Before the coronavirus pandemic, I was at Walt Disney World at least every other week. I report on and write about theme parks for a living, so sometimes I stayed for days at a time and sometimes I'd just go for one fun day with family or friends. This past weekend, I went back for the first time since the parks closed in March due to COVID-19—and I walked away with tips, tricks, and insights so you can enjoy your first trip back, too.
But let's take a step back. In March, after the the closures, my job quickly shifted to what you could experience virtually with Disney and how to recreate Disney recipes at home. But nothing fills the void like reporting straight from Magic Kingdom or any of the other three Walt Disney World parks. Over the past three years, I've been on the ground reporting on new land and attraction openings and seeking out the best Disney snacks (it's the pepperoni pizza spring rolls at Magic Kingdom, by the way).
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When the announcement came out that Walt Disney World would begin its phased reopening, I immediately booked my room at an on-site hotel, got my Disney Park Pass Reservations, and planned as much as I could without knowing what it would actually be like once I was inside the parks. I booked my stay for July 10 through 12 at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge-Kidani Village. This was mainly because it was the cheapest room for Disney Vacation Club members, and because I knew I would also be touring Disney's Animal Kingdom on July 12—the resort is super close.
The night before the parks opened I discussed my personal safety plan with my mom, who happened to be my travel companion and official photographer for the trip. We both made a pact that if either of us felt unsafe at all we would hop back in the car and go back to the room to try the parks again later in the day. I knew Disney's new health and safety precautions meant everyone must wear a mask, hand washing and sanitizing stations were set up around every park, and there would be limited park capacity. Virtual queues were even in place to get into popular stores like The Emporium at Magic Kingdom, but having my own standards helped me feel even safer.
On July 11, the time finally came to go to Magic Kingdom, and even though I was excited, I was still apprehensive about the unknown. My mom and I grabbed the Disney bus from our resort; even those have new health and safety standards. Only six parties are allowed on the bus at one time, and the bus driver assigns each group a section numbered one through six. There are dividers between each section so groups don't accidentally touch one another. The security and temperature checks once we were dropped off were super easy and took a grand total of three minutes including the time we had to wait behind others to get checked.
As I walked down Main Street U.S.A. at Magic Kingdom with my mask on I heard cast members (Disney's term for employees) say things like, "Welcome home," and "We missed you." This triggered a stream of tears going down my face and getting my mask wet knowing that some sense of my pre-covid life had some back even if it looked different. Something else that looked different as I walked down Main Street U.S.A. and entered the hub area of the park was Cinderella Castle, which just got an updated paint job to celebrate Magic Kingdom's 50th anniversary later this year! The hub area is usually one of the most crowded areas of the park since all of the major lands have direct access to and from the hub, and it's a great spot to watch the parades and fireworks at Magic Kingdom. But since the park has limited capacity and there are no parades or fireworks at Magic Kingdom right now, it was easy and everyone was able to keep socially distant as they enjoyed opening day.
I always start my day at Magic Kingdom by going to Adventureland, and this time was no different. So it was off to The Jungle Cruise, where the queue had plexiglass dividers between the switchbacks and social distancing markers on the ground to keep everyone as safe as possible. Once on the ride, there were plexiglass dividers on the boat to keep groups from getting to close to one another and to keep the skipper from getting to close to riders.
This same precaution and safety standard was taken on all rides at Magic Kingdom. If an attraction vehicle didn't have a need for plexiglass it was because it was one party per ride vehicle, and guests were spaced by skipping every other ride car to maintain social distance. This was used most on omni-mover attractions like the Haunted Mansion, where you also skipped the stretching room. (And if I'm being honest, I was glad to skip because it's creepy and I just don't like it.)
After hopping over to Fantasyland to ride favorites like It's a Small World and Peter Pan's Flight, my mom and I both needed a break from the heat which was hitting almost 100 degrees in the shade. We decided to go to Wine Bar George at Disney Springs for lunch. This is our favorite restaurant at Walt Disney World, not only for the affordable prices but also for the attention to service and detail in each dish and drink served.
