The Reopening of Walt Disney World: What To Expect & What Has Changed

Disney Springs Cast Member with Mickey Mouse Balloons
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Although the world is still struggling with how to live with the coronavirus (COVID-19), there are signs that life will go on and things will start coming back to a “new normal.” One of those signs is the reopening of Walt Disney World.

While Disneyland Shanghai was the first Disney property to close due to the pandemic and the first to reopen, Walt Disney World in Orlando was the company’s first property to reopen in the U.S., back in July 2020.

Prior to reopening, Disney sent an email to Annual Passholders saying, “Soon it’ll be time to return to the enchantment. To laugh. To wish. To dream. To once again sing along with a small world. Journey to a galaxy far, far away. Conquer Everest. And sail through a Frozen land.”

Any Disney fan would get excited to read those words after seeing “The Most Magical Place On Earth” be closed for an unprecedented 118 days. But, travelers beware, there will be some major changes to your next trip to Disney if you are planning on going any time soon.

What Has Changed at Walt Disney World

Now that vaccines are widely available, Walt Disney World has relaxed some protocols (like the 6-foot social distancing rule) to make the park experience more comfortable. Here is what Disney has changed regarding the health and safety protocols for parks:

Walt Disney World Orlando Face Mask Policy
Image Credit: Disney

Health & Safety Protocols

For Walt Disney World to get approval to reopen its parks, the company was required to present a reopening safety plan to the Orange County Economic Recovery Task Force, then get approval from Orlando Mayor Jerry Demings, and then final approval from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis.

Disney broke up its Health and Safety Protocols into 5 different sections:

Enhanced Protective Measures

After a brief period of mask relaxation, as of July 30, 2021, all Guests ages 2 and up are required to wear face coverings when indoors, onboard Disney buses, monorail, and the Disney Skyliner — regardless of vaccination status.

Masks are still optional for all guests in outdoor areas.

Disney classifies a face covering as something that:

  • Fully covers an individual’s nose and mouth while allowing the guest to remain hands-free
  • Fits snugly, but comfortably, against the side of the face
  • Should be secured with ties or ear loops
  • Should be made of breathable material, either disposable or reusable

Note: Neck gaiters and open-chin triangle bandanas will not be accepted as face coverings. 

Guests may remove face coverings while actively eating or drinking indoors, as long as they are stationary and respecting social distancing.

Parks now have more hand washing and sanitizing stations with reminders in strategic locations throughout.

Retail and food and beverage points of sale have plexiglass shields when distancing cannot be maintained.

Hot Tip: Keep in mind that the regular rules for masks and costumes still apply, so adults will not be able to use character masks (like Darth Vader, for example) as a face covering. 

Physical Distancing

Walt Disney World Park Experience Safety Protocols
Image Credit: Disney

To help maintain physical distancing, there is still a capacity limit (beyond the previous 35% self-imposed limit) in the theme parks, restaurants, retail shops, attractions, buses, monorails, and other official transportation options.

Enhanced Cleaning/Sanitation

On top of Disney’s already high standards, parks now receive more frequent cleaning across high-touch locations and surfaces.

This is applied both inside the park as well as backstage for cast members.

Temperature/Health Screening

As of May 17, 2021, temperature screenings are no longer required for guests to enter the parks.

Limited-Contact Enhancements

Disney is prioritizing the use of contactless payments with MagicBands, Apple Pay, and Google Pay by enabling cashless transactions at restaurants and retail stores.

Note: Guests staying at a Disney Resort will no longer receive complimentary MagicBands with their stay.

Finally, there is a temporary suspension of high-touch experiences such as meet-and-greets and playgrounds.

Bottom Line: There are many components that need to operate smoothly for everyone to enjoy the park safely. Disney has a special group of cast members throughout the parks to explain the new procedures, answer guest questions, and encourage everyone to follow these measures.

