Is Disney World “Magical” Right Now?
“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. We’ll attempt to answer here based on visits to Epcot, Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and Magic Kingdom.
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, face mask and physical distancing rules, and Annual Passes, this is an unsurprisingly common reader inquiry.
Of course, “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 100Âº, 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 upside. Because park capacity has been reduced and others aren’t visiting for a number of reasons, weekday crowds are low and wait times are minimal. Weekends have become a different story, but weekday crowds have been low since reopening.
Suffice to say, there’s nothing “magical” about waiting in long lines and navigating heavy crowds. 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.
The good news is that Orange County has started to improve (see positivity and hospital capacity numbers here and here) despite every theme park in the county now being open. Additionally, Florida as a whole seems to have turned a corner. With that said, we don’t want to get ahead of ourselves–Florida’s numbers are better but still elevated. Plus, other locations that improved have seen subsequent second waves.
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.
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!
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!
Our next trip will hopefully be around Easter. We’ll have 3 kids under the age of 10 with us, and for all 3 of them it’ll be a first trip. I think the true magic will be in watching them experience everything for the first time, even if it will be different than what we adults have experienced previously. I am hoping that the nighttime shows are back by the time we go, because they are amazing to watch!
I just got back from a trip taken in the last week of July. We were only there for three days and we drove 18 hours down, which was a harrowing journey…but I’m already wishing I was back. I want to be out and doing things, but I need to feel safe…and so far of all the options of things to do around the country those three days at Disney were the safest, funnest days I’ve had since ‘ten years ago’ in 2019.
Yes, wearing a mask sucks, but just like all the signs it fades into the background after a bit. One nice bonus to the mask was that I didn’t have to worry about how I looked as much, which actually made it faster getting out the door in the morning. Just mask on, hair up, and go.
As someone who hates crowds, I cannot stress how much more enjoyable this was for me than it otherwise would have been. As someone who isn’t even that big of a fan of Disney, I had a wonderful time and got to hit everything I wanted to do–even Rise of the Resistance.
And as someone who doesn’t necessarily believe in Disney Magic, it was still hard not to be a little bit soft inside watching children skipping behind a Mickey Mouse cavalcade at Epcot and waving, able to get just a few more special moments in.
The magic isn’t lost at Disney, it just looks a little different…for now.
Awesome @Maggie so great to hear! We’re leaving tomorrow morning for a 5 day Disney 3 day Universal and can’t wait!!
@Docmarmo You will have a great time! Stay cool, stay safe, and drink plenty of water!
Any news on when or if the fireworks and evening shows might return. We love the evening shows and I’m sure that there could be some way they could return . Perhaps markings that are socially distanced etc . Fantasmic with reduced capacity and socially distancing seating. We are from the U.K. so we are tentatively planning for September 21 but it’s a long way to come with some of our most loved things missing.
We just got back from a week at WDW. Escapism is a great word. We were overjoyed to be back at WDW (the last time we went was 4 years ago). We have now been spoiled by the walk-on rides, absent crowds, and general emptiness of the parks. For us WDW was far more relaxing this time because we weren’t waiting in long lines and enduring crowds everywhere. It was relaxing because we saw cast members enforcing the rules and cleaning everything. Even with my parents in their 70s and my 8 year-old seeming to touch everything (walls, cue railings, etc), we were “escaped” from the real world. It also seemed that the people visiting were happier and more relaxed, and we didn’t encounter any angry, frustrated park-goers… no one yelling at their kids, etc. How nice it is to want some popcorn, a drink, or Mickey Ears, and wait behind one or two people, or not at all! EPCOT was really nice with all their food stalls, like eating out of food trucks without the long lines. No future trips planned but overall we are glad we were able to go.
You couldn’t have said it better! I’ve always considered Disney World as an escape from the normal. Now more than ever! As an essential worker, our trip next month will be followed by 2 mandatory Covid tests upon my return. For me it’s a small price to pay to get away to my most favorite place! Tom, thanks for keeping us updated and be well.
I can handle all of the changes except for the character meet and greets. My kiddos are little and they just enjoy meeting them and being able to hug them. Waving to them from a distance is just a tease because my 4 year old has been able to hug them, high five them, take a picture with them every year of his life. We have a trip that was cancelled in the spring. Still waiting and watching for when we will go back.
I was just very firmly told by the kiddo that she doesn’t want to go in late November if she can’t hug Cinderella. I’m shocked. I was convinced she would want to go no matter what. Our plans were only tentative when the world closed, but she knew I was working on a trip for that time frame. And while I wouldn’t normally let an 8 year old make my travel plans, I’ll accept her ruling on this one. Rats. I’d go alone…
I have read several comments about face shields here and wonder if anybody knows for sure who to ask about them. My husband does not like them and I think they might be better to breathe ( I have copd). I just need to know so I can get some good ones.
Face shields are not an accepted face covering per Walt Disney World’s rules. I’m not sure if they’re allowed upon inquiry with Guest Relations as an accommodation–we’ve only seen guests wearing them in addition to face masks, not in lieu of masks.
I hope when the vius is over the character meet and greets will come back.
Tom, one of your best articles. I agree that escapism it is. The magic often is just being there. Although the magic may fade with the big reveal to that horribly painted castle. He he. I was bummed about the new construction being stalled or cancelled but after reading your article I realize that just being there and having certain moments that are not planned is magic. Like my 8 yr old son actually loving carousel of progress and singing the song when we came out of the bubble.
I was two when my family brought me to Disneyland at Christmas time 1956.
Pretty cool since we are from Michigan.
I like less crowds at Disney.
Looking forward to that experience again.
Being Florida residents, we were somewhat limited with our vacation options as far as remaining in quarantine upon returning. We are also Annual Passholders. We decided to do a tour of Florida, ending at Disney World. I am never happy having to wear a mask but I comply. The heat was awful as it always is at this time of year in Florida and for me, wearing the mask was that much more difficult. However the trade off was no crowds, no waiting, and everyone complying. I think the Cast Members are doing an excellent job given the changes they’re facing. We felt safer at Disney World then we do taking a trip to our local grocery store where masks are mandatory but not everyone complies. In fact, earlier in our trip, we were at Busch Garden, Tampa, where masks are also required but people just weren’t following the guidelines. The staff there didn’t try very heard to enforce that rule. Am I glad we took the trip? Yes very much!! Did I hate wearing the mask?? Yes VERY much but it didn’t take away from the fun!! In fact we are planning a return trip in November when cooler weather returns but hopefully not the crowds!!
Totally agree. We felt the same way with our recent trip.
I found it a little interesting/curious that I really didn’t feel the need to remove our masks for photos – it’s commemorating this trip that we were masked. However due to the minimal crowds at times, we sneaked them off occasionally since we would never again get those photos!
Hi Tom and all you Disney World Lovers,
We just visited DW July 27-31. Driving Home as I type . Magical IT IS… We got on every attraction possible some multiple times. Really Enjoyed Our time at both MK and AK.
Our free day was spent at DS and the Resort Area (Beach club villas) and (Boardwalk). Only thing we wish was better IS the Food in Florida. Even though Beaches and Cream was delicious . All staff everywhere were so kind and seemed happy at all times. Masks are Not an issue at all.