The time has come for you to finally contemplate a trip to the Mouse House, and frankly, there’s never been a better time to plan. Disney World has always provided a grand escape from reality, with its cartoon character-shaped ice cream bars, towering fake mountains, and restaurants with ’50s kitchenettes where waiters berate you for putting elbows on the table. But the Florida theme park resort provides something new after a year of nothingness (and not just the ability to chow down on wildly good Neapolitan pizza that didn’t come from a cardboard delivery box).
The Most Magical Place on Earth amended nearly all its operations to safely accommodate guests in its four theme parks — the Magic Kingdom Park, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Epcot, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios, collectively known as the Walt Disney World Resort — when it reopened in July 2020 after an unprecedented 117-day closure. Since then, it’s hit its stride, offering families a way to experience those Star Wars characters and Disney classics in real life after a year spent glassy-eyed, watching them on screens.
New safety protocols are in place throughout the resort that streamline the typical lineup of CDC recommendations: contactless purchases, a vast canopy of hand-sanitizing stations, and minimal touchpoints. Expect to see plexiglass barriers on ride vehicles and within queues and an expansion of Disney’s already rigorous cleaning methods in the parks, at restaurants, and throughout the resort. (Janitorial staff were known for all-white uniforms with nary a speck of dirt before the pandemic, so yeah, cleanliness is a big deal around here.)
What you won’t see, however, are selfies with princesses, masked-up hugs with Pixar characters, or sparklers coming out of Mickey Mouse’s mitts. Disney has temporarily suspended up-close character experiences and nighttime shows like Happily Ever After and Fantasmic! These will undoubtedly return, but it’s unclear when. Even FastPass+, the complimentary system that allows guests to “reserve” spots in line in order to breezily board rides like Splash Mountain, is still paused, with queues operating first-come, first-served for the first time since the late 1990s — allowing for a level of park spontaneity we haven’t seen in years.
A visit to Walt Disney World used to require regimented planning — restaurant reservations booked half a year in advance, to-the-minute itineraries — but now everything is in flux, allowing a rare window for a slightly more spur-of-the-moment visit, as though you’re actually on vacation. This also means rules are constantly being updated, so be absolutely sure to give Disney’s website a once-over and download the My Disney Experience app before you go. (Seriously. You’ll need it, and better to do it now than while standing in the sun as your kids are begging you to mobile order a Dole Whip.)
Some hotels, restaurants, attractions, and experiences remain closed, but if it’s magic you’re after, Walt Disney World Resort continues to provide it. Cinderella still waves at young fans, Space Mountain blasts you off into the stars, and Mickey-shaped waffles are served warm and smiling. Employees, known as cast members — the undisputed backbone of this new operation — work tirelessly to continue spreading that quintessential fairy dust, even from behind face masks and shields. The heart of Disney’s theme park outfit is still there, even if it looks slightly different.
Capacity is restricted on transportation, attractions, and within the parks themselves, but you will still encounter other guests, sometimes less than six feet away, while moving about the resort, particularly at Disney’s souped-up mall known as Disney Springs. Still, distance markers appear in every queue, and diligent staff enforcement makes mask compliance high.
Visiting the Parks
Face coverings must meet requirements (no valves or gaiters) and be worn by guests ages 2 and up at all times, except when eating, drinking, or taking outdoor photos.
Due to COVID-era capacity restraints, you’ll need both admission and a theme park reservation to enter Walt Disney World theme parks. Both are required for everyone ages 3 and up and can be booked in advance online. Park reservation availability is limited to each individual park and structured in three tiers — ticket holders, Disney Hotel guests, and annual pass holders — so be sure to book the moment you purchase tickets. (FYI: The reservations are free.)
If you want to go from Magic Kingdom to Animal Kingdom in the same day — a practice known as “park hopping” — you can, starting at 2 p.m. daily. Park Hopper admission is required (it’s a surcharge), and capacity limitations still apply, so call (407) 560-5000 to check availability.
With FastPass+ indefinitely paused, all rides instead offer standby lines like the amusement parks of yore, making it significantly easier to show up without a plan, a move that previously could have ruined a Disney vacation before it began. The one exception is Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This in-demand attraction requires a separate “boarding pass,” released daily at 7 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the My Disney Experience app. (They go quickly, so study up on how to snag them; admission and park reservations for Disney’s Hollywood Studios are also required. It’s a pain, but it’s absolutely worth it.)
Disney’s Blizzard Beach Water Park has separate ticketed admission and does not require a park reservation. Masks are not required while in the water or on waterslides, while walking to or waiting in line for waterslides, or while seated in distanced lounge chairs, a policy which, much like its the park’s quizzical snowed-in theme, somehow seems to work.
Staying on Property
There are plenty of hotels throughout the Orlando area. Disney-operated hotels, in addition to select others, offer a set of coveted perks, which have been slimmed down during the pandemic but still include additional access to the parks, particularly with theme park reservations.
