney, reminding customers of the danger of coronavirus and “By visiting Dollywood Parks & Resorts you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19.” In addition, daily capacity will be limited and season passholders will be required to make reservations. Other health regulations include physical distancing, temperature screenings before entering the park, and face masks required for age 3 and up—though exceptions include water park rides.
As a child, Dolly Parton let her imagination run wild, and now, visitors to her theme park in the hills of the Smokies are reaping the benefits. Officially opened on May 10 and inspired by the iconic country singer’s youthful flights of fancy, Wildwood Grove is Dollywood’s (dollywood.com) first expansion since 2008—the largest and, with a price tag of $37 million, most expensive in the park’s history. We've got the scoop on what's new in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, from rides and attractions to characters, restaurants, and more. A Whole New World The Grove’s anchor is the Wildwood Tree, a massive spectacle with 600-plus colorful lighted butterflies, thousands of leaves, and a babbling brook that pools under its canopy. Beginning in June, the tree will play host to a series of night-time events that change with the seasons. The park’s attractions span the spectrum from kid-friendly to thrill-a-minute: On the less intense side, the Treetop Tower invites riders to take a seat in a giant acorn for a spin to the top of a sky-high oak tree, while animal lovers can mount friendly frogs and black bears for a lively jaunt through their respective habitats. Adrenaline junkies should head straight for the Dragonflier, a 1,486-foot-long suspended roller coaster, or the Mad Mockingbird, a flying scooter that zooms through the air at your command, thanks to a sail that allows riders to maneuver as they see fit. There’s also a 4,000-square-foot climate-controlled play area where the little ones can blow off steam, and a water-filled oasis with pop jets and splashing pools that provides some relief from the hot East Tennessee sun. Fresh Fare and Friendly Faces Adding to Dollywood’s cast of familiar faces are three new costumed characters: Flit and Flutter, a pair of graceful butterflies, and Benjamin Bear, an ursine ambassador with a big grin. Keep an eye out for them wandering the grounds, or pop by during a scheduled meet-and-greet to say hi. When it’s time to break for lunch, Till & Harvest serves up “Smoky Mountain Mexican flavors” across an array of entrees—think: burritos, salads, and the like, fully customizable with a variety of grilled meats and fresh veg. (Sit outside on the patio if you don’t want to step away from the action.) Looking for a souvenir to remember the day? New retailer Mountain Grove Merchants is on the premises with plenty of Wildwood-themed goods to offer.
Disney is introducing its new Disney Flex Annual Passport for $599 on May 21, which gives access to both the Disneyland and Disney California Adventure theme parks, in Anaheim, California, and comes with a set of benefits and a few rules. Defining “Flex” The Flex Annual Passport can be used with no restrictions from Monday through Thursday every week, when demand is usually lower. Then, during weekends and the high-demand months and holidays, Flex Pass holders must book a reservation via a Disneyland website or its smartphone app. With the Flex Pass, you can visit the theme parks all day or simply stop by for dinner or to take a quick spin on some favorite attractions. It also offers discounts on food, merchandise, special events and guided tours. Blackout Dates It’s worthwhile noting that the pass can’t be used at all during the two weeks around Christmas, and on other blockout dates. It also can’t be used if access to the theme parks, lands, and experiences is restricted or unavailable due to capacity. Prospective visitors should check the calendar of admission dates to see which dates are marked as “Good to Go” so no reservation is required, “Reservation Required” and “Blockout Dates,” where admission is not available. Reservations Reservations can be made up to 30 days in advance, and each Disney Flex Passport can hold two reservations during a 30-day window. It is hoped that with the new pass, guests will have more flexibility in planning their trips to Disneyland and Disney California Adventure, and it will also let the theme parks have crowd control – which will be essential when the much-anticipated Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opens. For further information, please see the Disneyland website here. Get inspired to travel everyday by signing up to Lonely Planet's daily newsletter.
Batuu is a planet on the Outer Rim of a galaxy far, far away. Ask any Star Wars fan, and she’ll tell you that it’s home to Black Spire Outpost, a place where grifters, adventurers, traders, cheats, and runaways famously take shelter. And starting on May 31, you can get there easily from Disneyland Park in Anaheim, California. Then on August 29, it’ll be just as simple to get there from Disney’s Hollywood Studios at Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. To Use the Force, Use the App Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is the newest addition to Disney's suite of theme parks, and it promises to be a fantasy land of its own—a wildly high-tech one, no less. The interactive theme park allows for full immersion, thanks in no small part to the Play Disney Parks mobile app, which lets you take part in a variety of escapades familiar to any Star Wars fan (i.e., joining the Resistance, pledging your loyalty to the First Order). Disney's iconic attractions—the whirling cups of Alice's Mad Tea Party, the whimsical boats that cruise through It's a Small World—will never lose their charm, but these new 14-acre lands are, according to the company's statement, “the largest and most technologically advanced single-themed land expansions ever in a Disney Park." Tomorrowland just might seem quaint by comparison. Both the California and Florida parks are opening in two phases. The grand opening will center on the unveiling of Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, a life-size recreation of the renowned spacecraft. Onboard, intrepid visitors will play the part of gunners or flight engineers or even take a seat in the cockpit and steer the “fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy" as it rips through space. Later this year comes the second phase, the debut of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Guests will be given an active role in the Rebellion, and, thanks to high-tech tricks, come face-to-face with familiar characters. Take a Piece of the Distant Galaxy Home With You Galaxy's Edge will play host to an expansive marketplace featuring all sorts of merchant stalls and DIY activities. At the Droid Depot, you can select pieces from a conveyor belt to custom-build your own droid. Pre-built droids and droid-inspired products are also for sale. At Savi’s Workshop, you can design and craft your own Lightsaber. Elsewhere in the bustling marketplace is Toydarian Toymaker, a stall full of toys crafted by a Toydarian (the flying alien species first seen in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace) and Dok-Ondar’s Den of Antiques, which specializes in items from the many movies. Drinks to Quench an Intergalactic Thirst Food and drink are also on offer at both parks, including the highly anticipated bar Oga’s Cantina. Cocktails here promise to be out of this world, with creations like the Outer Rim, a jazzed up margarita with a black-salt rim, the Bespin Fizz, a bubbly exotic tipple made with rum and yuzu, and all sorts of spectacle-caliber drinks made with dry ice. Word to the wise: The space, complete with details you’ll recognize from the Cantina in the movie, is relatively small, so factor in time for the wait.