You can think of this as a temporary planning guide to Walt Disney World while the world continues its fight with the COVID-19 global pandemic. The reason we wanted to write such a guide is that a lot has changed at Disney World due to this pandemic and it’s worth noting these changes as you plan your next trip. We would suggest using this guide if you’re planning to visit the parks during COVID-19. We would say this guide applies to anyone planning a trip between now and summer 2021. After this time be sure to follow our 2021 Disney World Planning Guide that discusses planning when things are normal at the resort.
We’re going to keep tweaking this guide as things change at the resort but for the most part, we anticipate new health and safety guidelines to continue to apply for the next several months (Updated April 3rd, 2021).
Like our standard guide to Disney World, this guide will cover things like the best times to visit, saving money on tickets, and avoiding crowds but it also explains any changes affecting these things and park changes in general. Whether you’re a first-time visitor or an Annual Passholder you’ll find this guide useful.
HEALTH AND SAFETY GUIDELINES
We don’t normally have this section (let alone this guide) but there’s nothing normal about this guide so here it is. There are actually quite a few things to consider concerning Disney’s current guidelines including their mask mandate, social distancing, dining changes, and transportation and resort hotel updates.
First, let’s look at what’s required of guests while they are visiting. Currently, guests are required to wear a mask at all times unless they are eating or drinking and stopped. This new guideline applies to any guest ages 2 and up, and even if you’ve had the COVID-19 vaccine. You must wear a mask while walking around the parks, riding rides, watching shows, and even at your resort hotel (outside your room and the pool).
We’ve been to the parks many, many times during COVID with our kids and so far we haven’t had any issues. Guests 2 and older are required to have a mask and Disney doesn’t mess around with this. The best thing we ever did to prepare our 5 and 3-year old for these visits was to have them wear their masks around the house for extended periods of time. Then we explained to them that in order for us to visit Disney World we have to be able to keep our masks on all day. Get any kids you’re bringing to agree to this. If they are struggling in any way, consider changing your dates. You DO NOT want to fly a child out to Orlando only to have them refuse to wear their mask.
With all these changes, Disney has devised a Park Pass Reservation system that requires guests to make an advance reservation to a park in order to enter. Every guest must do this no matter when or how you got your tickets. It’s a pretty simple process and can be done online. You must have tickets first before doing this. Because Disney is limiting the number of guests each day in the parks, reservations may or may not be available to you which is why we suggest doing it as far in advance as possible. You can read more about this new system and how to secure your reservations in our updated guide.
Certain resort hotels are open while others remain closed. If you have a favorite hotel that you have to stay at and it’s currently closed, you may want to delay your trip until it reopens. Of the resorts that are open, there are capacity limits so once you know you’re going, make sure you book.
The following Disney Resort hotels are now open and accepting new reservations:
- Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Boulder Ridge Villas at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Copper Creek Villas & Cabins at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge
- Disney’s All-Star Movies
- Disney’s Animal Kingdom Villas – Kidani Village
- Disney’s Art of Animation Resort
- Disney’s Beach Club Villas
- Disney’s BoardWalk Villas
- Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort
- Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Disney’s Coronado Springs Resort
- Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground
- Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Old Key West Resort
- Disney’s Polynesian Villas & Bungalows
- Disney’s Pop Century Resort
- Disney’s Riviera Resort
- Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort & Spa
- Disney’s Yacht Club Resort
- The Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa
The following Disney Resort hotels are scheduled to reopen in the near future:
- Disney’s Beach Club Resort — Reopening May 30, 2021
- Disney’s Wilderness Lodge — Reopening June 6, 2021
- Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort — Reopening late July
Social distancing at the resort hotels isn’t all that difficult. However, we will mention that resort hotel elevators can be a mess (particularly at the taller resorts like Contemporary Resort). Remember how there are lines for rides at the parks? With Disney limiting elevators to 1 party or 4 individuals there can be lines just to get on one. One time we waited 10 minutes before getting an empty one. So choosing resorts with fewer levels can help you avoid this (or staying on the first floor).
Pools at the resorts are open and don’t require guests to wear masks if they are in the pool or on the pool deck sitting. If you get up to walk around you do need to put your mask on unless you’re getting into the pool or spa. Most pools are still offering dining though they aren’t waiting on you. This means you’ll need to go and order it and bring it back to your seats.
Because each chair needs to be sanitized after a guest uses it, Disney is asking guests to remain in them until they are done and avoid moving around. A Cast Member will give you instructions on how this works when you arrive.