Walt Disney World’s Extra Magic Hour program, which gives hotel guests additional time in the parks, was suspended when the parks reopened. Its replacement, Early Theme Park Entry, will provide 30-minute early entry to any of Disney’s theme parks, seven days a week, when it debuts later this year. (Park reservations are also required.) Complimentary Disney’s Magical Express airport bus service is also available and great for families looking to simplify the schlep, but it will cease operations on January 1, 2022; Mears, a local transportation company, will offer its own for purchase starting then.
Still, Disney’s own hotels are often preferred by fans for thematic immersion by way of larger-than-life statues, princess-themed rooms, and even a friggin’ monorail running through its center, one of the many modes of reliable transportation offered throughout Walt Disney World Resort in addition to buses, boats, and gondolas.
What to See and Do
The majority of Walt Disney World theme park rides are open and operating with distance markers, partitions, and cleanings throughout the day. Capacity is controlled, but parties may be mixed on certain attractions, like Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, so keep that in mind.
Many of the indoor stage shows are not currently running, but Festival of the Lion King will be performed in an amended fashion when it returns in summer 2021. (At press time, all nighttime entertainment and fireworks offerings still remain on hiatus.)
You won’t be able to hug Mickey Mouse on a current trip, but you’ll definitely see him in all four parks. Princesses, Pixar characters, and the mouse himself can be spotted throughout the day in cavalcades through Epcot’s World Showcase, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, and from along the riverfront in Animal Kingdom, where Pocahontas, Minnie Mouse, and others wave to guests from boats. In lieu of individual meet-and-greets, cuddly characters like Winnie the Pooh and Chip ’n’ Dale now appear at a distance, but don’t fret — their theater-in-the-round style antics, performed beyond fences or partitions, are a joy to watch. Disney PhotoPass photographers are on hand to take professional-style family photos, and while you’re now able to remove masks for outdoor pics, they must stay on for all other experiences, including on-ride photos. (Remove your mask on Expedition Everest and Disney won’t give you that screaming snapshot.)
Mobile ordering is encouraged throughout the property and has been expanded since Disney World’s reopening. The pro move is to order in advance, particularly for meals later in the day, since hotels are known to be busy around dinnertime, which can mean lengthy waits. Be sure to indulge in that Mickey bar craving from the side of the walkway, too, as parkgoers are required to enjoy snacks while stationary and away from other guests.
Table service dining reservations can be made up to 60 days in advance and should be booked ASAP. Walt Disney World Resort is currently seating indoor and outdoor dining, so arrive early to specify outdoors if preferred. Character dining is available at select parks and resort hotels, and in lieu of tableside greetings, Mickey, Minnie, Goofy, and others interact from a distance with guests who remain seated.
Eater favorites include ’50s Prime Time Café, Jungle Cruise Skipper Canteen, and Tiffins, while at Disney Springs, the open-to-the-public “downtown” district, Wine Bar George and Morimoto Asia rank among the best. For grab-and-go food, cheeseburger pods and protein bowls at Animal Kingdom’s Satu’li Canteen, and Portuguese sausage Ronto Wraps or anything on the menu at Docking Bay 7 in the new Star Wars-themed Galaxy’s Edge land at Disney Hollywood Studios, are musts. If you’re heading out for bratwurst and beers in Epcot’s version of Germany, take note that some restaurants traditionally run by international employees through Disney’s Cultural Exchange Program are being temporarily operated by regular Epcot employees until the program is reinstated.
Special Disney Events in 2021
Taste of Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival, a pandemic-era version of the seasonal event, brings outdoor food kiosks, live entertainment, and decorative topiaries to Epcot’s World Showcase through July 5, 2021. Epcot International Food & Wine Festival will run July 15 to November 20, while the park’s seasonal Festival of the Holidays and Festival of the Arts will announce dates later this year. (Disney has not yet confirmed if seasonal ticketed events, like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, will be held in 2021.)
The biggest event of the year will undoubtedly be Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary, which kicks off its 18-month celebration on October 1, 2021. Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, the family-friendly ride offering a vermin’s-eye view of the restaurant in Pixar’s Ratatouille, will debut as part of the celebration. Additional attractions, including an innovative TRON roller coaster and indoor Guardians of the Galaxy-themed coaster, will open at a yet-to-be determined time in the future, while Epcot’s forthcoming nighttime show, Harmonious, is set to debut in late 2021 as well.
Book everything as early as possible, especially park and dining reservations. For help on deciding where to eat, we recommend our list of essential eats at Walt Disney World.
Wear a good mask. Not just one that meets Disney criteria, but one that can survive hours in the brutal Florida sun. (Speaking of, pack extras to swap out midday.)
Stay attuned to Disney news. It may be easier than ever to roll up to the Mouse House without solid plans, but things are changing weekly. Be sure to check Walt Disney World’s website for current procedures and availability and the Disney Food Blog for pertinent updates, and follow me @CarlyeWisel on Twitter and Instagram for need-to-know news (and hot takes!) on everything happening at these parks.
Download the My Disney Experience app. Walt Disney World has all eyes on mobile ordering these days, so you’ll want it set up in advance so you can order food as easily as possible on the ground.