Disney World Physical Distancing & Face Mask Rule Relaxation Report
As the summer travel season kicks off, Walt Disney World is getting back to normal. We spent the long weekend in the parks, and will share our “real world” experiences with face mask, physical distancing, and other health safety rule relaxation in Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
Let’s start with a brief recap of the major recent changes you might’ve missed. In accordance with Orange County’s phased reopening plan, Walt Disney World is “gradually” reducing physical distancing in the parks. This has already been a multi-week phased process, the pretty significant and visible developments occurring in the last several days.
Following that, the CDC issued new mask guidance that effectively ended outdoor masking and most indoor masking except in crowded settings. Then Orange County ended its outdoor face mask mandate, and both Universal and Disney followed suit the same day. Universal has since gone a step further, making masks optional indoors for fully vaccinated guests and ending enforcement of health safety protocol. Numerous changes have occurred around Walt Disney World as a result of the relaxation to physical distancing and face mask rules; we’ll cover the “on the ground” implications in this post…
One thing we won’t do is make value judgments as to whether any of this is good or bad. Anyone who has read this blog for the last year probably already knows our perspective. Moreover, as has long been stated in the opening to our Guide to Face Masks at Walt Disney World, we are not here to relitigate topics that have been resolved by Disney’s rules.
While the ultimate “conclusion” of Walt Disney World’s face mask and physical distancing rules is not yet totally settled, the writing is pretty clearly on the wall. It should be obvious in looking at Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, and almost every other major business in the United States where these rules are headed in the not-too-distant future. All of the arguments about what should happen will be rendered moot in the coming days or weeks.
Suffice to say, if you a Walt Disney World trip planned this summer, you should expect what you see here to be the maximum level of health safety protocol you’ll experience. This is how things are right now, and should not be indicative of what to expect in July–and certainly not October or December 2021.
With that out of the way, let’s take an on the ground look at Walt Disney World as of early June 2021…
We cannot underscore the present fluidity in Walt Disney World’s health safety protocol. The best illustration of this might be in the signage you’ll find around the four parks right now.
There are literally stickers on top of stickers, and discrepancies in these visual rule reminders not just among the various parks, but within each land.
A “fun” game you might play if you’re visiting in the next week or so is to spot differences in signage.
I don’t know that this would actually be enjoyable–you probably shouldn’t take entertainment advice from a hobbyist trash can photographer–but I still see people playing Heads Up! in the parks, and this sounds better than that.
In fairness to Walt Disney World, modifying or replacing all of this signage is a herculean task–especially during a stretch of weeks when things have been changing constantly. All of this was originally installed while the parks were closed and no guests were around–who knows how long it took.
(Side note: it amuses me way too much that the directional arrow in the above photo had a sticker placed over it, but not the “6 feet” in the text below.)
The slow progress on this front is unsurprising. Walt Disney World is short staffed, more rule relaxations are coming soon, and it’s likely most guests are now tuning out these signs anyway.
Accordingly, Walt Disney World’s decision to not fixate on signage updates is totally understandable.
I think it’d be perfectly reasonable–and just as effective from a messaging perspective–to remove the trash can signage entirely, and just have sandwich boards outside the transportation entrances, ticket booths, and turnstiles conveying the current rules.
I suspect we’ll see that soon, with only a few stray trash cans being adorned with old stickers. Again, might be “fun” scavenger hunt material to scour far flung corners of the parks for the straggler signage that gets missed when everything else is removed. (Like hunting for Musket Mickey at Fort Wilderness!)
From a practical perspective, above is the most relevant sign at this point.
These are positioned at the entrance of almost every queue at Walt Disney World, and serve as a reminder that guests need to put on face masks even in outdoor queues.
The greeter at each attraction entrance also reminds guests of this.
It’s a bit awkward to take photos of Cast Members, so just pretend there’s someone standing next to the above sign in the Land pavilion as you marvel at that exquisite wall carpet. Because even though the Cast Member is not pictured, they are there!
It’s arguably just as awkward to go around taking photos of trash cans. Admittedly, I spent far too much time chronicling this over the last several days, compiling literally hundreds of photos when maybe 2-3 would’ve sufficed.
You probably did not click on this post hoping to see a showcase of my “impressive” collection of trash can photos. So let’s turn to a report on physical distancing and face mask wearing are at Walt Disney World as of early June 2021…
In outdoor common areas, hardly anyone is wearing face masks.
It’s probably 10-15% of all guests, plus every Cast Member. During our time at Walt Disney World over the course of the last week, we didn’t observe any discernible differences among the parks. Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios are all more or less the same.
Not that this is particularly notable, but there have been differences in past mask compliance between World Showcase and Fantasyland, for example.
The bigger difference we’ve noticed is in more congested areas of the parks. Across the board, mask wearing increases (even when not required) in more densely-occupied locations. Even then, it’s still a pretty low percentage.
Out of both curiosity and (if I’m being honest) on accident once for way too long after exiting an attraction, I wore a face mask for a bit to see if it would prompt negative interactions from other guests. Given the divisiveness of masks over the course of the last year, this seemed like a worthwhile (albeit limited) experiment.