Reopening Dates

Walt Disney World Cast and Community Facebook Page
Image Credit: Walt Disney World Cast and Community Facebook Page

On July 11, 2020, Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom began a phased reopening followed by EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios on July 15, 2020.

Currently, there is no reopening date set for the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Disney Springs began a phased reopening on May 20, 2020. Currently, almost all restaurants and retail shops are open with limitations in place. For complete details about what to expect, visit the Disney Springs website.

There was no Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in 2020, however, guests were able to enjoy seasonal decorations and holiday-themed characters throughout the parks.

Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park reopened on March 7, 2021.

New Reservation System

To adhere to the physical distancing rules that were presented above, park capacity is limited using the following methods:

Revised Park Reservations

Initially, in mid-2020, park capacity was controlled via a new reservation system. To enter a park, guests needed both a park reservation and a valid ticket for the same park on the same date. This was limited to 1 park per day until January 1, 2021, when the Park Hopper option returned. If you had a multi-day ticket, you needed to make multiple reservations.

Previously, guests only needed to show up at the gate with a valid ticket, no reservation required. Now guests will need to first arrive by 2 p.m. at the park where the original reservation was made, and then only move to the next park if there is availability.

Advance Ticket Sales

Select 2021 dates are available for purchase. Just be sure to view theme park reservation availability online to make sure that the dates you want to visit are available.

New Walt Disney World Resort Hotel Reservations

New reservations at Walt Disney World Resort hotels are now available.

For a complete list of resort hotels that are currently open, click here.

Dining Reservations

Health and Safety Measures at WDW Restaurants
Image Credit: Disney

Dining and experience reservations have reopened in limited numbers and the reservation window will go down from 180 days to 60 days in advance.

Guests that have had their reservations canceled will have priority access to rebooking them when the time comes.

Character dining had slowly been reopening with reservation windows opening up 60 days in advance and walk-ups being available at certain locations.

Guests are able to see characters from a distance and be able to take selfies from their seats, but characters will not be visiting individual tables.

For more information about character dining and reservations, click here.

If you will be dining at a Walt Disney World Resort hotel, you will need:

  • A confirmed room reservation
  • A confirmed dining reservation (if you are not a hotel guest)
  • Face coverings for all guests above the age of 2 in all public areas, except while seated for dining

FastPass+ and Experiences

Disney Springs Cast Member via Walt Disney World Instagram
Image Credit: Disney World via Instagram

Disney has temporarily suspended FastPass+ and canceled existing FastPass+ reservations to manage capacity and maintain physical distancing.

Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is using its virtual queue and boarding groups in a limited capacity. Guests have the opportunity to join the queue at 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 4 p.m., so no need to arrive at the park early to check-in.

This means that those of us who are over-planners and love a good touring plan will be starting from scratch.

And as mentioned before, there are no Extra Magic Hours, fireworks, character meets, parades, and other events that create large crowds.

Extra Magic Hours are not expected to return as they have been replaced with Early Theme Park Entry for Disney Resort hotel guests which will debut in late 2021.

Hot Tip: Check out the new Disney Genie tool to help you plan your day at the parks.

Disney MagicMobile Service

Rolling out in phases throughout 2021, Disney will introduce the Disney MagicMobile Service that will be an easy way to access MagicBand features via your iPhone, Apple Watch, and other smart devices.

Guests will be able to enter the parks, their hotel rooms, pay for food orders, retrieve PhotoPass photos, (eventually) use FastPass+, and more with their own device or a MagicBand, whichever they prefer.

Transportation

Monorail Walt Disney World Orlando
Image Credit: Heather Maguire via Unsplash

There is some good news and some bad news when it comes to transportation. Walt Disney World Resort hotel guests still have access to the complimentary airport transportation, Disney’s Magical Express, through 2021. However, this service will end on January 1, 2022. 

Additionally, buses, monorails, and ferry boats are running on a limited basis, with physical distancing being enforced. Again, due to the limited amount of people allowed, delays may occur. The Disney Skyliner opened on July 15, 2020.

