Coronavirus (COVID-19) Disney World News & Planning Guide

Walt Disney World’s theme parks & hotels have reopened and been safely operating for months amidst the coronavirus pandemic with physical distancing, face masks, and health rules. This planning guide addresses how WDW is keeping guests safe from COVID-19, tips & advice for navigating this period of “temporary abnormal,” plus the latest news out of Florida! (Updated May 12, 2021.)

Right now, so much has changed that typical strategies are irrelevant or inaccurate. As such, we’ve put together these “temporary abnormal” (not new normal) Walt Disney World travel tips to cover everything you need to know if you’re visiting in Summer 2021. Some things have started to return to Walt Disney World–for instance, Park Hopping is now back–but the Disney Dining Plan, FastPass, various entertainment, and more is still missing. The biggest question right now is thus when will things go back to normal at Walt Disney World?

The good news is that there’s light at the end of the tunnel, especially as coronavirus cases and hospitalizations plummet and vaccinations increase. However, there’s still a lot of uncertainty about when everything will be normal again. So much depends upon real world factors. If you’re waiting for that, you should simply postpone until October 2021 or later. We are visiting regularly and monitoring closely for updates–if you want notification as things continue to evolve, change, and return to normal, sign up to receive our FREE Walt Disney World Email Newsletter.

Let’s start with all of the latest news in Florida. The latest developments began with Orange County’s three-phased plan to end health safety mandates. This was tied to case and vaccination metrics, and resulted in the immediate relaxation of physical distancing rules thanks to the first goal being met. Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World have both since followed suit and reduced physical distancing in the parks.

That’s just the latest of many changes on the health safety protocol front in recent weeks at Walt Disney World. Temperature checks are going away soon thanks to guidance from Florida. Beverage stations have been restored to their normal self-service status, portable hand washing locations that were added shortly before the closure have been removed, and there have been other little ‘quality of park visit’ improvements that are more significant than they might seem.

The biggest change about which most readers care is the face mask rule. On that front, there has been one significant improvement: face masks can now be removed for outdoor photos at Walt Disney World. Outside of that, it’s unclear whether more changes are on the horizon–Disney recently hinted that masks might be required until November 2021.

That’s not totally surprising, and consistent with the latest CDC mask guidance that is very conservative and will not impact Walt Disney World. Following that, the Transportation Security Administration extended a federal requirement that travelers on buses, trains, flights, and at airports wear face masks. The rule will now be in effect through September 13, 2021. Obviously, that doesn’t directly impact Walt Disney World, but it’s perhaps something of a window into future expectations for guidance on mask-wearing in crowded indoor spaces.

It’s worth noting that on the last earning call, Disney CEO Bob Chapek called vaccine availability a “game changer” with significant implications for Walt Disney World. Chapek also indicated there will likely be some level of physical distancing and mask-wearing for the remainder of 2021, but what “some level” means is unclear.

Disney’s next earnings call is on May 13, 2021 and we expect more details at that time. Hopefully, a timeline or metrics will be provided for further rule relaxation. With vaccines now widely available for adults and soon available for adolescents, it’s likely Walt Disney World will further reduce health safety protocol in Summer 2021. Moreover, this will allow Walt Disney World to increase park capacity, restore entertainment, and nighttime spectaculars, among other things. All of that is desperately needed as pent-up demand is starting to cause growing crowds.

The question at this point is still when all of that will occur–what’s possible and when it happens are two different things. As we’ve said repeatedly, Walt Disney World is like an ocean liner: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots gradually. Everything takes time from decision to implementation, and it’s going to take at least 6 weeks to see big changes in the parks.

In short, it’s not going to be a matter of “flipping a switch” and having the pre-COVID experience magically restored overnight. Certain things will return before others, more entertainment will debut, additional hotels will reopen, menus will be expanded, rules relaxed, and so forth. In short, it’ll be a continuing process with things going back to normal as things improve.

