After being closed for months earlier this year, Walt Disney World’s theme parks have reopened. However, this has come with modifications for physical distancing and health safety, resulting in a period of “temporary abnormal” where a lot of our typical planning advice is 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 between now and at least the end of 2020. The biggest question right now is when will things go back to normal at Walt Disney World?
Unfortunately, no one knows–not even Disney management. So much depends upon real world factors beyond Disney’s control. If you’re waiting until that happens, you should simply wait and see (or instead consult our 2021 Walt Disney World Planning Guide). 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.
The best insight we can offer on when things will return to normal is that Walt Disney World itself intends to revert or eliminate a lot of its temporary policies by September 26, 2021. That’s the beginning of the week leading up to the 50th Anniversary on October 1, 2021. That’s a bit misleading, though.
In reality, Walt Disney World will attempt returning to normal as soon as practical and safe to do so. If health experts and agencies give the green light for rolling back safety measures or reintroducing entertainment on December 13, 2020, that’s the date it’ll happen. It’s not going to be a matter of “flipping a switch” on January 1, 2021 or any other date on the calendar. It’ll be a gradual process, with normalcy resumed as our collective knowledge evolves, internal projections change, or the real world situation improves.
By way of example, right now the Disney Dining Plan is not being offered–it was cancelled out of fears that reduced restaurant capacity (and fewer dining venues operating) would be insufficient to accommodate guests using the Disney Dining Plan. As it has turned out, most in-park table service restaurants are not even coming close to hitting their reduced capacity numbers most days. (Resort and Disney Springs restaurants are another story.)
If this trend continues, we’d expect the Disney Dining Plan to return sooner rather than later. It’s incredibly lucrative for Walt Disney World; the DDP increases per guest spending and discourages visitors from venturing off-site. Its return would also allow for more in-park restaurants to viably open and operate. An announcement that the Disney Dining Plan will return in early 2021 wouldn’t surprise us in the least.
By contrast, we do not predict that FastPass+, Typhoon Lagoon, character meet & greets, and various extras & upcharge offerings will return that soon. 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.
With that said, 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 December 31, 2020 during this period of “temporary abnormal” at Walt Disney World…
Is It Safe?
There’s no simple answer to this complicated 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 even remotely hyperbolic–Publix around here is 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.
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. 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.
The reopening of Walt Disney World was a controversial decision and remains a polarizing topic, particularly with people who don’t live in Central Florida. Those who live here know that the the challenges facing Florida are multifaceted and simply shouting “stay closed!” was never a serious solution to a complex problem. We tried to address pros and cons, and bring nuance to the conversation in our Should Walt Disney World Stay Closed? post. That remains relevant today, but since that ship has sailed, we’re not going to rehash those points here.
Objectively speaking, Florida’s case and positivity numbers are declining since their peaks in mid-July right when the parks reopened. In looking at the Orange County dashboard and Florida Department of Health County by County numbers, key metrics have declined over the past few weeks in Orange County.
Positivity rates have dropped from weekly highs of 16.8% in late June to 7.6% in the last two weeks. Hospitalizations are also on the decline, as are overall new cases. “There is a clear, sustained deceleration” said Dr. Raul Pino, the local health officer for the Florida Department of Health in Orange County.
This is significant because rather than Walt Disney World causing a spike in new cases in the weeks following its reopening, as might’ve been expected given the number of Orange County residents it employs and locals who visit, cases have actually decreased during that time. Correlation is obviously not causation in terms of the decline, but it nevertheless bodes well and speaks to the efficacy of Disney’s safety measures.
To be clear, Florida’s numbers on the whole are still bad, but the state has turned the corner and numbers have been steadily dropping statewide. We’re hopeful that this trend continues despite schools reopening. It’s also worth noting that, for all of its other faults, the state has great dashboards and Florida has received an A grade for data reporting.
In general, mask compliance in the parks is superb. (See our FAQ & Guide to Face Masks at Walt Disney World for more on that.) Physical distancing is generally good in lines, but not always as great while walking around open 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.
