Our “Ghost Town” Experience at Disney Springs
Following reopening day of Disney Springs, we headed back to Walt Disney World for the first time in over two months. It was an odd mix of surreal, normal, apocalyptic, and comforting. You know, all the usual feelings you get when wandering an outdoor mall and dining at a restaurant.
We’re not going to rehash much here, so if you haven’t read our previous posts about the reopening of Disney Springs, here are photos and videos of what you can expect in terms of the temporary health screening & safety requirements. If you do opt to visit, this list covers the 40+ restaurant & retail locations currently open.
In this post, we’ll share photos from our visit to Disney Springs, thoughts on the health screening and safety protocols, our experience dining at the Boathouse, recommendations for visiting, and some commentary about pent-up demand (or lack thereof).
One of the big discussion points thus far has been pent-up demand. We’ve consistently held that this is being over-estimated for Walt Disney World’s theme parks, and that organic demand will likely be below the ~25% cap set by Disney–at least after the first few days.
We were hesitant to say the same about Disney Springs. While it obviously doesn’t have the same appeal or drawing power as the parks, it also has some things going for it. For one, Disney Springs does not charge admission. It also is easier to visit in small doses, making the masks and other requirements more palatable.
In other words, Disney Springs is more like an outdoor mall, restaurant, public park, or beach. In various places around the United States, all of those venues have seen serious crowds upon reopening. We were worried about the same at Disney Springs, which is why our intent was to avoid the opening day and the holiday weekend.
However, the crowds never materialized. This was clear from the get-go, as photos and videos we saw of opening day showed mostly bloggers, vloggers, and diehard hot dog hounds…but few others. Even with those three key demographics, it was hardly busy. Once those groups had their fill, attendance further dropped. It was a veritable ghost town over the weekend.
We’ve already seen some “unsurprised” reactions on social media, with people pointing to the lack of tourists with Walt Disney World closed right now. While that obviously cut into the potential audience pretty significantly, I think vacation-goers underestimate the local appeal of Disney Springs.
Quite simply, Disney Springs is our closest mall. This is true for a lot of people in Central Florida, and this reality is normally reflected in crowd levels. Disney Springs sees its biggest attendance spikes on weekends and evenings, when locals are off work. Same goes for the entire holiday season, when it’s significantly busier due to locals doing Christmas shopping and meals with family.
For many locals who don’t have Annual Passes, it’s a way to get a Disney fix. For others, it’s a great spot for dinner in a lovely setting. While Disney Springs is absolutely dependent on tourists, it’s also dependent upon locals. Those dozens of restaurants would not be viable without the local audience–tourists are disproportionately eating in the parks, not at Disney Springs.
In any case, attendance levels were well below expectations, and likely far too low to sustain the ~40 businesses currently open at Disney Springs. We wouldn’t be surprised to see some of these close again in the coming weeks, and other restaurants scuttle plans to reopen.
There are likely a variety of explanations for the low turnout among locals thus far at Disney Springs. Fears of a “crowdpocalypse” scenario, health & safety concerns, mandatory mask opposition, unemployment levels, economic uncertainty, high heat & humidity, lack of Disney-owned venues operating, and more things I’m probably overlooking. We could quibble over how much each variable is influencing attendance, but they’re all undoubtedly playing some part.
Regardless of the explanations for low attendance, this cannot be what Walt Disney World expected. It’ll be interesting to watch trends in the next week or so to see whether things pick up, level-off, or further decline.
If I were an executive with Disney, I’d be closely watching this, and surveying guests who visited Disney Springs plus everyone with a vacation booked for this summer or fall. I’d also be very hesitant to announce reopening dates for the parks without better insight into the “why?” of this, as well as what attendance projections look like for the parks.
I suspect Walt Disney World leadership anticipates operating the parks at a loss with limited capacity while things gear back up–you have to walk before you can run–but Disney Springs suggests that pent-up demand and visitor appetite for the Walt Disney World experience might be low.
That, or Disney Springs is totally different than the parks, and I’ve simply given this way too much thought. Not like I have anything better to do.
Let’s move along to our Disney Springs “report.”
We parked in Orange Garage (because we’re not barbarians) and headed to the temperature check. This took all of 3 seconds, and was the most people we encountered all day. It was no different than a temperature check coming through customs at an international airport; totally frictionless and doesn’t warrant further commentary.
