Walt Disney World will soon be ending its indoor face mask rule for vaccinated guests in most locations! This covers details on the dropping of health safety protocol, what else has changed, exceptions to changes, our commentary, and answers to frequently asked questions about implications for everything else.
If this seems like deja vu all over again, that’s because it is. Early last June, Walt Disney World made the exact same move to drop indoor mask rules for most guests, shortly after a similar change by Universal Orlando. Those decisions followed Orange County loosening its rules and the CDC revising its guidelines, paving the way for Disney to do likewise.
It was a good 45 day run, but then Walt Disney World reinstated its indoor face mask rule following the CDC issuing new guidance at the start of the Delta wave. For a couple of months after that, Florida had the highest case numbers in the country…until its wave subsided and it went from worst to first. Despite that, masking remained in place when cases, hospitalizations, and deaths all declined dramatically in Florida.
That was likely with an eye towards the holiday season, which experts were forecasting would result in a spike in all of those numbers again–and that was before the highly-transmissible Omicron variant entered the picture. Exactly that happened, with Florida and every other state breaking its own past records during the holiday season surge.
Even Universal Orlando reinstated its indoor face mask rules for the holiday season, before once again dropping them when the surge ended on February 12. Now, less than a week later, history is repeating itself and Walt Disney World is doing likewise.
Before we get to the change, here’s what the face mask rule on Walt Disney World’s “Reopening & Update Experiences” page looked like as of this morning:
This should allow for a side by side comparison with the new rule–the first significant change in nearly 8 months.
Here’s the official NEW face mask rule from Disneyworld.com, which adds a new paragraph above the current rules:
Here’s the verbatim text of the change:
“Beginning February 17, 2022, Face coverings will be optional for fully vaccinated Guests in both outdoor and indoor locations. We expect Guests who are not fully vaccinated to continue wearing face coverings in all indoor locations, including indoor attractions and theaters. Face coverings will still be required by all Guests (ages 2 and up) on enclosed Disney transportation, including Disney buses, monorails, and Disney Skyliner.”
Our Commentary & Answers to Common Questions
Will Walt Disney World be asking guests their vaccine status?
For one thing, there’s past precedent–Walt Disney World didn’t make any distinction the last time mask rules were dropped. Also, it’s prohibited under Florida law and other businesses have lost high-profile legal battles with the state.
For another thing, virtually no business anywhere—even in other states without Florida’s laws—is differentiating between vaccinated and unvaccinated guests beyond the honor system policy, unless required by the state (and as mentioned above, Florida does the opposite).
It’s simply not worth the hassle and headache. It would be asking a lot of Cast Members at a time when there’s already a labor shortage and frontline employees everywhere are at about their wits’ end. This is why the new rule is, essentially, “there is no rule.” (Outside of enclosed transportation, where there remains a face mask rule for all guests. You should expect that to be actively enforced.)
If my kids are under age 5, and thus cannot possibly be vaccinated, will they be required to wear masks?
Again, this is effectively the end of enforcement of rules by Walt Disney World.
Even though it can reasonably be deduced that a small child under 5 years old is unvaccinated, Disney will not be policing whether they wear masks in light of the above. Instead, all unvaccinated guests will be “expected” to wear masks. Likewise, I am expected to eat vegetables when I prepare dinner for myself, but you can guess how that goes when I’m left unsupervised.
Why is Walt Disney World ending the rule on February 17, 2022 instead of immediately?
That’s a good question.
It’s likely that Walt Disney World realizes some families of unvaccinated children under age 5 are going to be uncomfortable with this change, and might want to cancel their vacations as a result. Accordingly, it makes sense to give them some advance notice to plan accordingly. Either way, it could be a rough couple days ahead of this transition, so please comply with current rules and be kind to frontline Cast Members. Remember, they do not make the rules that they enforce!
This makes me feel uncomfortable to visit Walt Disney World, any risk mitigation advice?
The highest-risk activity at Walt Disney World since reopening has been dining indoors. That has remained true without regard for any past or present rule changes. The easiest way to reduce your actual risk is by eating outside. See our List of the Best Outdoor Dining at Walt Disney Worldfor recommendations. If you’re comfortable with indoor restaurants, mask rules shouldn’t really change the equation much for you.
For those who are still concerned about face masks, the silver lining is that One-Way Masking Works. High quality masks are now widely available, so your safety is no longer dependent upon what others are doing–your health is in your own hands.
(Here’s one high-quality mask we recommend. We don’t use it anymore, viewing higher quality masks as superfluous for two relatively young and healthy adults who are fully vaccinated and boosted, but they’re a good option if your personal profile or risk tolerances differ from ours.)
Why are there still mask rules on transportation?
As best we can tell, that one is outside Walt Disney World’s control.
According to the US Department of Transportation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued an Order requiring the wearing of masks by travelers on conveyances when boarding, disembarking, and for the duration of travel. The Order defines “conveyance” as including “aircraft, train, road vehicle (including rideshares), vessel…or other means of transport, including military transport.”
At present, it appears that this is set to expire on March 18, 2022. It could be extended, as that has already occurred several times in the past. (We didn’t dig too deeply on this one, so take this explanation with a grain of salt.)
Will the face mask rule be enforced on transportation?
