If this is your first time planning a trip back to Disney World since the parks reopened, you may be surprised to hear that there are a few things that work (and look!) a bit differently now.
Here’s what you need to know.
Your resort choice matters
In the past there was an argument to be made that since you’ll be spending so much time in the parks, where you stay won’t matter.
But that isn’t true anymore.
First of all, it is important to note that not all resorts are open so before you get your heart set on a certain one, definitely make sure it is available for your desired travel dates.
Secondly, even though Disney has been extending park hours more and more, there’s still the chance that you’ll have more free time than you’re used to.
Ideally that means you’ll be staying somewhere that has opportunities for things for you to do outside of your room – whether that be swimming or exploring or even just enjoying peaceful, physically-distanced nooks and crannies during your down time.
In addition, the park opening and closing hours means you’re more likely than ever to be eating at least 1 (if not 2) meals outside of the parks.
Having a resort with food options that appeals to your taste buds will make things a lot more enjoyable.
Even better than that is staying somewhere with restaurants that you enjoy plus having a kitchen so that you can easily cook a few meals yourself. The Deluxe Villas, Cabins at Fort Wilderness, and even some offsite resorts like Wyndham Bonnet Creek are all great choices.
Personally, on our first visits back we really enjoyed having the ability to cook some of our meals in our room. Not only does eating out get old fast, but it just felt safer to minimize the amount of time we were in public without our masks on.
Dining, while swimming, and briefly for outdoor photos are the only time guests are allowed to temporarily remove their masks, and even though the restaurants are operating at a vastly reduced capacity and the tables are spread out, we were still wary of dining inside too often.
If that is a concern for you, too, try to choose somewhere with a kitchen or kitchenette in the room.
It may cost more, but you’ll also likely find that some of that cost will be offset by reduced spending on theme park food.
Planning where (& when!) to eat is more important than ever
Planning to dine near where you’ll be has long been a part of our Disney World vacation planning process.
But right now, that’s more important than ever.
Dining Reservations open at 60 days (not 180 days)
This is a big change to Disney veterans, but an important one to know.
Unlike the “before times” when dining reservations were made at 180 days, dining reservations are now available to book online 60 days out starting at exactly 7 am EST.
If you are a resort guest, the process is similar to how things were before in that you’re able to make reservations for your arrival day plus up to 10 additional days.
If you are staying offsite you can only make your reservations at exactly 60 days out, so for multiple day trips you’ll need to do those one day at a time.
First of all, not all restaurants are open, and the ones that are open are operating at a reduced capacity.
So, even though the overall number of people visiting Walt Disney World right now is greatly reduced, so too are the available seats in restaurants.
If you prefer Table Service dining, making your reservations at exactly 60 days out will be very important.
In the past, we oftentimes would be able to easily secure same-day dining reservations, especially for some of the less popular resort restaurants.
But now with some resorts closed and not all places open, we found our available options to be far more limited than we’d typically see.
See our Tips for Hard-to-Snag Dining Reservations for additional information.
Opt for outside
And considering the only times guests at Walt Disney World are allowed to remove their masks when in public are while swimming, dining, and for outdoor photos, utilizing outdoor dining spaces just makes sense.
Many quick service locations in the parks have outdoor dining options, as do several places (both quick service and table service) in Disney Springs.
When it comes to Table Service restaurants in the parks, though, it gets a bit trickier – something to keep in mind when planning your meals.
Renting a car might make sense
Disney transportation is top notch and usually we have zero hesitations using it.
But right now – with everything going on – it may not be your best option.
Like the restaurants, all forms of Disney transportation are also operating at a reduced capacity. Plus there are additional measures in place to make things safer, including Plexiglas dividers in buses and vinyl dividers in monorails.
But even with the reduced capacity and social distancing enforcement, at the end of the day you’re still in an enclosed space with others.
And because of physical distancing, lines for Disney transportation can be extremely long first thing in the morning and at park close.
On our trips, we operate under the policy of reducing the time spent in enclosed spaces whenever we could.
Do we eliminate them all? Of course not.
We still ride indoor attractions and choose to eat a few meals that are only available indoors.
But choosing to rent a car meant that we could shave off 1-2 instances each and every day of being in an enclosed space with others.
Learn more about How Disney Transportation Works Right Now.
