When Disney World reopened in July of 2020, there were some pretty MAJOR changes in place. These include mask mandates, physical distancing guidelines, the cancelation of fireworks, parades, and character meet and greets, and the temporary suspension of FastPass+ and the Disney Dining Plan, just to name a few (not to mention the parks reopened with a freshly-painted pink castle!).
Since then, however, there have only been MORE big changes that could have major impacts on your upcoming Disney World vacation. Some of the guidelines that were in effect last summer are no longer the case in 2021 while others have changed since inception! Let’s take a look at some of the biggest changes in Disney World SINCE July 11th, 2020!
Changes in Park Offerings
Let’s dive right in and cover some of the biggest changes we’ve seen within the four theme parks since reopening, and what that means for your upcoming trip. This first one just happened at the beginning of 2021: the modified return of Park Hopping.
Park Hopping returned on January 1st, 2021 after being temporarily unavailable during Disney World’s phased reopening. If you visited Disney World between July 2020 and January 2021, you could only visit one park per day, but now you can visit more than one park — with some restrictions, of course!
What does this mean for your upcoming trip? Perhaps the biggest difference between Park Hopping pre-closure to Park Hopping in 2021 is that you cannot park hop until 2PM each day. So, if you’re used to Park Hopping relatively early, you may find yourself more limited in when you can Hop.
Shorter park hours could also have a big impact on Park Hopping. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is only open until typically 5PM or 6PM, meaning you only have a few hours in that park, should you choose to Hop there in the afternoon. Keep in mind that you can Hop to as many parks as you want after 2PM, and you do not need a Park Pass Reservation to Hop to those parks AFTER your first park you start your day in (hopping is subject to capacity, however).
You still need to secure a Park Pass for the park you intend to start at AND you must scan into that park before you’ll be able to Park Hop. Remember that if you need to check on a park’s capacity and if they’re currently allowing Park Hopping, dial (407) 560-5000 for current capacity information.
Ahead of Disney World reopening, we learned the news that Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party was canceled for 2020. From there, a slew of additional 2020 cancelations were announced, including EPCOT’s Candlelight Processional in 2020, Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party in 2020, and a number of additional After Hour events, runDisney events, and Early Morning Magic.
So far, none of these ticketed and non-ticketed events have announced their return, and the runDisney events continue to be held virtually as of this writing. Disney will need to modify its health and safety guidelines before being able to bring many of these events back. Part of the reason these events cannot go on is that many of the components in these events draw crowds together (think fireworks, parades, special character meet and greets, etc.) and these things are either not taking place at this time or prohibited.
If you’re used to filling up your vacation with these activities and events, you may find that your trip itinerary looks a little more thinned out than it used to. As of this writing, your in-park experience is still limited to just the rides and attractions, dining, shopping, and some modified entertainment (more on that in a little bit), all within the confines of regular park hours. If you’re accustomed to getting the most out of your time in Disney World, you might find the parks are “lacking,” so to speak.
If your Disney World vacations typically revolve around these events, you may be weighing whether or not a 2021 vacation is worth it, or if you should wait until 2022 to visit again. It’s hard to tell at this time if Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party will come back in 2021 or if they’ll take another year off, but as soon as we know of their status for this year, we will let you know!
ALL of those changes with Rise of the Resistance
One aspect of Disney World that has kept us on our toes since reopening has been Rise of the Resistance in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Throughout the resort’s modified reopening, this attraction has changed its procedures many times, and we’ve often had to remind ourselves exactly how many times Boarding Groups are distributed each day, WHEN they’re distributed, and what the best practices are in securing a Boarding Group.
Knowing what the current procedure is with Rise of the Resistance is CRITICAL if you want to experience this attraction. Guests must still acquire a Boarding Group in order to ride, and most of the time, they’re gone within seconds (we did have a recent experience where it took over an hour for Boarding Groups to fill up, but we would still err on the side of Boarding Groups filling up fast).