Unfortunately, Minnie Vans will not be available.

Finally, guests with disabilities can rest assured that the Disability Access Service (DAS) will continue to operate the same way it did before.

Hot Tip: If you decide to plan a trip, be sure to check out our recommended credit cards for Disney and Universal.

What to Expect at Walt Disney World Resort Hotels

Video Credit: Disney Parks via YouTube

Select Disney Deluxe Villa Resorts and Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground began reopening on June 22, 2020.

The current list includes:

  • Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
  • Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
  • Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
  • Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort
  • Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village
  • Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
  • Disney’s Beach Club Villas
  • Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
  • Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
  • Disney’s Contemporary Resort
  • Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
  • Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
  • Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
  • Disney’s Old Key West Resort
  • Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
  • Disney’s Pop Century Resort
  • Disney’s Riviera Resort
  • Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort
  • Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
  • The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort

Walt Disney World has announced the opening dates for some of our favorite hotels that include:

  • Disney’s Beach Club Resort: May 30, 2021
  • Disney’s Wilderness Lodge: June 6, 2021
  • Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort: Summer 2021
  • Walt Disney World Swan Reserve: Opening September 1, 2021

Starting in late 2021, Disney Resort hotel guests will have access to Early Theme Park Entry, which allows 30 minutes of early access to any theme park, any day.

Hot Tip: Wondering where to stay on your next trip to Disney? Be sure to read our article on the best places to stay in Orlando for your Disney vacation.

Reservations

Guests with existing reservations at a hotel that is not scheduled to be open can move their reservation to an open hotel at no extra cost, but they cannot choose the hotel.

At the Resort

Face Coverings in Resort Hotel Common Areas
Image Credit: Disney

The Disney health and safety team has looked for ways to keep you and your family safe while keeping the magic alive.

As of June 22, 2020, guests can chat with a resort cast member via the My Disney Experience app for assistance during their stay. This will allow guests to resolve issues 24 hours per day, remotely, so there is no need to visit the front desk or stand in line.

Guests can expect to see more online check-in options, increased cleaning in high-traffic areas, more hand sanitizer locations across the property, and many more initiatives.

Leisure pools are open 24 hours per day, but with limited capacity to enforce physical distancing.

Fitness centers are open in alignment with state regulations and may have reduced hours and capacity. However, instructor-led fitness classes will not be available.

In the Room

Housekeeping cast members have received updated training and rooms will receive a thorough cleaning before check-in with a focus on high-touch areas like TV remotes and door handles.

Floors will be steam cleaned and vacuumed between guests and housekeeping tools will be cleaned between rooms.

During a guest stay, a light cleaning service will be offered every other day that will include trash removal and replenishment of towels and amenities.

Hot Tip: The coronavirus has changed the way we travel — be sure to read Traveling with Kids During the Coronavirus (COVID-19) to be prepared. 

What Will Not Be Available at Walt Disney World

Disney Character Meet with Tiana
Image Credit: Chris Hassan

Unfortunately, even though ticket and hotel prices will remain the same, many classic parts of the Disney hotel and park experience are not available, including the following:

  • Arcades
  • Campfires
  • Character experiences
  • Dog parks
  • Electrical Water Pageant
  • Fireworks voyages and tasting cruises, including the Pirates and Pals Fireworks Voyage
  • Fun runs
  • Hula lessons
  • In-room childcare services
  • Marina rentals
  • Mermaid school
  • Playgrounds
  • Spas, salons, and Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique
  • Special classes and programs—including culinary, cultural, and animal programs
  • Wonderland Tea Party at Park Fare
  • and more…

For a complete list of impacted experiences, visit the Walt Disney World website.

What to Pack for Your Next Disney Vacation

Braun Touchless Forehead Thermometer on Away Carry On Bag
Image Credit: Chris Hassan

Packing for Disney under normal circumstances is a daunting task.