Learn from our mistake
But while renting a car was a great way to minimize daily close contact with other people, when we rented our car we made a huge mistake.
To save money we opted to rent from an offsite vendor, and here’s why that was a terrible idea:
Offsite rental car agencies use shuttles, and even if they have policies about masks and socially distancing, they may not be enforced.
That was 100% our experience.
The rental car agency we used had a mask policy, but it wasn’t enforced. In addition, there were no social distancing guidelines on the shuttle.
Zip. Zero. Zilch.
Seeing multiple mask-less parties board a packed shuttle, we left the line and called for a Lyft to take us to the airport from the rental car lot instead.
Lyft and Uber are requiring their drivers to wear masks. They also encourage windows to be down. Little things that, while not perfect, were definitely better than our shuttle option.
In addition to the safety issues we saw, the rental agency we used (Fox Rent a Car) had truly poor customer service plus our first car had a flat tire and smelled like cigarettes.
All of that combined was not worth the $200 we saved by choosing to rent outside of the terminal.
We truly think that renting a car is your best option – but in order to minimize your risk, you should choose to rent from an in-terminal rental car agency.
Even better is to rent from an agency that allows you to skip the counter (or to use a kiosk) and go directly to your car. Many of the rental car agencies allow that, especially if your join their (typically) free loyalty programs.
Offsite might be a better option
In the past, the benefits guests received by staying onsite were a compelling reason to avoid staying offsite.
Historically onsite gave you a leg up with 60 day FastPass+ reservations, the ability to make up to 10 days of your dining reservations at once, access to the Disney Dining Plan, and of course, Extra Magic Hours.
Plus staying onsite meant you could have your shopping items delivered to your resort and it gave you access to probably our favorite onsite perk – Resort Airline Check-In.
But now, just about the only perk that remains is the ability to make up to 10 days of your dining reservations at once. Everything else has been suspended, at least for the time being.
Park Pass Reservations are a consideration, of course, but currently availability is wide-open for offsite guests, with very few days showing any parks as unavailable.
In fact, the only people that we might hesitate to recommend offsite to (right now) are Annual Passholders since they are only allowed to make up to 3 days of Park Pass Reservations at a time.
But non-Passholders can make reservations equal to the number of days on their ticket and since you can review Park Pass availability before you purchase your tickets, you’ll know you’ll have access to the parks before you spend any money.
Downside to offsite
There are lots of great things about your offsite options.
Many have more space (for less money) and you can even rent full-sized houses or cottages.
But, there are some downsides:
- You’ll absolutely without a doubt want to have access to a car – either your own or by renting a car – if staying offsite. Do not count on offsite shuttle options to be either timely OR safe.
- You won’t be able to make all your dining reservations at once. Instead, if making Advanced Dining Reservations you’ll only be able to do 1 day at a time, exactly 60 days out from each.
The first item in the list above is a deal breaker, in our opinion: you should not stay offsite if you don’t have a car.
But the 2nd one is much more of an inconvenience or hassle – and honestly, not that big of a deal, all things considered.
Learn more about the current benefits to staying onsite.
Staying onsite? Book a Vacation Package.
At Walt Disney World, packages are when you purchase both your tickets and your room at the same time. In the past, you could also purchase the Disney Dining Plan as part of your package, but that isn’t available right now.
With a Disney World Vacation Package you pay one $200 deposit, and you can cancel up to 30 days in advance with no penalty.
Final payment is also due 30 days prior to your check-in (so if you’re booking a package for a trip fewer than 30 days away, you’ll pay the entire thing at that time).
Room Only details
If you purchase your trip components separately, you pay for your park tickets in total at the time of purchase and you pay the equivalent of 1 night’s hotel cost as a deposit, with the rest due on check-in.
You can cancel a room-only reservation up to 5 days from check-in with no penalty.
Important note: Disney has increased their flexibility for trip cancellations. Be sure to review the most up-to-date cancellation policy information before booking your trip.
Why choose a package?
As you can see, the cancellation policy for room-only reservations is a lot more lenient, but if you cancel a trip and you’ve purchased your tickets outside of a package, you won’t get your money back for your tickets.
That is a biggie now that a ticket is required to make Park Pass Reservations. You may want to lock-in those Park Pass Reservations which means you’ll be buying your park tickets further out.