As of this writing, Boarding Groups for Rise of the Resistance are distributed daily at 7AM and 1PM. For the 7AM distribution window, you can be located anywhere, as the park is not open at that time (that’s right — you can get a Boarding Group from your hotel room bed!). For the 1PM distribution window, you must be inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios to secure a Boarding Group.
These distribution times also mean that you cannot Park Hop to Hollywood Studios and then get a Boarding Group. Hollywood Studios must be your first park of the day, meaning you MUST have a Park Pass Reservation for Hollywood Studios the day you want to ride Rise of the Resistance.
Click here to read more about just how difficult it can be to acquire a Rise of the Resistance Boarding Group!
Park Capacity Increasing
One of the ways Disney World guaranteed safe physical distancing upon reopening was limited park capacity. Last fall, however, we started to notice that the parks were getting more and more busy, leading us to wonder if Disney had raised park capacity from their previously announced 25%. Our suspicions were confirmed when Disney CEO Bob Chapek shared that the parks had indeed raised their capacity to 35%. Since then, there has not seemed to be any additional increases in capacity, but that’s not to say it couldn’t increase again down the road.
If you visited the parks last summer and you’re considering visiting in 2021, you’ll definitely notice a difference when it comes to crowds. Those regular “ghost town” days that we experienced in July and August are all but a thing of the past. We have noticed from time to time days that seem completely empty in parks, while others are fairly crowded.
With FastPass+ still on hiatus, that could mean you’re facing longer wait times for the rides and attractions. Sixty minute wait times are more and more common these days, so be prepared to wait for your favorite rides.
Another thing to keep in mind if you’re planning on visiting Disney World soon is that there is still very limited entertainment offerings in the parks. The theaters these live offerings were held servied a big purpose — especially in parks like Hollywood Studios and Animal Kingdom: they contained CROWDS. Without those shows up and running, there are fewer places for those crowds to go to spread out.
In short, more people in the parks + less places to go = longer lines and more crowding.
Limited and changing entertainment offerings
Some of the biggest changes that took place in regards to entertainment were put into effect BEFORE the parks reopened. Since then, however, we’ve noticed a few changes take place that have given guests more of a variety of in-park entertainment, plus signs that we could be headed towards more entertainment actually RETURNING to the parks!
One of our favorite changes since the parks reopened has been the seasonal entertainment offerings. All four theme parks have had character cavalcades, or mini-parades (typically just a float or two), that occur frequently throughout the day without a set schedule. In Magic Kingdom, we saw a villain-themed cavalcade for Halloween as well as a cavalcade that featured Jack Skellington, Sally, and Oogie Boogie from The Nightmare Before Christmas!
Christmas cavalcades were present in each of the parks as well, including ones with Santa Claus, the Toy Soldiers, and Reindeer in Magic Kingdom, as well as holiday-themed flotillas in Animal Kingdom.
More character meet and greets have come back to the parks, albeit with physical distancing in place. Elsa and Anna make frequent appearances in the Norway Pavilion in EPCOT, and we’ve spotted Rapunzel “greet” guests in Fantasyland over at Magic Kingdom.
We’ve also started to see characters make some “pop-up” appearances at the resorts during the holiday season!
We also saw the (very limited) return of FIREWORKS! During the holiday season, small l0w-level bursts of fireworks were shot off around Cinderella Castle as part of the transitions in its holiday projections.
While in-park entertainment is still nowhere close to what we’re used to, things are slowly starting to show signs of life. Cast Members are still hard at work completing the barge construction for Harmonious at EPCOT, and we recently learned that Festival of the Lion King will return to Animal Kingdom in a modified format this summer!
MORE plexiglass on rides and attractions
Disney World has made it clear that safety is paramount during its phased reopening. As Disney learns more about what best practices are when it comes to safety, we’ve seen changes implemented across the parks and resorts. And while we know these changes are for the safety and wellbeing of guests and Cast Members, we’ll admit that not every change has added to the magic we all come to expect. In fact, some changes have been kind of crummy.
