This is a subject that I've been eager to write about, because I think it's something that a lot of people can hopefully benefit from. I'd like to start this off by saying that I am in no way a public health expert and I am only basing this blog post off of my personal experience and my personal views/feelings about safety and pandemic protocol. I highly encourage everyone to stay informed about what's going on in the 'pandemic landscape,' to follow public health guidelines and to really trust your gut on what does/doesn't make sense when it comes time for you to travel.
My family has had a Walt Disney World vacation in the books since fall 2019. We'd originally planned to go in April of 2020, but as we know -- the world had other plans for us all. Fast forward to summer 2021 -- vaccines began rolling out and getting administered more readily, the parks re-opened in both California and Florida and our military park tickets now had a deadline. As a fully vaccinated family, we decided to schedule our vacation a month before the ticket expiration at the end of July. We did a full week in Orlando and stayed on property at Disney's Old Key West Resort.
Overall, I felt pretty safe during our trip, but there were things we did differently than we usually would. Below, I'm going to break down what activities and locations felt safe, what I did/didn't notice about safety procedures and my general consensus on visiting the Disney parks right now.
What Areas of the Parks/Resorts Felt Safe
-The on-property transportation actually felt very safe. We were only on one crowded bus during our entire week long trip and the drivers enforced mask wearing thoroughly (and even provided disposable masks for those who weren't prepared). We also traveled via boat and skyliner and masks were enforced on all of them without question. We did have one cranky dad try to fight the boat captain about masks since it was "open air." Note -- Don't be that asshole....ok? Ok! 🙂
-The resorts felt safe to me because everything is so spread out on each property. There wasn't really a scenario where we were overly crowded and if people gathered in the resorts, it was brief for check-in or dining seating. Masks are currently required in all indoor locations -- this includes the restaurants, restrooms, lobby/check in and gift-shops. I encourage you to download the My Disney Experience app and check the updated mask guidelines prior to your trip to see if there have been any changes.
-Park Breezeways -- and what I mean by this is just the outdoor areas of the park that you stroll around between attractions. Because you're outside and people don't really gather, it felt safe mostly to walk around outside! Certain hot-spots were more crowded (I've written those out below) and we just masked up outside in those areas, if we weren't already.
Crowded/Popular Areas of Each Park
MK: Fantasyland, The Hub area by the castle (around the fireworks), Tomorrowland by Space Mountain, The Emporium Gift-shop on Main Street.
Epcot: The World Showcase (The Food & Wine Festival is currently running and the front-of-park construction funnels crowds to the back of the park).
DAK: Pandora, Asia (specifically near Escape from Everest).
DHS: Toy Story Land (Always packed and an intense lack of shady areas), Line Queues within Galaxy's Edge (The land itself wasn't too bad, just because of its scale. But the lines are tight)!
Quiet/Less Busy Places of Refuge Within Each Park:
MK: Liberty Square, behind the Christmas Shop (there are tables and porches that are quiet and hidden), Tom Sawyers Island, New seating areas within the circus tent in Fantasyland, Rocking Chairs on the Main Street Theatre Porch.
Epcot: The side porch of the Japan Gift-shop, Living with the land (attraction), Spaceship Earth (attraction), Garden area tucked behind the gift shops in the UK Pavilion.
DAK: Nomad Lounge back deck, Picnic tables right outside of Dino Land USA (across the path from the ice cream cart).
DHS: One Man's Dream (quiet, air conditioned, museum attraction), Picnic tables by the boat in the hub of the park.
-The Character Cavalcades were adorable, spontaneous and kept people from heavily gathering. The music would just start out of nowhere, so there wasn't enough time for big groups to form. The floats/characters were small enough in scale that they passed through quickly. I actually liked this, because it felt personal and safe, but still gave guests a chance to see the characters. Initially these were random to guests, but you can now see when the different cavalcades will run in each park by searching that days entertainment on the My Disney Experience app.
-Dining that requires reservation: Obviously due to the sit-down nature of these restaurants, they can only accomodate so many people. These spots are typically air conditioned and serve as a nice break from the crowds. We had lunch at the Sci Fi Drive-In Cafe in Hollywood Studios, which I highly recommend! This dining spot has been a Rios family favorite since I was really young. Masks are still required at indoor dining locations any time you're up from your table.
What Areas of the Parks/Resorts Felt wEiRd
-The indoor line queues felt weird to me for the first two days because the indoor mask mandate hadn't gone back into effect yet. We personally chose to wear our masks indoors at this time, but the fact that it initially wasn't required for everyone made me feel a little anxious. This HAS changed though and masks are now fully required for all guests in any indoor queue.
-FIREWORKS: Need I say more? I love HEA and I'm glad I got to see it one last time, but I was fully double masking that whole time and if you're even a little nervous, I would avoid it. A less exciting, but still magical option would be to snag a dining reservation that night at the Polynesian resort (you need a hotel or dining reservation to park on the hotel property) and watch the fireworks from the beach. Cons: you won't be able to see the castle projections...Pros: you avoid the crowds and can watch with a fruity drink in hand (and avoid the post-firework mad rush to exit the park).
