As a native Floridan who is transplanted in Texas, I’ve been to Disney World more times than I can count. My love of everything Disney has been a lifelong affair, still going on to this day. My mom took me to Disney World at least once a year every year of my childhood, if not more, and I spent six wonderful years living in Orlando about ten minutes away from the most magical place on earth. It never gets old for me, and I doubt it ever will. That wonderful feeling of butterflies in my tummy when I pass through the Walt Disney World Resort gates is addictive. But this time around, things were a tad bit different since Covid hit. If you’ve been thinking about going to Disney but just aren’t sure, then keep reading because I am about to tell you everything that we experienced during our five day trip!
First off, how you get into Disney World has changed. You will now need to buy a park ticket in advance to make a park reservation. These reservations have been booking up really fast, so chances are you probably won’t get into any of the parks without some advance planning. You’ll also need a park ticket to secure any dining reservations. As of the time of writing this, the parks are operating at 35% capacity, but I have a strong feeling they will be opening up more reservations very soon. Park Hopper tickets were available again, but they were limiting which parks, and monorails were not working between MK and Epcot the week we were there.
Parking at the parks isn’t much fun these days (as if it ever was) and unless you get there first thing in the morning you’ll end up walking pretty far, as the tram service is not operating at any of the parks. I’m currently going through a pretty nasty MCL and meniscus tear that I am awaiting surgery for, so my knee is in bad shape. We paid the extra money for Preferred Parking, which will get you much closer at a much higher price ($45 vs $25 for standard). We were within the first three lanes at every park, so while it was expensive, it did pay off.
Getting Inside the Parks:
Before you can enter the parks you’ll go through a temperature check, which went quite fast and did not slow us down one bit. They scan each person’s forehead, but there were plenty of lines and it only takes a split second to get a reading. This also applies at Disney Springs. The only downside to this was they seemed to make you go a little out of the way in order to get to the tents. Otherwise, this was fast and painless. Once you’re good to go, you go through bag check and ticketing like usual. The fingerprint scanners are gone, but your tickets or Magic Bands are still needed. Masks are required pretty much the moment you step out of your car, and you will not be allowed to go through a temperature check without the proper face coverings. Disney is very strict about which kinds of masks they allow, so be sure to check before you go. I saw security straight up deny a man to go any further out of the parking lot for having a neck gaiter on.
Getting a Rise of the Resistance Boarding Pass:
Since our first day was at Hollywood Studios, and almost everyone wants to know how to get on Rise of the Resistance (the newest and coolest ride!), I’ll get this out of the way now. In order to get a Boarding Pass you need to have the Disney World app installed, and active park tickets/reservations. Link your tickets to your profile, Magic Bands etc. Add all of your family and friends who will be with you at the park that day that want to go on the ride. This takes time, and it’s a pain in the butt, but it’s worth it. Get yourself well acquainted with the layout of the app before you try to get yourself in the queue for a pass.
I cannot stress this enough: you must be ON THE APP at 7 AM exactly, hit the hamburger button on the bottom right of the app, and then click ‘Virtual Queues’. ‘Join Virtual Queue’ will pop up, and if you’re lucky, you’ll have a Boarding Pass. These passes are gone literally within 30 seconds. But don’t fret, if you didn’t get into the 7 AM queue you can try again at 1 PM. The only caveat is you have to either be in Hollywood Studios park, or have checked into the park that day at least once. Again, LOG IN to the Disney World app at 1 PM sharp for another chance. Once you’ve gotten a Boarding Pass for the day, you cannot obtain another one.
The app will tell you which boarding group you are in, and exactly how many minutes you have until you need to be in line, so you can plan accordingly. If you miss your time, they won’t let you in. Be ready to potentially be at HS for rope drop if you’re Boarding Pass is one of the first few groups.
Inside the Parks:
The week before we went, Disney World loosened up some of their Covid safety measures, such as being able to take off your masks for Photo Pass spots, and they took away all of their hand washing stations around the parks. But they are very strict on wearing the proper masks, and I saw several employees tell park goers to please pull their masks up.
Fast Passes are also a thing of the past, and you’ll now have to stand in a good ole fashioned line. Disney has said they don’t plan on bringing FP back, but I am still holding out hope. Most lines seemed to move faster than the estimated times outside the rides, and lines look longer than they actually are because of the social distancing.
