Friday, December 3, 2021

COVID-19 Operating Changes at Walt Disney World


I don’t think I have to tell you that a lot has changed in the world at large in the last couple of years due to COVID-19.  In some way, every person on this planet has been affected.  This is true of any individual all the way up to a large corporation like Disney.  In this post, we’re going to take a look at how things operated before the pandemic, and what, if any, changes have taken place in the aftermath. 


Magical Express:

Previously – Disney’s Magical Express was a “free” service for on property guests, taking them from Orlando International Airport (MCO) to their resort and even taking their bags separately so they could bypass the baggage claim.


Currently: Ending permanently

I wrote at this more in length in a previous post but this service is ending as of 12/31/21.  When Walt Disney World shut down in March 2020, obviously this service wasn’t being used. Upon reopening in July 2020, Magical Express reopened as well, but without the baggage delivery service. This could certainly have been related to Covid, as it involved different hands touching bags.  The ending of the service in totality is harder to explain.  My understanding is that this service was coming to an end anyway as Disney’s contract with Mears expired.  The pandemic was a decent excuse to quietly shut this down but it was clearly just a money saving tactic by the company that might hurt them from a guest experience perspective in the long run.

The Magical Express has since been "replaced" by a couple of third party shuttle services.  See this post for more information.


Park Reservation System:

Previously – There was never a need to reserve a spot at any individual park in advance.  Often times, a dining reservation or FastPass+ window would do that work for you.  But if you liked to be spontaneous, you could have decided on any given day to pick any given park.


Currently: Here to stay

Upon reopening, Disney instituted this park reservation system, where a guest had to declare in advance what park they wanted to visit on any given day.  When you purchase tickets now, you are prompted to make a reservation for a park, as you won’t be allowed in without one. 


When park capacity was being restricted, this could be a problem. Hollywood Studios, in particular, was filling up quickly and on the most in demand days, reservations could have been hard to come by and was a problem for day guests and especially Annual Passholders. At this point, capacity restrictions have ended, so park reservations are largely a formality.  Many fans have cried out for this to end as it makes planning more difficult, but in every interview with Disney executives that I’ve read, they appear very bullish on this system so I don’t expect it to be going anywhere for the foreseeable future.  Again, this system was introduced as a way to combat pandemic restrictions but in the big picture, it gives Disney a much better idea of how many people they have coming to each park on any given day, and allows them to staff accordingly.


Park Hopping:

Previously – If you had a park hopper ticket, there was no limit to when you could visit a second (or third, or fourth!) park on any given day.  Some guests liked to grab breakfast at Epcot, then take a leisurely stroll over to Hollywood Studios by 10:00 a.m.

Currently: Restricted to after 2:00 p.m.

Upon reopening, there was no park hopping at all. That, along with the park reservation system, helped Disney limit the amount of people in each park.  Hopping returned in January 2021 but with a caveat – now you can’t park hop before 2:00 p.m.  This makes the value of a park hopper ticket less useful to many people.  You can still visit more than two parks in one day, and you don’t need a reservation for any subsequent park (subject to capacity closures, though again, those are extremely unlikely on all but the busiest day) but it certainly cuts down the flexibility aspect. 


Face Coverings:

Previously – this should go without saying, but prior to March 2020, you would have been hard pressed to find anyone in this country wearing a mask in any situation.  This wasn’t necessarily true in Asian countries, but it was here.

Currently: Requirement removed!  See this post.  I'm keeping all of what I wrote here for posterity, but it is now outdated.

Certainly the most divisive change due to Covid, the mask requirement rule has changed numerous times.  For many months upon reopening, masks were required for every guest in every situation except when eating and drinking.  Indoors or outdoors, vaccinated or not, they were a requirement.  In spring of 2021, these requirements started to be relaxed.  First, you still had to wear them everywhere but were allowed to remove them for outdoor photographs (this happened about two weeks before we went in April and was a blessing).  Soon after, the requirement was lifted in most outdoor areas and eventually indoor areas as well (for vaccinated guests only was the official rule, but since they weren’t checking, this “honor system” was essentially an open invitation for anyone).


Since then, the rule has been reintroduced in indoor areas, largely due to the spread of the delta variant and CDC community transmission rules.  There was a slight modification, as the prior “indoor” rule also pertained to outdoor ride queues and such, but that has been tweaked to essentially mean indoor only (though there is a gray area there – I’d say approximately 75% of the PeopleMover is outdoors, yet you are required to put a mask on before going up the escalator to the ride).