People are bound to make mistakes during this period of temporary abnormal. Much of what we do happens on an instinctive level or while operating in ‘autopilot’ mode. (How many of you don’t even remember driving to work some days after arriving there? Certain behaviors become routine.)
Our perspective is one of risk mitigation and harm reduction rather than one of social abstinence. The latter “strategy” is an unworkable and unrealistic approach that’s destined to fail. We’d rather make reasonably informed and responsible decisions to venture out and avoid the riskiest situations when we do.
In our view, this is a realistic middle ground approach since humans need socialization, fresh air, activities, and so on. It’s doubtful that most people are prepared to spend a full year or more isolating at home without any outside contact, so finding ways to do things as safely as possible is worthwhile.
At this point, we are comfortable doing virtually anything outdoors, plus indoor experiences that are more fleeting in nature or that have good ventilation. Of course, everyone’s risk tolerance levels vary. Beyond that, we work from home, do not come in contact with older family members, and can self isolate after visits to the parks. Your circumstances will likely vary.
We also do not attend house parties or indoor gatherings, nor would we go to a movie theater, bar, or gym. At Walt Disney World, we avoid indoor stage shows, and we are only dining outdoors for the foreseeable future while visiting Walt Disney World.
This isn’t just based on personal comfort level. Epidemiologists point to growing evidence that transmission via fomites (touching objects, then touching eyes, nose, mouth) is minor, unlikely, and exaggerated. By contrast, there’s growing belief that aerosol transmission is much more likely, especially with prolonged personal contact or via enclosed indoor settings where 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 super-spreader-event triad’s three V’s: venue, ventilation, and vocalization. As that also points out, in one database of over 1,200 super-spreader events, just one incident is classified as outdoor transmission.
Suffice to say, we’d strongly recommend avoiding indoor bars & lounges around Walt Disney World, and choosing restaurants with open air seating if you want to mitigate some risk while visiting the parks. See our Best Outdoor Dining Options at Walt Disney World for recommendations on that front.
Ultimately, we feel safe at Walt Disney World but would still be reticent to travel to Florida. Not nearly as hesitant as a month ago, though. After extensively experiencing Disney’s safety measures, guest compliance with rules, and seeing Florida’s downward trends, our comfort level with visiting the parks continues to grow. Walt Disney World has done a spectacular job, with thoughtful measures and enforced health protocol that make the parks as safe as they can possibly be.
Nevertheless, we’d still probably err on the side of caution (and better weather!), and target mid-November or early December for a trip if we were traveling from out of state. 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. (This has been problematic for Annual Passholders, but same-day reservations have always been available for tourists.)
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 2021 and would recommend the same for most people reading this.
When to Visit
Our recent post Will Walt Disney World’s Low Crowds Continue? covers this very common question in great detail. Basically, we expect significantly reduced crowds for the remainder of 2020, but with crowd trends varying based upon day of the week and month.
Overall demand for Walt Disney World has plummeted due to a variety of factors, including but not limited to health & safety concerns, Florida’s case numbers, quarantine rules (read this before booking), mandatory mask opposition, unemployment levels, economic uncertainty, high heat & humidity, general 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.
In short, September and October 2020 are likely to see some of the lowest crowds in Walt Disney World history. The weather is still uncomfortable then, schools are back in session, whatever pent-up demand exists among lower-tier APs will likely be exhausted, and Halloween has effectively been cancelled.
September is always the slowest month of the year at Walt Disney World, and that’s likely to be especially pronounced this year. In fact, September 2020 will likely be the least busy month at Walt Disney World since September 2001, when people feared traveling in the aftermath of 9/11. Unfortunately, the tradeoff for this is that Walt Disney World Cut Fall Park Hours.
November and December will be busier than September and October (although that’s not saying a ton) for a number of reasons. 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.
Add those factors to Disney’s glowing health safety reviews, and there’s likely to be an uptick. If Florida’s case numbers continue their downward trajectory, that will also help. Still, holiday crowds will be much lower than normal, but busier than right now.