Of course, people have different definitions of what “back to normal” means. For some, it’s everything pre-COVID. That won’t happen until 2022. For others, ditching the face masks is the big thing. In When Will Walt Disney World Stop Requiring Face Masks?, I predict a gradual relaxation of that rule. It’s possible Walt Disney World could loosen some of its policies (like Universal Orlando has already done) or transition from a rule to a recommendation. That could potentially occur by summer or fall.

For other people, the return of more entertainment, restaurants, resorts, and substantive offerings will mark a return to normalcy. Right now, staffing is an obstacle to many of these things, but the good news on that front is that the College Program is returning for Summer 2021. That should facilitate more offerings being brought back. (On a positive note, Festival of the Lion King just returned!)

By way of example, right now the Disney Dining Plan is not being offered. As we explain in When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return?, we do not expect that offering to be gone forever–or even until 2022. Instead, we break down what needs to happen for it to come back, why Disney wants it back ASAP, and when that’ll probably occur.

On that note, some things won’t be back until 2022. In “Now or Normal: Walt Disney World in 2021 v. 2022” we cover the pros and cons of visiting this year or waiting until next year. While significant strides are being made in the real world, it’s entirely possible Walt Disney World will continue treading water until October 1, 2021–the start of its 50th Anniversary–and aim to start bringing things back then, with more returning next year.

Beyond the Disney Dining Plan, we already know that Early Theme Park Entry will debut in 2021, replacing Extra Magic Hours. Also along that same timeframe, we anticipate one new attraction, another restaurant, a nighttime spectacular, and more to debut. If you’re curious about the brand-new offerings on the horizon, consult our What’s New & Coming to Walt Disney World in 2021 & 2022.

With that said, we do not predict that FastPass+, character meet & greets, and various extras & upcharge offerings will return by Summer 2021. There’s so much fluidity and uncertainty right now that it’s impossible to make credible predictions about so much of the Walt Disney World experience.

Here’s what we know right now–and how you should plan for Walt Disney World if you’re visiting between now and at least May 2021 during this period of “temporary abnormal” at Walt Disney World…

How is Disney Staying Safe From Coronavirus?

There’s no simple answer to this complicated coronavirus question. One of the refrains you’ll hear from Floridians is “Walt Disney World is far safer than our local grocery stores.” This is not hyperbolic–Publix can be like the wild west, and nowhere in Central Florida is as safe as its theme parks. Disney and Universal have set a high bar for their health protocol and they’ve both absolutely been crushing it at reducing the risk of COVID-19.

However, the statement is also at least a tad disingenuous. You might be inside a grocery store for an hour (unless you really love inspecting vegetables), whereas vacationing at a theme park means consecutive multi-hour days. There are more opportunities for exposure, even if each individual one is lower risk due to rules and behavior. Moreover, getting groceries is essential, whereas visiting a theme park is not.

Walt Disney World has made a ton of changes to the parks to ensure guest and Cast Member safety. For one, there are sandwich boards everywhere with rules and the boilerplate COVID-19 Warning: “We have taken enhanced health and safety measures. An inherent risk of exposure to COVID-19 exists in any public place where people are present.”

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.

As far as COVID-19 safety measures go, Walt Disney World’s official “Returning to a World of Magic” page covers the three guiding principles of the modified operational guidelines and health safety measures: enhanced cleaning, reduced contact, and physical distancing.

Check out the Physical Distancing & Safety Measures in Attraction Lines as well as the Health Safety Hotel Modifications for some looks at these in practice.

When it comes to the new health safety rules and COVID-19 protocol, face coverings remain the hot and polarizing topic. There are some unique wrinkles to Disney’s policies–see our FAQ & Guide to Face Masks at Walt Disney World for more on that. For those wondering how adherence to the rules has been–it varies.

Physical distancing is generally good in lines, but not always as great in other spaces. It’s very difficult to unlearn ingrained habits and behavior, and even guests with the absolute best intentions are bound to make ‘missteps’ in terms of physical distancing. This is no knock on guests–to the contrary, it’s preparing you for what to expect.

