When Shanghai Disneyland first reopened I saw the pictures of people in masks standing in taped-off squares having their temperature taken, and couldn’t believe this was real life. How could anyone possibly enjoy the happiest place on earth this way?! Fast forward a few short months and the hubs and I decided the middle of a pandemic was probably the best time to visit Disney World and Universal Studios!
Times have definitely changed, and quickly. Looking back at our trip, I wouldn’t say it is better or worse than before. It’s just… different.
First of all, you have to have not just tickets, but reservations for each individual park as well. This is to help keep their current, lesser capacity. Before purchasing your tickets, make sure there are reservations available for the park of your choice for each day. Then once you purchase tickets, make those reservations right away!
Park hopping was also just reintroduced when we visited, but not allowed until after 2 pm and required park reservations for both parks for that day.
We did see people at the gate thinking they could just march right in because they had tickets, but since there weren’t any available reservations for that specific park for that day, they had a problem. We didn’t stick around to see what actually came of it, but you definitely don’t want to be those people!
There’s also much less planning and strategizing than there used to be. There are no fast passes, so rides are a free for all. There’s no morning rope drop; They simply let people into the park once they arrive, even if no rides are running yet. Dining reservations are still open, but without normal character dining, they are much easier to obtain. In some ways, this was actually less stressful and allowed for a lot more spontaneity. Unless, of course, you’re me and planning is how you function. It’s just, as I said, different.
First of all, though the state of Florida doesn’t actually have a mask mandate, we saw them everywhere we went, in and outside of the parks. Check Florida’s latest updates here: https://floridahealthcovid19.gov/
Masks are required for all guests age 2 and up at Disney World, and age 3 and up at Universal. And they meant it! Every few minutes you could hear an employee asking someone to please put their mask back on. Or to cover their nose with their mask. Or to please put their mask back on even after they passed the employee. I am a nurse and a believer in masks, and even my family got stopped a couple of times when the kids had forgotten to put their masks back on.
Something else I will say about masks is that we visited in February and that Florida sun was already kickin’! I kept saying how happy I was we didn’t try to come any later than we did. I couldn’t imagine being outside all day in Florida heat in the summer. So if you’re planning a trip, this is a HUGE factor to keep in mind, especially with kids!
At Disney, masks have to have at least 2 layers, no neck gaiters, and no valves. We saw people that had to go get a different mask at the entrance for this reason so make sure yours meet the requirements.
Universal’s website says no valves, mask must be secured under your chin, and no bandanas, but we saw plenty of gaiters.
I didn’t realize how much I like to snack and stroll through the parks until it wasn’t allowed. You must be stationary to remove your mask to eat or drink at all. I can totally imagine people walking around without a mask saying they’re drinking, so I completely understand this rule, no matter how inconvenient it may be. This even includes kids in the stroller.
There are designated rest areas at both parks for taking a mask-free breather. Our favorite spot was at Pete’s Silly Side Show, close to the Dumbo ride at Magic Kingdom. It was air-conditioned and off the beaten path so we didn’t have to wait to get in, even at lunchtime!
But you don’t have to go to a designated rest area to take a breather. The keyword is stationary. We often stopped and sat on a random wall or shady spot for a drink and snack. Anywhere seemed to be fine, so long as you were stationary.
That being said, there was once when we were stopped near a Disney cast members’ entrance where a ton of people were coming in and out. Most walked right by without saying a word, but one security guard told a lady near us (who was stationary) that if she wasn’t actively eating or drinking she needed to have her mask on. She didn’t give them a hard time about it, but it was just another example of how serious they are about the mask rule. I have heard since our visit Disney has updated the rule to reflect this. Masks must be worn even when seated in restaurants until the food has arrived and you are actively eating and drinking.
