Home » Walt Disney World’s Reopening Has Been A Little…Weird

Walt Disney World’s Reopening Has Been A Little…Weird

Disney parks are back, and it’s not surprising that things are a little weird.

We all expected it—there’s no way Disney could come back from as significant a setback as multi-month closures due to a pandemic and things not be strange. All eyes are fixed on Walt Disney World, Disney’s first US theme park to open.

While guests have mixed opinions about whether Walt Disney World should have reopened in the first place (that’s another subject for another time), those visitors who have braved the parks have shared mostly pleasant experiences. Most agree that short of not reopening at all, Disney seems to be going above and beyond to reduce risks while still giving visitors a fulfilling experience. High points include historically low crowds, the successful implementation of character “cavalcades”, as well as pressure being reduced for trips to be planned 6 months in advance.

Despite these positives, there’s no denying that Walt Disney World’s reopening is going to feel weird in a lot of ways.

Some of these are obvious things. It’s hard to picture Disney parks without fireworks, character greets, or parades. Mask requirements and social distancing are going to take some getting used to. However, there are other subtle areas that are likely to prove just as weird to guests—things that we all just take for granted as part of the Disney parks experience that have unexpectedly changed. Here are a few that come to mind…

1. A comeback for low crowds

Let’s start with a positive one. Walt Disney World’s post-lockdown reopening marks the first time in nearly a decade that guests can enjoy most of the parks with almost no crowds.

Walt Disney World has become an increasingly busy place particularly over the past 5-10 years. Catching Disney parks during the “off-season” used to be a fairly reliable science, but days where the parks feel empty have become few and far between. Much popular wisdom for when to visit no longer applies, and the only truly reliable times to catch the parks with significantly low crowds tended to be Super Bowl Sunday or the days preceding a major hurricane.

Guests who have visited Walt Disney World since it’s mid-July reopening have remarked that they were impressed by how light crowds were (the one exception, unsurprisingly, is Disney’s Hollywood Studios due to the park’s recent popularity and small size). By necessity, Disney has hard to start out with historically low capacity limits to allow guests to maintain social distancing, and that’s making for a decidedly relaxed experience for visitors used to navigating throngs of people. There’s a wonderful freedom to explore the parks when crowds are so low, and even without FastPass+, attractions queues are short across the board.

Guests have long questioned if Disney needs to start limiting capacity to deal with overcrowding. While this may not be feasible from a business standpoint for the long term, it is nice to see this experiment play out for a season without a hefty price tag attached. While it may feel strange, this one is a good type of weird.

2. FastPass+ can no longer determine trip planning

FastPass+ has become an essential part of planning a Walt Disney World vacation. How you spent those valuable three slots can determine the course of an entire day, affecting everything from dining reservations to what order to visit other attractions.

With Disney’s post-lockdown changes, it’s likely that the days of FastPass+ acting as the spine for trip planning are over for good.

If you were a Disney regular before FastPass+ was introduced in 1999, you may remember guidebooks advising smart planners to carefully lay out itineraries to avoid long lines. One common strategy was to arrive at opening gate, hit one or two E-ticket attractions immediately, sneak in a few mid-level rides, take a break when crowds surged at lunch time, then return and visit other high-demand attractions during parade or firework times.

FastPass+ changed much of this dynamic both by limiting times of day guests could get into the “faster” line for attractions, as well as distributing crowds in ways that weren’t always easy to predict. For high-demand attractions like Frozen Ever After and Avatar: Flight of Passage, scoring a FastPass+ reservation often proved the only way to avoid a multi-hour wait.

FastPass+ has introduced as many problems as it solved (such as negating the value of stand-by lines as “crowd sponges”), and it has long been rumored that Disney has considered doing away with the system. With Disney’s post-lockdown reopening, this has become a likely reality, and it’s going to dramatically effect the way some Disney regulars plan trips.

So far, lines in most of the parks have been so short that guests can kind of meander about as they please (once again– Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the exception), but when capacity starts to increase, guests who used to rely on FastPass+ will have two choices. The first is that meticulous planners may have to learn how to adopt some of those old strategies for hitting attractions at specific times to avoid long lines. On the flip side, many guests who are used to following the rhythm of Fastpass+ reservations may have to adjust to a more flexible style of vacationing, figuring out things as they go. Either way, it’s going to mean a lot less structure than some visitors are used to.

3. Park hopper enthusiasts may get antsy

Another key change that will be strange for many guests is the (hopefully temporary) elimination of park hopping.

It’s sometimes hard to explain why park hopping is so beloved by Disney fans. Many guests prefer to spend Disney days milking one park for all it’s worth, and that’s perfectly fine as a trip planning strategy. For fans of park hopping, however, there’s an undeniable freedom to plan vacations in unexpected and creative ways. I can’t remember a single Disney trip where we didn’t park hop to take advantage of dining options, avoid crowds, or strategically enjoy experiences across different parks. For Passholders, park hopping is particularly attractive since it allows guests a huge amount of spontaneity to explore multiple parks in a day.

The elimination of park hopping is going to be difficult to wrap one’s head around if you’re used to flitting from park to park. It’s actually one of the changes that feels the weirdest for me when planning our eventual return—90% of our visits in the last year were spent park hopping between Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I’m having to open new parts of my brain just to grasp the idea of spending all day at just one park again (even if I probably could burn half a day just loafing around Batuu playing Star Wars Datapad). For habitual park hoppers, it’s either going to mean shorter days, the implementation of mid-day breaks, or a very purposeful shift in trip-planning to really get the most out of every park.

4. Character and cast encounters will feel really different

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.

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

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

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

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