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Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Is it really worth visiting Walt Disney World right now—let alone their busiest park?

This question has puzzled many since the reopening of the Most Magical Place on Earth in July. 2020 has been a strange year, and the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic meant some staggering changes at Disney parks. With no fireworks, no park hopping, reservation woes, and stringent safety requirements, even regular attendees and Passholders have been left scratching their heads if a visit to the parks is a good idea or not.

Despite having pretty easy access to Orlando as Florida Passholders, my husband and I admittedly dragged our feet to see how things would play out during those first few months after opening. We even ended up cancelling a few reservations. While some parks like Epcot have had pretty decent availability, Disney attendance models have turned upside down since reopening. Instead of crowds flocking to Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios—once considered the least attended park—has become the resort’s biggest draw, largely thanks to the opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.

After reading some intriguing reports, we finally braved a visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Thursday, September 3rd—a few days before Labor Day weekend kicked off… and we were surprised to say it was one of the best visits to the park we’ve had in years.

Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway inside Chinese Theater
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

We’ll dive further into the details of this experience below, but the primary reason for this is that social distancing and lowered capacity have left the park feeling amazingly empty—like the type of low crowds you expect the day before a hurricane is about to roll in. It was incredible, and it made for one of the most unique experiences we’ve had at the parks in recent memory.

Over Labor Day weekend (right after our visit), Disney attendance trended back towards a more traditional flow with crowds reaching 50% capacity across all four parks. While this might seem an omen that the days of crowdbare Disney parks are over, it seems likely that once Labor Day week has passed, Walt Disney World attendance will lull back into a similar quiet to what we experienced before the holiday. If you plan to visit on a weekend, you can expect slightly increased crowds as compared to weekdays.

So what exactly is it like inside Disney’s most popular park right now? Here’s what we found, as well as some advice if you decide to brave the parks yourself…

1. Rope drop may not be the best time to arrive

Low crowds at Disney's Hollywood Studios
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

If you attempted to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at any point between December 2019 and the parks closing in 2020, you likely endured at least one painfully early rope drop visit to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This was largely due to the implementation of the ride’s virtual queue system, which went through several changes before landing on the “lottery” version used today. Previously, if you weren’t at the park extremely early, there was zero chance you’d get onto this amazing new ride.

With the post COVID-19 changes, arriving pre-rope drop is still a good idea if your heart is set on riding Rise of the Resistance, but the stakes aren’t quite as dire as before. For one thing, Disney’s Hollywood Studios isn’t currently opening until 10:00 AM—meaning even on a busy day, you can sleep in a little. Most reports have encouraged guests to arrive about 25-30 minutes early if you want to get into the parks on time. While lines may look long due to social distancing, they go fast since Disney has streamlined security checks and ticket scanning. As long as you are in the park before 10:00 AM, you can fire up My Disney Experience and try for a boarding pass for ROTR.

However, if you happen to strike out during that first Boarding Pass call, that isn’t necessarily the end of the story… because you can try again during another boarding pass call at 2:00 PM. Indeed, for guests looking to avoid lines as much as possible, it may even be a good idea to arrive later.

The general trend at the park has been that guests who arrive at rope drop can expect an initial surge of crowds at the park’s most popular attractions—particularly Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run, and Slinky Dog Dash. Largely, this morning window seems to be the busiest feeling part of the day. You statistically reduce your chances of getting onto Rise of the Resistance by not participating in the morning call, but if it’s not a huge deal to you, you really can get away with arriving later and avoid that initial surge. This is a particularly attractive option for Passholders who don’t feel as much pressure to get every attraction in on every trip.

COVID Warning sign at Walt Disney World
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

In our case, we decided to try something completely different from our previous strategies. We’d had a pretty late night at work on Wednesday, so we took the pressure off and tested rolling into Disney’s Hollywood Studios around 1PM, around 3 hours after rope drop, just in time to try out that 2PM boarding pass distribution for Rise of the Resistance.

Our first impression was that the parking lot looked pretty empty! Trams were not in service, but they weren’t really needed thanks to how close we were able to park—perhaps a five minute walk to the gate. We encountered zero lines at security thanks to new streamlined protocols. It’s been a long time since we’ve been to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, so I opted to dress/Batuubound as a smuggler for the day (the mask actually looked pretty sweet with the outfit!). This meant a short stop at bag check for security to check my bag and hip pouch. While I couldn’t understand a thing the guy said through his mask, face shield, and my terrible drummer’s hearing, the exchange went quick and amiably. We entered the park without any wait or fingerprint scans.

2. The parks really do feel unusually empty

Millennium Falcon without anyone in shot
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

This would end up being the biggest factor in our day—there were definitely a good amount of people present, but even at a park as cramped as Disney’s Hollywood Studios, it felt delightfully quiet. Social distancing was pretty easy, and everyone seemed to stay cognizant of it with only a few exceptions. This trend would increase as the day wore on—the longer the day went, the thinner crowds in the streets got.

