Is now a good time to go to Disney World? 6 things to know if you're considering a trip
I went to Disney World in July of 2020, on the day the parks officially reopened after months of closure.
As my first big pandemic-era trip back in the summer of 2020, I was a bit scared and nervous as I walked through the gates of the Magic Kingdom — even though it's a place that normally feels like home. But that feeling quickly melted away.
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A few months later I was ready for a second trip, and I returned in October. By then, it was clear Disney knew what it was doing with social distancing, capacity restrictions, masks, plexiglass and more. And now that I'm fresh off my third pandemic-era visit to Disney World in April of 2021, I can't wait to resume frequent trips to a place that really feels magical to my family.
Related: 5 changes at Disney World that I hope become permanent
But though my family is still having a great time at Disney World despite the adjustments and restrictions, that doesn't mean it's the right time for everyone to visit Disney.
Here's what it's like at Disney World right now, and how to decide whether it's worth the trip.
Disney World is busier -- but still has capped capacity
While Disney World's capacity was limited to 25% for a while in 2020, it has increased to 35%, according to the last update we have from Disney.
But don't assume the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are still only a third as busy as they were before the pandemic.
Some days feel much busier than 35%. This is likely because even in normal times, Disney World very rarely hits true capacity -- usually on just one or two days per year (and those are the days we recommend never going). So, if it is 35% of that number that's very rarely hit, then it's more than 35% of an average pre-pandemic crowd.
Also, factor in that some ride vehicles are left empty for social distancing; there's no FastPass+ and no Extra Magic Hours; still somewhat reduced operating hours; and not all of the restaurants, shows and hotels have yet reopened. This means the people who are in the parks are more concentrated.
So, while you can probably still walk around Epcot's World Showcase without bumping into a stroller most parts of the day, you may still wait over an hour for popular rides. And if you're in a more congested park area on a busier day, well, it's going to feel crowded.
Speaking of which ...
Related: How to choose the best hotel at Disney World
Wait times are often wrong
On a weekend day at Disney World, you're going to see many wait times well over an hour -- even at some mid-tier attractions. We got in line for Soarin' at Epcot in October and the wait time said 50 minutes. But 20 minutes later we were buckling in for flight.
That same trip at Epcot, Journey Into Imagination with Figment and the Gran Fiesta Tour both said 20-minute waits, and we walked straight onto the two attractions without delay.
When at Disney's Magic Kingdom, also in October, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had a posted wait time of 45 minutes but was really less than 15 minutes. Splash Mountain said an 80-minute wait, but the truth was closer to 30 minutes.
On our recent April trip, this pattern repeated. Multiple rides at Epcot had a posted 25-minute wait, but were really 10 minutes or under.
While the norm is that wait times at Disney World are overinflated right now, it's not consistently true.
On a particularly busy morning, Splash Mountain said 25 minutes immediately after parking opening, but it took 35 minutes.
Pirates of the Caribbean said we'd be sailing away in 20 minutes, but it took 30 minutes for the dead men to start telling their tales. That's not a huge additional delay, but it's a couple of examples that you can't just assume the waits will always be less than stated. If you happen to hit a cleaning cycle for the ride, that's also likely to delay you by at least 10 minutes or so.
Related: Why you should use a free Disney Vacation Planner
Lines look scary — but move quickly
If the unpredictable, and often inflated, wait times don't scare you -- the length of the lines might.
The line for the soon-to-be-rethemed Splash Mountain ride can stretch from Frontierland into Adventureland. The beginning of the line for Haunted Mansions can be a terrifying distance away from the Doom Buggies. At Hollywood Studios, the line for Slinky Dog Dash can stretch out of Toy Story Land and into the area for the Disney Jr. characters and wrap that section four times.
To maintain distancing, the physical lines stretch well beyond the bounds of the normal queue.
This often means lots of time in the sun managing your own social distancing until you reach the regular starting point of the line. And when you hit a narrow "chokepoint," such as near Peter Pan in Fantasyland on a busy day, lines can feel like they run right into each other.
But the good news is these lengthy queues usually move quickly as there isn't a FastPass+ line to alternate with. So, while you may have a bit of a wait on busy days, you continue to make visible progress toward the front of the line. The exception to this movement comes for 10 to15 minutes every two hours or so when the rides get the aforementioned regular disinfecting.
Related: How to use points for Disney tickets
The best times to ride
The traditional theme park truths that wait time are at their lowest first thing in the morning and at the end of the evening are still true, but with some important nuances.
Again, in an effort to minimize lines and crowding, Disney World's parking lots and transportation from the resort hotels to the parks don't start until within an hour of official opening time. That sounds like plenty of time to get there and be first in line, but it's not if you're trying to "rope drop" a ride (read: be there when it really first opens).
Again, due to distancing, you may not actually get on that first or second boat or bus to the parks since they aren't operating at full capacity. Additionally, the parks are opening well before they say they are.
We aren't talking a few minutes early -- several of the parks are opening a full hour early. If you end up at the gates precisely at the posted opening time, your park of choice has probably been open for a while, and wait times have started to grow at the tier-one attractions.
So, if you have your heart set on an early morning minimal wait for Seven Dwarf Mine Train, Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway or Pandora: Flight of Passage, you need a sprinkle of extra strategy.