That remains to be seen, but our expectation based upon Disney’s different uses of verbiage is that Cast Members will actively enforce the mask rules on the listed fully enclosed forms of transportation.
Are face masks required on boats, ferries, and other watercraft?
No–and they haven’t been in a while.
Why isn’t ___ back? When might it return?
If you want to save yourself some time and not read the remaining questions and answers here, staffing–or a lack thereof is probably the answer to your first question and when more Cast Members have been hired and trained is probably the answer to the second question.
I don’t mean to sound glib. However, a shortage of Cast Members is the single biggest explanation for everything Disney is (not) doing right now. It has literally nothing to do with safety or even demand. Face masks were the last relic of Disney’s health protocol–they’ve otherwise been packing the parks for months. And to that point, demand is no issue whatsoever.
It’s all about staffing shortages. This is hardly unique to Central Florida or Walt Disney World. You’ve probably seen similar stories on your local news about the hospitality industry having a tough time finding workers. We’ve also discussed it in countless articles. Nevertheless, it’s worth reiterating once again for those who are new to the site.
There was a stretch of several months post-reopening when a lack of demand was the primary problem, but that ceased being the case by spring break. Pent-up demand is off the charts right now, and all health safety restrictions have been lifted. The primary limiting factor is a lack of Cast Members. Unfortunately, the company was caught off-guard by the speed of America’s reopening and labor market realities.
Walt Disney World’s hiring blitz continues and the company is running job opening advertisements, doing job fairs, and even offering significant signing bonuses. For the last few months, those have been increasing and are now $1,000 to $3,000 plus a relocation perk for some positions.
Disney has had some success in hiring, but thousands more employees are needed. It’s not going to be a quick fix. Moreover, there’s a lot of on-the-job learning, and it’ll take some time before all of these new Cast Members have the knowledge/skills/etc. necessary to make a big impact. We hope some of these shortages work themselves out by Spring 2022, but we’re no longer completely optimistic–there are many complicating factors and some of these issues will persist for years.
During Disney’s most recent earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek commented on this, indicating that the main reason Walt Disney World wasn’t back to 100% capacity was due to staffing shortages. In particular, restaurants and resorts are having a difficult time hiring for key positions–cooks and housekeepers, in particular–which has forced those locations to operate with unfilled tables and rooms. A good amount of entertainment is also not yet back. All of this in turn reduces overall park capacity, as things that would normally help absorb crowds are missing or not firing on all cylinders.
When will Disney Park Pass reservations end?
Depends upon who you ask.
High level leaders, including the CEO and head of the theme park division, have stated in interviews that they will continue to use certain technology that improves efficiencies when operations are back to normal. Many fans have taken this to mean that Disney Park Pass is here to stay.
For reasons we discuss in When Will Disney Park Pass Reservations End?we doubt that will be the case. With that said, we expect reservations to stick around until Walt Disney World is able to increase park capacity to 100%. At this point, that’s a staffing issue. At some point in the not-too-distant future, we expect Disney Park Pass will be rolled into the ticket-buying process. Reservations will likely continue for Annual Passholders indefinitely.
When will Park Hopping be allowed before 2 pm?
Park Hopping is likewise dictated by capacity, so those rules could be relaxed as soon as attendance caps further increase or are lifted entirely. However, that doesn’t mean it’ll be restored as soon as that occurs.
Loosening Park Hopping rules may not be viewed as a high priority by Disney. To the contrary, we think Walt Disney World will retain the current Park Hopping policy for the foreseeable future–probably until there’s a sustained downturn in attendance. That might never happen.
What about closed restaurants or ‘temporarily unavailable’ character meals?
As you can see in our Open & Closed Restaurants at Walt Disney World (February 2022), not much is still shuttered. Only a few, mostly Signature Restaurants at this point, many of which are in World Showcase and dependent upon international Cast Members to re-enter the United States. It should go without saying, but this rule change has no bearing on that.
As for character meals, we’d expect to see more of those restored in the coming weeks. Spring Break and Easter are right around the corner, and it’s possible–even probable–that Walt Disney World will want to bring more character meals back in time for those lucrative travel times. More dining announcements could come very soon.
Does this mean the Disney Dining Plan will be back soon?
See above. Restaurant capacity is a necessary prerequisite for the Disney Dining Plan being brought back, and resolving the ongoing staffing shortages is essential for more restaurant capacity. There’s also the question of whether guests are “revenge spending” so aggressively now that the Disney Dining Plan is actually less profitable for Disney.
Walt Disney World has started to bring back dedicated character locations, but as “sightings” rather than traditional “meet & greets.” The difference is that character sightings offer individualized time indoors for selfies and posed photos, but are physically distanced, meaning no hugs or autographs.
At this point, it’s hard to say when non-physically distanced character meet & greets will return. Our expectation is that this will be one of the last things to go back to normal. It’s entirely about perception and practicality. It might be a bad look to allow a performer hug a child who cannot yet be vaccinated. Disney also cannot reasonably dictate that kids don’t touch the characters; that’s also not a realistic rule.
The actual risk of such a scenario might be virtually nonexistent based on the brief exposure time and the “layers” separating the fur characters from the child, but so much of what Disney is doing and has done is about optics rather than safety. As such, our expectation is that Disney might wait until vaccines are available for kids under 5–but with that now being delayed, who knows–Disney might opt to move sooner.