As for whether Walt Disney World is safe enough to visit, that’s a personal question we cannot answer for you. It was sufficiently safe for us to visit before being vaccinated, albeit with behavior modifications (we only ate outdoors and avoided indoor shows, for example).

Now that we’re fully vaccinated, we are comfortable doing anything we would’ve done in January of last year. We’ve read enough credible studies about real world efficacy, likelihood of infection and transmission (or rather, lack thereof), comparative risk analyses, and commentary from respected epidemiologists. It should go without saying, but we’ll still follow face mask and physical distancing rules or mandates where those exist.

Life is otherwise largely back to normal for us as two fully vaccinated adults without kids. Of course, everyone’s risk tolerance levels vary. Beyond that, we work from home and do not come in contact with older family members. Your circumstances will likely vary.

If you’re thinking of visiting and not everyone in your party is or can be vaccinated, we’d encourage risk mitigation. Epidemiologists point to growing evidence that transmission of coronavirus via fomites (surface transmission) is minor, unlikely, and exaggerated. By contrast, aerosol transmission of COVID-19 is much more likely, especially with prolonged personal contact or via enclosed indoor settings where coronavirus aerosols remain airborne and accumulate over time.

If those studies and research are a bit dense, check out “We Need To Talk About Ventilation,” which breaks things down in lay terms. Of particular import is the COVID-19 super-spreader-event triad’s three V’s: venue, ventilation, and vocalization. As that also points out, in one database of over 1,200 coronavirus super-spreader events, just one incident is classified as outdoor transmission.

You thus might consider avoiding indoor bars & lounges around the parks and resorts, and choosing restaurants with open air seating if you want to mitigate some risk of COVID-19 at Walt Disney World. This is arguably the biggest and best thing you can do, but Disney doesn’t make it easy–most table service restaurants only offer indoor seating. See our Best Outdoor Dining Options at Walt Disney World for recommendations on that front.

Ultimately, pre-vaccination, we generally felt safe from COVID-19 at Walt Disney World so long as we took some proactive mitigation measures. Now, we’re 100% comfortable. Our biggest disappointment is that Disney has yet to publicly address ventilation nor has the company sought to increase outdoor dining options. In some ways, it feels like Walt Disney World’s safety protocol is stuck in last March instead of May 2021. It’d be nice if Disney moved beyond the superficial measures of sanitizing and installing plexiglass, focusing less on hygiene theater and more on actual risk mitigation.

You’re all adults who are going to assess your circumstances, risk tolerance, data, and other information and make your own decisions. It’s unlikely that will be predicated on what some random blogger says. Nevertheless, hopefully you gleaned something useful from this long and rambling section and it assisted in some way!

Compromises & Cutbacks

A lot has changed. Walt Disney World has temporarily suspended parades, fireworks, and other high-density entertainment during the first phase of its reopening. Likewise, character dining, meet & greets, playgrounds, water play areas, and other areas where physical distancing is impossible or impractical are temporarily suspended during phase one.

Park hours have been reduced, in some cases fairly significantly. Additionally, Park Hopping, Extra Magic Hours, FastPass+, and the Disney Dining Plan have all been temporarily suspended. In their place, the Disney Park Pass system has been introduced, requiring reservations for visiting the theme parks.

In light of all this, “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 of the most common reader questions right now. We attempt to answer that in our comprehensive post, Is Walt Disney World Magical Right Now?

Ultimately, the answer is going to be “it depends” but that’s well worth reading to give you an idea of what to expect. We’ve been having a blast visiting Walt Disney World since the parks reopened, but our circumstances are also unique. If we were planning a first trip, we would wait until at least Summer 2021 and would recommend the same for most people reading this.

When to Visit

This section of the guide has received a total overhaul since Walt Disney World reopened. In July and August, crowds were low–well below even the reduced capacity cap set by Disney. The parks were veritable ghost towns, and that was during a period when many were expecting pent-up demand to make those months busier than the normal fall off-season.