So, if that is your plan – consider going with a package. As long as you cancel that at least 30 days in advance, you’ll get all your money back.
Even better…use an agent
With everything changing so rapidly it can be very helpful to have somebody you can turn to for assistance navigating through it all.
That’s why now more than ever, if planning a trip feels overwhelming we highly recommend reaching out to a reliable travel agent.
Not only will they be able to answer all of your questions, but they’ll also keep you in the loop if and when changes happen.
Stick with your group
This one is one we should have thought of before our first trip.
Disney World is a popular place for groups and families to meet up. We often do it ourselves.
But right now, you really shouldn’t because the safest thing is for traveling parties to remain separate.
On our first time back to Walt Disney World, we excitedly planned a meet-up with some WDW Prep Patrons. It is something we try to do every trip and we love the opportunity to sit and chat about Disney with fun people.
But, a couple days before we realized how naïve we were being.
A group of people from all over the USA coming together at a meal (which means no masks) was not safe. In fact, it was downright reckless.
Even if these were family members from different parts of the country, it wouldn’t be safe.
So we changed things up and instead met outdoors on a covered balcony where we could all keep socially distanced while chatting (with masks on).
Now is not the time to plan giant family or friend reunions anywhere.
But if you’re like us, somehow when you’re talking about Disney it can be tricky to remember that while Disney might feel safer than other places, that doesn’t that you can just disregard doing things the right way…and that includes sticking to your traveling party only.
Understand park hours
If you’re a frequent traveler to Walt Disney World, you’re probably used to the parks opening relatively early and staying open late into the evening.
But right now, that just isn’t happening.
Park hours have been very fluid, but one thing has been consistent: the total number of hours the parks are open is less than what we typically see.
During busier times of the year, Disney has been extending the hours but the total time the parks are open are still less than what we typically see.
The parks are opening early … kind of
In addition to the park hours being staggered, you’ll also find that the parks themselves open up early – which may seem odd, but there is a very good reason as to why.
Disney is utilizing transportation as a way to control the flow of people into the parks. Again, the goal is to avoid having large groups of people stuck in one space.
That means that as soon as the parking lots open or the buses start dropping guests off, you can pretty much guarantee that at least for now, the park gates will be open, too.
It is a lot easier to keep people physically distanced inside of a park – where each group lines up at their first attraction of the day – than it is if they were all held at the front of the park. There simply isn’t enough space outside the parks to safely do that.
If they allow people to line up inside the park they can spread the space needed to keep groups socially distanced between several attractions instead of in the limited space you find outside the gates.
For us, we experienced the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios parking lots opening up about 1 hour before the official park opening, Epcot about 45 minutes before the official park opening, and Animal Kingdom about 30 minutes before the official opening.
Those may change – but that should give you a good idea what to expect if you were driving. Buses, boats, the Skyliner, and the monorail all tended to start a little later – about 30 – 45 minutes before park opening.
Once inside the park, we had mixed experiences with the attractions themselves actually starting early. Sometimes they did, other times they didn’t.
That may be a park-by-park thing, or even an attraction-by-attraction thing…we weren’t really sure. But what we are positive about is that Disney isn’t going to allow the traditional large crowds of people to gather at the front of the park right now and whether you’re driving or taking Disney transportation, once you arrive and start walking towards the park don’t expect to stop until you get to your first attraction of the day.
You’ll need to prepare for the queues
One thing people that are familiar with Disneyland often notice about Disney World is that so many of Disney World’s queues are enclosed, or at a minimum, covered.
That isn’t the case so much at Disneyland where they have nicer weather. But at Disney World where it can be unbearably hot and rainy (especially in the summer), covered queues are a must.
The queues at Disney World are designed to hold a lot of people…if those people are standing right next to one another.
In the age of social distancing, however, people can’t be packed into the spaces safely.
Groups are spaced 6 feet apart meaning that the capacity of queues has been greatly reduced and now, instead of everybody being able to wait for an attraction inside and out of the elements, overflow queues that snake back and forth outdoors are being used.
And when the sun is shining, the queues are hot. And when is raining, they are totally unprotected.
We quickly learned that having an umbrella in the parks is more important now than ever.
