The stockings are hung by the chimney with care…and cold, flu, and COVID season are here. It’s a few days before Christmas, Walt Disney World is packed with people, and a lot of them are sick. This post offers my favorite tips to avoid joining them, with ways to keep your immune system strong and minimize–but not eliminate–your risk of illness at Walt Disney World.
I’ve been planning on writing this post for a while, but have avoided doing so due to…let’s call it “silly superstition.” Earlier this summer, I read this article in the Washington Post that stuck with me. Not for the substance of the human interest piece about “novids” but because almost everyone interviewed had jinxed themselves. Now, I’m not actually superstitious in my day-to-day life, but…I also don’t want to end my own dumb luck.
To the best of my knowledge, I have never had COVID. This is despite very few modifications to my ‘normal’ life since last March, pretty much all of my family and friends coming down with it (some multiple times), having attended events that were subsequently found to be superspreaders, and testing whenever I’ve learned of a close contact who was infected. In fairness, I am young(ish) and relatively healthy, so it’s always possible that I’ve had an asymptomatic infection at a time I didn’t test–hence the “to the best of my knowledge” caveat. In any case, I thought I’d share what I do to avoid getting sick at Walt Disney World.
I’ll preface all of this by stating the obvious: I’m not a scientist, epidemiologist, infectious disease specialist, or public health expert. I hate going to the doctor, and am irrationally scared of needles. (Like a brave trooper, I get the annual flu shot anyway!) Moreover, I’m a staunch advocate of specialized expertise over internet fear-mongering and sensationalism.
What I’m presenting here is based upon what I’ve read in various journals and respected publications–not random rants from my uncle Cletus on social media. However, that doesn’t mean that my lay interpretation of the information is accurate–I have blind spots, biases, and a lack of domain knowledge that might result in not fully grasping what I’m reading. Accordingly, this post should not be viewed as a credible or comprehensive source of information regarding staying safe and healthy.
I’m also not going to restate the obvious. We all lived through the last 3 years; no sense in belaboring what you already have been told thousands of times. Same goes for the controversial. Way too much time online is spent condescendingly shouting down “opponents” for the sake of being right and winning some perceived victory. I would prefer to persuade. Whatever strongly-held beliefs you’ve formed in the last few years are not going to be changed by reading some random dude’s blog about Disney.
Rather than engaging in such folly, I’ll focus on illuminating information and practical tips that people might actually put to use. With that in mind, here are my recommendations…
Mitigate Risk – I would like to think of myself as a pragmatist, eschewing the perfect but unrealistic for the achievable but unideal. To that end, I’ve long been a believer in harm reduction models and risk mitigation. This is as opposed to zero-tolerance or abstinence, which history has demonstrated time and time again are destined to fail.
Much of that pertains to public policy, but it’s also applicable on an individual level. It can mean recognizing that tradeoffs exist virtually everywhere, and making them when it’s advantageous. If the upside is greater than the downside, or the inconvenience is minimal, consider reducing your risks. Many of the specific recommendations here flow from this perspective, but it’s worth underscoring up top that nothing on this list is absolute.
Time Your Trip – If it’s not already obvious, there are patterns to when seasonal illnesses peak and plateau. It’s not the same everywhere, but it is premised on some of the same general principles. Conditions that drive people indoors and towards social gatherings give rise to spikes in sickness.
In Florida, this has meant more cases in the late summer months–when many locals are inside due to hot and humid weather. Pretty much everywhere, it also means another spike between around Thanksgiving and New Year’s due to holiday events. This is not to say you cannot get sick in mid-March or early October–you absolutely can. Just that it’s statistically more likely in late December or July.
Avoid Crowds – We all have heard way too much about physical distancing in the last few years. This is not about that. I have zero hesitations about being packed into a crowd to watch Enchantment or Harmonious. Actually scratch that–but my hesitations pertain to the “watch Enchantment or Harmonious” portion of that, not the crowds. Same goes for “filling in all available space.” That one also annoys me, but I’m not particularly concerned with outdoor crowds or fleeting congestion.
Rather, we attempt to avoid prolonged, indoor crowds. At home, we go to the theater at 9 am rather than 9 pm (which really has more to do with matinee prices and fewer rowdy teens…but let’s pretend it’s safety!). While traveling, we wait at empty airport gates rather than where our flight is scheduled.
