Walt Disney World has ended its outdoor face mask rule, effective May 15, 2021!!! This follows updates from Orange County, Universal Orlando, and the CDC. This post offers details on where you will and won’t be required to wear a mask, our commentary about the changes, and quick answers to frequently asked questions about what this might mean for the Dining Plan, FastPass+, fireworks, character meet & greets, and more.
Let’s start with a brief recap of the myriad recent changes you might’ve missed. (If you already read the earlier post about Orange County Ending the Outdoor Face Mask Mandate, scroll down to the Minnie Mouse photo–everything before then simply recaps what happened on Friday afternoon.) Yesterday, the CDC issued new mask guidance for fully vaccinated individuals that effectively ended outdoor masking and most indoor masking except in crowded settings. This caused a domino effect that resulted in today’s earlier-than-anticipated announcement from Walt Disney World.
Only a few hours after CDC’s bombshell press conference, the Walt Disney Company held its quarterly earnings call. During the question & answer segment, CEO Bob Chapek was asked about attendance limits. In response, he said that Walt Disney World has already started to raise capacity caps based on past guidance from the CDC and Florida. He also intimated that face mask rules will soon be relaxed at Walt Disney World, calling the aforementioned new CDC guidance “very big news…particularly if anybody’s been in Florida in the middle of the summer with a mask on. That could be quite daunting.”
On Friday afternoon, Mayor Jerry Demings held a press conference regarding Orange County’s three-phased plan for lifting all health mandates. During that, he revealed that over 50% of Orange County’s population age 16+ has received their first dose of the vaccine.
This is a significant milestone, as it moves Orange County into the second phase of the plan. This means that the face mask mandate for outdoors is lifted for all individuals, physical distancing of at least 3 feet between groups is encouraged, and face masks are still required indoors, except when eating or drinking.
Simultaneous with Orange County’s press conference, Universal Orlando modified its rules with the header: New Safety Guidelines: Getting Closer to Normal.
Here’s the official text of new face mask rule at Universal Orlando: “We’re excited to enhance your Universal experience with the latest safety updates from local health and government officials.
- Face coverings are not mandatory while outdoors.
- Face coverings are still required in all indoor locations including shops and restaurants.
- Face coverings are required at all attractions—from the moment the queue begins until the exit of the experience.
- Guests must still provide their own face covering.
- Social Distancing between travel parties remains at three feet (1 meter).”
Hours later, Walt Disney World is following Universal’s lead and making changes to its “Reopening & Update Experiences”, lifting its outdoor face mask rule. Here’s the full text of the new policy from DisneyWorld.com:
“Face coverings are optional in outdoor common areas at Walt Disney World Resort, but are still required upon entering and throughout all attractions, theaters and transportation.”
Note “upon entering” above refers to attraction entrances. Masks are required as soon as you walk through or under the attraction marquee, even if it’s still outdoors. (No word yet as to whether masks are required in overflow queues or lines that spill out into walkways.)
Theme park entrances/turnstiles/tapstiles are considered outdoor common areas, and thus masks are not required at those. Presumably, the same is true while walking through security.
For those wondering why Walt Disney World is only lifting the outdoor mask rule despite the CDC going further for fully vaccinated individuals, that’s because Disney does not, and will not, distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated guests. (We probably sound like a broken record at this point, but we either have to address it once in the body text or repeatedly in the comments.)
Having two categories of guests that would be a nightmare scenario for enforcement, and overly burdensome to frontline Cast Members. Walt Disney World already has significant issues with employee morale and turnover as a result of enforcing face mask rules; that would only worsen if Cast Members were tasked with determining who is “eligible” to go mask-less indoors.
Instead, Walt Disney World is taking the universally-applicable recommendations and the overwhelming body of scientific evidence that outdoor transmission is unlikely, and probably accounts for less than 1% of all cases.
Think of this as rule-making by lowest common denominator: it’s low risk for everyone to go mask-free outdoors, without regard to age or vaccination status. Since Disney won’t take into account age or vaccination status, that’s the rule.
At some point, we wouldn’t be surprised if Disney shifts from a rule to a recommendation for face masks indoors, essentially letting guests make personal decisions about risk mitigation and tolerance.
That’ll likely be accompanied by careful language encouraging or potentially even “requiring” the unvaccinated to continue masking for their safety and that of other guests. If it’s a requirement (air quotes), Disney would take a hands-off approach enforcement.
That’s a possibility further down the road, but not today. For now, it’s “just” masking in outdoor common areas. We think that’s pretty significant, a huge step and a compromise that appropriately balances the health of guests and Cast Members with the aforementioned practical realities of rule-making.
It also does away with masks in the most unpleasant place to wear them, and right before Florida’s hot and humid summer season starts. This is a change we’ve been predicting for months, but honestly, it’s happening even sooner than we anticipated. However, holding out after the CDC made huge waves yesterday simply does not seem tenable, which is likely why so many businesses quickly relaxed or outright abandoned their mask rules by the following day.