The biggest “bummer,” for lack of a better word, has been the increased use of plexiglass shields in the rides and attractions. This one is sort of a catch-22. In many instances, these shields have allowed for capacity to increase on particular rides. Whereas before Disney could only load every other row (or in some instances one party per vehicle), they’re now able to road every row, or multiple parties per vehicle.
Increased ride capacity has seemed to cut down on wait times. The downside comes at the expense of a decent view from many of the seats on those attractions. For example, the shields on Frozen Ever After often get wet and foggy, obstructing the view of anyone sitting behind them. On Rise of the Resistance, especially in many of the pre-show rooms, the use of plexiglass makes it tricky to clearly see what’s going on in front of you.
Keep this in mind when hopping in line for your favorite ride! You may be able to ask a Cast Member if your party can sit in the front to avoid being stuck behind those plexiglass shields, but this may not be a guarantee. After all, EVERYONE will want to avoid sitting behind those screens, so the option may not be available on every ride.
Click here for a timeline of some of the changes made to Disney World’s face mask policy since reopening.
Changes in Dining
More restaurants have reopened in recent months
While many of Disney World’s Table Service and Counter Service dining locations opened with the parks, a number of additional locations have reopened since — particularly character dining locations.
When Disney World first opened in July, your only options for modified character dining were Topolino’s Terrace at Disney’s Riviera Resort and Garden Grill at EPCOT (also Ravello at the Four Seasons). Now, you can dine at Chef Mickey’s, Cinderella’s Royal Table, and Hollywood & Vine while waving from a distance to some of your favorite Disney characters.
What does a modified character dining experience look like? Essentially, characters will appear and walk around the restaurant without stopping at any tables. They tend to keep their distance from guests but are still in the middle of the action. You may be able to get a socially distanced selfie in with a character, but there are no formal meet and greets, autographs, or close-up pictures at this time. Other dining locations like Crystal Palace have reopened but without characters as of this writing.
Notably, all buffets that have reopened have done so NOT as self-serve buffets but as plated meals, like Hollywood and Vine, or all-you-care-to-eat family-style presentations, like Chef Mickey’s. In most cases, this has meant a big bump up in quality of food!
There are a few notable restaurants that are STILL closed as of this writing. This includes ‘Ohana at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, Casey’s Corner in Magic Kingdom, Tusker House in Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Akershus Royal Banquet Hall in EPCOT, Jiko and Boma at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, Citricos, 1900 Park Fare, and Victoria & Albert’s at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and Yachtsman Steakhouse at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort.
Click here for a full, up-to-date list of the Disney World restaurants that are currently open and closed.
Your smart device continues to be an important factor in your Disney dining experience
Several of these changes were already set in place when Disney World reopened last summer, but it’s worth repeating here so you can be prepared for your upcoming vacation. Disney has slowly but surely integrated My Disney Experience into almost every aspect of vacation planning, and now it’s an almost essential part of the dining experience.
Mobile Order has been pushed heavily since the parks reopened, and has, to no surprise, grown in popularity (out of necessity) as a contactless payment method for purchasing lunch or dinner. Due to its increased presence in the parks, we recommend you order your food EARLY to avoid long wait times at peak meal hours. So, if you already know what you want for lunch, go ahead and order it first thing in the morning and select your return window at that time.
Disney also introduced a Walk-Up Waitlist for their Table Service restaurants. This function on My Disney Experience allows you to see day-of availability and whether or not a restaurant is taking walk-up reservations. Simply add your party to the waitlist and you’ll be notified when your table is ready!
Finally, Mobile Dine Check In was a game-changer when it comes to physical distancing. You no longer have to interact with a Cast Member at a check-in podium upon checking in for your dining reservation; simply scan a QR code located in the lobby of the restaurant or verify that you are present for your reservation when your window opens up on My Disney Experience. Then just…wait! You can stroll around or otherwise stay as distanced as you like until you’re texted your table is ready!
