New Disney mask requirements and more: 11 changes to expect at Disney World in 2021

Feb 27, 2021

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After a 117 day shutdown, Disney World has been operating continuously since it reopened in early-July 2020.

But while there have been a fair number of mouse-loving visitors who have made their advance park pass reservations, had their temperature checked, strapped on face masks in the Orlando humidity and flocked to the “Most Magical Place on Earth” during the pandemic, there are also plenty who have decided that mid-pandemic is not when they want to head to the most popular theme park in the country.

Disney World may have stayed open since July, but it’s also undergone a litany of rapid changes.

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(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

From the elimination of free Magic Bands for resort guests, a pause on nighttime fireworks, completely altered character interactions and parades, an upcoming sunsetting of the free Magical Express Bus and more, the next time you visit Disney World may be very different than your most recent pre-pandemic visit.

Change on the surface isn’t inherently good nor bad, but rather exactly what Walt expected to happen when he said, “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.”

But with all this change, will Disney pixie dust still shine brightly when the carousel of theme park progress has turned as quickly as it has in the last few months?

Here are 11 changes to expect at Disney World in 2021.

Related: TPG’s guide to visiting Walt Disney World 

New Disney mask requirements for dining areas

Just as dining has changed in day-to-day life, so has dining at Disney.

In an update to the previous dining mask policy, face coverings for guests ages 2 and up must now “be worn in all public areas and can only be removed while actively eating or drinking,” per Disney’s website. This mandate includes wearing masks while “standing, waiting or sitting in dining locations.” Previously, guests had the option of removing masks while seated at tables, even if they weren’t actively eating or drinking.

In some locations, reservations are “highly recommended,” while in others a reservation is required. To help navigate the various rules and regulations, the My Disney Experience app will be your new best friend (sorry, Mickey). Cashless or contactless forms of payment are not only accepted but encouraged.

Park-hopping has returned in a new way

Park-hopping — where you can visit more than one Disney World theme park in a day on one eligible ticket — was suspended for the rest of 2020 when the park reopened. However, park-hopping returned on Jan. 1, 2021, though in a changed way.

While you can now once again hop to as many parks as you wish (pending availability) beginning at 2 p.m. each day, you must have first visited the park you made a park pass reservation for that day before you can start hopping to other parks in the afternoon. You can call (407) 560-5000 to check the entrance availability of additional parks for that afternoon and evening.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Reservations still required

Speaking of reservations, park pass reservations are still required as they have been since July 2020 with no end in sight to that requirement.

This necessitates advance planning as to which park you plan to visit each day, especially if you are considering going during a more peak timeframe, such as around holidays or special events. For example, Oct. 1, 2021, is already full at the Magic Kingdom, even though that’s more than nine months away since that’s the date of the park’s 50th anniversary.

(Screenshot courtesy of Disney)

Magic bands no longer included

For years, one of the tangible perks of staying at a true Disney resort was included Magic Bands in the color of your choice for everyone registered to the room. These bands would allow you to tap to pay for purchases around Disney World, unlock your room door and serve as your theme park ticket and FastPass.

You can still use Magic Bands, but they now cost $14.99 and up each for all Disney guests — regardless of where you stay. Magic Bands you have from previous trips can be reused, but if you want to buy a set for your family of four, it’ll cost you at least $60 for that privilege.

Charge everything to your Magic Band. (Photo by Melissa Ann Photography)

While this is almost certainly a cost-cutting measure, it’s also true that Disney is leaning into smartphone technology within the Disney app to complete some of the tasks that it used to relegate to the Magic Band, such as opening Disney resort doors.

Related: Reasons to stay at a Disney World resort hotel

Free Magical Express Bus will end

Countless Disney trips have started — and concluded — on the Magical Express Bus that takes Disney resort guests to and from the Orlando International Airport at no additional charge.

Pre-pandemic, you could even have this service magically pick-up and deliver your checked bags to your Disney resort room. But Dec. 31 will mark the end of the line for this service. This is another change that is likely a mix of very real cost-cutting as Disney contracted out this service, but it is also a reflection of changing consumer behavior.

While many families loved the (price of the) Magical Express and will be very sad to see it drive off into the sunset, if you wanted to squeeze as much time out of your vacation as possible, ride-sharing services were already a very enticing option that would almost certainly give you a couple of more hours of legitimate vacation time than relying on the Mickey-wrapped bus.

Disney’s Magical Express Bus (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

Extra Magic Hours will be replaced

Remember the days of Extra Magic Hours getting you into a select Disney theme park each morning before non-resort guests or allowing you to stay a little later in the evening? Well, that perk has been gone since Disney World reopened — and it isn’t coming back.

This change has a very real upside, but it’s still an adjustment.

When this perk returns in its new form later this year, those staying at Disney resorts will be able to enter all four of the theme parks 30 minutes before non-resort guests every day. This not only aligns with spreading out guests more for safety reasons, but it also prevents the Extra Magic park of the day from being unintentionally over-crowded even during non-pandemic times.

Water parks will return

While the four Disney World theme parks have been open since early-July of 2020, the Disney water parks have yet to unlock their gates.

However, that is scheduled to change on March 7 when Disney plans to reopen Blizzard Beach. If a look over at Universal’s Volcano Bay water park gives any clues, face masks are likely not going to be required (for safety reasons) while in the water, on waterslides, etc. but will be required in some areas of the park, such as in retail or dining locations (when not actively eating).

Disney’s Blizzard Beach (Photo courtesy of Disney)

More hotels will reopen — some with a new look

While many Walt Disney World resort hotels have reopened since last summer following the initial closure, some have remained closed.

