Should you go to Disney World right now? 5 things to know if you’re considering.
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When I went to Disney World in July on the day the parks officially reopened after months of closure, I assumed that would be my only trip to the “Most Magical Place on Earth” for the rest of 2020. As my first big pandemic-era trip, walking into the gates of the Magic Kingdom, I was a bit scared, nervous of the unknown at a place that is normally so familiar and later received a heaping pile of online travel shaming for making the trip, which made me wonder if I’d made a mistake.
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But then, several months went by. During those months, as most of the rest of the country battled with masking or not, in-person schooling or not and gathering or not, it became clear that what Disney World was doing was working.
By all accounts, the strict requirements for wearing approved face masks for everyone aged 2 and up, the distancing, liberal use of plexiglass dividers, cleaning and capped capacity are doing what they were designed to do — keep people safe while keeping the “magic” alive.
So in mid-October, as school took its first long weekend break since restarting, the kids and I packed a big bag of face masks and neck fans and again headed east to Orlando. While the main rules and guidelines at Disney World are the same as they were in July, the parks themselves were significantly busier.
Here’s what it is like at Disney World right now and thoughts on whether it’s worth the trip.
Disney World is much busier — but still has capped capacity
Recently, Disney’s CEO Bob Chapek told CNBC that the Disney World theme parks are at about 25% capacity to maintain six-foot social distancing. He went on to say that the capacity wouldn’t increase from there until the CDC distancing recommendations change.
However, don’t think that means that the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom are still only a quarter as busy as they were pre-pandemic.
There are certainly still some midweek days where crowds and wait times are noticeably light, but weekends are busier than 25% capacity may sound. This is likely because even in normal times, Disney World very rarely hits true capacity — maybe on just one or two days per year (and those are the days we recommend never going). So, if it is 25% of that number that’s very rarely hit, then it’s more than 25% of an average pre-pandemic crowd.
Also, factor in that many ride vehicles are left empty for distancing, there is no FastPass+, no Extra Magic Hours, shortened operating hours and not all of the restaurants and shows 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 45 minutes to well over an hour for popular rides or on popular days. And if you are in a more congested park area on a busier day, well, it’s going to feel crowded.
Speaking of which …
Wait times are often (very) wrong
On a weekend day at Disney World, you’re going to see many wait times well over an hour — even at pretty mid-tier attractions. We got in line for Soarin’ at Epcot and the wait time said 50 minutes, 20 minutes later we were buckling in for flight.
Also at Epcot, Journey Into Imagination with Figment and the Gran Fiesta Tour both said 20-minute waits, and we walked straight on the two attractions without delay.
A few days later at Disney’s Magic Kingdom, 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 28 minutes.
While the norm is that wait times at Disney World are pretty dramatically over-inflated right now, it’s not a simple as that being consistently true.
On a particularly busy morning, Splash Mountain said 25 minutes immediately after parking opening, while 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.
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 virtually 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 in some cases, 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 their regular disinfecting.
Related: How to use points for Disney tickets
The best times to ride
The traditional theme park truths that wait time are 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 are trying to “rope drop” a ride (aka 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 before they say they are.
Hollywood Studios in particular has been quietly opening a full hour early. If you end up at the gates precisely at the posted opening time, your park of choice has actually 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.
Walking to the Magic Kingdom from Disney’s Bay Lake Tower or the Contemporary Resort will work to get you in before the stated park opening time. (You need a breakfast reservation, or hotel reservation at those properties to get into those parking lot.) At the other three parks, an Uber or Lyft (or friend) dropping you off at the drop-off point early could do the trick.
If you like Disney hotel hopping every few nights of your trip anyway (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 the last few operating hours of the day when crowds and wait times have been dropping most days.
Since park hopping is still not permitted outside of official Disney VIP private tours, many folks are done and gone with their park for the day by 4 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Related: Guide to visiting Walt Disney World
You need a plan to eat
Gone are the days 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 and lunch or dinner 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 six feet (or using plexiglass booth dividers) even though the state of Florida is again fully open.
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 even 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 food and wine festival.
Should that all sound like too much work, mid-day 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 to bring into Disney.
Should you go to Disney World right now?
Whew, 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 we saw back in July and August.
However, on select days during the week, you can still enjoy Disney at a more laid-back pace than was the norm pre-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.
Those seeking a 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, those who resent wearing masks, or who have kids who have a hard time with masks, should probably hold off.
However — with tens of thousands of daily guests, know that at some point in your trip you 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, again, 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.
If you’re after riding big-name attractions without long waits, you will need very up-to-date strategies that don’t involve FastPass since those are still suspended. Frankly, Disney is hitting a tipping point where bringing back some version of FastPass+ might be better than the snaking long lines, but for now, you are left with old-fashioned waiting.
If you’re OK with the new rules, are just after watching some short parades (aka 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 know it isn’t the same as it was pre-COVID, nor is it as tame and empty as it was in those first few weeks after reopening.
With two pandemic-era trips under our Mickey ears, I’m not ruling a third trip out when the holiday decorations come out to play. With so many of the normal holiday traditions paused for 2020 across the country, seeing some Christmas trees up at Disney while wearing a green and red face mask may not be a bad idea after all.
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.
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