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Walt Disney World reopening; my experience

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After nearly four months of being closed, Walt Disney World reopens its doors to guests again this week. I was lucky enough to attend a Cast Preview to see what new safety precautions have been put into place, and to take a look at the changes that have been made for the safety of the Cast Members and the guests. 

Disclaimer: I am in no way suggesting that it is safe to visit Walt Disney World right now. There is a risk of exposure to Covid-19 in any public place, and Covid-19 is an extremely contagious disease that can post severe health problems and death, especially to senior citizens and those with underlying health concerns. If you choose to visit the parks during the pandemic, you assume all risks involved.  

Should you visit Walt Disney World right now?

Really, this is a question that only you can answer. Everyone is aware of what the risks of being out in public at the moment are, and only you can decide what is right for not only your family, but your community and anyone you might come into contact with in the days following your trip. 

I would encourage everyone to do research on what is happening in Florida at the time of the trip, what restrictions are in place in Orange and Osceola counties (the two counties that Walt Disney World is in), and whether or not the state you’ll be returning to has a quarantine in place for when you return home. You can find the latest travel safety details for Florida here

For me personally, I waited until the day I was due to visit to make a decision. I had been closely following the Florida Covid-19 data and as I watched cases rise, I was very hesitant to make a decision that might put not only myself and my family in danger, but those around me after I visited the parks.

In the end, my choice to go was made with several things in mind. First of all, I live 25 minutes from the parks so I’m not coming from out of state, or even out of the county in order to visit. There’s no way I would have gotten on a plane or driven from out of state to visit the parks.

I was also going solo and leaving my kids at home, meaning I didn’t have to worry about them touching things, complaining about their masks, or forgetting to keep their distance from people. 

I am fully confident that Disney is doing absolutely everything they can to keep their guests safe during their stay, however that doesn’t change the fact that visiting a theme park in the middle of a pandemic is obviously not going to be 100% safe.

Everyone needs to make their own decisions on what they’re comfortable with for their own safety, and the safety of those around them.

What will be different during my visit?

If you haven’t been following any of the reopening information, then you might be in for a bit of a shock. There are a lot of things Disney is choosing to do differently when the parks reopen, and it’ll definitely take everyone some getting used to. 

The big change is that FastPasses are gone for now, so no worries about booking those in advance. Dining reservations are back in the system, but not every restaurant is open and both buffets and character dining are going to look very different. There will no parades or fireworks, and no character meet and greet experiences. 

Masks are mandatory for every guest over the age of 2 in all public places (including on transportation), and there will be temperature screenings at the entrance to every park.

You can expect signs on the ground indicating how to keep six feet apart from others, and increased hand sanitizers throughout the parks. Cast Members will be on hand to remind everyone of the new rules throughout the day.  

All of Disney’s reopening information can be found here

What can I do to prepare for my visit?

The most important thing to do is read through all of the reopening information so that nothing is a surprise. This information is updated regularly so be sure to check at least once in the days leading up to your trip. 

Once the parks are open, read through reports from those who have visited (like this one!) This will often give you a better – and more honest – idea of what to expect and how people are finding the new experiences. 

If you and your family haven’t been used to wearing masks, then now would be a good time to start practicing! My county has a mandatory mask enforcement and even before that came into effect I’ve been wearing a mask when out in public since April and I’m pretty used to it at this point.

My kids, however, haven’t been out and about since March and so haven’t worn their masks much at all; just once or twice for doctor’s appointments that couldn’t be avoided. If they had to wear them for hours at a time in the hot Florida sun, I know the complaints would start immediately! If I were planning on bringing them to the Disney parks, then I’d have them practice wearing them a lot more before the trip. 

My biggest suggestion would be to go in with a positive attitude. This is not going to be a typical Disney vacation, everything will be different and things will probably change daily as Cast Members adapt to their new working environment.

But it can still be a fun trip if you embrace the changes and make the most out of the fact that you’re back at the most magical place on earth!

My experience at the Animal Kingdom reopening

Walt Disney World reopening
I was lucky enough to attend the Cast Preview at Animal Kingdom’s reopening

I attended the Cast Member preview on Wednesday July 8th. I’d been given the option of four different parks to visit during the preview and chose Animal Kingdom hoping it would be the least crowded.

I decided to arrive around lunchtime to hopefully avoid opening crowds and when I walked up to the entrance at 1pm, there were three (yes, three!) other guests there at the same time. 

Masks must be worn at all times, which includes the walk from the parking lot for those driving. The first thing you’ll encounter is the mandatory temperature check, which is administered by Advent Health. This was a quick and simple process. 

Walt Disney World reopening
Health and safety notices are at the entrances to the parks

Next up is bag check, which has changed to a simple walk through metal detector. I didn’t arrive with a bag, but the guest in front of me did and she was instructed to hold it and carry it through. If your bag sets off the metal detector then you’ll need it searched, but otherwise you’re good to go. This is a much, much quicker process than before and is obviously much safer than security guards touching everyone’s things.

Fingerprint scans are gone from the entrance, so you’ll scan your Magic Band and proceed right on in. There were plenty of Cast Members to welcome us back to the park, and lots of signs to remind us of social distancing. All Cast Members wore masks and many wore face shields as well. 

