“Is visiting Walt Disney World still magical right now?” and “is the magic really back without [insert something cut] at Walt Disney World?” are two common reader questions right now. We’ll attempt to answer here based on visits to Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Magic Kingdom since the parks have reopened.
This is an ongoing series, coming in response to feedback and concerns raised in reader questions we’re frequently receiving on our Walt Disney World reopening reports. Along with questions about discounts, crowds, policy changes, mask compliance, and Annual Passes, this is an unsurprisingly common reader inquiry.
Unlike all of those other questions, whether Walt Disney World is still magical is something we’ve mostly avoided answering. In large part, that’s because “magical” is a nebulous term, meaning different things for different people. Some people, sexy geniuses you might call them, would say there’s nothing more magical than waving at bumpkin bears. Others might require full parades, fireworks, character meals, and other such frivolity for a magical experience. Only the sexy geniuses are going to be satisfied with visiting Walt Disney World right now…
Joking aside, we’re going to eschew the range of varying definitions of “magical” and instead treat the term as a synonym for escapism. While there’s a certain elusive and inarticulable je ne sais quoi quality of a great and special visit to Walt Disney World, we suspect that most of that is encapsulated by escapism.
In our view, there are two components that are key to escapism: the real world and the fantasy one. How “magical” Walt Disney World is comes down to the differences between the two. This is still fairly abstract, so let’s paint a picture…
Excited to start your day in the Most Magical Place on Earth, you walk from Contemporary Resort to the park. Along the way, you’re greeted by a series of around a half dozen sandwich boards, each offering a liability disclaimer warning or new rule. After a quick stop at a tent to have your temperature taken and bag scanned, you continue towards the park.
Upon entering Magic Kingdom and rounding the corner under the train station, you hear the cheery background music, smell nostalgic scents, and your eye is first drawn to Cinderella Castle. In short order, your attention is pulled back to a series of health warnings, rules, and various other signage plastered to the side of virtually every trash can on Main Street. Cast Members line the curb, waving and clearly smiling with their eyes, but with their faces obscured by masks and shields.
This scene is every bit as jarring, dissonant, eerie, dystopian, etc. as it sounds. There’s no denying or sugarcoating that. What’s normally the greatest ‘reveal’ at Walt Disney World now has an unsettling, contradictory quality. It’s a really weird first impression, rather than being an unequivocally happy one.
The silver lining is that this is about as awkward as things get–and there are ways to sidestep that surreal sensation. Our biggest recommendation on that front is visiting the park you view as “most magical” last. Go to Epcot, the park most grounded in reality, first. (We also recommend this due to operating hours.) Then do Hollywood Studios, finishing with Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom.
We recommend ordering the parks this way because so much of what appears unharmonious online fades away in person. After seeing all of the health safety and warning signs several times, they become white noise that our brains filter out. It’s science. We’ve compared this elsewhere to California’s Proposition 65 warnings. Pretty much everything in the state may cause cancer–which freaks out visitors–but the obnoxious signs are so ubiquitous that Californians don’t even notice them.
It’s the exact same idea. You may notice all of the signage when looking at photos while sitting at home, but by day two of visiting Walt Disney World, they’re mostly invisible. Perhaps a more apt comparison is trash cans–when you look at a photo of Main Street when empty, the number of trash cans is almost startling. How many of you actively notice or count the number while in person, though?
Face masks are a different story. Those never fade into the background, neither the fact that you’re wearing one or that most Cast Members have masks plus shields. Even after wearing them for a couple of months, it’s still a relief to get to a Relaxation Station or back to the hotel room and remove them.
However, masks are also not as dreadful as some feared. Those prophesying that theme park guests would “drop like flies” due to heat exhaustion and Disney would be inundated with lawsuits due to the supposed harms caused by masks were wrong. (Shocking as it might be, thousands of guests per day are not suffering “death by mask” at Walt Disney World.)
Masks in the summer are definitely uncomfortable, but you know what else is uncomfortable? Florida in the summer. We’ve done full days in the parks with ‘feels like’ temperatures above 100º, and I can’t say it’s any worse than before. Instead of focusing on my sweat-soaked shirt, I fixate more on the mask. It’s a six of one, half a dozen of the other situation. Oppressive heat and humidity are going to be uncomfortable regardless, and I can’t say it’s appreciably worse due to the masks.
“Still awful” is not really a ringing endorsement, but if you visit Walt Disney World in the summer, you more or less know what you’re getting yourself into. To that point, if you read the comments on our various posts, you’ll probably notice a lot of people returning from Walt Disney World saying that wearing masks wasn’t as bad as they expected. From what we’ve heard, that’s the general consensus.
With that said, all of these health measures are a double-edged sword. They definitely have the effect of ‘ruining the illusion’ and allowing the real world to bleed into the Walt Disney World “bubble.” They also bring a sense of safety and comfort that you can’t find in many other places.
True to form, Walt Disney World is once again an idealized version of the real world when it comes to health safety measures. You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere in the real world where mask compliance is 96-98% (depending upon the park), where physical distancing is observed and actively enforced, and everything is just so clean.