This made sense given that overall demand for Walt Disney World has plummeted due to a variety of factors. This includes but is not limited to health & safety concerns, Florida’s case numbers, travel restrictions (read this state-by-state guide to quarantine rules following visits to Florida before booking), mandatory mask opposition, unemployment levels, economic uncertainty, travel trepidation, and Annual Pass cancellations.

On top of that, many guests feel that the value proposition simply isn’t there with shorter park hours, reduced entertainment, and more. However, it’s likely this will begin changing by Summer 2021, as the phenomenon known as “Revenge Travel” Could Spike 2021 Crowds at Walt Disney World. As more people get their COVID-19 vaccines, we’re anticipating that more people will be comfortable traveling to Walt Disney World.

Even now, attendance is trending upwards, with monthly increases from September through the end of the year. December was the busiest month post-reopening, but that doesn’t tell the full story, as December is always the busiest month in the second half of the year. Christmas is a very popular time for Walt Disney World fans. It’s also a time of year when the weather is more pleasant, making mask-wearing more comfortable and dining outdoors more practical.

January and February attendance was significantly lower, which makes sense as those months are the normal off-season for travel to Florida and cases were surging following the holidays. However, attendance spiked for spring break, and as of May 2021, it has not let up. Normally, this would be “shoulder season” between spring break and summer crowds–instead, it has mostly stayed elevated, which is attributable to remote work & learning, pent-up demand, lower case numbers, and rising vaccinations.

However, even that doesn’t tell the full story. Due to the lack of FastPass+ and physical distancing, lines look much worse than they actually are. Plus, wait times are dramatically inflated at most attractions. Before worrying too much about growing crowds, we highly recommend reading the above “up 40%” post as well as our most recent Walt Disney World Park Photo Reports. Those cover the good, bad, and ugly–offering step-by-step recaps of our visits, including posted v. actual wait times.

Another thing that’s worth noting here is that weekends are the busiest time to visit Walt Disney World. This is a trend that will undoubtedly be true throughout 2021. This is the case because weekends are the best time for Floridians to visit, and they currently make up a disproportionately large segment of guests since tourists are not visiting in their usual numbers.

If you’re looking for more specific recommendations beyond that, consider consulting our updated 2021 Best and Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World. That takes into account Orlando area school schedules and other relevant variables, and ranks every month of the next year, recommending the 3 very best weeks to visit!

Discounts

Walt Disney World has released room-only discounts for Summer & Fall 2021. If you aren’t eligible for the other good room-only rates, consider the following alternatives for saving money:

We understand the allure of being in the Walt Disney World “bubble” and the top 2 options above definitely offer that. The next 2 arguably do, as well. The last one doesn’t, but is probably the very best option in terms of bang for buck.

Additionally, we have the 10 Best Tips to Save Money at Walt Disney World. Those tips cover a lot of ideas, such as buying discount Disney gift cards, or even having Groceries Delivered to Your Walt Disney World Hotel Room. Those are just a handful of ways to save a ton of money on a trip to WDW!

Where to Stay

One of the very best posts on this blog is our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page. We have stayed at every Disney hotel, plus many off-site ones. That page offers links to each of our hotel reviews, room photos, thoughts on the amenities, pros & cons, and more.

Right now, our top picks would be Fort Wilderness Campground & Cabins, Caribbean Beach Resort, Pop Century Resort, BoardWalk Villas, and Beach Club Villas–all for different reasons. If you have a rental car, Animal Kingdom Lodge and Kidani Village are also really attractive options.

For the rest of the year, you’ll want to cross-check that page against the 2021 WDW Resort Reopening Timeline because many hotels are not yet open, and won’t be until Summer 2021. Note that some of the Disney Vacation Club or villa wings of otherwise closed hotels are open, so if you have your heart set on a specific property, that’s an option.

You should also consult our list of Construction & Refurbishments at Walt Disney World Hotels. That covers where to avoid, and how these projects could impact your trip.

