What It's Really Like to Visit Walt Disney World During the Pandemic — and 3 Tips if You Go

A PEOPLE editor — and former Disney cast member — shares her experience

Walt Disney World has long touted its reputation as “the happiest place on earth.” So it is strange to enter the iconic theme parks and realize that the usual welcoming smiles from cast members — a hallmark of Disney hospitality — are invisible.

After closing for an unprecedented four months amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney World in Orlando reopened in July. (Disneyland in California remains closed.) But like nearly everywhere else in the world right now, it’s not quite the same place as it was before the pandemic.

As a Florida local, regular visitor, and former Disney cast member, I was curious to see how the many changes to the parks would impact the magic.

Numerous new health and safety measures are in place. Forehead temperature scans now join security checks as guests enter the gates. And that’s only after you’ve made a reservation online, separate from buying tickets — a new requirement to accommodate the parks’ reduced capacity.

What Walt Disney World Will Look Like Upon Reopening; Courtesy Disney
What Walt Disney World Will Look Like Upon Reopening; Courtesy Disney

Despite the pixie dust energetically sprinkled throughout the parks, necessary social distancing protocols often dampen the magic. (Fantasyland isn’t quite the escape it once was with reality barging in.) There are closed doors and foot patterns to be followed for walking in stores; sanitizer stations and reminders to wash hands; designated waiting spots; and of course, masks throughout.

Kent Phillips

Gone are parades and character meet-and-greets, replaced by unscheduled “pop-up” appearances throughout the parks. This means no selfies with Mickey, although the surprise element is fun — during a recent visit to Hollywood Studios, Rey and Chewbacca suddenly strolled out above a starship, and at another point, a small Toy Story character contingent came marching down Hollywood Boulevard.

What Walt Disney World Will Look Like Upon Reopening; Courtesy Disney

But gone, too, are the typical wait times for many of the parks’ most popular attractions. Toy Story Mania, which can cost guests hours in line during peak season, was a mere five-minute wait during a recent visit. Unfortunately, the park’s marquee attraction, Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, remains stubbornly challenging to access, even with far fewer people in attendance.

Star Wars Galaxy's Edge
Joshua Sudock/Disney Parks

Of course, the biggest difference is the mandatory mask requirement, with the only exception for eating and drinking. Eating while walking is banned, so turkey legs to-go have been grounded. And yes, masks must remain in place even on attractions, an adjustment on scream-heavy thrill rides in particular.

Planning to visit sometime soon? Here are three tips to make your stay a little happier:

1. Make your reservations early — including dining. Because of limited capacity, you’ll often find yourself shut out unless you have a reservation. And because eating on the move isn’t allowed, you’ll want to find a restaurant where you can relax and sit for a bit. Reserve ahead.

2. Familiarize yourself with the My Disney Experience mobile app. Everything from fast passes to food orders is increasingly being pushed to the app — and you don’t want to be fumbling with it after you’ve already arrived. The app is also the only way to “reserve” a coveted spot on Rise of the Resistance, with boarding times being released at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily. Although, in a recent attempt, they seemed to fill up before the times even opened, so may the force be with you.

3. Bring disposable masks. Yes, the Disney-sanctioned character masks are cute. But especially in the blazing Florida summer heat, you’ll be sweating through your face coverings in record time. Having a few to swap out makes the experience a little more comfortable.

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