Table Service To Go
A big change we were NOT expecting to see that was added after Disney World began its phased reopening was Table Service To Go. This new service allows guests to mobile order from some of their favorite Table Service restaurants, including Sanaa at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge.
Currently this service is only available at select Disney World Resort hotels, and we have yet to see it be implemented in the theme parks. However, this is a great way to enjoy some delicious Table Service food without having to actually sit down at an indoor Table Service restaurant, which many guests may be choosing to avoid at this time.
Changes in Resort Offerings
A MAJOR (and we mean maaaajor) change to the Disney World Resort hotel policies that was implemented before reopening was that guests could no longer freely “resort hop.” In order to visit a Disney World Resort hotel that you are not an overnight guest at, you must book an Advance Dining Reservation at one of the hotel’s restaurants or have a Mobile Order at a location onsite.
We know there are many guests who look forward to resort hopping on their day off from the parks, so keep this major change in mind when planning your vacation. For now, you are still limited in terms of which resorts you can visit and when. Speaking of resorts, let’s take a look now at the changes that have happened in and around the resorts SINCE reopening:
Some more resorts have reopened (while others remain closed)
An obviously huge change when it comes to Disney World Resort hotels are exactly how many resorts are open and available to book. Since the first batch of Disney World hotels reopened in June of 2020, more have been welcoming guests back. These include Disney’s Art of Animation Resort, Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort, Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa, and more.
As of this writing, we know of a few more resorts that will be reopening in the coming months. Disney’s All-Star Movies Resort will reopen on March 22nd, Disney’s Beach Club will reopen on May 30th, and Disney’s Wilderness Lodge will reopen on June 6th. Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, which is currently undergoing a major refurbishment, is scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2021. Keep in mind that you can stay at the Polynesian’s DVC villas at this time.
Speaking of DVC — that’s a majorly confusing thing for non-Vacation Club folk. BoardWalk Inn, the Polynesian, Animal Kingdom Lodge, and more have yet to “reopen” but…they’re…open? Yea, it’s a DVC thing. These hotels are open to book with Vacation Club points rather than real money. You don’t need to be a DVC member to do this — anyone can purchase points from resellers if they’re up for it. When a hotel truly “reopens” it means anyone can book a room on the website and stay there.
A few more resorts have yet to announce any reopening plans. These include Disney’s Port Orleans Resorts (both Riverside and French Quarter), and the remaining two All-Star Resorts (Sports and Music). So, your favorite Disney World resort may still be closed when you’re planning on visiting in 2021. Be sure to triple check ahead of booking to make sure your preferred resort is open, and what amenities are currently available.
No more free MagicBands
2021 ushered in another major resort change: the suspension of complimentary MagicBands. While they’re still available for purchase, Disney World Resort guests will no longer receive free MagicBands in the mail ahead of their vacation.
This is, in part, an effort by Disney to transition to more digital planning tools, such as My Disney Experience. If you’re used to using MagicBands for every aspect of your trip, you can reuse an old MagicBand from a previous trip, or you can order one online ahead of your trip at a discounted rate.
If you do not wish to purchase a MagicBand and you do not have an old one from a previous trip, you can request a Keys to the World Card upon check-in that will function the same way as a MagicBand.
Extra Magic Hours will not return (as we knew them)
One of the biggest perks that came with staying at a Disney World Resort hotel was Extra Magic Hours. This offering gave resort guests more access to the parks by opening one park one hour early each morning, or keeping one park open a couple of hours later each evening. When Disney World announced their reopening plans, we learned that Extra Magic Hours would be temporarily suspended.
Now, we have a better idea of the long-term, permanent changes coming down the pike. At this time, Extra Magic Hours will not return as we previously knew them. Instead, Disney World will introduce “Early Theme Park Entry,” a new way for resort guests to have additional time in the theme parks as we near the 50th anniversary of Disney World.
