As of this week on Friday Sept 25th, all Disney Parks around the globe will be open and operating with the exception of Disneyland in California. The Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, FL has been open since July, albeit with several restrictions in place. In August, I took a trip down to check things out for myself and thought I might pass on some of what I learned on how to make the most out of very strange times at Disney.
Check Your Bags
My first tip actually has nothing to do with Disney at all, but rather getting to Disney. For those of you flying for the first time since the pandemic, this might already seem like a daunting experience. Check your bags! I know it can cost more if you don't have status with your chosen airline, but the peace of mind is worth it. Not having a large carry-on that required overhead space, I was free to board at my leisure, rather than crowd around the gate to be one of the first so I could secure overhead bin space. In fact, though I was assigned Group 1, I chose to board at the very end of group 9, the second to last person on the plane so I didn't have to sit there as an entire plane of people walked, and breathed, by me. I stood clear of the crowds, boarded at the end, put my one personal item under my seat, and away we went.
My personal experience on board both American Airlines and JetBlue for this trip was great. The airlines were clearly paying close attention to social distancing, cleaning the cabins, and refraining from much cabin service. I have to give extra kudos to JetBlue for blocking out all middle seats on the plane to distance, though as I was booking another upcoming flight, I noticed they seem to have ended this practice and are selling all seats.
Bring Sanitizing Wipes
Ok, I know this one may seem obvious, but really it's a great reminder. Many retailers, including CVS, sell boxes of individually packed sanitizing wipes that I found of great use not only on the airplane, but when arriving in my rental car, and my hotel room. I spent a solid 10 minutes using the wipes to wipe down everything in the room from the light switches to the remote control and the handle on the toilet. There's a lot of uncertainty still about how this virus is transmitted particularly when it comes to surfaces, but a pack of wipes bought me a lot of peace of mind. As an aside, even before Covid-19 there has been much written about how dirty a hotel remote control can be, so regardless of the pandemic, wiping down surfaces in a hotel room will at least keep you from touching some pretty nasty stuff!
Make a Reservation and Don't Skip It!
Learn from me, please. Getting into the parks now not only requires a valid pass or park ticket, but it also requires a reservation which can be made online. Disney is doing this to deliberately suppress attendance and promote social distancing. At Disney World you get three park reservations on a rolling basis, once you use one, you can make another. But it's three max at any one time. Guests are divided into three different buckets: Hotel Guests, Single Day Park Ticket Holders, and Annual Passholders. Each bucket gets certain number of reservations per day. When one bucket of people fills up, that's it. So it's entirely possible that on a given day Epcot could be sold out to Annual Passholders, but Hotel Guests can still make reservations.
In my naive mind, I assumed that during a weekday, I would have no problem making more reservations for my trip once I started using them. So, when the skies opened up with torrential rain, and I made the decision to skip EPCOT that night in favor of staying dry, I had no idea that there were no more EPCOT reservations remaining for the duration of my trip. Once I skipped it, I had no option to return as an annual passholder until more slots were available some three weeks away, well after my trip was over. My only option was to either get a hotel room on property, or buy a single day park ticket. I opted for the ticket. So don't bank on there being more reservations available if you're on the fence about skipping your reservation!
Bring Multiple Masks
Don't show up to Florida, or even the theme parks with only one mask on you. First, for the obvious reason that if you drop it on the ground, or worse, in the toilet or World Showcase Lagoon, you are going to look pretty silly walking out of the park right away with your face buried in your t-shirt. There's another less obvious reason. It's Hot. Who wants to walk around and sweat and breathe into one mask for their entire trip? Not me. Bring fresh masks, because when you're in the parks, opportunities to remove the mask, while available, are scarce. (Oh! and if you're looking for the most attractive masks out there you can get a Spectro themed mask here)
That brings me to my next point. There are places called relaxation zones, where you can take off your mask. The tables in these zones are spaced apart, and the traffic is monitored so it flows in only one direction so you don't have people jamming up the entry points. These are great opportunities to sit down, have a water or something with a bit more fortification, take off your mask, and remember Disney before the pandemic.
Don't Stress about Fastpasses
Take this one with a grain of salt. Things are always changing with this virus and what was true today may not be true tomorrow. However, during my trips to Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Epcot, I never saw a wait time posted of more than 15 minutes for ANY attraction. The crowds are very low. In fact there were some moments in the parks where I found myself completely alone and couldn't see another guest in any direction. It was great! I had no fastpasses and walked onto nearly every attraction I wanted.
It's The Same, and It's Different
It was a joy to walk into the parks. It was amazing to see everyone pulling together, taking precautions, and still having fun. I choked up many times seeing people enjoy themselves in the parks after such a long period of isolation. But there are some difference to be prepared for. Normally Disney is a place not only to have fun, but to eat! Due to the limited crowds, food and drink options are limited. All I wanted at Animal Kingdom was to head to the Dawa Bar and get a Safari Amber, but upon arriving I saw that it was closed (it's since reopened though!)
There are less drink carts and food kiosks around. Even Epcot's International Food and Wine Festival is scaled back with less marketplaces this year. So be prepared. Bring a snack and a bottle of water and save some money anyhow.
Also, be prepared for early nights. No nighttime spectaculars yet and the parks are closing early. This is a great opportunity to get a good night's sleep, enjoy your hotel's pool, or find a restaurant nearby in the area off property and have a meal outside the parks (they could use the business).
Be Kind and Be Patient
It's been a long year, for all of us. It's been a year filled with uncertainty, fear, and sometimes loss. A lot of us are still adjusting to being out and about operating in these new circumstances. Sometimes a mask falls down while a person is talking. Sometimes you miss the marker on the ground and get a little too close to the person waiting near you because you're staring up at the wonders Disney has created. Don't use this as a time to practice your dirty looks, or your best lecture on proper mask-wearing. If you're uncomfortable, step aside. No one told you that you had to be here at Disney. You chose it, with all of its risks. So be happy! Rejoice that during a global pandemic you have the means to take a vacation, get out of your house, and see this magical place, that through all of this, is still here. And so are you.