In Chicago, Hilary Klein was packing her suitcase Friday night before her 6 a.m. flight to Orlando when the news broke.
Maggie Locker-Polding waited for the Disney gondola to leave Epcot for the night when she saw the update on her phone. Soon a buzz generated among strangers in the line.
For Sarah Kincaid, a mom from the Florida Panhandle, the plans to go to Disney for her son’s birthday were suddenly a new cause of worry.
These are among the Disney visitors caught off guard by Disney World’s Friday night announcement that masks would no longer be required outdoors for the first time since the attractions reopened in July during the pandemic.
The rule went into effect on Saturday, when the Magic Kingdom opened about 10 hours later. Disney still requires masks in the ride lines, on transportation, and indoor spaces such as restaurants and theaters. Universal and SeaWorld enacted similar policies, relaxing face-covering rules also on Friday.
Across the country, confusion has sprung up from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s new guidelines issued last week that masks aren’t required in most places for fully vaccinated people, although crowded venues are an exception.
The CDC created a domino effect among businesses, including theme parks, many changing their safety rules soon after the change was released.
In the theme park world, fans’ reactions ran the gamut from praise to concern.
Many Disney guests said they were elated to take off their masks outdoors in Orlando’s hot, humid weather, calling it liberating.
“Literally and figuratively, it’s a breath of fresh air,” said Brian Scala, a Long Island resident who works as an account executive for an insurance broker.
Scala is traveling to see his mother, and together, they plan to visit Epcot next month.
“We’re not anti-maskers by any degree. We’ve been wearing masks at all times. It’s nice we have that option outdoors where we don’t have to if we don’t feel unsafe,” Scala said. “I was mentally preparing myself to wear the mask all day long. I’m happy things have changed.”
‘Thrown in the deep end’
During the pandemic, Klein worked from home and had regular interactions only with two friends and the doorman for when her groceries got delivered. Finally, she booked a vacation to celebrate being fully vaccinated this month.
Disney’s policy change made her feel like she was “thrown in the deep end” instead of getting a gradual return to society or enough warning to cancel her trip, she said.
“We didn’t have any time to process this news or make an informed decision,” said Klein, a travel agent from Chicago. “It wasn’t what we signed up for when we signed up.”
The rule change felt jarring, said Deanne Revel, a freelance theme-park journalist from Seattle who also learned of the change as she was packing Friday for her upcoming trip Sunday morning to Orlando.
Revel said she felt like she was supposed to trust an “honor system” of people following the CDC guidelines since only vaccinated people should take off masks.
“The state of Florida has made it very clear it’s not going to check that,” Revel said of vaccination proof. Throughout the weekend, there was no evidence that anyone at the theme parks was asking for that proof, either.
This wasn’t the kind of stress she wanted to feel on her vacation, she said.
“It made me pause and think, ‘Do I really want to do this?’” Revel said, but she didn’t cancel.
Before she left for Epcot Monday, she said she wanted to take things slowly. If she felt uncomfortable, she could always go back to the hotel.
Locker-Polding said she was stunned by Disney World’s mask change. But it was the push she needed, too.
The nursing/midwife graduate student from Atlanta had felt annoyed and disheartened some Americans are unwilling to get vaccinated.
Locker-Polding felt she had done her part by getting vaccinated, so why she did still have to wear a mask?
“When Disney made the announcement, I felt like we’d been given permission. Instead of feeling reckless, I felt like a pioneer setting out on unpaved trails — we’re vaccinated, we’re safe, and we need to take this first step to show that it’s okay,” she wrote in an email.
Asked for comment, Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said in a statement, “We appreciate the support from our Guests and Cast Members while we make adjustments and adapt to the changing environment as guidance from public health authorities and government agencies evolves.”
The common refrain these past few months from customers has been “I’m not booking if I’m wearing a mask in the heat,” said vacation planner Greg Antonelle of Windermere.
That suddenly changed Saturday morning. Antonelle said he saw a dramatic spike on his website with people researching trips since Disney’s rule change. Antonelle had to turn the sound off his phone because he was getting so many alerts, he said.
Antonelle said tourists didn’t want to book 18 months in advance like before. Many wanted to go to Disney World within days. Like how about Monday?
“People are ready to go back,” said Antonelle, owner of MickeyTravels.
Antonelle, who figures he’s been back to Disney World 100 times since the pandemic reopening, wanted to see for himself how Saturday unfolded on the first day of the new rule.
He saw a couple eating and drinking while they walked on a VIP tour, and for a second, Antonelle’s mind flashed to thinking they were rule breakers before correcting himself.
A maskless 20-something sang George Michael’s “Freedom” on FaceTime by the PeopleMover. A half-dozen others joined in singing too.
“That song has been in my head since Saturday,” Antonelle said.
Too much, too fast
In January, the Kincaid family went on a Disney World vacation where everyone wore masks. The parks seemed to be taking the pandemic seriously.
Sarah Kincaid was impressed enough that she booked another trip this month, just in time to celebrate her son Graydon’s upcoming 5th birthday. Then she learned of the rule changes that happened within days of each other, including social distancing reduced to three feet in some places, the attendance cap increasing and the mask rule.
“It’s going to be just like pre-pandemic, and we’re still in a pandemic,” Kincaid said. “I get it. We’re one step closer to normalcy, but it’s just too much at once.”
Graydon and her daughter, Riley, 8, aren’t old enough to be vaccinated yet. Kincaid and her husband got their shots.
“There are going to be those people who may or may not be vaccinated (at Disney). There’s no way to tell,” she said. “It’s nerve-wracking.”
Kincaid might have canceled their trip if it wasn’t for Graydon’s birthday and his excitement over finally being tall enough to ride Expedition Everest.
All four members will wear their masks outside despite what the rest of the crowd is doing. She wonders if it will confuse Graydon or Riley, but Kincaid already has her answer planned if they ask why they have to cover up.
“I’ll squash that (with) ‘because I said so,’” she said.
By Gabrielle Russon, Orlando Sentinel