In the past, we didn’t find umbrellas that practical in the parks. Crowds meant you were constantly struggling to keep from poking people with sharp, pointy edges.
But now that the socially distancing is a thing – including in lines – having an umbrella is a life-saver for providing protection from both the sun and the rain.
Read more about the 5 Things We Recommend You Add to Your Park Bag for your next trip.
Mask breaks are a must
Unless you work in a profession where masks are required, wearing one for multiple hours at a time is probably new.
And while we never thought it was difficult to physically wear, we did find ourselves struggling to drink as much water as we should.
Typically we carry in 1-2 bottles of water each, and we drink them all the time: while walking, while in line, etc.
But Disney’s rules now state that you can’t remove your mask to eat or drink unless you are stationary.
So, much like bathroom breaks are a necessity – mask breaks must be considered now, too.
Personally, we think you should plan to find a spot where you can sit down, safely remove your masks, and eat/drink water at least once every 60-90 minutes.
That may sound like a lot but keep in mind that wait times now for attractions are lower, and you can get a lot done quickly, so there is plenty of time for breaks.
And they are absolutely necessary, especially in the high temperatures.
Outdoor (but covered) Relaxation Stations and unused outdoor Quick Service tables both work great.
The goal is to find someplace in the shade where you can sit, remove your mask, and drink water for a bit.
Prepare for new security measures
One of the changes to come out of the reopening are new security procedures at all 4 parks.
In the past, Disney security would go through each. and. every. bag. They touched everything, had you unzip every zipper, sometimes made you remove everything.
It was a terrible process.
Now instead of all of that, they send everyone through the metal detectors after asking you to remove your metal water bottles and umbrellas. Ideally with the new setup you never turn over your bag to somebody else – you keep your bag on your person.
In our experience, though, we had far better luck not setting off the metal detector when we separated out all of our metal items (things like external battery chargers, inhalers, etc.) into a Ziploc bag that we placed, along with our umbrellas, in a tub that was passed to the Security officer before going through the metal detectors.
It’s like separating your liquids before flying only at Disney World, you separate your metals.
One of those metal things individually probably wouldn’t set it off – but because we typically travel with multiple battery chargers, a phone, inhalers, Altoid tins, and an occasional bottle opener – putting all that together in 1 baggie that bypasses the metal detector made the process lightning fast.
If by chance you do set off the metal detectors you’ll be pulled aside and asked to empty out the contents of your bag. They try to limit contact with your items by asking you to open your bag, etc., and then they’ll use the wand to double check your person for metal items.
Not everything is open
So much at Disney World is open right now. Most of the attractions, lots of the resorts, and nearly all your transportation options.
But not everything is.
For example, most of the kiosks on The Boardwalk aren’t open, along with several of the restaurants there. Some of the restaurants in the parks aren’t open, and lots of shops aren’t open, either.
For the most part – aside from The Boardwalk, the parks felt “alive” and even with all the new procedures, they even felt normal.
But, don’t expect it to be exactly the same. Because it isn’t.
That doesn’t mean it is bad or not magical – but it does mean that it is different and that some of your favorite places to shop or dine or stay may not be open for a while.
Disney Springs is busy
In the parks, while not everything feels 100% safe, 100% of the time, we were impressed at the level of planning Disney had put into place. And in the instances where we felt unsafe due to crowds, we were easily able to take control and remove ourselves from the situation.
That wasn’t the case at Disney Springs.
Disney Springs is busy. Especially at night, which makes sense because the parks are closing earlier and people are looking for things to do or places to eat.
Disney has tried to make things safer here but when the crowds are heavy it is tough to police masks and enforce social distancing.
And it isn’t just the pathways that are crowded. The shops feel crowded, too. And the abundance of places to purchase drinks outside of restaurants (like at kiosks) also means that people get lax with the whole “being stationary” while eating and drinking rule.
If Disney Springs is a must-do for your trip we recommend you go first thing in the morning. Do not wait until evening.
Video: 13 ways Disney World planning has changed
All-in-all, from our perspective Disney is working hard to make things safer for both guests and Cast Members.
They aren’t perfect and traveling anywhere right now means you need to be smart and that starts by understanding what to expect. Of course, we expect things to evolve as the reality of the world changes but right now, if you’re planning to travel to Walt Disney World you’ll definitely want to keep the items above in mind.