-Honestly the ENTIRETY of Magic Kingdom. It breaks my heart to say that because MK is my favorite park, but it was insanely busy (more slammed than i've ever seen it in all my years of visiting). We actually made the decision to leave early in the afternoon because it was so packed and the lines were so long, we weren't getting to experience anything correctly. Thankfully, this was the only park we had this experience with. I will say that we must have picked the worst week to go for crowds, because my Orlando sources are reporting much lower crowds even as of this weekend.
(Cleverly angled photo that managed to erase the crowds)
-Pandora was an absolute terror (although what do you expect). We were able to get on and off the river journey relatively quickly, which was exciting because it was my first time visiting. We also got a quiet spot at Satuli Canteen which was pretty empty. The land itself was slammed (mostly with people waiting TWO+ HOURS to get on Flight of Passage), so much so that the FOP line wrapped back into Africa by the Lion King Show.
-World of Disney Shop was a madhouse (as always), but during the pandemic was a bit too much for me to deal with. I didn't have much of a problem with a lot of the other shops in the Marketplace area of Disney Springs, which was nice. With the new seasonal and 50th anniversary merchandise dropping, I would fully avoid WOD if you can help it, as I imagine they'll start limiting capacity and you'll end up in a hot and packed outdoor line. Instead, go spend some time moisturizing and smelling soap in Basin -- always a good time.
I am SO beyond impressed with how well the Walt Disney World Cast Members navigated the mask change and enforcing it. Two days into our trip the state Covid response changed and Disney adjusted overnight to follow suit-- back to masks required at all indoor locations. The signage was clearly posted, cast members were enforcing masks throughout the stores, eateries and attractions and things felt a lot safer from that point on.
I will say that cast members have been verbally assaulted and harassed about mask guidelines from the very beginning and a lot of them were terrified to go to work and put up with unruly guests again after the guidelines changed. Please remember that Disney is PRIVATE property and you do have to comply with their rules in order to be allowed admission. They have the right to deny you entry for being beligerant or non-compliant and personally I'm proud that they've taken such a strong stance of safety with mask rules.
I didn't witness any cleaning of the ride cars between guests, though I'm sure there's a schedule for this. I would be very interested to know how often they do this, so if you know -- email me and I can update with better information from a Cast Member! I did see multiple quick service cast members sanitizing tables between parties and the new pin trading stations sanitize pins between each guest.
PERSONAL MASK TIPS
I chose to wear my mask both in and outdoors during most of our trip, for a sense of personal peace. While we dealt with some scorching 90 degree days, I still found it doable and would advise anyone visiting to purchase lightweight masks or bring a handful of disposable ones and change them throughout the day as you get sweaty. Sidebar -- DRINK LOTS OF WATER. EXTRA WATER. ALL THE WATER.
I highly encourage a mask chain -- not only for fashion, but to keep your mask handy and avoid losing it (check out my friend Liv's Etsy shop @LivsBeadedMagic)! I got so used to wearing my mask outside that I ACTUALLY thought I lost it at one point, when it was still on my face (womppp). Aside from mask wearing, I also carried hand sanitizer and antibacterial wipes to clean surfaces and handles as I went through my day.
Now that i've shared some specific thoughts on the safety of the parks, i want to give my general consensus on traveling to Disney right now. Please keep in mind that these are just MY PERSONAL feelings based on having recently traveled to the parks and that I AM vaccinated. While I had an absolute blast and am so grateful for the family memories made during our trip, I am personally going to avoid going back to the parks anytime soon. If I did choose to go back, I would plan a short trip during the off-season. It's simply too crowded over the summer and around the holidays for true peace of mind.
The crowds reflected pre-pandemic times in certain parks/areas (see above) and while Disney Cast did their best to enforce the rules, I don't have enough trust in the general population to get vaccinated before traveling and comply fully with the rules. It was still a magical trip, but having to remain so cautious and alert definitely made things feel different.
With the 50th anniversary of Walt Disney World coming up in October, I can only imagine that the area will be twice as crowded. This, alongside the growing rate of infections in the Central Florida area have me indefinitely pausing any future trips to this happy place (at least for now).
I think that whether or not you choose to visit the parks right now is up to you, though I don't believe that unvaccinated individuals should be allowed admittance or the ability to fly (my opinions and my blog, so please don't argue with me). If you do choose to visit right now, know that the rules are in place for a reason and please come prepared with masks and ONLY if you aren't showing any signs of illness. Also, for the love of all things magical -- DON'T give the Cast Members a hard time for doing their jobs. Have a little grace, slap yourself with some pixie dust and be grateful to visit such a happy place in the midst of some unhappy times.
I hope you found this helpful if you're in the middle of planning a Disney trip and I'm happy to answer any other questions you may have about my experience!