When staying at an on-site resort, we get out the door super early (beating the crowds to the bus stop) and stay until the bitter end (avoiding the evening exodus). If you’re not an early riser or night owl, you can still travel at off-hours to reduce crowd exposure. This idea can be extended to bars, food courts, and countless other locations in the parks and resorts at Walt Disney World.
Dine Outdoors – One of my biggest disappointments of the last ~3 years is that greater emphasis was not placed on ventilation, and instead so much focus was placed on highly-visible but ultimately meaningless health theater measures. And this isn’t Monday morning quarterbacking with the benefit of hindsight–we knew ventilation mattered back in 2020 (see “We Need To Talk About Ventilation”).
I still hold out hope that the Healthy Buildings movement gains more momentum in corporate America, as it has public health and economic benefits. In the meantime, I have become increasingly cognizant of ventilation, human density, and air filtration (or presumed lack thereof). More than anywhere else, this is especially the case at restaurants.
One option to mitigate risk is by avoiding crowded indoor bars & lounges around the parks and resorts, and choosing restaurants with open air seating. This is arguably the biggest and best thing you can do, but Walt Disney World doesn’t make it easy–most table service restaurants only offer indoor seating. See our Best Outdoor Dining Options at Walt Disney World for recommendations on that front.
With that said, we do dine inside quite often. Again, this is not an all-or-nothing approach. When it’s not inconvenient, we eat outside. We also often dine at off-hours (early or late seatings) when restaurants tend to be less crowded. In some cases, we’ve also done more outdoor dining early in trips and higher-risk (comparatively) indoor dining towards the end. We do not upend our lives or vacations to incrementally reduce risk–we just go for the low-hanging fruit.
Eat This, Not That – Come to find out, Adventureland pizza rolls paired with Dole Whips are not the definition of a “balanced” diet despite one being hot and the other being cold. Cupcakes and cocktails that are an amalgamation of artificial colors and flavors aren’t the epitome of healthy eating. Who could’ve known?!
The straightforward advice here is to eat a balanced diet even while traveling, as proper nutrition is one key to not getting sick. You know the basics there, so I’m going to take that a step further since we’re frequently asked how we stay healthy despite eating so much theme park food. The simple answer is that you only see ~5% of all meals we eat, which are admittedly unhealthy. However, 95% of our meals are not in theme parks, and our regular diets do not even remotely resemble what we consume in the parks.
At home, we consume a lot of vegetables, beans, nuts, fruits, tea, poultry, and fish; we only eat red meat about once per week, and seldom consume added sugars or alcohol. We more or less unintentionally follow a mixture of Japanese and Mediterranean diets, with our own quirks.
Nevertheless, the holistic health and wellness benefits are well-established. This has been our diet for years due to the general/overall benefits, and it has improved several aspects of our lives. (One of my other biggest disappointments of the last ~3 years is that greater emphasis was not placed on healthy living given the most common COVID comorbidities.)
When we recently traveled to Japan, it was super simple to maintain this diet. Green tea and rice are ubiquitous, same for salmon and kimchi. There’s a 7-11 or Lawson convenience store on virtually every corner, and our breakfast would contain almost all of these items. (Fruits and vegetables can be more expensive or harder to find–I ate a lot of bananas and jumbo carrots, which are easy to find and cheap.)
At Walt Disney World, we recommend grocery delivery to resorts. We’ve done this many times, as it’s a great way to eat a healthy breakfast (the least “exciting” meal in the parks, anyway) while still enjoying indulgent lunches and dinners. There are a number of different grocery delivery services, but Walmart+ has become our go-to recently. It’s the cheapest, easiest, and most efficient.
Nevertheless, I want to stress that I’m not overzealous about any of this. We don’t track what we consume or ‘do’ dieting–this is our diet, but it’s loosely-followed and has almost become second nature or routine. ‘Everything in Moderation’ is a good mantra, and if you eat well most of the time, you can go nuts some of the time. I most definitely do that, as anyone who has read some of our food reviews can attest.