Here’s a look at the text of the sandwich board warning.
These signs were all over the garage and by the escalators. None beyond that, though.
In general, the signage was fairly minimal.
That’s not reflected particularly well in this update (since I focused on spots that looked differently), but aside from maybe ~6 signs like this, ~12 sandwich board signs with the same message, directional arrows on some (but not all) bridges, and some stand/don’t stand queues outside stores, it was mostly business as usual.
There were definitely not as many of these signs as the “critter warnings” added four years ago along the shoreline of every single body of water at Walt Disney World.
In other words, I don’t think there was too much visual blight. Of course, there’s nothing to say more signs won’t be added.
The more obvious change was everyone wearing masks.
Guest compliance with this rule was scattered. The vast majority of people we saw were wearing masks, but some had them pulled down or off. In fairness, social distancing was incredibly easy to accomplish (with far more than a 6′ buffer) everywhere, which could explain why some felt comfortable removing their masks. The bigger test will be if/when things are crowded.
We’ve worn masks all day before out of courtesy when we’ve been sick in Japan, so this wasn’t totally novel to us.
However, I’m also not going to lie or sugarcoat things and say it was easy. Due to the lack of shade and surplus of concrete, Disney Springs is unpleasant on a “normal” 95Âº day. Masks exacerbate that.
Regardless, it was so nice to be back at Walt Disney World. Easing back into life out in public with such a low-crowd experience was perfect, too.
Selfishly, if masks are what thins out crowds a bit, I’ll happily wear them at Walt Disney World. Even in the summer heat and humidity. Locals definitely have an advantage in this regard, as a mask for 3-4 hours a couple of times per week is far easier than all-day, every-day for a weeklong vacation.
Ironically, the most surreal and apocalyptic element (and even those terms are a bit hyperbolic) of the visit was not the screening, signs, or masks–it was the absence of people.
I’m not saying I want heavy crowds (definitely not), but it was very odd for Disney Springs to be a ghost town during what should’ve been one of the busiest weekends of the year. It reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode, “Where Is Everybody?” except (spoiler alert) I don’t think this was to test my fitness to become an astronaut.
We made lunch reservations at the Boathouse, and requested a table outside.
This is again a matter of easing back into things and risk mitigation; even with the heat, we’re more comfortable in an open-air setting for now.
It turned out to be totally perfect, even on this hot day.
We had shade, a nice breeze, and a view of Saratoga Springs Resort across the water. Aside from our server wearing a mask and the restaurant being virtually empty, the meal had a near-complete sense of normalcy.
This being my first restaurant meal in well over two months, I decided to make up for lost time.
For those keeping score at home, I ate a half-dozen of the Boathouse’s iconic rolls.
For my entree, I ordered the 75-Day Aged Gibsons Grass-Fed Australian Boneless Ribeye.
I’m honestly not entirely sure if this is one of the greatest things I’ve ever eaten, or if it just tasted that way after I’ve been subsisting largely on a diet of cabbage and cauliflower at home. Either way, this was perfection!
Sarah had the Gulf of Mexico Red Grouper. It was also very, very good.
Going in, we had debated doing the Baked Alaska for dessert to restart our WDW dining with a bang. “Unfortunately,” I ate way too many rolls for that. Next time.
There will definitely be a next time, at least so long as crowds stay relatively low.
There’s obviously some risk in going out, but that’s not going away anytime soon. The benefits to our mood/outlook/happiness/etc. easily outweighed the minimal risk. That balance will change depending upon the circumstances, though.
If you’re thinking of doing a meal at Disney Springs, we’d highly recommend the Boathouse (hardly a surprise since it’s normally our #1 table service pick for Disney Springs).
However, the Boathouse also offers some unique advantages during this “temporary abnormal.” The restaurant is colossal, has a range of great outdoor seating options, and the menu has a ton of range for everyone in your party.
We’re debating whether to return to the Boathouse for our next meal, or go somewhere else.
STK is the leading candidate right now, for their best-value lunch in all of Walt Disney World (which we can confirm has returned–but is $1 more expensive) or the happy hour specials. STK also has outdoor seating, albeit not nearly as much.
In terms of other tips, our big one would be to visit later in the day. We arrived shortly after Disney Springs opened for the day to minimize our exposure to potential crowds, but it never got more crowded.
