Visiting Walt Disney World during a pandemic may not seem like a good idea, and the world’s most-visited tourist attraction was roundly criticized for reopening just as Florida was seeing a spike in coronavirus cases.
But I went anyway.
My partner is a cancer survivor so we have been rightly alarmed by the warnings for immunocompromised people to stay home, and we pretty much have. But with apprehension, this foodie and Disney addict decided to spend her birthday at the Taste of Epcot Food and Wine Festival.
I’m a longtime passholder. Before all this, we visited the parks at least 20 times a year. To my surprise, Walt Disney World’s mask requirements, crowd restrictions and sanitizing procedures made me feel safer than going to a grocery store.
Their safety procedures were above and beyond what I’ve seen anywhere. There’s constant cleaning, plastic partitions are everywhere separating people, masks are strictly enforced — even for kids in strollers — and the guests largely followed Disney’s lead and behaved themselves.
All of those safety restrictions really popped Disney’s magical bubble that makes people forget worldly troubles. Masks cover smiles. Music is muted for safety messages. Narrow queues are shielded by Plexiglas. These are stark reminders that coronavirus threatens us even inside the Wonderful World of Disney.
We started our day packing all the essentials we thought might help keep us safe. I took five masks, one package of antibacterial wipes, one package of personal wipes, breath mints, a cooling towel, a water bottle, umbrella, hand sanitizer, a fan and a clip to hold my mask when I remove it. It seems like a lot, but we used it all.
Upon arrival at Epcot, cars were backed up waiting to get into the parking lot. I hadn’t seen it this bad since New Year’s Eve. Some drivers changed their minds and went over the median to leave Disney property. I wondered if I had made the right decision to go. My partner and I decided the traffic jam was probably because the park had only opened 10 minutes before our arrival. We decided to stay on course.
After parking, we noticed trams weren’t running. As a safety precaution, Disney has suspended the use of parking lot trams to help people keep their distance. We joined the crowds walking toward the gate. The workers, which Disney calls “cast members,” lined the walkway making sure guests were wearing face masks and that they were acceptable — anyone wearing a neck gaiter or vented mask was pulled aside and told they couldn’t enter without a proper mask.
Next came temperature and bag checks. This was a bit chaotic. It was the first time people saw social distancing instructions on the ground. Most people adhered and stayed on their designated spots. Some clumped in large groups, but you could avoid them. Security guards with bullhorns were repeating instructions on how to go through baggage check. Guests now carry their bags through the metal detector instead of having them physically searched.
After security, you go to the gate. Magic bands and tickets are still scanned, but fingerprint recognition has been eliminated. At this point, I realized every cast member having contact with guests wore both a face mask and a shield. Hands-free hand sanitizer dispensers were located just inside the gate.
Crowds disappeared as soon as we walked through the gate. Lots of open space allows you to freely walk without worrying about close contact with others. Wait times for rides were minimal. We walked on to Toy Story Mania at Hollywood Studios on our second day, a ride that usually has waits of two hours or more all day long.
The World Showcase is usually packed on weekends during Epcot’s Food and Wine Festival. The park entry reservation system (everyone at the park had to reserve a day and time ahead of time) eliminated that problem. Most food kiosks had walkup service with spots on the ground that told you where to stand. There were no lines.
All chefs and food servers wore not just face masks, but also shields and rubber gloves. Tables were spaced 6 feet apart on round dots. Cast members quickly moved parties and repositioned tables if they weren’t in their proper spot.
The distribution of utensils has changed. Dispensers that spit out multiple forks, knives and spoons at the push of a lever have disappeared. New devices eject utensils handle first, one at a time. The end that touches food or goes into your mouth doesn’t leave the machine until the person using it pulls it out. This eliminates the chance of anyone else touching the tools you’ll eat with. The new dispensers can be found in all four parks.
Because one of Epcot’s annual events, Party of the Senses, has been canceled, Disney has moved four food kiosks into the building that usually houses the party, which is a buffet-style meal with unlimited alcohol and entertainment by Cirque du Soleil. The wide-open space allows guests to escape the heat, take off their masks and enjoy food samples in an air-conditioned building.
Besides Taste of Epcot dishes, other food offerings were hard to find in both Epcot and Hollywood Studios. Many restaurants and counter service locations remain closed. Restaurants are limited because of the elimination of buffets and character dining. For what little counter service is available, online mobile dining is required. Guests must scan the menu to order and prepay through the My Disney Experience app. Seating is hard to come by during peak meal times since every other table is unavailable due to social distancing.
Full-length parades, fireworks, stage shows and character meet-and-greets are gone. In their place, characters are situated around the parks for guests to photograph, view and interact with at a safe distance. But mini parades of one or two floats spontaneously appear without warning. Mickey and Minnie wave to guests from giant moving cars and princesses ride in carriages along the streets. All characters are separated by 6 feet or a sheet of Plexiglas.
Rides are also socially distanced. Cast members fill one row per car on coasters and fast-moving rides. Whole cars are skipped on slower rides. For rides that turn backward, such as Spaceship Earth, cast members skipped two cars between passengers. On a shift change, a manager stopped Spaceship Earth to correct a social distancing error.
Rides undergo a disinfection process numerous times a day. Cast members announce to guests in line that the ride will shut down for 15 minutes for disinfection. Most rides are inside, so you can’t watch the procedure.
We happened to get lucky and watched as Toy Story Land’s Alien Swirling Saucers was being cleaned. A cast member used a pump garden sprayer to spray liquid disinfectant in and on all the cars. Another cast member followed behind with a cloth rag to wipe them down and dry them. A third cast member used disinfectant wipes to redo high-contact areas such as handrails and lap bars. The ride has two wheels of ride cars. One runs while the other is being disinfected. Guests are directed to cars on the cleaned wheel, and the one that was previously running is shut down for disinfection.
COVID-19 has forced great changes in ride queues. Previously snaked, indoor lines are now largely outdoor lines in the hot sun. Guests move 6 feet at a time from one “Please Wait Here” sign on the ground to the next. The spacing works great with parties of four or less. Add more than four people, and the party runs into the next space. Lines look long, but that’s because of the distancing. You advance quickly when you’re moving 6 feet at a time.
Once inside, rows are separated by Plexiglas walls. Moving through the dark, cramped walls made us feel like hamsters in a tube.
Relaxation stations have been created to give people a rest from their masks. Select spaces are spread out across the parks. Most areas are in restaurants that aren’t open. In Epcot, the Yorkshire County Fish Shop provides an outdoor space and Akershus Royal Banquet Hall provides an indoor space. Tables in both spaces are socially distanced. You decide if you feel comfortable taking your mask off in the air conditioning, or if you’d rather be in the open air.
High-touch children’s activities have pretty much been eliminated at Epcot. Playgrounds, Kidcot Fun Stops, the splash pad and interactive areas are all closed. Because of this, there isn’t nearly as much for kids to enjoy at Epcot.
People travel from around the globe to come to Walt Disney World. Today, if you want to enter a Disney park, you must follow the rules. In the real world, some people say it’s their right to not wear a face mask. In Disney, if your little girl wants to see Cinderella Castle, both of you will wear a mask, or she doesn’t see the castle.
Walt Disney Corp. seems to have learned from mistakes it made after opening Shanghai Disney. Even though Florida has more than 550,000 reported cases of the coronavirus, Walt Disney World appears to be a safe vacation destination.
A final tip: Make sure to take several masks. I ran a test and wore one mask all day. By the end of the day it was soaked from sweat and stinky. Changing masks every three to four hours will make you more comfortable and your day more magical.