A couple of things to note here – first, Disney has followed CDC recommendations as well as the rules set forth by Orange County, as opposed to Florida as a whole.  There’s no reason to think this will change in the future.  As I write this, Orange County is THIS CLOSE to being out of the “substantial” tier of the CDC’s community transmission map. There is a possibility that Disney changes their rules once this takes place.  Or they could wait and get through the holiday season, which is their busiest time of year.  But lower transmission as well as the availability of vaccines for younger kids (a large part of their demographic) gives them an opportunity to change this rule anytime they see fit.  Disney Tourist Blog suggests that when Disney changes the rule again, they want it to be permanent, to avoid all the back and forth that they’ve been dealing with to date.  Also of note – most of the rules and restrictions put in place due to the pandemic were shared by both WDW and Universal Orlando.  One big exception to this has been the mask rule.  When Disney reintroduced the mask rule, Universal did not; they “strongly recommend” wearing them, but didn’t go as far as requiring them. Just an interesting note related to the operation of these parks.



Previously – FP+ was a perk that came along with everyone’s ticket, whether staying on property or not.  This allowed you to pre-book three attractions in any one park and to use a separate entrance lane to bypass the standby queue.  Once your three attractions were used up, you could book additional FP+, subject to availability.  Plenty of people took advantage of this and racked up as many FP selections as they could in any given day. 

Currently: Replaced by Genie+

This is another good example of a change that was coming anyway but was hidden within the pandemic changes.  FP+ never returned once the parks reopened.  At first, this wasn’t a big deal, as with capacity restrictions in place, there was basically no need for a service to provide a shorter line.  Once those restrictions ended, however, lines were getting longer and guests were getting reckless.


There had been rumors of paid FP going back years, and it was clear Disney was working their way up to this.  There had been rumors that they were going to reintroduce FP+ for a short time in order to ease the burden on guests but they ultimately didn’t and that was probably the right move (for the company, I mean, not the guest).  It was easier to introduce a new paid system when there was no system in place rather than replacing a free one.  I wrote a bunch about Genie in a prior post, so I won’t belabor the point here.  At its core, though, Genie+ does the same thing FP+ did, except the new system costs money and the old one didn’t.  That’s hard for guests to swallow and understandably produced a large backlash in the online community.


Character Meet & Greets –

Previously - An iconic part of the park experience and a rite of passage for many kids, meet and greets took place throughout the parks on a daily basis.  Kids (and adults!) could interact with their favorite characters, take photos, get their autographs and even hug them.

Currently: Mostly back to normal (see April 2022 note below)

It would stand to reason that one of the LAST things to return to WDW would be traditional meet and greets.  There were so many Covid-related issues here – were the performers vaccinated? Were the guests?  What was everyone’s comfort level with physical touch?  There had been socially distant, outdoor character spots,  as well as cavalcades (which we’ll discuss in a bit) to at least keep the characters visible in the parks but no real meet and greets.


Well, Disney recently announced that they’re coming back … sort of.  While locations such as Princess Fairytale Hall in Magic Kingdom are bringing characters back (indoors even!), there are still some restrictions.  As of now, like everything else indoors, masks are required.  And while “the environment is not right just yet for hugs and autographs” these are basically now selfie spots with characters.  They’re listed on the official Disney website as “sightings”, to differentiate them from traditional meet and greets.  As above, once the indoor mask rule is removed, I expect this to change. But as with most things during the pandemic, this is better than nothing.

April 2022 update: as noted here, as of April 18, regular character meet and greets are back!  Not everything is back all at once (as noted often, there are a lot of moving parts at Disney) but this signals the intention to move forward as things once were.  Keep checking the schedules to see what is currently available, and when certain dining locations are back to their regular character meals.


Stage Shows:

Previously – one of the things that made Disney parks feel so unique and “lived in” were the shows spread throughout the parks.  More than just rides, these shows were ways to bring Disney to life and served a purpose of gathering large groups of people together and spreading out crowds so that any individual ride wasn’t as crowded.

Currently: Returning, mostly

Like meet and greets, one of the issues for returning stage performers was safety.  Many of the actors in these shows were unionized workers, and they would have to agree to return with proper working conditions.  Also, during the reopening, Disney didn’t feel the need to pay all these performers when they weren’t strictly necessary to operations.  Nowadays, many of the shows are back or coming back, though it has been slower than expected.  Keep checking the official site to see what’s back (and not).  Some shows will probably not return due to budgetary issues, but for the most part, these are back and make the parks feel more normal again.



Previously – there was almost always a parade on a daily basis at Magic Kingdom.  This was a great way to see a bunch of characters as well as some impressive floats.  They were also a fun experience that differentiated Disney from just about any other theme parks in the world.

Currently: Back, and the cavalcades remain as well.

One of the best ideas Disney had during the reopening was having character cavalcades pop up, seemingly at random.  These were smaller affairs than parades but made the parks feel alive and kept characters at the forefront.  Since there was no set schedule, it prevented people from gathering on Main Street en masse, which was something Disney was trying to avoid. 


Cavalcades were no substitute for traditional parades and many people were clamoring for the latter to return.  Starting with Disney’s Very Merriest After Hours holiday party (more on this later), the first true parade since the reopening returned.  This is probably a signal that parades will be back after the holidays as well, though nothing official has been announced.  Unfortunately, this version of Mickey’s Once Upon a Christmas parade was sort of the “light” version, as many parts were truncated.  Blog Mickey reported that nearly 90 performers were cut from the version of this parade compared to the one in 2019.  