Next time, we’ll go for sunset and stay until closing. While it’s hot and humid out, this is the significantly better strategy (at least, until crowds pick up…if they do) due to the lack of shade at Disney Springs.
All things considered, this ghost town visit to Disney Springs went far better than expected. The lack of crowds is definitely interesting, and presents a lot of questions to ponder. Regardless of the reasons why–or the surreal feeling created by the absence of people–we’ll definitely be heading back to Disney Springs sooner rather than later. Even with the temporary rules, heat & humidity, it was a great experience that did wonders for our spirits and helped reestablish some semblance of normalcy. If you’re a local on the fence about doing Disney Springs, we’d absolutely recommend it.
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Have you visited Disney Springs since it reopened? Where did you dine? How was your experience? Would you recommend others visit, or hold off? Will you be visiting Disney Springs in the near future? If you’re a local and the answer is “no,” what’s your reasoning? We welcome a variety of viewpoints here, and will not delete anything on opinion alone. However, we will not tolerate insults, arguing, or politically-charged comments. Don’t ruin a 95% fine comment with an unnecessary cheap shot—that 5% will get it deleted. Additionally, please do not incessantly harp on the same point across multiple comments. Respectfully share your opinion and move along.
It is now the middle of August (15th). I would appreciate an update from someone regarding current crowd experience at sundown and into the evening.
We are local, and we went the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend after seeing such low crowds on social media. We just walked around because we thought it would be too hot to eat outside – nice to know you got a breeze at the Boathouse! Maybe next time 🙂 The trip was well worth it just to see anything other than the four walls of our house, honestly. We also thought it was a great way to ease back into normal life; the ghost town aspect was a little eerie, but huge crowds would definitely have made me more uncomfortable.
Am a funeral director. Go to Disney for the absolute sense of joy and peace it brings but I will say,unequivocally, this is a good time to be in the death industry. Mitigation of risk is a plan
I’m so happy you went and enjoyed the experience! Thanks for the report. Also, I should tell you that I’m going to steal your term “temporary abnormal” – SO much better than “new normal.”
I came down to the comments to say the same thing! I’ve come to cringe every time I hear “new normal” or “return to normal.” Temporary abnormal is so much better sounding.
It’s unfortunate that many of you TOURISTS are selfish and don’t understand this is a Pandemic and you’re asking Disney to disregard the health and safety of employees and others so YOU can have fun! WOW.. HOW SELFISH !!
Thank you Diane!
I admit I’m one of the lucky ones who gets to work from the safety of my home and I am so grateful for it. My heart aches for people forced to choose between starving or putting their lives at risk for such spoiled, selfish people. I would NEVER ask someone to risk their life to alleviate my boredom.
Plus, I’m certain there will be tourists harassing employees about masks, limited attendance, etc.
I sincerely hope you and your family stay safe and am truly sorry for the situation you’ve been put in.
Maybe those employees would like to be working again. Can only happen if tourists come back…..safely.
Interestingly, I am a member of a Disney Travel forum/community and its mainly the tourists who are afraid things are opening up too quickly and are still afraid to travel. It’s mostly the people in the general Disney area who are complaining that things need to open up again so their economy can begin to recover.
Linda, I think it has a lot to do with WHERE those tourists are coming from. Those coming from states that are opening more quickly will welcome the earlier Disney opening. Those whose states are still in fear mode with tighter lockdowns, may view our reopening differently. Florida started our reopening over a month ago, yet our cases are not spiking and the daily number of COVID deaths is decreasing. Previously our rate of positive test results was around 10% of all persons tested. Today it is 5.4%. There are also reports from at least 3 states late this week, indicating the virus may be adapting to human hosts by mutating into a less dangerous form. The thinking is, as has happened with other viruses, the virus cannot live if its host dies and is therefore adapting itself to be less deadly to the bodies it infects– for sake of its own survival. Some experts believe it may adapt and become no more horrible than a bad cold. Time will reveal if that is true or not, but the declining death rate across the nation IS encouraging.
Crowds will return when we can ditch the masks. It isn’t all about discomfort. It’s a signal that we are dangerous.
We crammed masks into our culture and spent months telling people going outside is akin to Russian Roulette. It’s basically going to take zero transmission or a watershed moment in treatment to snap people out of it on a large scale. Right now people are convinced covid equals death and we’re all walking virus grenades.
