COVID spikes and massive crowds: Why you might want to rethink that Florida theme park trip

Jul 27, 2021

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After first going on reopening day and returning several times since then, I’ve heralded the top-notch pandemic precautions in place at theme parks like Disney World for the better part of a year.

But now, as much as I hate to say it, it’s time to think twice about that upcoming Florida family theme park trip if you’re concerned about the risks of COVID-19. This is especially true if you have kids still too young to be vaccinated.

While it may sound surprising given the current situation, throughout much of the pandemic, theme parks were actually leaders in COVID-19 precautions.

Even in Florida, which had few government-imposed restrictions, when visiting major theme parks such as Disney World and Universal Orlando, you essentially entered a bubble that was in many ways distinct from the rest of the south. Staff and guests had to wear face masks that fully covered their nose and mouth, there were clear social distancing markers in queues and shops, capacity was limited and there were often ample staff members on hand to correct guests who may have forgotten a rule.

But while that was how the parks operated when they reopened in the summer of 2020 until June 2021, it isn’t at all true today.

Update: On July 28 Disney World has announced that face masks will again be required for all guests ages two and up when indoors and on attractions regardless of vaccination status beginning on July 30.

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In places such as Disney World and Universal Orlando, pandemic precautions haven’t just been rolled back; they’ve been almost entirely stripped away. And had the lower case numbers of June held, perhaps that would have mostly been a welcome adjustment.

However, the lower COVID-19 numbers of June haven’t held in Central Florida.

In Orange County, Florida, which is the home to many of the major theme parks, the COVID-19 case numbers have recently been on a dramatic ascent. According to Orange County’s Mayor Jerry Demings, the COVID-19 positivity rate is at 13.96%  as of July 26. Just one month ago, on June 28, it was at 4.28%. That’s more than a three-fold increase in cases since June. The mayor described the current situation as being, “in crisis mode.”

According to Mayor Demings, on Friday, July 23, there were 1,052 new cases of COVID-19 reported in Orange County, Florida. At the July 26 press conference, Mayor Demings shared that matches the case numbers experienced at the highest peak of the pandemic last year. As of July 26, it was shared in that same press conference that the area’s AdventHealth system has a full ICU and is moving back to Red Level, which means they may reschedule non-urgent care to increase capacity.

And now, the CDC has recommended that even vaccinated persons wear masks again indoors while in ‘COVID hot spots’, which would include areas with case numbers as high as Florida.

But while the Central Florida area is now again experiencing COVID-19 case numbers that match the previous peaks it experienced, the local theme parks have not adjusted their safety procedures to mirror what they had in place during those previously intense phases of the pandemic.

Related: 5 pandemic-era Disney World changes we hope become permanent 

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

All of this has combined to create an on-the-ground scenario that may not be what families imagined when they booked and began counting down the days until their big family theme park trips.

Pandemic precautions are mostly gone at theme parks

My family recently visited both Disney World and Universal Studios Orlando.

While I knew the precautions had been rolled back, the trip had been planned when case numbers were much lower than they ended up being during our July travel dates. We had waited for the big multi-generational trip until it was “safer” to do so and all the adults had been vaccinated. Perhaps we waited too long.

While I had reservations as I eyed the increasing positive cases, we mostly wore our masks indoors and proceeded with the trip as it’s admittedly hard to walk away from vacations that require as much money, planning and emotional investment as Disney and Universal.

What we found was largely the same across both theme parks we visited: lots of people, few precautions and long waits for everything from chicken fingers to rollercoaster rides.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

While some guests did wear face masks on a voluntary basis, from a non-scientific observation, I’d estimate that no more than 5 – 10% of guests wore masks.

The rules at both Disney World and Universal Orlando technically state that face masks are still required when indoors (except when eating or drinking) for non-vaccinated guests, there are no requirements for proof of vaccination or enforcement of any kind.

In practice, this translates to no requirement to wear face masks. As an example, while children under 12 are not yet eligible for a vaccine and thus not vaccinated, the vast majority of the children clearly under 12 that I encountered also didn’t wear face masks.

It’s busy

Perhaps adding fuel to the situation is that the theme parks are no longer sparsely populated with guests as they were last summer.

Based on my observations and wait times, the crowds in the park appeared to be roughly as full as they were on a regular summer day before the pandemic.

At both parks, the wait for many rides was an hour or longer, and even getting quick service food was a process that could easily take an hour or more. If you wanted to eat lunch inside to get a break from the heat or frequent summertime afternoon thunderstorms, it was almost certain you were going to be extremely close to the tables around you, and during peak times finding a table at all was far from a guarantee.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

At Disney World, mobile orders for food can take about 45 minutes, there still aren’t trams to get you from your car in the parking lot to the park entrances and, perhaps most notably, there are no FastPass options to get around the long wait times for attractions.

