5 major changes Disney World made in 2020 that I hope stick around forever
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During the longest closure in the park’s 49-year history, the iconic destination made many operational and logistical adjustments that resulted in a very different theme park guest experience when the gates were officially unlocked on July 11.
Being both a Disney-fan and a travel writer, I was there in early-July for the grand reopening day at a changed Magic Kingdom. Months later, I returned on an actual family vacation in early-October. Over the course of those visits, it was clear that some adjustments that Disney made for the global health crisis are ones that I very much hope stick around long after COVID-19 is no longer a common household concern.
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From more spontaneity to more natural character sightings to maybe even a little more sleep, these are five of the changes I hope Disney World keeps for good as we continue with Hotels & Destinations Week at the 2020 TPG Awards.
You don’t need to plan everything months in advance
Until the March shutdown, if you wanted to make the most of your days at Disney World, you had to log on 180 days before the first day of your trip at 6 a.m. to make restaurant reservations. Then, 60 days out (also at 6 a.m.) you needed to secure your FastPass+ ride reservations.
And that doesn’t even factor in making your Disney resort hotel booking.
Even if you did all that, you probably still didn’t get exactly what you wanted, so you were left to obsessively refresh the My Disney Experience app throughout your trip to see if that rare Pandora: Flight of Passage FastPass+ or coveted dining experience became available.
This weird world of Disney vacation planning can be fun for travelers who really like strategizing, but it was never great for folks who planned last-minute trips; for first-time Disney visitors who had no idea all that was even necessary (and were subsequently shocked when faced with a 250-minute wait for a popular ride); or for people who just want to show up at Disney and have a good time. Truth is, it had all gotten too involved and confusing.
Now, because of the pandemic, FastPass+ is out, and you just wait for a line the old-fashioned way. (Or, rather, it’s old-fashioned waiting in a new socially distanced way.) But still, it doesn’t require advance planning or reservations for each individual ride.
Advance dining reservations are still accepted and are often necessary with restaurants having reduced occupancy, but those reservations are now only accepted 60 days out, not 180 days. This levels out the playing field a bit for travelers who don’t plan trips half a year in advance.
On top of that, there’s a new “dine now” feature where you can sometimes join a walk-up waitlist on the app even if you don’t have advance reservations.
There are no predawn wake-up calls
In December 2019, when I took my girls to experience the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance attraction, we had to get up at 4:30 a.m., leave our Orlando-area hotel by 5 a.m. and arrive at Disney’s Hollywood Studios by 5:45 a.m. in order to be toward the front of the crowd to enter the park and snag a virtual boarding pass position when the gates opened around 6:30 a.m. And this was “vacation.”
If you didn’t do all that, you couldn’t ride the new attraction. Period. You can imagine how tired everyone gets by midday when that was the norm on a pre-coronavirus Disney trip.
That may be an extreme situation for a new attraction, but a successful Disney World strategy usually involves getting up early (and sometimes also staying up late) to maximize rides when wait times are low.
Right now, however, you can’t do that. Transportation to the Magic Kingdom wasn’t even running until 8:30 a.m. for reopening day, so there wouldn’t be a mass of people waiting at the gates for the park to reopen at 9 a.m. Now, months later, the park is often opening earlier at 8 a.m. but closing time is still generally at 8 or 9 p.m.
And if you want to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance as we did, you now get your “boarding pass” for the day from the comfort of your hotel bed at 7 a.m. in the Disney app — with no need to haul the kids out of bed predawn for a shot at getting on the ride.
Characters aren’t hidden away behind lines and parades
Before this year, seeing a character at Disney World (think: Mickey, Princess Tiana or Winnie the Pooh) usually required burning a FastPass+, waiting in a long line, spending lots of money on a special meal or lining up early for a crowded parade to get a good view.
But due to COVID-19, parades and lines for photos with characters are out and have been replaced by frequent, surprise character appearances around the park.
I can tell you it’s much more magical to see the Country Bears chilling in Adventureland and spot Mickey ambling down the road than to have them hidden away at the end of big lines and busy parades.
Even the reimagined character meals, where Mickey, Minnie and friends dance around and wave from a distance, are now much more enjoyable than a meal where they came by each table for a brief photo. Sure, the photo can be nice to have, but if you (or, say, your tween) didn’t want a photo, it was always awkward and forced everyone to stop eating, get up, sit down and repeat when the next character came along a few minutes later.
With the new encounters, you can enjoy the characters, take a selfie (if you want) and keep enjoying your meal all at the same time.
While Disney World is much busier now than it was shortly after reopening in July and August, it’s still nice to know that it won’t be as busy as it typically gets during peak time periods. Pre-pandemic, around the holidays it could get so busy you could barely get down Main Street U.S.A. and waits for rides could approach five hours.
Disney World has publicly stated it has increased the maximum capped capacity from 25% to 35%, but obviously that means peak dates are still much more manageable than before. The trade-off is that advance park reservations are required and until 2021 park hopping is suspended, but those have been small prices to pay for a less frenetic Disney World experience.
It’s easier to slow down and enjoy the moment
For most visitors, Disney World has always been about maximizing every available minute in the day. From making FastPass+ bookings to riding as many attractions as possible to seeing all the parades, shows and more, there was always more to do during a day at Disney than could ever possibly be done.
But that didn’t stop people from trying. (Even I’ve tried to experience every ride at Disney World across all four parks in a single day.)
During this new, more cautious and slower reality — marked by the suspension of some Disney offerings and the need to avoid crowds — we found ourselves doing things we’d never done before at Disney. And we loved them.
We browsed Main Street, searched for outdoor hidden Mickeys, camped in an RV at Disney’s Fort Wilderness resort, watched the original Walt Disney-era animatronics in the Enchanted Tiki Room and even went on an open-air riverboat cruise. We actually skipped Big Thunder Mountain and Splash Mountain on one of our trips because of the larger crowds and found that we didn’t miss them.
This was a different Disney, and I can say it’s much better suited to helping visitors savor the simple moments, rather than the fast-paced, packed park we left behind in March.
The improved touchless bag-check process and abundant hand sanitizer stations across Disney World are probably here to stay — and that’s a really good thing. The temperature checks and mandatory face mask requirements may disappear in time.
But some other pandemic-era changes we noticed across the parks offer significant and refreshing changes we hope stick around, even if they came into being because of a pandemic we all sincerely hope is over as soon as possible.
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I’m not sure when I’ll be back at Disney World, but whenever that happens, I’ll be thrilled if characters are still making surprise appearances, the pace is slower, the planning stress is dialed down a few notches and the mornings start a bit later than they used to.
All images by Summer Hull / The Points Guy.
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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