I’m from northeast and we had big family trip planned for April and rescheduled for August and we cancelled that because of masks. I would never wear a mask at disney world. We just don’t go there for that. I’m not paying $10k+ for a vaca where I have to wear a mask. Plan and simple.
Even in hot, July weather, I would consider wearing a mask to Disney on a short trip, just to experience the historically low crowds. My wife, a medical professional, is not willing to, nor are my kids, to whom I gave the final decision. We are local APs and usually make several visits in Spring.
If/when Disney decides to remove the requirement for masks, which will likely be in tandem with other major establishments, I will be among the first back to Disney.
Until then, it is hard to imagine riding Tower with a swath of cotton across my mouth, or trying to keep one on any of my four single-digit-aged children.
I totally agree. Wearing masks in extreme high humidity weather is potential heat strokes or heart attacks awaiting. How will Disney respond to that?
Honest question here – was Disney ever listed as a super spreading location for the virus during the “rapid spread” phase/before the US shut down? I’m not local, so haven’t fully kept up with that sort of news…
IMO, even if cases could be linked back to Disney, they would have kept a tight lid on it and the possibility is an obvious reason why Disney and other theme parks shut down.
I read of one death of a CA resident back in March. The article stated that COVID was contracted during a visit to Disney World, but I have no idea if that can be confirmed. The young man, in his 30s, had chronic asthma.
I would say it is a high probability that many were exposed at WDW, but difficulty tracking cases and an all-star Disney PR team would have kept any noise down.
No, and it cannot be. Anyone who tries to claim they got infected there are fools and even if that could be shown, it’s not Disney’s liability.
I’m not asking because of liability. My point in asking is toward the necessity of face masks at the parks…
I was actually there the first week of March with my family. My son and I both got sick a few days after our return but antibody tests both came up negative. So, who knows? Even if it was COVID and we contracted it on our vacation who is to say if it was at a park or during our air travel back home? For what it’s worth, we flew back through Phoenix on the same day as the gentleman Joseph Oliver mentioned who went back to California and later died of the virus. My understanding is that man was sick (although minorly so at the time) WHILE at Disney and Universal, he didn’t contract it there so he may very well have been spreading it.
First meal out, the man goes for a 75 day aged ribeye – I like your style, Tom!
I love Disney World, Disney Springs, Universal and frankly Florida in general. As our trips to the area involve coming from Texas we probably wont return until masks are no longer required, recognizing that it may take years for that to happen. I am claustrophobic amd am easily faint. With the heat, humidity and absense of mask free family photos I have no desire ro go.When we go out now to the local malls and restaurants it is too quiet and their is an absence of joy and laughter. Frankly it’s depressing. I’ll wait this one out as long as I can. Already took a weekend trip to a local winery area with a stay at a small casita property on 12 acres and no one wore masks but we kept a safe distance. It was awesome. Finding joy in new trips in the mean time but still missing Disney.
“In other words, Disney Springs is more like an outdoor mall,” and that’s really all it is, with the food court distributed over the whole place. We sometimes go there on a travel day or a day with the absurdly reduced park hours over the last few years after closing. There’s no way I’d leave a park to go there and eat; that’s a dumb waste of time!
Completely agree. We often hit Disney Springs the evening of arrival day for Chef Art Smith, Pin Traders and Market Place Co-Op but would never leave a park to go there! It’s a pretty outdoor mall…
Right! We’ll do Jock Lindsay’s or Raglan Road usually.
be afraid not of what you know but of what you don’t know. 24 years of Nursing and a combat Medic in the Army coronavirus isn’t even in the top 10 of things that I’m worried about that I’ve been exposed to. When patients and other people ask me I say stay home if you’re not comfortable. The rest of the world will go on whether you’re in it or not. Companies arent responsible anymore it’s personal responsibility to wash your hands cover your mouth those are basic kindergarten rules in life you should always be doing. I guarantee you 50% of people who complain more about this never wash their hands after going to the bathroom. I’d rather see a cop in every bathroom make sure that happens
We went yesterday afternoon and it was perfect. Cast Members were out doing little cheers to add some enthusiasm, that made it feel less empty and cold.
Are you heading back today when World of Disney opens?