It resulted in no reactions whatsoever. Hopefully that’s a small bit of good news for anyone planning on wearing masks in the parks this summer who’s worried about unsolicited feedback from other guests!
In terms of compliance with Walt Disney World’s indoor face mask rule, it is generally pretty good.
The biggest exception to this is restrooms. Some of them have signs outside the door, which seems to increase mask-wearing, but it’s still below 50% in restrooms that are directly accessible from outdoor common areas. Restrooms accessed from indoors (those in pavilions, resort lobbies, restaurants, etc.) are much higher.
Compliance is much higher in queues, with the exception of overflow areas that are beyond the attraction marquee where the signage and greeter reminds guests to put on masks.
In our experience, mask wearing in lines is about on par with what it was before the outdoor rule was dropped. Honestly, this is a little surprising given general fatigue and rules ending in other theme parks and businesses. Giving guests a “breather” outdoors might be helping increase compliance indoors.
If you’re worried about any of the health safety protocol, physical distancing is probably going to be the much more noticeable issue. Even early last month, we were noticing that guests were starting to give up on distancing, with many ignoring the ground markers.
That’s even more pronounced now, with spacing in most lines being more or less back to normal. While you can control how closely you stand to the party in front of you, it’s very difficult to do the same with the party behind you. Without the markers, asking people to take a step back is not a particularly viable approach–you’ll be fighting a losing battle.
Walt Disney World is also in the process of removing the ground markers from queues, which remains a work in progress. In some locations, there’s a bunch of “phantom queue.” Areas where markers haven’t yet been removed from overflow areas but have been removed from the regular queue.
The result is that the queue no longer extends into the overflow area because guest spacing is tighter, but the overflow markers still exist as a remnant of those longer lines. Within a week or so, we’d expect these to be entirely gone.
The upside to this is that so much more of these queues are under cover or entirely indoors. There’s still overflow at Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, but not nearly as much as even a month ago. Pirates of the Caribbean was entirely in the fortress during our Magic Kingdom day.
Suffice to say, wearing a face mask in line is much easier when the queue has air conditioning or at least some shade.
Every show we’ve done in the last week has also reduced physical distancing. This has been pretty dramatic, with theaters more than doubling their capacity by no longer blocking every other row and leaving large sections of seats blocked off.
The big upside to this is that the measurable wait times for shows are now largely or perhaps completely a thing of the past. Our wait times have been however long it is until the next show. Available seats are no longer the limiting factor–demand is.
The most pronounced operational shift at Walt Disney World has occurred with shows.
There went from being a ton of spacing to Cast Members telling us to “move all the way forward” while waiting outside theaters. (We haven’t heard “please fill in all available space” yet, but some of our friends have!)
Rides, on the other hand, remain all over the place. More are now loading every row, while some others are not. The number in the latter group is getting smaller and smaller with each passing day, though.
(Interestingly, Slinky Dog Dash was loading every other row during our visit. I’m not sure why, as it has/had been loading every row for months!)
Ultimately, I’m not even sure how valuable this health safety rule relaxation report even is from a planning perspective. Again, all of this is as of late May and early June 2021. What we experienced over the course of the last week is the maximum amount of face mask wearing and physical distancing you can expect to encounter when visiting Walt Disney World this summer. It remains likely that official rules will be further reduced or ended entirely, guests will become further fatigued, and/or enforcement will drop.
We are sympathetic to those who are not personally ready for the fast pace of rule changes, have a lower risk tolerance, or are parents of kids under age 12. It has been a difficult and downright traumatic year, and a lot is changing quickly thanks to the highly efficacious vaccines, plummeting case numbers and hospital burden. Many people are going to have a hard time easing back into “normal” situations; it’s going to be a gradual process that requires adjustment, acclimation, and time. We can extend a little courtesy and compassion as everyone’s circumstances and comfort levels are different.
While it would be unwise to substitute my judgment for your own, I personally would not visit Walt Disney World this summer if I were anxious about any health safety protocol that’s out of my own hands. No one is going to stop you from wearing a face mask or yell at you for leaving a bit of space between you and the party in front of you. But that’s about all you can do. Beyond that, expect laxer behavior and enforcement, growing crowds, and fewer rules.
Also keep in mind that Walt Disney World is just one component of the vacation, with airports, planes, ground transit, and elsewhere in Florida all being dramatically different. (Our experience with several of those things in the last week is that things are essentially back to normal.) If you’re planning a Walt Disney World visit and are worried about this stuff, our recommendation would be to take whatever best case scenario you’re hoping for…and expect the opposite. Prepare for your “worst case” scenario, determine whether that’s a non-starter or something you can work with and still have a fun trip, and plan accordingly.
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!
If you’ve visited the parks in the last two weeks, what has your experience been with Walt Disney World relaxing physical distancing and the outdoor face mask rule? Have these changes caused you to book or postpone a visit this summer? Please keep the comments civil. This is not the place for arguing about policies, 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.