Without Extra Magic Hours, the Disney Dining Plan, or priority booking windows, there’s less of a point to paying a significant premium to stay in a Disney-owned resort. That is, unless you really value the transportation, theme, or location (and many guests do). This has been a gradual erosion, as we covered in “Is Walt Disney World’s On-Site Advantage Disappearing?

Accordingly, you might consider off-site accommodations or on-site third party hotels like the Swan & Dolphin, Four Seasons Orlando, etc. (See our List of the Best Third Party Hotels Near Walt Disney World.) You also might consider renting a vacation home, both for the sake of privacy and isolation. (See our Best Vacation Home Rentals Near Walt Disney World.)

What to Pack

There are some wrinkles to Walt Disney World that make packing a bit different, and by bringing certain “clever” (we think) items in your luggage, you will improve your experience. We go over the best stuff in our Walt Disney World Unique Packing List.

Two of our favorite examples from that list are Frogg Toggs Chilly Pads and this Compact External Charger. Seriously, you’ll wonder how you ever travelled without these (and many other) items on our list! Additionally, if you’re going in the colder months, check out our Packing for Disney in Winter post. For summer months, read Tips for Beating the Summer Heat at Disney.

We also highly recommend the Life Straw Go Filter Water Bottle. Florida water tastes awful straight from the tap, so it’s key to get a bottle with a filter. This bottle is the best option, hands down. It’s durable, BPA-free, dishwasher safe, and uses a 2-stage activated carbon filter reduces odor, chlorine and leaves zero aftertaste! (If you’re looking for a cheaper alternative, Brita Filter Water Bottles are great, too.)

Transportation

If you’re wondering whether the monorail lines, boat routes, buses, and the Skyliner gondolas are operating, see our Transportation Changes & ‘Know Before You Go’ Info. That covers when each will resume routes, along with other details and tips for efficient transit between the resort hotels and theme parks.

Before you even arrive at Walt Disney World, you might be wondering whether you should fly or drive if visiting from out of state. Our initial, intuitive response was that we’d drive. However, after reading this ‘epidemiological investigation’ about potential COVID-19 transmission on a flight from Singapore to Hangzhou, China, this article by a Harvard public health professor, this research showing the low odds of in-flight coronavirus transmission, and other similar pieces, our view has evolved. We’d now fly.

The safety of flying is predicated on the in-flight experience itself. In particular, the plane’s filtration system and air replacement rate make the risk of COVID-19 minimal. Mask policies also help, as do the current policies to block off middle seats. The longer a flight, connections, whether in-flight meals are served, and individual risk factors impact those odds. Keep in mind that nothing is no-risk, only lower or higher risk. That’s true in the case of coronavirus and life in general.

The riskiest aspect of flying is the airports themselves. Coming into contact with people at check-in and baggage counters, seating areas, and busy terminals. Ironically, these are the things that (personally) concern us the least, because we have more control. We can avoid most of the issues with airports, seeking out less crowded seating areas, and more.

Even if planes are safer, that control goes out the window as soon as you board. It’s tough to overcome that mental hurdle, plus our preconceived (but apparently erroneous?) notions that airplanes make you sick. We don’t yet have any flights booked for ourselves, and are still nervous about the idea. However, we will fly again at some point…just a bit more nervously than before. Your mileage may vary.

Upon arrival, we’d strongly recommend renting a car in terminal at Orlando International Airport (MCO) rather than using Disney’s Magical Express. This is our advice both on the basis of health safety and convenience.

The health component should be obvious–not sharing transportation with people who are not in your party reduces the time you’re exposed to strangers in a confined, indoor space and thus the risk of COVID-19. Even the best Walt Disney World hotels from a location and transportation perspective require using bus transportation for accessing at least 2 theme parks, which is not ideal.

Equally as important is convenience. During Walt Disney World’s phased reopening, transportation capacity has been reduced. In some ways, this is good. For instance, one party per Skyliner gondola cabin is nice and doesn’t negatively impact lines too much.