We both had a glass of wine and shared the restaurant's new cocktail, the Hoot, which is made with Hooten Young whiskey. The drink combines the whiskey, creme de cassis, and ginger beer for a super refreshing taste. We also shared a few appetizers including house-made hummus, grilled romaine salad, and burrata cheese. This would have been plenty on a normal day, but we skipped breakfast in lieu of getting on more attractions so my mom and I also ordered an entree each, (steak frites and a branzino fish sandwich) which kept us full until after Magic Kingdom closed later in the evening.
Taking a break away from the parks, no matter which one you visit, is going to be a major key to a successful trip to Walt Disney World right now. That hour and a half break allowed my mom and I to completely cool down, rehydrate, and have a nice lunch without fear of taking our mask off while in the park for an extended period to eat as other guests walked by us. Wine Bar George was taking the extra time to be sure you were comfortable where you were seated. Plus, there's a rule in place that if you get up from your table for any reason you must put your mask back on.
Once back inside Magic Kingdom after lunch we were able to hop on the rest of the attractions we wanted to hit like Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Walt Disney's Enchanted Tiki Room. We even mobile ordered a Dole Whip before getting in line for the Tiki Room. Mobile ordering is super efficient and allows you to go cashless in the parks, which Disney is really hoping guests will do right now to limit contact.
Throughout the entire day we were able to hop on Magic Kingdom's most popular attractions without issues, and all with wait times under 20 minutes. Even when rides did stop for regular cleaning and disinfecting, they weren't down for long, and lines began moving again after a few minutes.
As the night ended, Mickey Mouse and some of his pals were on top of the Main Street Train Station to wave goodbye to guests as they exited Magic Kingdom, which did draw a very small crowd of about 15 groups, with everyone social distancing. Getting back to the resort was just as easy as getting to Magic Kingdom that morning, with only six groups allowed on the bus at one time. While waiting for the bus to arrive a cast member was playing a game of Disney trivia with those of us in line, which made the time go by much faster.
The next morning, I headed over to Disney's Animal Kingdom, where park operations were the same for temperature checks and security. Popular rides like Flight of Passage and Expedition Everest had listed wait times of less than 15 minutes which made hitting all of the attractions in a few hours super easy. Wait times were like this throughout the day, which makes it seem like it's not really necessary to be at any Disney theme park right when they open for the lowest wait times right now.
One thing I did notice at Animal Kingdom that I would have loved to have seen at Magic Kingdom was cast members wiping down tables inside the mask relaxation zones. In dedicated spaces around each Disney theme park guests are allowed to take their mask off and cool down. One cast member at Animal Kingdom saw the need to have tables wiped down after each group got up and before another group sat down, which I did not see happen at all at Magic Kingdom.
I also noticed at Animal Kingdom that more guests were wearing their mask incorrectly, either just over their mouth, or under their chin. For Disney to really maintain an environment that's as safe as possible, everyone needs to follow the rules and wear their mask correctly. Cast members were telling people to wear their mask correctly, and overhead announcements reminded people of the safety protocols, but that didn’t seem like enough on the hot July day at Animal Kingdom.
Disney really did take the health and safety of cast members and guests into consideration as they reopened the parks, and it showed heavily. The one thing I want to implore you to do if you decide to go to Walt Disney World right now is to follow the rules and be respectful. Many cast members were furloughed in March, and this is their first time returning to the parks, too. Things may look a little different but that doesn't mean you won't have a magical time. Take the time to tell a cast member how much you appreciate them being there just so you can have a fun day out of your house.
If you're planning to go to Walt Disney World yourself, I would recommend making your plans—then allowing yourself to be flexible. If the parks feel uncomfortable to you, leave and go to Disney Springs or back to your hotel room for a while and return to the parks later in the day. Take frequent breaks for water because it's hot in Florida all summer long and wearing a mask on top of that makes you even more thirsty. I would also say that even though the Walt Disney World parks are reopening, you have to weigh out the pros and cons of visiting for you on a very personal level.
I'm glad I went to Walt Disney World to experience what the parks are like with their new rules. And even though things look different, the magic I expect from a trip to Disney is still there. Being at Disney is new for everyone right now, from visitors to cast members, so pack your patience and a few extra masks. The experience will improve as Disney streamlines new operations and as people learn how the parks are going to be run for the foreseeable future. The least we can do is be kind to cast members who are cleaning the park and making it as safe as possible for us to enjoy right now.
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