Walt Disney World reopening
Trash cans were propped open so guests didn’t have to touch them

There were little things in place that I wouldn’t have even thought of. Trash cans were propped open so guests didn’t have to touch them to throw things away. At narrow walkways, arrows indicated which way guests should go to keep traffic moving one way.   

Walt Disney World reopening
Relaxation stations are available around the park if you need to take your mask off for a few minutes

There were ‘relaxation zones’ where guests could go and take their masks off for a few minutes if they needed to. These areas weren’t all that big at Animal Kingdom and I don’t think I’d be comfortable using them.

I actually found my mask way less uncomfortable than I thought I would; at times I even forgot I was wearing it. I only took it off once over the course of four hours and had no problems with it. 

Walt Disney World reopening
Stores had separate entrances and exits so doorways didn’t crowded and flow could be maintained

Stores had one entrance and one exit to keep doorways from being crowded, and multiple signs to remind people to keep their distance. Once inside I found that it got a bit crowded, but it’s going to be down to the guests to practice social distancing at that point.

The queues had markers for where to stand to keep six feet apart, and registers had partitions up between guests and Cast Members. The Cast Member who checked me out at the register had me put my own items in my bag, which I thought was strange since he’d already handled them when scanning them, but I didn’t question it. 

The rides

I was really curious as to how they were going to handle the rides since it’s pretty impossible to maintain social distancing while in the queue, let alone on the ride. I’ve only been on three rides so far, but I was impressed with how things were handled.

Queues had markers on the ground to indicate where guests should stand to stay six feet away from others (and the markers were definitely more than six feet apart, presumably to account for larger parties).

In cases where the queue doubled back on itself, only one side would be used and where that wasn’t possible, partitions were put up with signs saying “do not touch”. 

Walt Disney World reopening
Markers were on the ground in queues to indicate where to stand

For rides where guests stand waiting to board in individual bays, plastic partitions have been put up between bays and only every other row was sat. Rides will be deep cleaned every two hours, which might mean a longer wait.

While this is a great step, I still wiped down everything myself just to be a bit more careful. Hand sanitizing stations were available throughout lines as well as before and after riding, but I bought my own anyway. 

I had been curious how rides would handle holding rooms where guests are usually packed in and encouraged to fill in all available space. It seems these are being handled differently for each individual ride; Haunted Mansion, for example, is having guests simply walk through the stretching room instead of making it part of the attraction. Time will tell if this remains, but for now I think this is the best option. 

Dining 

Dining reservations have reopened and guests are now able to make their dining reservations 60 days out. Not every restaurant is opening, however, and almost all have more limited menus. All will be operating at a much lower capacity so expect reservations to be harder to get and perhaps longer wait times.

All quick service locations at the parks will be accepting mobile orders only, which can be made through the My Disney Experience app. If you have an allergy or another issue that needs to be accommodated, speak to the Cast Member outside to see if you are able to go in to order. When you go to place the order, it will give you a dining window to choose from depending on when you’d like to eat.  

Walt Disney World reopening
Quick service restaurants will only be accepting mobile orders

I ordered food from Satu’li Canteen in Pandora, and my dining window was 3.35pm to 4pm. My food didn’t end up being ready until just gone 4pm, and the Cast Member outside the restaurant mentioned that waits had been taking a little longer so definitely be patient.

Once the app indicates that your food is ready, you’ll need to show that to the Cast Members outside so they can let you in; unless your food is ready, you won’t be allowed inside the location.

Some tables are marked as unavailable to make sure guests dining aren’t too crowded, and self service drink stations are being operated by another Cast Member so they can fill those orders. All silverware has been replaced with disposable cutlery. 

Masks can be taken off once seated, but honestly I would say that unless you are actively eating or drinking, it’s respectful to your server to keep your mask on otherwise for their safety. This means keeping your mask on until your drinks and food arrive, and putting it back on as soon as you finish eating.  

Characters/entertainment

Obviously one of the biggest changes is no parades, no fireworks, and no character meet and greets. For a place that prides itself on its incredible entertainment, this is obviously a big blow, but again Disney has really tried to compensate for what they’ve had to take away. 

Walt Disney World reopening
Mickey, Minnie and Pluto waved from their boat on the river at Animal Kingdom

Each park is doing things differently, but there will be opportunities to see characters at all of them. At Magic Kingdom, a cavalcade comes through (down the usual parade route) with characters like Winnie the Pooh and Tinkerbell, as well as Gaston and Merida on horseback. At Animal Kingdom, characters ride on the old river boats so guests can wave to them from a distance. 

So did I feel safe?

Walt Disney World reopening
My mask ended up being a lot easier to wear than I thought it would be; I almost forgot I was wearing it at times

I genuinely think Disney is going everything they can to open the parks and still keep the Cast Members and guests safe. I think a lot of it is going to come down to guests behavior however. 

If guests follow all of the rules Disney puts in place, then I think it’ll be as safe as it can be. If social distancing can be maintained (and I’m not fully sure it can once the parks get more crowded), if guests actually wear their masks at all times (and don’t constantly take them off for photos or because they have a drink in their hand), and everyone washes their hands and uses hand sanitizer as often as possible, the parks will be as safe as they’re going to be. 

Time will tell how all of this plays out but I really hope that for the sake of the Cast Members and the guests that the parks are able to stay open in a way that is safe for everyone.

Walt Disney World reopening
Sebastian Inlet State Park with kids
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