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Disney World is still tinkering with how it operates during COVID-19

A longtime passholder finds that Disney feels safe, but there is room for improvement.
A masked family walks past Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Disney's Florida parks are currently operating at 35 percent capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
A masked family walks past Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom at Walt Disney World. Disney's Florida parks are currently operating at 35 percent capacity due to the COVID-19 pandemic. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]
Published Mar. 9
Updated Mar. 9

When Walt Disney World reopened in July 2020, I felt safer there than I do at area grocery stores. A recent trip to Orlando’s theme parks proved I still do.

But there is room for improvement as Disney continues to adjust operations during the coronavirus pandemic.

Disney was heavily criticized when it reopened as Florida was seeing a spike in coronavirus cases. But no theme park has been proven to be a spreader of the virus, likely because of strong enforcement of public health guidelines.

Wording for instructions on mask requirements has changed slightly at Walt Disney World.
Wording for instructions on mask requirements has changed slightly at Walt Disney World. [ KELLY A. STEFANI | Times ]

The biggest negative since Disney reopened is that park capacity has increased. Disney World opened its four theme parks at 25 percent capacity in July. Not long after that, capacity quietly increased to 35 percent. For spring break, park passes are currently sold out for all Walt Disney World parks from March 13-19. There is limited availability, meaning that some but not all of the parks are available through April 10. The first day, as of Tuesday, that all parks are available is April 11.

Wait times increased from 10 to 30 minutes, and sometimes up to 70 minutes for more popular rides. When the parks reopened in July, workers (called “cast members” at Disney World) were in the lines instructing guests on how to safely navigate the waiting time while social distancing. For some reason, cast members are no longer in the lines.

I saw large groups of guests clump together and often encroach deep into the safety zone of the 6-foot space of other parties. I had a guest bumping into my backpack all the way through the line at Pirates of the Caribbean in the Magic Kingdom.

Another problem is guests don’t understand how to navigate areas in the line that closely pass each other. Previously, Disney used every other aisle or separated aisles with acrylic shields. Now, many queues have all the aisles open.

When all the aisles are open, they apply a “slide” tactic. But someone needs to tell guests how to do it: You are supposed to wait at the end of one aisle until the person ahead of you rounds the corner of the next aisle. Then, you quickly “slide” all the way down the aisle into their spot. Instead, guests are now passing within inches of each other at many points in the queue.

Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive at opening day of Epcot at Walt Disney World on July 15, 2020. All four of Disney's Florida parks are open with limited capacity and safety protocols in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
Guests get their temperature taken as they arrive at opening day of Epcot at Walt Disney World on July 15, 2020. All four of Disney's Florida parks are open with limited capacity and safety protocols in place in response to the coronavirus pandemic. [ JOE BURBANK | AP ]

Disney fan sites have been on fire with comments lately after the company changed the wording on its mask policy. Most people take their masks off as soon as they are seated in a restaurant. A recent change appeared to tighten that rule to only allow masks to come off when actively eating or drinking. The online communities do not approve.

My visit proved this policy may be in place, but it’s not being enforced. We saw guests sitting at tables chatting and reading electronic menus without masks. We did hear announcements and see signs with wording that might indicate the change is coming. Signs say, “Face coverings must fully cover nose and mouth and be worn at all times except when actively eating or drinking while stationary and physically distanced.” A cast member announcement said, “Face coverings must be worn throughout your visit unless you are stationary and actively eating or drinking.”

Temperatures are still screened upon entry into Disney Springs and all four theme parks. Masks are still required at all times, even while taking photos, in public areas.

All this being said, I still feel safer in Disney than I do in most local stores. You see a lot of unmasked faces when shopping around town. At Disney, if you don’t wear a mask, you have to leave.