Traveling and packing with the coronavirus very present, priorities shift towards safety and sanitation. We should all be familiar with the best ways to sanitize our airplane seats, hotel rooms, and luggage.

A standard travel list, nowadays, will probably look something like this:

  • Face masks
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Disinfectant wipes
  • Reusable water bottle
  • Thermometer
  • Microfiber cloths
  • Portable UVC light

Final Thoughts

Disney Springs Masked Cast Member
Image Credit: Disney Spring

While the reopening of Walt Disney World doesn’t mean that the threat of the coronavirus is gone, it is a sign that things are starting to come back to normal, well… a new normal.

For many Disney lovers, just stepping foot on Main Street, U.S.A. in the Magic Kingdom will bring some much-needed joy that has been missing for so many these past few months.

It is also worth noting that Florida has now lifted all travel restrictions, so quarantine for certain out-of-state visitors is no longer required.

That being said, the classic, magical Disney experience is modified for now, but hopefully, someday soon, it will be back.

For now, we have a safer, socially distant version that will certainly scratch the itch for many Disney fans.

If you are one of the limited numbers of guests who will have access to the parks, have a safe and magical trip!


Frequently asked questions

Does Disney World require face masks?

Face coverings (masks) are required for all guests above the age of 2 while indoors, on Disney buses, the monorail, and the Disney Skyliner, regardless of vaccination status. 

Disney classifies a face covering as something that:

  • Fully covers an individual’s nose and mouth while allowing the guest to remain hands-free
  • Fits snugly, but comfortably, against the side of the face
  • Should be secured with ties or ear loops
  • Should be made of breathable material, either disposable or reusable

When will Disney World reopen?

Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom began a phased reopening starting on July 11, 2020. EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios opened on July 15, 2020. Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park reopened on March 7, 2021. Currently, there is no reopening date for Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon Water Park or ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.

Will there be a capacity limit at Disney World due to the coronavirus?

Yes. During the early phases of reopening there was a 35% capacity limit which has since been increased but to an unspecified number. Guests will need a reservation as well as a valid ticket for the day that they want to visit the parks.

What is Disney doing to make reopening safe?

Walt Disney World is taking multiple precautions when it comes to reopening its parks safely. These steps include enhanced protective measures (face protection), physical distancing (limited capacity), enhanced cleaning and sanitation, temperature/health screenings, as well as contactless payment enhancements.

Chris Hassan

About Chris Hassan

Chris is from Boston and is currently living in Rio de Janeiro with his wife, two kids, and their dog, Shelby. When Chris was in college, he spent a semester abroad studying hotel and business management in Switzerland. That is where he caught the travel bug and met his wife. Quite a successful trip!

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3 comments

  1. Abroad with Ash June 24, 2020

    Visiting the park when it’s at 30% capacity is enticing…wearing a mask in the heat and humidity all day is not…it will be interesting to see how opening goes.

    Reply

    • Both of those points are very true. And I agree with you, it will certainly be interesting to see how things go, especially now since Disneyland has delayed its opening.

      Reply

  2. Save your money and go when the park has all of its Covid-19 restrictions lifted. I went in December and what a waste of money. I can’t blame the Disney folks, because they warned everybody that this would NOT be the Disney World we were always used to and completely enjoyed. No meal plans, no parades, no fireworks, no park hopping, no extended hours, no fast passes, no character meet and greets, and many rides and shops closed. Walking around was like walking in a giant open-air hospital with everyone wearing masks. Nothing looks more stupid than a picture of people wearing masks that cover half their faces. Also, be prepared for some incredibly steep price increases. I blame my own stupidity for not canceling when I had a chance because I did purchase the trip insurance. But no, my wife insisted on going so the kids could see the Christmas decorations. Big, big mistake. Only one of my family of five was not disappointed with Disneyworld, and she was too young to remember what our last trip was like. Hopefully, one day we will return, but I doubt it will be in the foreseeable future.

    Reply

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