February has always been my favorite time of year to visit Disney and/or Universal. So I thought with a lower capacity, this year would be even better than usual. I can’t prove this in any way, but I actually feel like the crowds were the same as always for that time of year, Technically, the state of Florida is no longer requiring theme parks to operate at a lower capacity, so it’s possible they were the same as always. I think the only way to really tell is to compare busier times this year to the same season from years past.
One interesting thing to note was that you could tell exactly when park hopping opened each day. A little after lunch, the crowds seemed to die down, and then swell again all of a sudden. It took us a while to realize this was always at 2 pm, due to people changing parks. After a while we decided our best plan was to eat an early lunch, then hop on a bunch of rides while others were eating and park hopping, then we had an afternoon snack when the crowds picked back up.
In general, it wasn’t TOO difficult to maintain social distancing with the crowds we experienced. Lines, shops, restaurants, and anywhere they were able to control exactly how many they let in and where people stood, were clearly organized to keep people apart from each other. But even with (supposedly) lower capacity crowds, there were still a few times when it was impossible to maintain a 6 ft distance from others.
Strolling through the parks we often came across places where the walkway bottlenecks or the attractions are just really popular, such as Hogsmeade/Diagon Alley in Universal, or Fantasyland in Magic Kingdom. These were the places where the parks felt really crowded and everyone was all up in my personal space. The good thing though was that it was only in passing that we ever truly had close contact with other families, and it was always outside, with masks, so it wasn’t too concerning.
The lines, like the crowds, were pretty typical for February. But they definitely looked different.
Every line was stretched out to allow for physical distancing between families. In the areas where the line used to zig-zag, it now goes through every other (or more) of those sections. So they only zig, not zag?
Those “stand here” markers were everywhere. Eh-va-ree-where. Alllll through the lines, and then they often wrapped all the way around a ride or all the way along the walkway leading up to the ride entrance.
Being stretched out, the lines looked like they were really long, but the actual times were, as I said, pretty average. So though they took up a lot of space, they actually moved really fast. With kids (and a husband) who have a short tolerance for waiting in line, just moving makes a huge difference.
The other thing that made it hard to determine crowds and lines, was that there are no scheduled parades, fireworks, or character greetings, and a lot of the shows are closed for now too. So in a normal year, a lot of people would have been busy with those things and dispersing throughout the park a little better than they are now. Since rides are pretty much all that’s left, that’s what everyone did, probably making the lines longer than normal.
Even with fast-moving lines, they could technically move even faster if they were filling up each ride, but alas, they are not. Every ride was different, but most were seating half or less of their normal capacity in each car to allow for physical distancing between parties. Some rides did have a divider between rows, but most simply skipped rows or sent one family per car/boat/whatever.
I think I had just assumed employees would be wiping down the rides between each group, but that was rarely the case. I’m not for a second saying they didn’t clean (keep reading), but those rides where the last rider gets off and you get on immediately after haven’t changed. They get off, you get on.
At Universal, I did see employees wiping down a ride once a group had gotten off, when the ride allowed some time between boarding. Since you can’t always see where the last group got off, I can’t say this didn’t happen at Disney, or even that it happens every time at Universal. But at least I can say that some of the rides are being cleaned some of the time. Surely that was the case before, right?!
Gone (at least for now) are the days of sharing a warm hug with Olaf, discussing your favorite meal with Tiana, and getting that coveted autograph from Mickey. Character greetings are on hold, but that doesn’t mean the characters are gone.
Every once in a while, as you’re strolling through the park, the music suddenly gets louder. Start looking around because someone is coming! The parade floats (and boats at Animal Kingdom) are still getting put to good use as characters will be seen randomly cruising through the park. It’s not the same as watching a full-blown Disney parade, but they have still managed to keep some of the excitement alive because there’s no schedule and you never know who you will see!
We still got to take a picture with a few characters from below a stage or behind a rope. Buzz Lightyear, for instance, was up on a stage taking socially distanced pictures with guests. Gru and the girls were behind a rope at Universal doing the same.