At Universal Orlando, we’ve seen reports of over an hour of waiting just to get through security and mobile food options are even more limited than at Disney (and sometimes still involve a physical line). At some points in the park around the newer rides, such as Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, found in the Hogsmede portion of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it is literally wall-to-wall people.

(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Some of that is exactly what you’d expect in the summer from these major theme parks, but if you haven’t paid attention to the evolution of what’s it’s really like in theme parks over the last few months, it may come as a shock just how “normal” things are in a world that is still decidedly not.

Tips if you do decide to go

Only you can assess your own risk, safety and comfort when deciding whether to go forward with a trip to Florida theme parks right now.

On top of all the other complexities, walking away from a big trip to Disney or Universal when you’ve already delayed or waited a long period of time to make the trip a reality can be both emotionally and logistically challenging.

If at the end of the pros and cons list you decide to pack your bags and head to the Florida theme parks, here are a few tips.

  • Go to the parks both early in the morning and late in the evening, trading the mid-day crowds and heat for some time at the hotel or pool.
  • Don’t try to leave immediately after the evening fireworks at Disney. Instead, have an evening snack, ride more rides or just relax as there will be extensive lines for transportation when exiting the park at that time that can easily go on for more than an hour.
  • At Universal, you can book a Premier hotel that includes Express Passes to help cut your time in line. Also, try and avoid bringing a backpack so you don’t have to use the tightly packed locker facilities before and after many of the attractions.
  • Plan well in advance for how you will handle lunch. This may include packing your own food, going back to your hotel, mobile ordering well in advance, or making an advance dining reservation if you wish to eat indoors.
  • You have access to a much shorter security line at Universal Orlando if you valet park. It’s significantly pricier than self-parking at $75 per car (or included with VIP tours), but might be worth it if the regular security line is intense.
  • Speaking of which, if you’ve ever considered a private VIP tour at Disney World, it’s currently the only way to use the FastPass line. That’s not a realistic tip for most, given the price point, but it’s technically an option.
  • Consider staying within walking distance of the parks. Again, this will cost more money, but it will give you more flexibility and the ability to minimize some transportation pain points for that mid-day break or to walk home at the end of the night if leaving at a peak time.
  • Pack your own face masks and hand sanitizer. While face masks aren’t currently required, you can certainly wear your own. And while this is admittedly a challenge given the temperatures and humidity in Florida, given the high transmissibility of the delta variant, an N95 or KN95 may be more protective when in a tightly packed indoor situation than a cloth or disposable mask. While there are still some hand sanitizer stations in the parks, in my experience, they were empty close to 50% of the time, so bring your own travel-friendly hand sanitizer bottle.
  • If you want to minimize your chances of getting and transmitting COVID-19, complete your vaccinations at least two weeks before you go and consider at least taking at-home rapid tests after your trip. These aren’t as reliable as a PCR test, but are likely better than nothing.
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

If you find yourself agonizing over whether it’s a good time to go on that big theme park trip, there’s a chance that even if you take every precaution that’s within your control, you won’t enjoy the experience as you should. Your own stress level, along with the risks, is something to consider strongly when deciding whether to stay or go.

Bottom line

The delta variant of COVID-19 has taken hold in many places across the country and around the world, so this is in no way a theme park-specific problem. However, the major theme parks have already shown that they have a playbook of solutions they can use to reduce the risk for guests who decide to visit.

That pandemic playbook largely got shelved in June when caseloads were significantly lower. But that was then.

Now, the virus is again surging as high as it ever has in the area around these major Florida theme parks. Many theme park goers are children ages 11 and under, and thus not yet eligible for vaccination. And while a seemingly simple solution might be for those planning to visit simply to reconsider a trip if they are concerned, there are also strategies the theme parks could re-implement to keep guests that do make the trip as safe as possible. 

So far, the modification of pandemic theme park restrictions in Florida has only been a one-way trip down Main Street U.S.A. away from masks and distancing and towards the old-style model of filling the parks and hoping for the best. Until some safety measures return, the caseloads retreat from the current peak and/or it becomes possible to vaccinate even the youngest of thrill-seekers, it may be time to second-guess that Florida theme park trip if you are worried about catching or spreading COVID-19.

Having just experienced it myself, I’d tell others it very well may not be worth the risk right now for unvaccinated kids.

As much as my family loves theme parks and has very much enjoyed our previous three COVID-era trips, after our most recent experience, we’ve hung up my children’s Mickey ears until they can be fully vaccinated or the situation otherwise dramatically changes for the better.

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