There are a few reasons for this besides reduced capacity. The biggest factor is Disney’s choice to eliminate Fastpass+. Some of our writers have addressed this before, but as convenient as Fastpass+ was, it inadvertently threw off Disney’s crowd control efforts. Stand-by lines are “crowd sponges” that corral people out of busy thoroughfares. Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, in particular, was so well designed with this principle in mind, that shortly after opening, it felt far emptier than it actually was since guests were encouraged to drift into queues, shops, and restaurants. By getting rid of Fastpass+, Disney reduced foot traffic on the streets by sponging guests into lines instead.

The longest line when we arrived was definitely Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, clocking in around 60-70 minutes. It appears we arrived during a mini-spike in waits that would diminish for the rest of the day. Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, Slinky Dog Dash, The Rock’n Roller Coaster, and Hollywood Tower of Terror all had waits above 40 minutes at the time, but all of these would lower as hours passed.

The lack of crowds made for a very leisurely pace throughout the day. Oh, and this is definitely the season to get pictures of landmarks and attractions with almost no people in them!

3. Definitely bring a smartphone

Screenshot of Rise of the Resistance Boarding Pass
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega (from My Disney Experience App)

You would think with the removal of Fastpass+ that smartphones would be less important, but the opposite is actually true—especially at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

Closing in on the 2:00 PM boarding pass distribution for Rise of the Resistance, we opted to head straight to the Milk Stand in Galaxy’s Edge to get some blue and green milk. It was a sweltering hot day (96 degrees at 50% humidity!), so a cold drink was definitely an urgency. This little detour actually became one of the only hassles of the afternoon, albeit a minor one.

In order to encourage social distancing, some quick service dining locations are entirely Mobile Order based right now—you can’t just stand in line and order a blue milk. We had to do a lot of fumbling with the app to get our financial details up to date to place the order. This was slightly stressful as that looming 2PM deadline was approaching, but fortunately, we got the order in and had our delicious green and blue milk at light speed.

Low crowds in Star Wars Galaxy's Edge
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

We tucked out of the way behind a vase in the Millennium Falcon square and started refreshing the Rise of the Resistance boarding pass distribution screen in My Disney Experience around 1:59 PM (using mobile data, not the park’s dodgy Wi-Fi). My husband nabbed boarding passes immediately, landing us in Boarding Group 83—a backup group.

This was a little bit of a bummer, but we knew the risk we were taking only doing the 2PM call. While the theory is that Disney has split the boarding groups 50/50 between the two times, it seems likely that any ride breakdowns or hiccups in the morning would reduce that 2PM capacity to make sure all of the morning groups make it through. This is an important factor to keep in mind if your heart is set onto getting onto Rise of the Resistance—your chances will be statistically lower if you wait until the 2PM call.

In short, definitely bring a smartphone with some sort of power block to keep it charged. It’s also a great source of diversion if you want to try out Star Wars Datapad to explore Batuu while its nice and quiet!

4. A fun time to explore the Black Spire Outpost

Video: YouTube, User: My Kingdom for a Mouse (Jett Farrell-Vega)

Thanks to lower crowds, this is a very nice time to explore Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Our only note is for those familiar with the layout of the land, you may have to adjust to taking a few detours. Ronto Roasters, for example, can only be entered from one side, and the Market shops can only be reached by passing through a checkpoint near the square with the trash-monster water fountains. If you’re used to shopping at a meandering pace, you may feel a bit more rushed than usual since cast members are only letting one or two people into the smaller shops at a time.

After piddling about playing Star Wars Datapad, we wandered into Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities. We couldn’t believe how much room we had to move around! If you’ve ever been into Dok Ondar’s, you may have noticed that crowd control in this place gets pretty bonkers, mostly due to the line for people looking to buy legacy lightsabers. At the time we visited, these had been temporarily moved to Savi’s Workshop, which left Dok Ondar’s surprisingly open.

Dok Ondar (Ithorian alien at Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge)
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

We’ve always had a soft spot for the cast at Dok Ondar’s—along with the team at Docking Bay 7, they tend to be the most fun to banter with if you want to lean into the role-play components at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. I was mindlessly perusing the shop when a cast member pointed at me and accused me of being Vi (the Spy) Moradi. It’d been so long since I’ve been to Batuu that I almost forgot I was dressed up, but I remembered how to use my brain and ended up having a hilarious argument with the guy about how he clearly had the wrong person. We ultimately landed on the conclusion that whatever the problem was, it was clearly Hondo Ohnaka’s fault.

Another cast member asked me later if I was the legendary Mara Jade (a very popular character from the old Star Wars canon). This completely made my day, as it told me this guy knew his Star Wars history—some pieces of my outfit were actually borrowed from an old Mara Jade cosplay. We had a casual discussion where he deftly stayed in character and avoided mixing up the various canon timelines. It was a great, low pressure moment of Disney magic.

This kind of mirrored our experience across the board in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While you can definitely tell some elements of the experience are missing, the low crowds makes for a really nice opportunity to just explore the outpost and increases your chances of fun encounters with the cast.

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Comments

We'll be on our way in late October! Keeping the social distancing in mind, we are very excited to visit the Galaxy's Edge (the SW/WDW version, mind you).

Thanks so much for the vicarious Disney trip! It does sound like an ideal time for us lower-key folks to visit. I'm 1,500 miles away, so until this is over, I'll have to live through you.

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