In other scenarios, it makes lines unbearable. Only 6 parties are allowed per bus, which has resulted in long lines and wait times for bus transportation, and this is even with most hotels having low occupancy rates. We’ve avoided buses ourselves, but have heard reports from friends about 30+ minute waits.

Save yourself the headache and rent a car. Failing that, be prepared to use ride share services for rope drop or other times when you see long lines at the bus stops. Our Tips for Using Uber & Lyft at Walt Disney World offer strategic advice to help you bypass the worst transportation woes at WDW.

Dining

We love to eat at Walt Disney World, and the reduced restaurant lineup and scaled back menus are probably the biggest disappointment to us. For a look at what’s open right now, consult the Resort Restaurant ‘Know Before You Go’ Info, which covers hotel dining, and the List of Open & Closed In-Park Restaurants at Walt Disney World. From there, consult our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews page.

The good news is that more restaurants open each week, and hopefully by this holiday season, most will have reopened. Additionally, almost every dining spot at Disney Springs has already reopened. Due to the shorter park hours, it’s easy to do dinner at Disney Springs–or even off-site (we highly recommend 4 Rivers Smokehouse but the newly-renovated and reopened All Star McDonald’s at Walt Disney World is a convenient pick).

Daily Itineraries

With attendance picking up, you’ll once again want to use solid strategy to beat the crowds. Our Walt Disney World Itineraries offering what you need to know, and we’ve already updated several to account for crowd-flow and priority changes resulting from the operational changes. Suffice to say, a lot of conventional touring wisdom no longer applies.

Regardless of whether you use our itineraries or not (and you really should!), we strongly recommend first-time visitors do not ‘wing it’ for your daily itinerary. You don’t need to plan every movement so that there’s no spontaneity in your trip, just make sure you have at least a loose plan of what you’re going to do.”

Moreover, experiencing the headliner of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge remains incredibly difficult–to the point where you almost need to plan 2 days at Disney’s Hollywood Studios if it’s a must-do for you. See our Ride Guide & FAQ for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance for more strategy and info.

That about wraps up what to expect in terms of how Walt Disney World is handling changes in the era of coronavirus. Keep in mind that the situation remains fluid and ever-evolving. What’s true one month often isn’t the case the next. Again, we highly recommend reading our Walt Disney World Photo Reports that cover our weekly visits to the parks. Those will give you a great idea of what the experience is currently like.

Beyond that, this Coronavirus (COVID-19) Walt Disney World Planning Guide remains a work in progress, something we will update regularly based upon our observations, new developments, changes, etc. One big component of how the guide will evolve is reader questions. Being in the parks regularly, we take some things for granted because we’ve already become familiar with them. However, that may not be the case for the majority of readers, so please ask questions. Chances are, someone else wonders the same thing as you, and that’ll help us iterate and improve this resource!

If all of this is really overwhelming, we recommend contacting an Authorized Disney Vacation Planner and letting them do the work for you. This is Disney’s term for their affiliated travel agents, and the huge upside to them is that they don’t charge for their services–Disney pays them directly at no cost to you! Click here to get a vacation quote from our recommended no fee Authorized Disney Vacation Planner.

Remember, what’s in this post is just a starting point. To recap, you’ll also want to read our When to Visit Walt Disney World post for the best time of year to plan your trip. If saving money is important, read Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post to buy the cheapest tickets from legitimate sources. To figure out where to stay, our Walt Disney World Hotel Reviews page is a great resource. Want to know where to eat or if the Disney Dining Plan is right for you? Our Walt Disney World Dining Resources will help!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Are you planning a Walt Disney World trip in Summer 2021? Will you wait until COVID-19 is truly a thing of the past, or you’re fully vaccinated? If you’ve visited since Walt Disney World reopened, what tips, recommendations, experiences, or insight would you add to this? Did you feel the parks were safe? What about magical? If you’re a first-timer, is there anything else you’d like to know? Are you excited to experience the parks or will you wait for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary in 2021 before visiting? We love to hear reader feedback, but 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.

207 Responses to “Coronavirus (COVID-19) Disney World News & Planning Guide”
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