Realize that wearing a mask does not protect YOU. The thinking is that the mask might offer a little protection for others around you if you have COVID. Therefore, wearing a mask in densely-populated areas will not make you, the mask wearer, any safer. If you’re vaccinated, don’t worry about what others are doing. Your chances of getting COVID are very low, and in the remote possibility that you DO get COVID, it will most likely be a mild, asymptomatic version that is not easily transmissible to others. Hopefully, all mask requirements will be gone in the next few weeks. Universal has the right idea. Time to go back to normal.
“ We can extend a little courtesy and compassion as everyone’s circumstances and comfort levels are different.” I sincerely hope this is the case in person, since it has not been the case in various online forums. Ahem.
As a vaccinated parent of a younger, unvaccinated kiddo, it’s been downright perplexing how to navigate post-vax life.
I appreciate your updates! The photos help me plan (& offer a bit of exposure therapy for my anxiety, too…).
@Cliff, I bet some of those unmasked children you saw have had Covid, therefore, they’re in the same boat as a vaccinated individual. My kids are unvaccinated, but FULLY immune. I take my kids (mask free) into every establishment that lifted its mask mandate for fully vaccinated people because my kids are just as immune (I would argue more so) as any vaccinated adult. Children younger than 12 who’ve had Covid are also contributing to herd immunity and I think more people should consider that. 🙂
At universal now. Indoor mask wearing is the same as outside. Probably about 10-15% including kids. Honor system working about as well as you would expect.
Hi Tom! Wondering if you had any predictions about when Park Hoppers will return to normal hours? Last trip we were able to rope drop BOTH Hollywood Studios and Epcot thanks to advice from your blog. I hope we can do it again this December!
Hey Tom, not sure if this has been addressed elsewhere on your blog or not, but do you have any feel for what the rental car situation is like in Orlando? Been hearing horror stories of pre-booked car rentals and then getting shunted to 3rd party vendors for sky high prices that were not originally agreed because of such shortage, but don’t know if that’s few and far between or par for the course right now. Would love some insight as we plan for an upcoming trip!
The one show I noticed was still heavily distanced this past weekend was Festival of the Lion King. I wonder if that’s either because that theater has a higher capacity, so it’s a larger “crowd” than something like Tiki Room, or if it’s because it’s using live union performers and they had to agree to certain terms to get the cast back to work. Whatever the reason, because of distancing people had to be in line about 45 minutes before showtime to guarantee a spot.
We were also there this past weekend, and I have to say, I was actually surprised at how high the mask compliance was indoors. It seemed like the majority of people were wearing their masks properly and without complaint – we definitely saw fewer people with noses peeking out or their mask around their chins than we did on our last trip around Easter. As you said, bathrooms were the one hit or miss spot. We also walked around with masks outside several times when we forgot to take them off and no one bothered us about it. We also found distancing in queues seems to be a thing of the past – I already miss people not being right up my behind when we’re in line – I think it may have been the only good thing about the distancing protocols, but it’s also definitely nice to not see random lines everywhere and have to play the “which line am I getting in?” game anymore.
What’s wrong with Heads Up?!?!?! My kids love to play that while waiting in line.
@Terry: Disney does not now and will not ever have separate rules for vaccinated and unvaccinated guests. There is, and will be, one set of rules that applies to everyone.
If you visit TODAY, masks are required for all guests whenever you are indoors, experiencing an attraction, on transportation, or in a queue. Masks are optional for all guests outside of these settings (i.e. in outdoor common areas like walkways and dining patios, or when seated at your own indoor restaurant table).
However, as Tom noted in the article above, many American companies (including Universal and SeaWorld, WDW’s most direct competitors) have already progressed to a ‘masks optional’ policy. The official policies at these places are typically something like “masks are optional for the vaccinated and required for the unvaccinated,” but since vaccination status in the US is on the honor system, that actually means that they are optional for everyone. It’s a pretty safe assumption that WDW will move to a similar policy in the coming weeks, if not DAYS, as it’s not sustainable for them to have more stringent rules than their competitors (especially when we’re talking about face masks in summer).
Considering that that’s where things stand *today*, and you’re looking at a trip in *November*, I would expect that masks will be largely gone from WDW by then. Some/all of you might need to wear them for your flights and going thru immigration/customs and such (we’ll have to see how the worldwide covid situation goes), but once you are out of the airport and free to roam Florida, you probably won’t need masks again.
Hey, we like the trash can photos! I like to think now we readers are also trash can connossieurs.
We are currently at Disney World and your assessment is exactly right. What surprised me the most is how quickly and enthusiastically people went back to wanting to stand in your back pocket in line. Even without Covid why would you want to be so close to strangers? It’s not like you get on the ride any faster. Since the adults are vaccinated what you can control is have the kids stand in front of your group with decent space and then let strangers breathe on a shield of adults. Think of it as man spreading for safety!
I don’t think it is weird to take pictures of trash cans. I take pictures of bathroom signs and bathrooms. Some are really amazing, but you should see the looks I get! When I have exhausted my bathroom pictures, maybe I will start looking at trash cans.