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 the remainder of 2020. 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.
The difference on weekends is noticeable. It’s still nothing that would qualify as busy or even moderately crowded by normal standards. If we were using a numerical scale, weekdays would be a .5 out of 10 and weekends would be 2/10 or 3/10 depending upon the park.
If you’re looking for more granular recommendations beyond that, consider consulting our Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars: When to Visit & Avoid. That takes into account Orlando area school schedules and other relevant variables. Note that those have not been updated since the parks closed, so factors like conventions, youth sporting events, and special events are still taken into account–disregard all of that.
We also have something more holistic: our Best and Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World. That ranks every month of the year, and recommends the 3 very best weeks of the year to visit. While some specific details are no longer accurate, those rankings and recommendations remain relevant.
Before the parks even reopened we published Will Walt Disney World Offer Huge Discounts After Reopening? That post was essentially an emphatic YES! However, some readers have begun questioning the ‘wisdom’ of these predictions given that Disney still hasn’t released new deals to the general public.
However, it’s worth noting that Walt Disney World has released a slew of targeted discounts for Florida Residents and Annual Passholders. There’s the “Rediscover the Magic” Deal for Up to 40% on Walt Disney World Hotels Now Through September 30, 2020and the Florida Resident Disney Magic Flex Ticket, which offers deeply-discounted 2-day, 3-day, and 4-day park tickets for locals.
In our view, this boils down to Disney being sensitive to more bad PR. Walt Disney World got lambasted when the parks reopened in mid-July right as cases spiked in Florida. It was a firestorm of negative headlines even though obviously none of those cases were caused by Disney’s reopening.
If Walt Disney World also released discounts around that same time, the company would’ve been accused of “luring” more tourists down to Florida while the state was a hotspot. With things starting to turn around in Florida, we expect Walt Disney World to release general public discounts in the near future. That is, unless area schools reopening causes another spike.
Lending further credence to this is that Walt Disney World has started to quietly release more under-the-radar deals. There are new Priceline Express Deals for Walt Disney World Hotels, including Pop Century, Yacht Club, and other resorts. Travel agents reportedly have new special offers.
Ultimately, we expect aggressive room-only discounts to be released in the next month for this holiday season. Additionally, we have the 10 Best Tips to Save Money at Walt Disney World. Those tips cover a lot of excellent ideas, such as Renting DVC Points, or 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. We’d avoid Contemporary Resort (save for the Garden Wing, which normally isn’t our favorite) because its tower style plus reduced-capacity elevators has been a hassle.
For the rest of the year, you’ll want to cross-check that page against the WDW Resort Reopening Timeline because many hotels are not yet open, and won’t be for at least the remainder of 2020. 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.
Let’s start with face masks. We have bought many masks, and our favorite by an incredibly wide margin are these from Suay LA. Why we favor these, sizing and style tips, and more is discussed in greater depth in our FAQ & Guide to Face Masks at Walt Disney World.
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.)
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 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 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. 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.
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 or Ubering from MCO to Walt Disney World. 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. 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. This will only get worse if/when the parks get busier. Save yourself the headache and rent a car.
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).
As far as Walt Disney World planning sites go, we’re fairly laid back when it comes to itineraries. We do not believe in planning binders or spreadsheets, and our own trips have a great degree of spontaneity. Nevertheless, our normal guide offers the following words of caution: “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.”
We’re happy to report that winging it is now much easier. While you should have some degree of strategy with regard to headliners like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar Flight of Passage, daily itineraries and strategy are overkill right now. (The one huge exception is the Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge headliner–see our Ride Guide & FAQ for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.)
That could change if/when crowds pick up, but for now, visiting Walt Disney World is pretty laid back. It’s a lot like the “good ole days” when days didn’t need to be planned down to the minute, which is like a breath of fresh air to us. Nevertheless, we 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 2020 “Temporary Abnormal” 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!
Are you planning a Walt Disney World trip in 2020 or early 2021? 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.