Starting later this year, EACH of the four theme parks will open thirty minutes early EVERY day for resort guests. This should allow resort guests to get a head start on those early morning crowds.
Discounts Offered on Hotel Stays
One of the biggest changes we’ve noticed in recent months are the steep discounts guests can take advantage of when booking Disney World Resort hotel accommodations. Room and package discounts are typically available throughout the year, but savings this big are pretty rare.
Deals include saving up to 35% on Disney Resort room for most nights January 3rd through April 17th, 2021. This offer can be booked through March 15th, 2021, and the savings vary depending on the resort category and dates of the stay.
Guests can also book between now and May 27th to save up to 30% on your Disney World hotel stays most nights April 18, 2021 through July 10, 2021.
Click here for all of the current deals and discounts available for Disney World Resort hotel accommodations!
Changes in Transportation
What transportation options are currently available?
Several major transportation systems were up and running when Disney World first reopened. These include the Buses, Skyliner, Monorail, and some boat transportation. What is still unavailable as of this writing are the Minnie Vans, the EPCOT Monorail, and the Polynesian Monorail station (this one is due to construction). Other park to park transportation, like the buses, have returned since Disney World’s phased reopening initially began.
There’s also a NEW pedestrian walkway connecting Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa to Magic Kingdom! It took a couple of decades, but there’s finally a way to walk from the Grand Floridian and the Polynesian to Magic Kingdom! That means that, for the first time, all three Monorail resorts now have foot access to Magic Kingdom in addition to the Monorail and boats.
Keep in mind that no matter which transportation method you choose to get from Point A to Point B in Disney World, you may need to allow for extra time due to social distancing. With fewer people allowed on the buses, Monorail, and Skyliner than before the closures, wait times for transportation will be a bit longer than you may be accustomed to.
Also, keep in mind that there are still some limitations when it comes to those buses! Currently, you cannot take a Disney bus between the theme parks and Disney Springs. If you want to travel from the parks to Disney Springs, you’ll need to hop on a resort bus and then transfer to a Disney Springs bus from that resort. You can also take a ride-share service like Uber or Lyft to get around Disney World, but keep in mind that those fees will quickly add up!
Additional plexiglass on some transportation options
As is the case with some of Disney World’s rides and attractions, shields have been added to the Monorail and the buses in order to increase capacity.
If you’re wary of crowds on public transportation at this time, be aware that there may be more guests on the Monorail and buses than you may be comfortable with. Currently, Disney is only loading one party per Skyliner gondola, so that may be a good alternative option if you’re traveling between Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. Alternatively, you can use Uber or Lyft.
To guarantee minimal exposure to other humans, you can always rent your own car — just be mindful of Disney World’s overnight resort parking fees.
Click here to read about what it’s like to travel on Disney’s bus transportation system post-closure
Major Transportation changes coming down the pike
Perhaps the biggest change to Disney World transportation hasn’t even arrived yet, but it’s an important change to be aware of for your future Disney World vacations. In January of 2022, Disney World will discontinue Disney’s Magical Express, the complimentary bus transportation service to and from Orlando International Airport.
At this time it’s unclear whether or not Disney will replace Magical Express with another transportation service, but we also know that a new Brightline train is set to connect Orlando International with Disney Springs starting in 2023.
Remember that this change won’t go into effect until 2022, so if you have a 2021 vacation planned, you will not notice any changes to Disney’s Magical Express.
Click here to learn more about your other transportation options to & from Orlando International Airport
So, it looks like Disney World has only added a few minor changes since the parks reopened, right? 😉 Who are we kidding; there have clearly been SO MANY CHANGES since Disney World reopened in July. Not only that, but we are sure there will be even MORE changes sooner than you think! As Disney World is changing their policies and updating their news on an almost daily basis, we are keeping up with each step along the way to make sure YOU have the most up-to-date information when planning your next vacation. Be sure to follow along for all the latest news and updates!