Magic Kingdom's normal parade, Festival of Fantasy, is back to operating as of March 9, 2022.  


Holiday / After Hours parties:

Previously – Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party were staples of WDW that got bigger each year, with the Halloween version starting in August (very fall like weather in Florida!) and the Christmas version starting in early November.  There were also After Hours parties that ran in non-holiday times; these basically gave guests a paid opportunity to experience the parks with far lower wait times than normal, as opposed to the holiday parties where the entertainment and atmosphere were the selling points.

Currently: Back (see May 2022 note below)

Walt Disney World ran modified versions of both their Halloween and Christmas parties this year.  Disney After Hours Boo Bash took the place of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween. At the time, there were no parades, fireworks or stage shows, so this was effectively an After Hours event with some Halloween atmosphere. By the time Disney Very Merriest After Hours premiered in place of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party, a lot of these had been rectified.  However, as Disney Tourist Blog points out, this turned out to be more of a combination of the two ideas (holiday party and after hours) with a higher cost and the inability to do both of these things at once. 


Whether this is the future of After Hours parties remains to be seen, but our expectation is that the more traditional version of these will return by next year.  There were a lot of factors involved in how Disney planned and marketed these parties, not the least of which being that they had to plan these things many months in advance amidst a rapidly changing pandemic environment.  Hopefully by next year they have the chance to do things the way they want to and not have their hand forced by safety guidelines.

May 2022 update: It was announced on April 28 that Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party is indeed coming back as normal this year.  This separates it from the "After Hours" moniker of last year and means that things are operating normally on this front.  I expect Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party to be announced later this year in the same fashion.


Parking Lot Trams:

Previously – The parking lots at WDW are vast and quite far from the gates.  Instead of walking, guests used to have the option of taking a (free) tram to the gates.  It was a nice little perk, particularly on hot days or if you had done a ton of walking during the day.

Currently: Returning soon for Magic Kingdom, 2022 for other parks.

One of the big mysteries has been why Disney hasn’t brought these back.  There had been reports of cast members training on these in recent months but nothing ever came of it.  At one point, safety might have been an issue, but considering these are open air and outdoors, that excuse seems rather flimsy now.  A cynic might say that since this was a free service that required paid cast members, Disney is not in any hurry to return it, even if by doing so, they’re not engendering any goodwill.  This should be an easy fix, unless Disney wants to continually endure the wrath of late night television hosts mocking them.

 December 2 update: Disney announced that the trams are indeed coming back!  Magic Kingdom (the park that needs it the most) first, saying, "later this month" in a Disney Parks Blog tweet.  The vague "2022" will see the return of the trams at the other parks.

Nighttime Spectaculars:

Previously – There’s nothing that sums up the Walt Disney World experience than watching a fireworks and/or projections show at night after a long, fun day in the parks.  Fireworks over the Cinderella Castle are so iconic, it’s even in Disney’s advertising, movie intros and app load. 

Currently: Back, mostly

One of the most missed things during the early reopening period were these nighttime spectaculars.  Even though they’re outdoors, Disney probably didn’t like the optics of a large group of people gathering shoulder to shoulder to watch.  There was also the practical reality that these shows cost money and with capacity restrictions, it just wasn’t worth it to them to bring them back.


But now, things are largely back in this area.  Rivers Of Light at Animal Kingdom had already been terminated pre-Covid and wasn’t coming back.  Whether they ever put a new nighttime show in that park is in question, though they won’t do a fireworks show there because they scare the animals.  I hope they find something, though, as Animal Kingdom is a wonderful park at night.  Both Magic Kingdom and Epcot have a nighttime spectacular back – Enchantment replaced Happily Ever After at Magic Kingdom (you can read my thoughts on that here) and Harmonious has replaced Epcot Forever (which itself replaced Illuminations on a temporary basis).  Magic Kingdom even has Minnie’s Wonderful Christmastime Fireworks running during the Christmas party.


The only park left is Hollywood Studios, which is a bigger question mark at this point.  The Wonderful World Of Animation has been running since August and Disney Movie Magic just made its return in November.  Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular and the holiday themed Jingle Bell Jingle BAM (both projected on the Chinese Theater) have not been announced as returning, so it seems likely that these will not be back.  The elephant in the room is Fantasmic!, which is one of Disney’s very best nighttime shows and takes place in a designated outdoor theater.  There have been rumors of its return and/or demise but nothing has officially been announced.  One factor here is that Fantasmic! is very performer heavy, meaning the labor issues that plagued the slow return of daytime shows is present here as well.  Disney has also been renovating the theater and set, with no timeframe for finishing it.  It’s likely that Fantasmic! won’t return until sometime in 2022, and it won’t be a moment too soon as far as I’m concerned.

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