In our view, this is where escapism (or “the magic”) depends both upon the fantasy and real worlds. The backdrop against which all this is set–raging pandemic, economic uncertainty, and the greatest social tensions of our lifetime–is inescapable.
If the last four months have been the best of your life, we deeply envy you. We’re not going out on too much of a limb by saying that’s probably not true for the vast majority of people reading this. I can’t imagine many people exited the theater after Contagion and said, “I really hope we get to live through that someday–it looked delightful!” It’s probably not necessary to explain why or how the last four months have been awful, depressing, and so forth.
The point is that real world circumstances have a bearing on escapism. The lows of the last several months amplify the highs of visiting Walt Disney World now and in the future.
You may not be experiencing as much escapism or “magic” when visiting Walt Disney World in the near-term, but the gap between the real and fantasy worlds is more pronounced than normal. Your cares won’t totally melt away when visiting Walt Disney World (nor should they) now, but it’ll be even more of an appreciated distraction.
We’re pretty confident that your next trip–whenever that might be–will just feel different. More special. More cherished. More magical, if that’s what you want to call it. However, it will be less about what Walt Disney World does or does not offer in terms of programming.
It’ll be about you. So much of the stress and tension that’s been bubbling beneath the surface will melt away when you step foot back onto Walt Disney World property–it’ll be like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders. At least, this has been the case for us.
On a personal note, we don’t need character meet & greets or parades for visiting Walt Disney World to be special. If anything, we prefer the modified character encounters. Although the character cavalcades don’t hold a candle to full parades, there’s also way less effort required to watch them. I’ve seen more total minutes of these cavalcades in the last two weeks than Festival of Fantasy in the last year.
We’ve also had a ton of fun watching Winnie the Pooh clumsily trying to catch butterflies, Joy skipping through a garden, and Stormtroopers doing their thing. Entirely a matter of personal preference, but I far prefer the Galaxy’s Edge or Disneyland-style spontaneous moments to static meet & greets.
For us, the lack of nighttime spectaculars and simply being in the parks at night are the bigger blow. Ending the day with Happily Ever After and a tranquil stroll around Magic Kingdom with the park all lit-up is a quintessential Walt Disney World experience for us. On the upside, nighttime in Magic Kingdom will once again be possible once Daylight Saving Time ends.
For now, we’ve been savoring our evening walks around Epcot. Enjoying a virtually empty World Showcase at sunset has been simply sublime–and something we never expected to be able to do. We cannot overstate how much just being able to go to Epcot and take laps around the park has improved our mood, outlook, and spirits. We’re actually able to relax and decompress again.
To that point, it’s worth reiterating that the cuts come with a huge upside. Because park capacity has been reduced and others aren’t visiting for a number of reasons, crowds are virtually nonexistent and wait times are minimal. This is something we recently covered at length in Will Walt Disney World’s Low Crowds Continue?We won’t rehash it here.
The point is that there’s nothing “magical” about waiting in long lines and navigating heavy crowds. The eerily low crowd levels might also arguably dampen the experience–there’s less of a palpable energy in the air–but I don’t think anyone has ever said, “I’d rather wait 120 minutes for Flight of Passage than 20 minutes.”
This is not to say you should race back to Walt Disney World ASAP to escape reality and get that dopamine hit. If you’re uncomfortable visiting (understandably so), you should not. That discomfort won’t simply vanish upon arrival. This post is more to address the time after which you’d be comfortable, but are still worried that there won’t be sufficient “magic” to make visiting fun.
Beyond that, we’d still generally discourage travel to Florida for at least the next couple of months. The good news is that Orange County has started to improve (see positivity and hospital capacity numbers here and here) in the last 14 days–despite every theme park in the county now being open. However, Florida as a whole still needs to turn the corner. We’re optimistic about that (see the “better outlook in hotspot states” section of this article), but don’t want to get ahead of ourselves–Florida is still the global epicenter for now. There’s no downplaying that.
Ultimately, this article is still pretty abstract in trying to answer whether Walt Disney World is still magical. That’s the inherent problem in attempting to explain a feeling that’ll undoubtedly vary from person to person. I guess the salient point, if there is one, is that it’s surreal to visit Walt Disney World right now…but simply existing in the real world is also incredibly surreal.
We don’t view “magic” as a fixed concept that can be quantified by checking off a set number of boxes in terms of character greetings, nighttime spectaculars, parades, or what-have-you. For us, “magic” is circumstantial. In light of the present real world situation, even with so much of the guest experience being “temporarily abnormal,” Walt Disney World is very much magical by comparison.
Does Walt Disney World seem as “magical” to you right now as before? Do you agree or disagree that “magical” is a circumstantial idea? Are you eagerly awaiting your next vacation ‘escape’ to Walt Disney World, or you waiting until everything returns to normal? Will you be attempting to visit Walt Disney World this fall or holiday season, or are you waiting until 2021 or beyond? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!