The Walt Disney Company is gearing up for the re-opening of it’s Florida theme parks in July. Below I will highlight some of the most important changes to help you decide if it is time for you to visit the Most Magical Place on Earth.
First off, if you had a trip planned anytime after March 16, 2020, I completely understand your disappointment, confusion, frustration, and many other emotions that are involved with the shutting of the parks during the pandemic. There is nothing about the past few months that have been normal and it is a huge bummer to have to postpone or cancel that trip you have dreamed of and planned for for months or years.
We have all heard the (now overused) phrase, “new normal.” I have also heard someone say “next normal” which I like a little better. This pandemic, with all of it’s hard changes, has also brought with it a unique opportunity to completely start fresh in many areas. This is especially true for Disney World.
The past few years have been great for the economy which has been great for Disney. They have had record numbers of guests and continue to offer newer, better, bigger things. With the introduction of Fast Pass+ and Magic Bands, Disney was able to offer guests a myriad of ways to customize their trips to maximize the magic.
However, the level of planning required to have a “stress-free” and “magical” trip had grown to insane levels. 180 day dining reservations and maximum usage of fast passes, which inflated wait times at previously low-wait rides, really made touring the parks more stressful. This made using a travel agent that knows the ins and outs of the parks and touring strategies invaluable. In my opinion, there were a lot of systems that needed a refresh but no really easy way to do that.
Until now. Covid-19 offered Disney the unique opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start fresh. Because of CDC guidelines around capacity, physical distancing, cleaning, etc., Disney had to cancel all dining reservations and fast passes. This is allowing them to control capacity in every location upon reopening. I will explain more below.
Fast Passes: Many people who visit Disney don’t completely understand how fast passes work. Disney gives all guests, regardless of ticket type or where you are staying, the ability to make 3 fast pass reservations per day. If you have an on-site reservation you can make these reservations 60 days prior to the start of your trip. If you do not have an on-site reservation you can make these reservations 30 days prior to the date you want to visit the park.
Each attraction at the park has an hourly capacity. This capacity can change on some rides based on number of theaters open (Example- Soarin’, Flight of Passage) or how many vehicles/sides of the track are open (Example- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Space Mountain). Disney monitors data on park attendance by day and time of day to decide how much of the attraction to operate at any one time. Based on projected operation of these attractions, Disney then designates a certain percentage of the ride to go to fast pass. Once the fast passes for that time period are given out, there are no more available (unless someone cancels. Also, Disney may hold some back but essentially once they are gone they are gone). If my fast pass for Peter Pan is for 10am-11am, I can arrive at Peter Pan anytime during that hour time window and enter the fast pass line. When I reach the merge point with the standby line, the cast member will allow approximately 8 fast pass guests for every 2 standy by guests. This drastically inflates the wait time of stand-by (read: a LOT more guests standing still for a lot longer) since they are allowing so many fast pass returners to ride.
By temporarily halting fast pass, Disney can keep all of their lines moving at a much more steady pace (think Under the Sea with the Little Mermaid and the constantly moving line) which will keep people from standing close together.
Disney has not announced how they will move forward with the return to fast passes yet. I anticipate some combination of the fast pass+ system and virtual queues. I think Disney will monitor crowd levels and flow alongside the CDC guidelines and Coronavirus numbers throughout the fall before we see a system that sticks.
Overall I think this will lessen wait times though we will also have to contend with seating being much farther apart on rides, no mixing of traveling parties, and extra cleaning. I will continue to monitor and update as things open and evolve.
Dining: Disney has long allowed dining reservations to be made 180 days (6 months!!) before travel. I talk to so many clients who don’t have any idea what they want to be eating tomorrow, let alone in 6 months. The majority of my clients plan their vacations 4-5 months prior to travel which means they were already missing out on the most popular dining reservations.
Because restaurants will not be able to seat as many guests in order to keep more physical distance between parties, Disney had to cancel all reservations and start over. For the immediate future they will be allowing on-site guests to make reservations just prior to travel. There are still a lot of questions about who can make these reservations and when but I expect we will know a lot more in the next couple of weeks as the parks open on July 11.
Moving forward, this date for reservations will move to 60 days out. I think this is much more reasonable and am excited that we are finally seeing this change.
Also- all buffet meals will be converted to family style (so Chef Mickey, Biergarten, Hollywood and Vine, Crystal Palace, 1900 Park Fare, etc. will look more like Garden Grill and O’hana). All character meals are temporarily suspended except Topolino’s breakfast which will have a modifies character experience. I imagine characters will parade through the restaurant but not visit each family individually.
Major Disney changes:
In addition to the above fast passes and dining, below are the changes you should expect to see for the immediate future. We do not know how long these will last as the pandemic is something no one can predict but I would guess at least the remainder of 2020 and possibly through at least half of 2021.
Masks required- It’s Florida. It’s hot and humid and it rains. I get that it is uncomfortable and maybe not feasible for everyone. However, this is a requirement in order for the parks to open and I have heard there will not be exceptions. I advise those clients who believe this may be a problem to postpone their trip until this requirement has been relaxed.
Park Reservations Required (and no park hopper)– In order to maintain low crowds and physical distancing, Disney is requiring guests to pre-reserve their park for the day. These park reservations open Monday June 22 for anyone who has a current Disney package with resort and tickets for the remainder of 2020. On June 26, annual passholders without resort reservations may make up to 2 park reservations. Later this summer new packages will open for the remainder of 2020 and you are advised to check park availability before booking. I will be assisting my clients with the process of checking availability before booking but the booking park reservations must be done by the client. Disney hopes to resume park hopper soon but no dates known for that yet.
Character meet and greets, parades, and fireworks all temporarily suspended: Because of the close interactions at character meet and greets, this has to be suspended for cast member safety. Parades and fireworks both draw large crowds and thus must be suspended until CDC guidelines change. In the meantime, Disney is introducing character cavalcades and other opportunities to see characters more organically through the park. You will likely not be allowed to approach the characters but you never know who you may run into around the park.
So, should you visit Disney in 2020?
This is a loaded question with many “It depends..” scenarios. Your level of risk tolerance surrounding the virus is a huge piece of this decision and I cannot answer that for you. Let’s assume you understand the level of risk of visiting a theme park during a pandemic and are ok taking on that risk, is it worth going?
Disney will not be the same as it was prior to March 16, 2020. The first hurdle to visiting the parks is to not compare an experience prior to March of this year with the experience the rest of this year. If you are hoping to fill your character autograph book, be made over at Bippity Boppity, and see Happily Ever After fireworks show, you will be disappointed. If you want to go and experience Disney magic, I absolutely think you can do that if you are flexible and know that this will be a different experience than you have had in the past.
If you are interested in visiting Disney during this calendar year or in 2021, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and let me know. I will reach out to discuss your options when they become available later this summer.