I cannot imagine how much money Disney has spent on the “Please Stand Here” stickers that are every 6 feet, in every single line, of every single ride. For the most part people were decent about adhering to it, but we did have people crowding us more often than I would have liked. I ended up needing a wheelchair because of my knee injury, and people were very impatient when trying to exit rides behind us. All bets were off at the end of rides that allow you to scan your Magic Bands to get your photos, as people were always huddled up in huge crowds.
I didn’t see very much sanitizing of the rides, though my husband said he caught them doing it a couple of times. In most cases it was business as usual, people get off, and then you get right on. There were hand sanitizing stations outside of all the rides, and they were always full of sanitizer and operating.
They did have plexiglass on some of the rides…off the top of my head some of the rides that had them were Frozen, Test Track, and Living with the Land in Epcot. It was very hit and miss, as was the plexiglass or dividers in the actual lines to get to the rides. Honestly, I think the plexiglass is a waste of time, since it blocks the views of the ride unless you’re in the front seat, and EVERYONE touched it getting in and out of the rides. They act as more surfaces to clean and potentially a harbor for germs. Everybody was touching the handrails leading up to rides while waiting in line, and then you hold onto the bars or handles on the rides, so in my humble opinion there isn’t much point in the plexiglass. The day we built our Droids they had plexiglass separating the building stations, but you still get to pick out the pieces for your Droid off a conveyor belt. Everyone was picking up, touching, and putting back the pieces.
I will say this up front, if you have any fears of being too close to people, or any doubt about going into big crowds, being at Disney is going to give you anxiety. Shopping in the stores, no matter which one, was as hectic as it usually was pre-Covid. People constantly cut in front of me, reached over me, stood next to me with no care for physical distancing. This didn’t bother me much, since I pretty much knew what we were getting into before we even arrived, but I don’t want to sugarcoat things. I read a lot of articles saying they felt safer at Disney than their local grocery store. This is definitely not true at all, while Disney does do a good job of things, you’re still being exposed to a LOT of people. Add in the day we were at Epcot where it was a monsoon for over four hours, everyone was trying to seek shelter and there were zero craps given about social distancing.
There is a lot of what I like to call “Covid Theater” that goes on, like counting how many people go inside a store at once, or in the case of World of Disney at Disney Springs, they only let you in one entrance and have arrows on the ground for which way to walk, but literally nobody follows them once inside the store. Disney has the temp checks, the plexiglass and other pointless things as a way to cover their own butt in case someone claims they got Covid while at their theme park.
Be assured if you’re traveling with kids, they will touch literally everything, put their hands in their mouth, drop their masks on the bathroom floor, and a slew of other things that will make you cringe.
So just keep this in mind, and be aware that you WILL be uncomfortable several times throughout your trip if Covid is a concern of yours.
What It’s Like Wearing a Mask:
Let’s be real, this is one of the things you came to this article for. Wearing a mask sucks, no matter what. I am super sensitive to heat and humidity these days, and get hot flashes out of nowhere, so I knew wearing a mask in Florida was not going to be fun. Even though it was late April during our trip, we actually had one or two beautiful days. The other days were sweltering hot with little to no breeze.
Bring a fan, or a hand fan, and bring at least 2-3 extra masks to swap in and out of. During the day that was a torrential downpour at Epcot, my mask got soaked and that was zero fun. Bring those coolie towels for the back of your neck and an umbrella for shade. Bring whatever you can to make yourself comfortable. But to be 100% honest, the mask wasn’t really as much of an issue as I thought it would be. It just generally sucks to be in Florida in the hotter months, so prepare yourself for it.
I found that the silicone mask frames helped a bit, it kept me from sucking my mask into my mouth as I breathed in and out. I got some on Amazon for around nine bucks, and compared to how much everything costs at Disney, it’s a bargain. I wear glasses and decided to put my contacts in so I wouldn’t have to deal with foggy glasses, but if you can’t wear contacts, consider getting some anti-fog stuff for your lenses because you will steam up while wearing your mask.
