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After a Disney cruise, I was startled by Disney World's COVID-19 policies — here's how they compare

Oct. 18, 2021
11 min read
2Photo Sep 20, 12 10 40 PM
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Editor's Note

For the purposes of this article, any mention of "parks" is referencing those at <a href="" target="_blank" rel="noopener">Walt Disney World in Florida</a>.

Since June, I have sailed on seven cruises with six different cruise lines (five of them mainstream) so I've developed a good sense of which COVID-19 protocols are standard on board and which tend to fluctuate from one line or sailing to the next.

I recently experienced a four-night voyage on Disney Cruise Line's Disney Fantasy from Port Canaveral, Florida, and I can say that DCL's precautions are, so far, the most stringent I've seen at sea.

After the sailing, I spent a day at Walt Disney World Resort's Hollywood Studios, and I was struck by the disparity between my experience on the ship and my experience at the park in terms of COVID-19 rules and their enforcement.

Here, I'll outline the ways in which the two entities differ, despite the fact that both are governed by The Mouse.

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For perspective, keep in mind that the parks see larger crowds and faster visitor turnover than the ships do, making it difficult for some of the below precautions to be implemented on land. However, many of the parks' activities and attractions are outdoors, and people are constantly moving. They aren't sharing a confined space for days at a time, which could make some protocols unnecessary there.

Mask mandates

Mask policies differ from Disney Cruise Line to Disney World. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Disney Cruise Line requires masks in all indoor public areas unless eating or drinking, and it's strictly enforced.

Masks are also required in certain areas on Castaway Cay, the line's private island, including the disembarkation area, while waiting for or riding the open-air tram, while in line for the buffet and in the restrooms. Crew strongly enforce the rule, asking passengers to put masks on and to pull them up over their noses. Masks are also made available on the island for anybody who doesn't bring one.

As of August, Disney World only requires masks in indoor areas, unless you're eating or drinking. That includes some rides, restaurants, shops and bathrooms, but I didn't see anyone enforcing it.

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Vaccination requirements

Vaccine cards are required as proof of inoculation for anyone 12 or older on Disney cruises. Disney World does not require vaccination for entry into its parks. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Full vaccination is required for all Disney cruisers 12 and older. Vaccine card photos must be uploaded to the Disney Cruise Line app before check-in is allowed, and each person's card is also checked at the port before passengers are permitted to embark. Anyone in that age group who fails to show original proof of inoculation will be prevented from sailing.

Vaccination is not required for anyone visiting Disney World, and at no time are visitors asked to show their vaccine cards.

COVID-19 test requirements

For a Disney cruise, each passenger must take an antigen test at the pier, at the cruise line's expense, regardless of vaccination status. Unvaccinated passengers (anyone younger than 12) must also present a negative PCR test result that's no more than 72 hours old upon arriving at the terminal.

Anyone who tests positive is given additional evaluation before either being allowed to sail or being denied boarding.

No testing of any kind is required to enter Disney World's parks, regardless of age or vaccination status.

Health declaration

A sign outside Disney Fantasy's terminal at Port Canaveral. Disney cruise passengers are required to confirm they are not experiencing symptoms before they are allowed to sail. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

All passengers on Disney cruises are required to actively attest that they have not had COVID-19 symptoms -- including fever, cough or diarrhea -- prior to their voyage. Anyone who does exhibit symptoms on embarkation day will be evaluated by someone from the ship's medical team before being allowed to board the vessel.

There is a passive notice on the Disney World website that says: "By entering Walt Disney World Resort, you and all persons in your party are not experiencing any of the following symptoms of COVID-19." It then goes on to list things like fever, cough, shortness of breath, fatigue and other symptoms, but visitors are not required to actively confirm anything in order to enter the parks.

Capacity restrictions

The main pool area on Disney Fantasy was uncrowded with the ship at less than 25% capacity. Capacity at Walt Disney World Resorts is closer to 70%. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

On my sailing, Disney Fantasy was at less than 25% capacity, likely because the itinerary was originally supposed to be a week long, but was then shortened to four nights, causing cancellations.

However, the line is currently limiting its passenger count for each sailing. The number of children on board was also shockingly low for a Disney cruise, but it makes sense, given the fact that school had restarted and that vaccines aren't available for younger kids.

Walt Disney World is also controlling capacity, but I'm told it's at about 70% -- higher than what you'll find on Disney ships. This is a major change from a year ago when Disney World was operating at about 25% capacity. Parkgoers are still required to purchase tickets and schedule a time to arrive at the parks, which keeps things less crowded and chaotic at the entrances and helps to space people out.