On our April trip to Epcot, we entered 30 minutes before the posted opening and while things were still pretty empty around World Showcase, the park had clearly already been open for a while. But, entering 30 minutes early was enough for just a very short wait to ride Frozen.
Walking to the Magic Kingdom from Disney's Bay Lake Tower, the Contemporary Resort or the Grand Floridian will work to get you in before the stated park opening time. (You need a hotel or breakfast reservation at those properties to get into those parking lots.)
Staying at, or finding a way to park at, Disney Swan or Dolphin, Disney Yacht Club, Boardwalk or Beach Club and walking to Epcot or Hollywood Studios is also a good strategy.
If you like Disney hotel hopping every few nights of your trip (especially while nightly housekeeping is suspended), this could be a good time to pick your lodging based on proximity to the parks so you can simply walk to where you want to be and avoid the transportation situation. All of the Disney World theme parks, except Animal Kingdom, have several hotels available within walking distance.
If that fails, come back for the last few operating hours of the day when crowds and wait times have generally been dropping.
Related: Guide to visiting Walt Disney World
You need a plan to eat
Gone are the days when you make dining reservations for Disney World 180 days in advance (hallelujah), but you still need a plan.
Sit-down restaurants now take bookings 60-days in advance and the hot tickets items are booking up. This includes reopened character meals such as brunch with characters at Topoloino's Terrace at the top of the new Riviera Resort; breakfast with Mickey and friends at Chef Mickey's; or a meal with Minnie and friends in their festive attire at Hollywood & Vine inside Hollywood Studios.
But regardless of where you want to eat, it's good to go ahead and make a booking at a sit-down restaurant if you feel comfortable doing so, just in case. You can modify or cancel the booking if you change your mind. While it could change, know that Disney is still very much limiting dining capacity and spacing out tables at least 6 feet (or using plexiglass booth dividers) even though the state of Florida is again fully open.
Related: These are the best restaurants at Disney World
If you find yourself wanting a sit-down meal but don't have a reservation, try the "dine now" walk-up waitlist in the Disney app.
To order from a quick-service counter restaurant, you need to order and pay in the Disney app. In fact, you still can't really get in a quick-service restaurant until you verify that you've placed your order in the app. Epcot food stands are a bit easier since there are so many of them available right now during the modified festival.
Should that all sound like too much work, midday is a good time to retreat to your hotel for a few hours and eat off-property. Or, you can always pack your own chips and sandwiches.
Pinch points are appearing
When increasing demand and prices as high as ever meets head-on with capacity restrictions, still decreased staffing numbers and reduced amenities, there can be a few pinch points that develop, even at Disney.
While sitting in the lobby on my most recent trip (waiting quite a while for our dinner reservation) I happened to overhear a number of complaints from guests who had spent a lot of money on the trip and not felt they had received the full experience.
For example, regular housekeeping at the Disney resorts isn't back, but they still have to check the rooms each day. I've heard stories that this has led to having to wake up napping kids since you can't be in the rooms when they check them due to COVID-19 precautions.
There may also be a wait to use the resort pool because of capacity restrictions. Some of the restaurants that are reopened may be under strain, which is what happened the night we waited an extra 45 minutes to be seated beyond our reservation time. And if you don't book a Park Pass reservation far in advance you likely won't get into the park you want (even with a ticket).
Should you go to Disney World right now?
Naturally, this is a loaded decision only you can make.
If you wanted a "once in a lifetime" chance to enjoy Disney World with walk-on waits across the park and no one in the background of your pictures, that boat has largely sailed. Magic-seekers have returned in much greater numbers than when the park first opened in 2020.
However, on select days during the week, you can still enjoy Disney at a more laid-back pace than was the norm before the pandemic. So, lower crowds (on some days) can be a good reason to go, but shouldn't be the only reason as it's not a guarantee.
Travelers seeking a warm, sunny vacation destination where there are requirements and enforcement for face masks and distancing can be well served at Disney right now. On the other hand, people who resent wearing masks, or who have kids who have a hard time with masks, should probably hold off a bit longer.
However -- with tens of thousands of daily guests, know that at some point in your trip are probably going to encounter someone who is not fully distancing or who isn't wearing a mask as is required. If this will ruin your day, I'd hold off, or at least mentally prepare for how you'll deal with this reality. Often, you can be the one to leave the situation if you aren't comfortable. Also know that you can now take your mask off for outdoor photos at Disney.
If you're comfortable with the current rules, are interested in watching some short parades (cavalcades), waving at characters, riding what you can, eating some churros and appreciating being back on Main Street, then now is actually a pretty good time to visit Disney World. Just don't go looking for perfection, as there are sometimes delays and quirks that didn't exist before.
Disney World isn't the same as it was before the coronavirus, nor is it as tame and empty as it was in those first few weeks after reopening.
With three successful pandemic-era trips under our Mickey ears, I have now several more Disney World trips booked for the upcoming year. For us, now is a very good time to go to Disney and we've found it strikes the perfect balance between safety precautions and old-fashioned Disney magic.
FOR NO COST ASSISTANCE WITH PLANNING AND BOOKING YOUR NEXT DISNEY VACATION, CHECK OUT TPG'S DISNEY BOOKING PARTNER, MOUSE COUNSELORS. HERE'S WHY USING A FREE VACATION PLANNER CAN MAKE YOUR NEXT DISNEY TRIP BETTER.