Dates can change, but currently, Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort is scheduled to reopen on March 22, Disney’s Beach Club Resort is scheduled to reopen on May 30, Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is scheduled to reopen on June 6 and Disney’s Polynesian Village is scheduled to open sometimes during the summer. (Some of those resorts, such as the Polynesian, do have Disney Vacation Club rooms/villas open at this time, just not the hotel rooms.)

Disney’s All-Star Sports, All-Star Music, BoardWalk Inn and Port Orleans remain closed with no scheduled reopening dates.

But, when Polynesian Village officially reopens this summer it will do so with a new look with some Moana-inspired theming, among other updating. For what it’s worth, the Polynesian Village Resort is currently accepting reservations for non-DVC rooms beginning in late-July.

Disney Polynesian Resort pool
(Summer Hull for The Points Guy)

Related: What it’s like to stay in a Disney hotel during the pandemic 

Will FastPass return?

FastPass+, which gives riders the ability to skip the bulk of the line, has not been available at Disney World since the March closure.

At first, it simply wasn’t needed as capacity and demand were so low that wait times just weren’t a problem and you could easily ride everything in a park before the end of the day. As the number of visitors steadily increased leading up to the 2020 holiday months, wait times did grow to the point where FastPass+ would have been a welcome sight in some cases.

However, traditional stand-by lines are moving relatively quickly because they aren’t alternating with the FastPass+ line. Additionally, there would be new challenges introduced into distancing two lines — the regular line and the FastPass+ line — that do sometimes virtually touch each other.

(Photo courtesy of Summer Hull)

Our money is on FastPass+ eventually returning in some form, perhaps in the latter half of 2021, but likely not in any immediate future until capacity can be safely increased.

It’s also very possible that when FastPass+ returns, it will look different than it did in the past. Out west in Disneyland, that park had an optional paid version of FastPass, called MaxPass, that cost $20 per day, per person. Additionally, before the closure, those staying at Walt Disney Club Level rooms could purchase additional FastPasses for $50 per person per day. Disney has already been experimenting with a paid model add-on, and we would not be surprised to see some optional upsell components when FastPass+ returns.

We also know that Disney is working toward a new Genie app to help guests plan and maximize their park days, so it’s possible that whatever comes next for FastPass+ will play a role with that technology.

Parades, fireworks and more are still out — for now

For now, crowd-creating formal parades and nighttime fireworks shows are still on pause at Disney World. Honestly, the much shorter and more spontaneous “character cavalcades” that pop up in place of parades really feel preferable to many guests (self-included), but the nighttime shows and live actor shows are missed.

While the precise timeline is anyone’s guess, there are strong odds that some of these missing elements return in 2021. For example, Epcot’s upcoming and much-anticipated nighttime Harmonious show is still expected to debut in 2021, and especially since it can likely be viewed from all over Epcot’s World Showcase, it very well may begin this year.

“Harmonius” will debut at Epcot as the largest nighttime spectacular ever created for a Disney park (Image courtesy of Disney)

Additionally, the popular Festival of the Lion King live actor show at Animal Kingdom will return in the summer (in a modified way), which is great news for those who have been missing some of the shows and offerings that make Disney feel magical.

Related: 11 new attractions coming to Disney World in 2021

Also keep in mind that character interactions are still largely suspended, but there are several character dining experiences that have reopened, albeit in a different way with the character keeping a safe distance from the tables.

Character meal at Garden Grill (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

There are discounts

While Disney World has altered — and outright suspended — some of its operations, this isn’t the kind of place that will put admission tickets on 50% discount just because some things aren’t available. However, there are some discounts available now, and we expect that trend to continue in 2021 while demand is a bit softer than normal.

Through Sept. 25, most Disney World hotel and ticket packages that are at least four-nights and three park days long are eligible for two extra theme park days. In other words, you pay for three theme park days and get five. Those five days must be used within eight days of check-in. This would be a great deal to use if you want to start your trip at a true Disney resort and then spend the last few nights using points off-property somewhere like the new JW Marriott Bonnet Creek or the iconic Swan and Dolphin, all bookable with Marriott Bonvoy points.

That way you can make use of those two more park days without spending more cash on a Disney resort stay.

Speaking of Disney resorts, you can save up to 35% on select Disney resort stays until April 17 — and those with a Disney World annual pass can take that savings all the way up to 40%. With those discounts, deluxe resorts start at under $300 per night (which is rare for Disney), moderate resorts start around $150 and value resorts can be had for around $100 per night.

Get a discounted Disney resort stay (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

So while you aren’t going to find a huge discount on Disney World tickets themselves, you can find discounts on the resorts and a special that adds some bonus days onto your theme park tickets.

Related: How much does a trip to Disney World cost?

Screenshot courtesy of Disney

Bottom line

A successful trip to Disney World pretty much always requires significant planning (or the use of a solid Disney vacation planner), but while some things are easier to plan right now in the absence of FastPass+ and with dining reservations only open 60 days in advance instead of the usual 180, there are new complexities to contend with.

Those used to all the perks that used to come with staying at a true Disney resort may also find some of those benefits eroding — especially when the Magical Express Bus ends on Dec. 31, 2021. So, is a trip to Disney World still as magical as ever in 2021? It really just depends on what you look for in a trip to the most “Magical Place on Earth.”

If you are mentally keeping count of the previous traditional Disney offerings that are missing you may find yourself a touch conflicted on whether it was worth it. But, if you are looking to enjoy and celebrate what is available, then you’re more likely still wear to find a smile as big as the drop down on Splash Mountain.

Featured image Summer Hull/The Points Guy

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