Social distancing enforcement

Social distancing markers appeared in many places on board Disney Fantasy, including by the buffet and on outdoor decks. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

Social distancing is strictly enforced on board Disney Cruise Line's vessels, with passengers required to stand at least 6 feet apart while waiting in line to enter the theater, ride water slides, see characters and be seated in the dining rooms. (Despite Disney's set-seating dining -- meaning each party is assigned one of two dining times -- passengers must still sign up for a specific time to enter the dining room, which cuts back on the number of people waiting.)

Additionally, there are signs on tables, chairs and walls throughout the vessels to remind cruisers to keep their distance from one another. It's also mandatory while experiencing scheduled outdoor activities (such as fireworks).

On Castaway Cay, distancing is less strict, but crew members do monitor it while you're standing in line for the island's lunch buffets. Seats are blocked off on the open-air trams to allow passengers to spread out.

At the parks, distancing is not enforced, whether you're waiting in line for a ride, shopping in a store, sitting down for a meal or simply walking around. Again, this is a major change from a year ago when there were markers on the ground at every place where a line could form, plastic dividers between rows for lines that snaked and heavily distanced loading on rides, People Movers and the Skyliner.

Hand sanitizer availability

Hand sanitizer is readily available throughout Disney ships, with dispensers near most public areas and at the gangway on port days. I never had trouble finding it when I needed it. There are also plenty of public restrooms available near key areas of the vessel if your hands find themselves in need of scrubbing while you're away from your cabin.

At Hollywood Studios, there are dispensers near entrances to most bars and restaurants and near exits for most rides. However, about half of the ones I tried were completely empty. (Thankfully, I was carrying a small bottle in my backpack.) There are also plenty of bathrooms throughout the park, so people can head there to wash their hands more thoroughly as needed.

Character encounters

Disney cruisers and visitors to Disney parks currently can't have contact with characters. They appear for socially distant photos, mainly in areas that the public can't access. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

As was always the case, characters appear more frequently on board Disney's ships than they do at the parks, so you have a better chance of seeing them while sailing. On the ship, they often appear in and around the atrium, particularly on the staircase and on the decks near it. You might have more luck with a maskless, less distant character photo on Castaway Cay.

At the parks, characters generally emerge atop areas that passengers can't access, such as staircases and -- as was the case with Rey and Chewbacca at "Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge" -- random scenery.

At no point can cruisers or park visitors touch, hug or come within 6 feet of the characters, which makes for some pretty awkward photos. (You're allowed to be maskless outside at the parks, but on board the ships, you can only remove your mask for character photos in the atrium if one of the vessel's professional photographers is there -- as if their presence somehow eliminates the risk.)

It also means you can forget about the whole autograph thing. I understand it at the parks, where there are fewer safety precautions in place, but on the ships it makes little sense, especially since the character actors are hidden behind several layers of cloth.

Parades and parties

Disney Cruise Line has made several changes to its usual lineup of onboard parties (although guests can still don Halloween costumes, as one does here), both indoors and outside. However, Disney World's parks still offer parades that draw crowds. (Photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy)

On its cruises, Disney is currently suspending all deck parties -- and some indoor ones, too — though fireworks are still offered.

During my sailing, there was just one show due to the low capacity, but fireworks on most voyages now take place two times per sailing, with cruisers assigned to one of the times so that proper social distancing can take place. (There are markers on the deck areas where passengers are allowed to stand. I saw crew members ask several groups of passengers to move because they weren't standing on markers.) To my disappointment, there was no pirate performance on Pirate Night, which meant that Captain Jack Sparrow did not rappel down the funnel.

Although I sailed in mid-September, it was a Halloween on the High Seas voyage. Those normally include onboard trick-or-treating and a giant costume party in the atrium. Due to the pandemic, neither happened on my cruise. Instead, bags of candy were automatically delivered to staterooms where children were booked. (Adults had to request their bags at the front desk.)

Instead of the usual indoor costume parties (which usually include the aforementioned family-friendly atrium costume bash and an after-hours, adults-only version), passengers were able to stand on deck, on socially distanced markers, to watch Mickey's Masquerade -- a short song-and-dance show featuring Mickey and his friends in Halloween costumes. (Honestly, it was way too hot to be standing on deck in any sort of costume, especially the Chewbacca one my travel companion was wearing.)

Meanwhile, at the parks, character parades are happening at regular intervals. Yes, they're presented outdoors, but large, unmasked crowds gathered during the one I saw, with no social distancing enforced -- something you'd never see on a Disney cruise ship right now.

Apps and technology

Technology has played a significant role in eliminating touchpoints, both on Disney cruises and at the parks. Apps for each now allow cashless transactions, QR code menu access and mobile ordering and dining reservations. On ships, passengers can use the Disney Cruise app's live chat feature to avoid lines at the front desk and watch the required muster drill right on their phones (or on their in-cabin televisions).

At Disney World, the Disney World app stores reservation information and allows for contactless entry to the parks.

For the most current and complete information about Disney's COVID-19 requirements and protocols, please visit:

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.