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4. Character and cast encounters will feel really different

Couple takes a selfie at restaurant with Mickey Mouse waving distanced in the background
Image: Disney

There’s a certain personable—almost intimate--feel guests expect when interacting with cast members and characters at Disney parks. Disney’s incredible cast members play a huge role in setting The Most Magical Place on Earth apart from the competition. We can laugh with characters, our kids can hug them, and you never know what adventures may take place. I particularly think of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, and the random encounters guests were able to enjoy during the land’s opening year like hiding around corners with Vi (the Spy) Moradi or being randomly accosted by Stormtroopers and First Order highbrows.

While some guests are appreciating Disney’s new “cavalcade” approach to bringing characters into the parks—a strategy that ensures characters aren’t hidden away behind long lines—there’s no question that this season is going to mean a certain closeness will be missing from Disney character encounters. It just isn’t going to be possible to have kids running up and hugging Mickey Mouse or Gaston comparing biceps with forlorn boyfriends. It’s good that Disney can experiment with different ways of handling characters during this time, but kids and adults both are going to feel the difference.

Cast members in masks waving to guests
Image: Disney

Even interactions with cast members are going to feel distinctly different. By and large, cast members are going to need to be on their toes to enforce social distancing and focus on keeping guests safe. Up-close encounters like pin-trading will have to be adjusted to accommodate distancing, and even though cast members’ eyes will show those familiar smile creases we’re all used to, there will definitely be something missed about not being able to see their smiling faces.

Epcot in particular is likely to feel the strangest. Due to the uncertainty of the times, Disney has suspended their longstanding cultural representatives program, meaning that World Showcase will no longer be staffed by residents of its namesake countries. Even if you never took time to stop and chat with World Showcase’s cultural representatives, the difference will be noticeable. These cast members acted as a key component to represent Disney’s vision of giving guests an idealized glimpse of the nations of the world. These amazing students and cast regulars will be sorely missed until they can return in the future.

5. You may have to change the focus of your trips

Health and safety warnings on side of Disney trash can
Image: Disney

Different people value different things about Disney parks. Some guests value attractions. Some value dining and relaxation experiences. Some value children’s experiences and characters. Some value high-immersion and hands-on activities.

During this season, guests may have to shift their expectations to focus more on attractions and exploration. If your ideal Disney vacation surrounds entertainment spectacles, character encounters, or high immersion activities, things may be a little weird for a time.

With social distancing in place, many of Disney’s most popular experiences just aren’t possible. The minds behind the Most Magical Place on Earth haven’t yet figured out how to socially distance crowds for fireworks or parades. Character encounters have to be accommodated without up close interaction. Even some of the immersive elements in areas like Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge are not going to be possible, like Chewie and Rey pulling guests into clandestine missions throughout the Black Spire Outpost.

The three biggest things Disney still has going for them are attractions, dining, and free-exploration. If you’ve only ever done Disney parks one way, this may be the season to try something new if you’re going to visit. It’s a good time to try new rides, save up to enjoy some new restaurants, and explore the parks without the usual press of crowds.

6. Passholders will need to plan ahead

Young girl in Minnie Ears and colorful mask getting temperature check
Image: Disney

We’ve talked at length about how trip planning is going to change for guests, but one group is going to feel the sting of change more than others: local Annual Passholders.

Florida locals have a unique freedom to be able to plan off-the-cuff Walt Disney World trips. Tickets are significantly cheaper for locals, and Disney even offers monthly payment plans to make passes more affordable. When you know you can visit almost anytime all year, many Florida locals take a low pressure approach to Disney parks visits. I remember during our first month of Florida residency realizing one day that we could either eat lunch after church at Cracker Barrel or literally drive an hour to Portobello Yacht Club instead (a restaurant I’d been telling my husband about for years). We invested in annual passes shortly afterwards and quickly transformed from stringent trip planners into make-it-up-as-we-go regulars.

Not being able to just pop into Walt Disney World as you wish is going to be a really, really weird for Passholders, particularly those who live close to Orlando. The shift has already proved enough to prompt some to request refunds for their passes. The idea of making an advanced reservation to spend the day at one Disney park feels really, really bizarre when you’ve been planning trips spontaneously.

Disney’s choice to require advanced reservations is totally understandable. There would be no other way to manage guest capacity if half the Passholders in Florida showed up on the same day (like they did the days Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Rise of the Resistance opened), but it’s definitely going to be a difficult transition for some regulars.

7. Your immersion might feel shaken

Woman in mask washes hands at outdoor hand washing station
Image: Disney

Actors sometimes talk about the frustrations of outside influences “breaking immersion”. It’s the idea that if you’re trying to immerse yourself in a role, a story, or a fantastical experience, distractions of real life can pull you out of that moment and sully the moment.

For guests across the board, the weirdest thing about Walt Disney World’s reopening is going to be that no matter Disney’s best efforts, there’s no way you’re going to be able to ignore the effect of world events in The Most Magical Place on Earth.

There are some realities guests are just going to have to deal with during this season, and it’s going to be weird to the point it may cloud the Disney magic. No matter how colorful and creative, guests will clearly all be wearing masks. Social distancing reminders and legal warnings will keep guests cognizant of the fact there is a pandemic going on. Cast members will have to be much more stringent than guests are used to, and if some visitors misbehave, things are likely to get uncomfortable. Some shops (like those in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge) will only have room for one guest at a time to browse at a time. There’s not going to be any way to avoid the tension that visitors will need to stay mindful of temperature checks, frequent hand-washing, and social distance during these confusing times.

It’s not going to be the usual ultra-escapist Walt Disney World we’re used to. Even the Most Magical Place on Earth isn’t immune to a global pandemic.

We applaud Disney for taking what measures they have so far, both in at least opening later than other Orlando parks and in going to such extraordinary lengths to ensure guest safety. We will have to wait and see if more will be required, but so far, guests are mostly reporting Disney appears to be doing a good job with what options they have. Despite the weirdness, we are hopeful that Disney’s measures will be enough, and we will all be able to visit the parks with peace of mind (and a little less weirdness) sooner rather than later.

Enjoy this article? Keep reading to learn how COVID-19 is not Disney’s First Major Setback and how Disney’s Post-Lockdown Changes Aren’t Going to Be All Bad

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