This also means that character dining at Disney is not the same. We saw in one restaurant Mickey, Goofy, and Donald were greeting guests from behind their booths instead of in front. So no hugs or anything, but they still got to see them. I can’t say exactly how this is working throughout the restaurants, but for this trip, we decided to skip a character meal and I’m not sad about it.
Shows, Parades and Fireworks
Most shows, parades, and fireworks are simply canceled for the foreseeable future. I don’t know exactly what determines which are still able to run and which aren’t, but if they drew a big crowd, you can bet they are probably not running.
In the seated shows that are open, the auditorium seats are divided up to allow for social distancing between families. They also still have some of the smaller performers throughout both parks, but they were all the stop-for-a-minute-and-then-keep-moving kind.
As I said before, I think this also contributed to ride times because before COVID people would often be visiting characters or hanging around for shows, parades or fireworks. Now they are ALL in line for rides since that’s essentially all there is left. Lucky for us it was still a time with lower crowds, but if you’re visiting in a busier time of year (even if capacity is reduced) it is definitely something to keep in mind.
Automatic hand sanitizer dispensers were everywhere, especially throughout the lines. As a nurse, I’ll admit I had expected to see more dispensers than there were, but I’m sure they did research on how many and where they needed to be.
At both parks, we often came across dispensers that were empty, but at least that meant people were using them! For this reason, I still recommend bringing your own small bottle of hand sanitizer, but in general, there were enough through the parks.
The biggest difference I noticed between Disney and Universal was where hand sanitizer was required. At Disney, there were hand sanitizer dispensers throughout the line and especially right before you go on each ride. But technically, these were optional (especially when the dispensers happened to be empty). But at Universal, as you got to the front of every single line, there was an employee who physically put a squirt of sanitizer in your hand before they let you past to get on the ride. I felt a lot better hopping right on after the last person knowing they had at least been forced to sanitize their hands!
I can’t say how often any specific areas were cleaned, though both parks say they have “enhanced” and “increased” cleaning procedures. The thing is, weren’t both Disney and Universal already impeccably clean? Didn’t they already have people everywhere cleaning everything throughout the day? So any extra cleaning of high-touch and high-traffic areas wasn’t something I would have been able to see.
I may be a COVID freak (I’m a nurse, after all), but what I was really and truly most concerned about was whether the magic was still alive. To this, I now say, yes and no.
Wearing a mask is something we have all finally just gotten used to. We definitely don’t like it, but it doesn’t feel awkward to wear one anymore. So in the moment, it really wasn’t a big deal. But where it hits me is when I look at our pictures. Unless we were eating (or my son decided he needed to show me his smile), every picture has us in masks. It’ll definitely be a trip we won’t soon forget and will always go down as “the one where we had to wear masks,” but there is a tiny bit of sadness in having to cover up those smiles in the happiest place on earth.
The other difference I noticed was in the employees. Disney cast members especially are known for that perpetually cheery disposition. Freakishly so. But this trip I think they were simply worn down. You can only ask people to put their masks back on so many times before you get sick of it. Not to mention they have to wear them out in the heat too! Overall, the employees at both parks were still fantastic, but for the first time, they seemed a lot more human.
There are also perks that make the experience more magical now. Ollivanders for instance, at Universal Studios, used to let in a whole group of people at a time and one child was picked to be “chosen” by a wand. Now they only let one family in at a time, which meant Harper was guaranteed to be picked for this experience.
As with everything, it is what you make of it. We don’t for a second regret taking this trip. It’s all about the experience, after all, and visiting Orlando right now is definitely an experience!
I highly recommend checking each park’s updates when planning, and in the days before your trip to make sure you’re prepared.
Disney World COVID-19 Policies: https://disneyworld.disney.go.com/experience-updates/
Universal Studios COVID-19 Policies: https://www.universalorlando.com/web/en/us/plan-your-visit/safety-faqs
In the same trip, we visited Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral. Click here to read all about it: Visiting Kennedy Space Center During Covid