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 and offers tips & advice for navigating this period of “temporary abnormal” where 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 between now and at least 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. The bad news is that no one knows for sure 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.
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. The best insight we can offer on when things will return to normal is that Walt Disney World itself has set a target date of October 1, 2021–the start of its 50th Anniversary–for having as much as possible back to normal.
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 give the green light for rolling back safety measures or reintroducing entertainment on August 13 (date chosen at random), that’s the date it’ll start happening. Or, it might not occur until November 2 or beyond.
It’s not going to be a matter of “flipping a switch” on October 1, 2021 or any other date on the calendar. Even though Florida has now fully reopened, Walt Disney World will not follow suit and instead will consult health experts in continuing its gradual process. 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 our collective knowledge evolves, internal projections change, and numbers 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 late summer or fall.
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 we explain in our When Will the Disney Dining Plan Return? post, 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.
Beyond the Disney Dining Plan, we already know that Early Theme Park Entry will debut in Summer 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.
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 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.
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 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 coronavirus case and positivity numbers have declined since their summer peaks 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 months in Orange County, even accounting for the holiday season spike.
This is significant because rather than Walt Disney World causing a spike in new COVID-19 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, coronavirus cases actually decreased in the couple of months following the parks reopening. 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.
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. We recently broke it down park by park (and by time of day) in Face Mask Compliance at Walt Disney World.
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.
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.)
As for whether Walt Disney World is safe enough to visit during the COVID-19 pandemic, that’s a personal question we cannot answer for you. It’s sufficiently safe for us to visit, albeit with some behavioral modifications (more on those below) to further reduce our risk of coronavirus.
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 highest-risk COVID-19 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 over a year 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 and do not come in contact with older family members. Your circumstances will likely vary.
During the coronavirus pandemic, 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 of coronavirus via fomites (surface transmission) is minor, unlikely, and exaggerated. By contrast, there’s growing belief that 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.
Suffice to say, we’d strongly recommend 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, we generally feel safe from COVID-19 at Walt Disney World. 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 March 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.
Nevertheless, after extensively experiencing Disney’s safety measures, guest compliance with physical distancing and face mask rules, and seeing Florida’s downward coronavirus case trends, our comfort level with visiting the parks continues to grow–even as attendance picks up. Walt Disney World has done a decent job of navigating coronavirus, with measures and enforced health protocol that make the parks somewhat safer during a pandemic.
Nevertheless, we’d still probably err on the side of caution, and target Summer 2021 or beyond for a trip if we were traveling from out of state. That’ll give you the chance to get vaccinated before traveling to further mitigate coronavirus risk, and also potentially benefit from more returning and rules being further relaxed.
However, 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 Spring 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 20-30% 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.
However, the objective numbers and photos of lines don’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 early 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!
Walt Disney World has started to release better discounts for Spring and Summer 2021, with a slew of deals ranging from the awesome ‘Southerner Savings’ room-only discount to the widely-targeted PIN code. On top of those, there have been discounts for Florida Residents and Annual Passholders.
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.
Ultimately, we expect more room-only discounts to be released for Summer and Fall 2021. 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.)
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.
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).
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!
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.