Walt Disney World officially reopened all four of its theme parks to the general public in July. Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom began welcoming guests back after an unprecedented nearly four-month closure on July 11, while EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios officially reopened their gates to guests on July 15th.
We’ve been on the ground in the parks ever since, including experiencing both cast member previews and Annual Passholder previews, which served as an opportunity for Disney to test their new health and safety protocols on groups that would more closely approximate a public crowd.
As Disney reopens in the midst of the global health crisis, our focus has been on helping you understand what to expect when you get to the newly reopened parks, as well as how to navigate Disney’s new planning systems and procedures — from the new Disney Park Pass reservation system to big changes to Disney’s hotel, park ticket, and dining reservation processes.
But, the one question everyone still has about Disney World right now is: Is it safe and should I go? We’ve got a broad perspective on this for you — with lots of quotes and specific, firsthand reporting. But we’ve also got an anecdotal perspective on this from our time in the parks and Disney Springs. I was shocked…by my own behavior. And that’s what I think is the most important part of this article for you to read. So hopefully these two sides of the coin will help you as you’re making this very important decision for yourself.
TLDR: Disney World has excellent health and safety protocols in place and, in a vacuum, should be perfectly safe. But you’re around thousands of other people who may not follow those protocols. And YOU (read: WE) could also be part of the problem. So there is a lot to consider.
Let’s dig in.
Should Disney World have reopened?
Josh D’Amaro, Chairman of Disney Parks, Experiences, and Products, explained the decision to reopen Disney World in a recent interview with the New York Times.
“The world is changing around us, but we strongly believe that we can open safely and responsibly,” D’Amaro said. “For those that might have questions or concerns, when they see how we are operating and the aggressive protocols that we have put in place, they will understand.”
We’ve experienced these health and safety protocols firsthand and they are indeed rigorous. From near-comprehensive physical distancing procedures everywhere from resorts, to transportation, to the theme parks themselves, to ongoing cleaning and sanitization processes, Disney is without a doubt delivering on these promises, with few exceptions.
And yet, COVID-19 is very much an ongoing presence not only in Florida, but throughout the country, so are Disney’s precautions enough to warrant a trip to Disney World?
“This is our new normal. Our new reality,” D’Amaro said. “Covid is here, and we have a responsibility to figure out the best approach to safely operate in this new normal. Businesses across the country are open, whether it’s a local pizza shop in Orlando or an airline taking on new guests.”
Without a doubt, staying home will be safer than going to a theme park. “By visiting Walt Disney World Resort you voluntarily assume all risks related to exposure to COVID-19,” the resort says on its website.
But, to D’Amaro’s point, as the country continues to reopen, Disney, like so many other businesses, is doing so with approaches that support the health and safety of guests and Cast Members to the extent that it’s possible during an unprecedented pandemic.
Even The Best Health Protocol is Useless If People Don’t Follow It
Here’s where we as guests enter the picture. In a vacuum, Disney’s health and safety protocols should go a LONG way toward keeping guests and Cast Members safe. With required masks, regular hand-sanitizing and hand-washing opportunities, and physical distancing requirements accounted for nearly everywhere within the parks, these measures can go a long way toward minimizing exposure risks.
But, you’re only as safe as the person next to you. Or in the enclosed space with you. Or within six feet of you.
YOUR behavior and that of your fellow guests could, in theory, play a MUCH bigger role in whether you’re safe at Disney World than you think.
There will always be outliers who ignore the protocol, AND there are some choke points (i.e. narrow pathways and specific situations that tend to get crowded more quickly than other spaces) in Disney World that seem to be perpetually too close for comfort even with limited capacity in the parks. And this is a huge component of why physical distancing and making good choices in the parks for your own personal health and safety is so important. Disney hasn’t disclosed official capacity numbers or limits, so we were extremely curious about what opening day crowds would look and feel like in the parks.
While crowds were not as light as those at Cast Member and AP previews, our experience (and that of others) at Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom was that most of the time, the parks appeared nearly empty.
Some on social media criticized the low crowds as a “failure,” but Disney has made it very clear that controlling capacity is both deliberate and strategic.
“Our capacity will be a function of the six-foot social distancing guidance that we have from the CDC, so the number of people we put in the park will be a function of that calculation,” Disney CEO Bob Chapek said in an interview with CNBC.
In our experience, we were able to maintain more than six feet of distancing from our fellow guests in most cases.
We did spot a few issues Disney will still need to work out. Guests needing to visit Guests Relations prior to going into Magic Kingdom on Saturday found themselves in a lengthy queue outside the park gates that lacked distance markers. This line blocked the way for guests trying to get to the park from the Contemporary Resort, and ensured the impossibility of social distancing with no other option for the guests in the queue or the guests walking to and from the Contemporary but to be very much within six feet of many other people.
And there were also a few pile-ups during downpours, and in front of quick-service locations while guests waited for their Mobile Order numbers to be called. (At the time, Pecos Bill’s in Frontierland was not allowing guests into the restaurant until their Mobile Order food is ready.)
We were also a bit uncomfortable on the monorail and in other areas where barriers between guests were flimsy and incomplete. (On the monorail, which transports guests between several hotels, the parking lot, and the Magic Kingdom, there is a flexible barrier that drops down between the two sections of each car, but there’s at least an inch gap at the bottom between the barrier and the seat. If that gap is going to be there, and you’re seated within inches of the person behind you, the barrier is not fully protecting you from the spread of droplets if the person on that seat sneezes or coughs.)
But, at least in the parks, because of the reduced capacity, should guests find themselves faced with one of these scenarios that lack the requisite distances, there’s usually plenty of room to step away and avoid these situations.