As a result of the extreme heat, everyone congregates under trees or areas that have shade, much like I mentioned above about when it rained in Epcot. So again, even though you’re outside, be prepared for people to seek out every and any spot of shade they can find because it’s friggin’ HOT, and people will crowd your personal space to get cool.
Photo Pass/Memory Maker:
In the past we’ve always gotten the add on Memory Maker option when buying our park tickets, which allows you to download the photos that the professional Disney photographers take within the parks. It’s not cheap, but it’s worth it to me because it’s one of the only times I can get my husband and son to actually take photos with me. They can add Magic Shots where they put Disney characters in the picture with you, and we’ve gotten several awesome photos throughout the years in the past.
This time however, I noticed very few photographers in the parks, even at the popular locations. Usually the photographers are cheerful and fun, but the majority of the ones we came across seemed really uninterested in the situation. I honestly don’t think that it’s worth the extra money spent right now, unless you really want some cool pics in front of Cinderella’s Castle.
The dining experience was one of the most obvious changes we noticed. As mentioned before, you have to have an active park ticket and park reservation for the park you’re dining at, along with a reservation for the restaurant you plan to dine in. You can check in with the Disney World app 20 minutes before your reservation, but you have to wait outside the restaurants now, as they don’t let anyone inside unless it’s time to be seated. There are currently no character dining experiences or buffets, but you better believe the prices have stayed the same!
You’ll get notified via the app and optional text message when your table is ready, and a hostess outside the building will greet you and call your name. Once seated you can take your masks off. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but there wasn’t much difference from pre-Covid times in the restaurants we ate at which were: Liberty Tree Tavern, Le Cellier, and Crystal Palace. I could be wrong but, they still sat people at tables as normal without much distance between them, and without skipping tables to leave space. I do feel they were controlling the flow of how many people came in and out of the establishments properly. All of the waitresses and waiters had on N-95 masks with a cloth Disney mask over it, as well as face shields.
Our favorite restaurant in all of Disney World is Liberty Tree Tavern, and we were more than disappointed to see that they now have family style dining instead of choosing your selections from the menu. The pot roast there is to die for, but now they have a “family style buffet” with a fixed price. You get a bland and limp iceberg lettuce salad, along with bread, turkey, pot roast, mashed potatoes, stuffing, green beans, and mac and cheese whether you want all of it or not. We found this to be incredibly wasteful, as we didn’t want the salad, bread, or mac and cheese, along with the fact that the food quality wasn’t what it used to be. We had booked LTT twice for this trip, and on our second reservation they put us into the overflow area in the Diamond Horseshoe. We love the atmosphere in the actual LTT restaurant and I was not happy about this. The Diamond Horseshoe is cool and all, the self playing piano is neat, but I booked for LTT, not DH. Our waitress was horrendous and we wasted close to two hours in there because of it.
Our second table service dining was for our first visit to Le Cellier in Epcot, and we had to wait quite some time past our reservation to get in. Again, not much distancing between tables. This restaurant gave us disposable paper with a QR code which we could scan to get the menu on our phones, instead of handing out real menus. The only problem was because we were deep inside a huge stone building, we got no reception and they had to bring us printed disposable menus anyway. The food was really good, the atmosphere was charming, and we left full and satisfied.
The Crystal Palace was the diamond in the rough here for this trip. I hadn’t eaten here since I was a child, and we had a prime time dinner reservation. There was not an empty table in the place, and it’s huge. Again, they had the QR code for the menu, but instead of using that I just pulled the menu up on the Disney World app. We got the prime rib, cheddar grits, and potatoes and it was probably one of the best meals I have ever had, inside Disney or out. Our waitress was fantastic, even though she was busy, and we had an awesome view of Cinderella’s Castle outside the window we were seated by.
Most quick service food has to be ordered on the Disney World app in advance to pick up, so like I mentioned before, make sure you take the time to set up your profiles and add your credit cards in advance of your trip to save yourself a lot of time and frustration. Once you order and pay on the app, you let them know the time frame you’ll arrive, and then you check in letting them know that you’re at the restaurant via the app. Your number will be called, and you’ll have to show the app as proof and they’ll let you inside to get your food at that time.
The lines for snacks, ice cream, and non-quick service foods were usually pretty long, so plan in advance if you have little ones who get hangry.