In response to all of the news of health safety protocol changes and rule relaxations over the last couple of weeks, we’ve received a ton of questions about other, semi-related things. We’ve provided scattered speculation, answers, and commentary in a variety of posts and comments thereto, but want to consolidate some of that here.
As a general preface to all of that, it’s our understanding that a relaxation to face mask rules was looming on the horizon for summer at Walt Disney World, but was accelerated as a result of the CDC’s bombshell new guidance. That caught many state, city, and business leaders by surprise, especially given that it was such a sharp departure from the previous approach of gradually rolling back health guidance at a slow pace.
Consequently, there has been a lot of scrambling over the last 24 hours as theme parks and other businesses attempt to adapt and roll out changes based upon the CDC guidance far sooner than expected. While Walt Disney World and others could hold out and not relax rules in accordance with the new CDC recommendations, it’s advantageous–and more practical–to change along with that guidance.
More than anything else, businesses were caught flatfooted by the dramatic change and are attempting to move quickly. (Keep in mind that Walt Disney World is still in the process of phasing out temperature checks–those end May 16, 2021!) Against that backdrop, the uncertainty that follows might make a bit more sense…
Disney stated capacity would be increased…when will Park Passes be refilled?
They just were!
Above is a current look at Disney Park Pass availability for the rest of the month. As you can see, it’s now entirely green starting next week. This is a pretty significant refill across all three buckets, so if your travel dates didn’t have full availability for all parks before, check again!
What does this mean for FastPass+ return?
With physical distancing relaxed and attendance limits increased, we’re seeing this question more and more. The short answer is that we haven’t heard anything recently, but don’t expect it to return in the near term. FastPass+ lines are already in use for select guests, but fully restoring the service would require more staffing–that’s an issue until around late June.
There are other complicating factors unique to this, which are covered at length in When Will FastPass+ Return to Walt Disney World? Personally, I wouldn’t worry too much about the lack of FastPass in the immediate future–Disney is also increasing attraction efficiency, which will help with wait times. June and July are going to be a different story, though.
When will Walt Disney World increase restaurant capacity?
When Walt Disney World relaxed physical distancing, the rule change specifically stated “six-feet distancing measures will continue in all dining locations.” This could be interpreted as Walt Disney World erring on the side of caution, and that certainly may be true. It might also be good for appearances, but dictated by practical operational realities.
Again, staffing is a huge problem right now for restaurants. We’ve done several meals recently where numerous tables were unfilled (beyond those deliberately left open) and many third party restaurants are offering huge signing bonuses in a desperate attempt to attract employees. For example, dining locations in EPCOT’s Mexico pavilion are offering up to $1,000 to new hires.
The good news there is that Walt Disney World announced the return of the College Program in Summer 2021. These participants will begin in mid-June and should be trained by the end of that month. New College Program participants could help ease the burden on those restaurants, allowing Walt Disney World to increase capacity at restaurants–and open more locations.
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.
For much more extensive commentary, see our newly-updated When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return?
What about fireworks?
We’d say there’s a 90% chance of one fireworks show being back by July 2021 (or earlier). There’s about a 50% chance of two fireworks shows being back by that time.
See our last Walt Disney World news & rumor roundup for more details. Since that post, both Epcot Forever and Harmonious have been seen testing by guests at the Crescent Lake resorts.
Character meet & greets?
We would not expect non-physically distanced character meet & greets to return anytime soon. To the contrary, this will likely be one of the last things to go back to normal. Possibly not until 2022.
It’s entirely about perception and practicality. Disney cannot and will not mandate that performers are vaccinated, and it’d be a bad look to allow a potentially unvaccinated performer to hug a child who cannot yet be vaccinated. Disney also cannot reasonably dictate that kids don’t touch the characters; that’s 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.
At this point, there is no compelling scientific reason to not bring buffets back at this point. Buffet lines could have the same physical distancing markers as queues for those fleeting encounters. Given that fomite or surface transmission is exceedingly rare and unlikely, handling the serving utensils or being near communal food does not present any meaningfully degree of actual risk, although there’s undoubtedly still the perception it does.
Again, perception is everything. As such, we don’t see buffets coming back this summer. Perhaps later in the year if all hygiene theater ends, but companies will want to retain the appearance of some safety measures even after the most meaningful ones have been dropped. Conversely, the absence of things like buffets and playgrounds might be frustrating and almost nonsensical, but they’re far less impactful on the overall guest experience than outdoor face masks. That’s a trade-off we’ll happily accept!
Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!
Thoughts on Walt Disney World relaxing its face mask rule outdoors? Do you agree or disagree with the swift relaxation of rules? Surprised by Disney’s quick rule change? Pleased or displeased by the decision? Think Walt Disney World has more plans to return to normal? Expectations with the Dining Plan, FastPass+, fireworks, meet & greets, or anything else? Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about efficacy, politics, and so forth–all such comments will be deleted, irrespective of perspective. You are not going to change anyone’s mind via the comments section on this blog, nor are you going to change Disney’s rules or public policy. If you wish to contest this, rather than yelling into the internet abyss, have your voice heard in a meaningful way by contacting Disney or your local elected officials.