In most circumstances, Disney has been quick to swoop in and address guests not adhering to regulations — we spotted Cast Members reminding guests to pull up their masks if they weren’t being worn property and to maintain appropriate distancing. (Though we were also party to a few times Cast Members didn’t remind guests to do so.)
And, by and large we were impressed with just how compliant guests were. We saw very few guests not wearing masks when they should be (except in Disney Springs, where it seems to be much more common to ignore protocol than it was during the initial opening weeks — especially in the evening), and were particularly impressed when we spotted guests in line for Pirates of the Caribbean who continued to maintain their distance rather than running for cover during a downpour.
It’s important to note that in such an unprecedented time, there will be an exception to EVERY rule. But our takeaway from opening days is that Disney’s theme parks feel as safe as any public space COULD be right now, and given that the biggest threat to guest safety as it relates to contracting COVID-19 is, in most cases, OTHER GUESTS, the exceptionally low capacity of the parks helps to give us individual control over our proximity to other guests and our ability to avoid uncomfortable or unsafe situations.
So is it safe to go to Disney World right now?
Florida is in the midst of a massive spike in COVID cases. At press time, the epicenter of illness in Florida is in Miami, so Orange County, where Disney World is located, could be considered slightly safer than the more southern part of the state. But cases are still rising, and from behavior we’ve seen outside of Disney World (and, honestly, behavior we’ve seen in Disney Springs), there are many people in the area who are not taking the pandemic seriously.
It is VERY Easy to Backslide — I Say From Personal Experience
As we stated, the safest place to be right now is AT HOME. Disney World has implemented excellent health and safety protocols, but, again, these are only effective if they’re being strictly followed and adhered to by every single guest and Cast Member. And sometimes, there are breakdowns. Even with rule-followers like me.
Personally, I’ve been shocked at how easy it is to lower my guard as I’m out and about after diligently self-isolating for months. I went from being terrified to sleep in the hotel bed on Day 1, to forgetting to sanitize my hands when getting off of an attraction by Day 6!! The backslide is rapid. So keep that in mind — when you’re doing a common-during-normal-times activity (like riding an attraction in Disney World or visiting a favorite restaurant), it’s very easy for your muscle memory to kick in and forget the important new protocol — putting your mask on and KEEPING it on correctly, sanitizing your hands, not holding on to high contact touch points like lap bars or railings any longer than you must. I stood up to walk to the restroom while in a restaurant and FORGOT — 100% FORGOT — to put on my mask. I walked to the restroom without it! I was mortified when I, personally, realized the error and literally covered my nose and mouth with tissue to walk back to the table. But take my mistakes as an indication of how easy it is — even for a very dedicated-to-the-rules-and-honestly-terrified-to-get-sick-and-infect-my-family kind of person like me — to mess up. You can promise yourself and your family that you’ll sanitize regularly, avoid crowded areas, and BE CAREFUL. But just know that it’s difficult to be the kind of careful you want to be once you’re in the situation simply because there’s SO much to be paying attention to.
And if you’re surrounded by thousands of other people, no matter how vigilant you are about your own safety, someone’s going to be making a mistake.
And, yes. I realize that my one or two subconscious errors likely did not get myself or anyone else sick. But expand that times the thousands of people in Disney World every day. All it takes is one slip-up from someone like you or me to contribute to the statistics.
If you do choose to go to Disney World like I did, remember to always be aware. If there’s a choke point between Fantasyland and Liberty Square (you know — where everyone always gets squashed together over there by it’s a small world and Peter Pan’s Flight), wait until you can socially distance appropriately through the area, or choose another route (avoid tight and narrow pathways; walk all the way through Tomorrowland if necessary). If you pull into Disney Springs and realize it’s taking a LONG time to find a parking space, it’s probably too busy in there to be fully compliant with the rules. Head back to the hotel and try Disney Springs on a weekday morning instead. You are in charge and in control of your experience most of the time in Disney World, and if you start to feel uncomfortable (like I did on the monorail), double up with a second mask and get out of there.
Can you go to Disney World safely? Of course! Many people will go to Disney World without contracting this illness. But with cases rising, so are risks. So only you can answer the question of “how safe is safe enough?” Is Disney World safer than your grocery store? Probably. But the difference is that you’re in your grocery store for 15 minutes, and you’re in Disney World for hours and days.
When It’s No Longer “New,” Will We Get Lax With Being Vigilant?
Also, Disney World parks are doing great right now on the safety and protocol front. But so was Disney Springs when it first opened. But after two trips to Disney Springs in the evenings this week, protocol is breaking down there a bit, crowds are rising, and it’s much easier to see what happens when regulations aren’t as strictly followed as they were when they were new and interesting. The initial wave of people to a newly-reopened location tend to be respectful of the rules and awed by the novelty of the situation. But once things become ho-hum and hum-drum, it’s easy to let behavior slide…pull your mask down off your nose because there aren’t too many people around, walk too closely to someone because it’s a hassle to take another route and it’s just for a second anyway…and it’s all too easy to convince yourself that those slip-ups don’t matter. But they can. And if we’re all doing them, they will.
Finally, once you determine if it’s safe for you and your family to go to Disney World, also consider your responsibility to a greater community. If you do get sick, you could pass it on to others during those very contagious and often asymptomatic first two days of infection, continuing to spread an illness that the country is struggling to contain. So consider self-isolating for a bit when you return home.
Everybody’s definition of “safe” — for themselves and others — is different. But since we’ve been in the thick of things for a week now, we wanted to share how we’re feeling about this after our experiences. I hope this has helped you as you’re making your decisions.
Will you be revisiting reopened Disney World? Let us know in the comments!