I am fairly certain that all the buffets and family style restaurants throughout the parks have converted to the all-you-can-eat family plan like LTT where they just bring a ton of food you’ll waste. You can request more of any specific food you like, but you’ll likely wait a long time to get it.
Again, if you’re concerned about being in close proximity to other people, indoors, without masks on, don’t book any dining.
As of the time of writing this, all of the special events like the dessert parties for fireworks, parades, and the actual fireworks are not operating. We did see a handful of really cute small parades at Magic Kingdom though, my favorite being the Princess Cavalcade. These happened quite frequently and ran from Frontierland up through Main Street. Animal Kingdom also had boats on the rivers with classic Disney characters on it like Mickey and Minnie. At Hollywood Studios, we saw Rey and Chewy up on a catwalk, and the same with Chip and Dale at Magic Kingdom. When we left MK at night, all of the classic Disney icons were standing up by the exit where the train station is waving goodbye. This was really cute, and actually made me tear up. There are no meet and greets with characters right now, so don’t bother bringing your autograph books.
I have to give a shoutout to the amazing security teams at Disney. On the second day we were there, my husband lost his wallet on (we think) Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at Magic Kingdom. He didn’t realize it until about thirty minutes later, and after backtracking to all the locations we had been at since, he filed a report with lost and found. The employees walked him through what happens when someone loses something major like a wallet or phone at the parks, and assured him it would more than likely show up. Sure enough when we left the park that night someone had found it and turned it in, with everything still in it (including all of the cash). Needless to say we were overjoyed and incredibly thankful.
On our last day at the parks I lost a hand fan I had bought in Epcot at Animal Kingdom. It was only ten bucks, but I really loved the picture on it, so we checked with lost and found that night when leaving and although they hadn’t found the fan, they gave us a ten dollar voucher to buy a new one. That was really great, and something they did not have to do since it was my own stupid fault I lost the fan.
We knew going into this trip that things would look and feel different at Disney World, but honestly it didn’t matter all too much to me. We go to Disney World every year, sometimes more than once, and I was heartbroken to see it close last year. Once we got more comfortable about life with Covid, it was the first thing I looked into. Yeah, it has definitely changed, but they have been slowly increasing park capacity and taking away certain restrictions here and there, so I know that one day we’ll be back to having just as much fun as the old days in Disney World.
We got to ride a lot of rides we had never been on and had an absolute blast. I get to see my best friend since childhood every time we visit, which I always look forward to. It felt like we were getting back to life as normal, which is something we all desperately need to feel. Speaking personally, my family and I really needed this vacation. My husband’s company (thankfully) let all their employees work from home, and my 7 year old son has always been homeschooled, even pre-Covid….so we have spent the last nine months secluded from the world for the most part.
It has only been in the last five months or so that we slowly started venturing out to do normal things again. We’ve had several trips to Six Flags Over Texas here locally, I do my own grocery shopping in-store now, we go out to eat again, I took my son to see Raya and the Last Dragon in the theater. We talked a lot about it and finally decided we were totally comfortable making the leap from life as normal back home, to making a cross-country road trip to Disney. I knew the risks, but it was worth it to me. We had a wonderful trip and a great time at Disney World. We’re about to book another Disney trip for my birthday, which just so happens to be the same day as WDW’s 50th anniversary.
If you’re brave enough to venture out to the Disney parks, let me know your thoughts and how your experience went. Stay safe, bring extra masks and hand sanitizer, and most of all: HAVE FUN, BE KIND, RESPECT SOCIAL DISTANCING!
Holly Hudspeth is a best-selling author living in Fort Worth, Texas. She has six published novels to date; The Skyy Huntington Series, which is an epic dark fantasy adventure, and One Small Detail, a stand-alone medieval fantasy. Holly also enjoys writing fan fiction based on her avatars from games such as EverQuest, Elder Scrolls Online, and World of Warcraft. Her first major purchase at the established age of nine was the NES, and she has been gaming ever since. She enjoys fantasy games, city builders, RPGs, MMOs, SMITE, and The Sims franchise. Most nights she is in SMITE with her husband and friends, or playing ESO. When she isn't gaming, she is probably either at Disney or planning her next trip there.