Stay Hydrated – This is a more obvious one but I’m going to include it anyway because it cannot be overstated. Not soda or alcohol, but water. However much you drink at home, at least double it at Walt Disney World. Many people say that you aren’t getting the full experience if you don’t do the grand circle tour of the Top 10 Toilets at Walt Disney World, anyway.
While buying bottled water is one option, that’ll get expensive fast given how much you need to drink to stay hydrated. Instead, we recommend going into counter service restaurants or other walk-up windows and asking for free cups of water. They’re small, so you might want to request as many as you can carry. Another obvious option is drinking fountains, but we’ve gotta warn you: tap water at Walt Disney World is sourced directly from the swamp, and is actually 3% alligator urine. (Not really, but it sure tastes like it!)
Because of that, we highly recommend the Life Straw Go Filter Water Bottle. Our jokes aside, Florida water can taste funky straight from the tap (it’s an acquired taste), so it’s key to get a bottle with a filter. This bottle is the best option, hands down. It’s durable, BPA-free, dishwasher safe, and uses a 2-stage activated carbon filter reduces odor, chlorine and leaves zero aftertaste! (If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, Brita Filter Water Bottles are great, too.)
There are a few dedicated bottle filling stations popping up around the parks, but not nearly enough. Our go-to location is inside Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe at Magic Kingdom (they’ll give you cups of ice if you want cold water), and there are other spots at the entrance to World Showcase in EPCOT and scattered around the parks. Still not nearly as many as a theme park in Florida should have, but it’s a start.
Stop Touching Stuff – I can already anticipate the angry responses to this one: “YOU CAN’T TELL ME WHAT TO DO. I’m not going to bubble myself in my basement to stay safe, I’m going to live my life…by touching stuff that thousands of children have licked (or worse).”
Joking aside, this is probably the one that’s the easiest ‘sacrifice’ to make in theory, but the single most difficult in practice. I will admit that I’m a tactile person. I touch stuff. I love the texture of the wooden handrails in the Big Thunder Mountain Railroad queue, I cannot resist playing the mostly-broken interactive queue games in the Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. I will cut this list of examples short because it’s already embarrassing–I sound like a small child.
Nevertheless, I’ve made a concerted effort to not touch as much at Walt Disney World. It has been surprisingly challenging, but I’ve gotten much better about it. And while I’m still a sucker for a good buffet (everything in moderation!), I make a point of washing my hands between trips (among other things).
Do “Down” Days – If this list were someone else’s, it would include “get plenty of sleep.” I cannot include that because I burn the candle at both ends, and am usually in the parks from opening until closing on a go-mode day. I know that’s unhealthy, but can’t stop, won’t stop.
To compensate for that, we often do “down” days outside the parks that (sometimes, hopefully) involve sleeping in. On days when I’m testing Disney’s Hollywood Studios strategy and staying at Crescent Lake, I often manage to sneak in a midday nap break rather than watching those stage shows for the thousandth times. You also should sleep in or get to bed early some nights, but that definitely falls into do as I say, not as I do territory.
For the final time, none of this advice is absolute. It should go without saying, but a vacation should not revolve around reducing risk of illness. Have fun first, pick and choose ways to be healthy second (or third/fourth/etc). You could do everything “perfectly” and still end up sick during or after your trip. The fact is that there’s no such thing as eliminating risk, only reducing it.
When it comes down to it, anyone visiting Walt Disney World must have some degree of risk tolerance, as it’s inherent in the destination. If you were truly preoccupied with safety from sickness, there are superior options, such as U.S. National Parks, state parks, or the beach. Now if you’ll excuse me, as I have to go rest up. I can only assume writing this article has jinxed me, and I’ll need to spend the next few days recovering from being sick. 😉
Any thoughts about staying healthy when visiting Walt Disney World? Anything else you do to avoid getting sick–or at least decrease your chances of it–while traveling? Keep the comments civil, as this is not the place for politically-charged arguing, antagonism, personal attacks, debating the efficacy of NPIs, or perpetuating pointless culture wars. We will be heavy-handed in deleting comments that cross the line, even if it’s only a single sentence. You are not going to change anyone’s mind via the comments section on this blog, nor are you going to influence public policy. If you wish to shout your opinions into the internet abyss, that’s why Facebook was invented.