If you find yourself wandering around you hotel you will need to wear a mask. Guests may only take them off when sitting to dine or inside their rooms.
Housekeeping has changed to only servicing rooms every two days and typically will only remove trash and dirty towels, replenish amenities, clean off the vanity and other counter surfaces, and vacuum as needed.
Transportation from Orlando International Airport to your resort hotel via the Magical Express is actually running very smoothly. The buses are spacing guests out but with fewer people visiting it hasn’t made much of an impact. The biggest changes to transportation actually come from Disney’s internal bussing system from resort hotels to parks and Disney Springs. Unfortunately, this has turned into a nightmare for most, especially the hour leading up to park opening and park closing.
We’ve seen very long lines during these times due to busses only being able to take about 10-12 groups at a time. Groups can consist of 1 person or 5-6. Either way, an entire section of the bus is dedicated to this group despite the size. This has translated into longer bus wait times. We recommend staying at a resort that’s with walking distance to a park or committing to driving or using a car share service.
TEMPERATURE CHECKS AND SECURITY
At the parks, you’re going to see several changes, some good and some not a big deal. Every guest is subject to a temperature check so as you’re walking towards security you’ll see white tents with Cast Members taking temperatures. It’s not a big deal and hasn’t really caused any delays or long lines.
The good news is that security is much simpler than it used to be. 80% of guests will simply walk through metal detectors (with their bags) and be on their way. Some guests will be asked to check their bags and any guests with a scooter/wheelchair or a stroller will be asked to step through a different line for a quick manual inspection.
Inside the parks, guests will be required to social distance as they walk around the parks. Keep in mind that this is not always possible (like most of the time) hence you have a mask on. You are allowed to take your mask off to eat but you must stop in order to do this. This applies to eating and drinking. If you want a handful of delicious popcorn on your way to Expedition Everest, you’ll need to stop each time, pull your mask down, eat and then pull your mask back up before continuing your walk. And remember, you must have a mask on even if you have been vaccinated for COVID-19.
When approaching an attraction or show you’ll notice there are markers on the ground spacing groups 6 feet apart. If no one is in front of you keep walking until there is. Larger groups with 5+ people are a bit harder to squeeze in these spaces so just be aware of this. You’ll follow these markers all the way up until you’re boarded on the attraction or seated.
Dining has changed and some would say it’s for the best while others think it’s a huge pain. What we’re referring to is how guests have to order their food at quick service restaurants during COVID. What used to be an optional advantage in our opinion is now a requirement. We’re referring to mobile ordering through Disney’s official Walt Disney World App.
With dining limited due to capacity restraints, guests must now mobile order before going into a quick service location. Once you’ve placed your order and it’s ready, you can enter the building by showing a Cast Member that your food is ready for you to pick up. You’ll then head to the line the app directs you to.
There are options for guests who don’t have the app or can’t get it to work but sometimes this can be a hassle when it shouldn’t be. Just be prepared to tell a Cast Member your situation and they will direct you.
Once inside the restaurant, you’ll notice that several tables are unavailable. This is to allow spacing between guests and depending on the restaurant can be a pain to find seating, especially for larger groups.
Reservations for sit-down restaurants can only be made 60 days in advance right now and you’ll want to do those online. Guests can still walk up to a restaurant and asked to be seated. We’ve found that 90% of the time they can accommodate us. However, if there is one you really want to go to, make an advanced reservation.
The Disney Dining Plan for 2021 is still not available for guests to add to their reservations so you’ll need to forego that until Disney is able to bring it back. Our guess is perhaps sometime around October 1st when Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure opens and the other 50th Anniversary Celebration festivities begin. When it does become available guests will be able to add it to their vacation 24 hours prior to any arrival.
ATTRACTIONS, FASTPASS+ AND EXTRA MAGIC HOURS
Due to social distancing in the parks, lines for attractions and shows are physically longer than they used to be. Queues are now spacing groups 6 feet apart all the way through. For some attractions, this may be deceiving as the wait time is short but the line looks long. For others, the line looks long and the wait time is also long which is a bummer. There are several reasons for this.
First, with guests having to be spaced apart 6 feet, the lines have gotten a little crazy. For this reason, FastPass+ was done away with for the time being and those lines are now used to help space guests apart (sort of). Most attractions still have a FastPass+ line that is used for guests who have a return time scheduled whether it be from the Disability Access Service or a freebie from a broken down attraction.
Second, Disney has had to apply social distancing not just to their lines but also the ride vehicles themselves. For an attraction like Space Mountain, only every other row is used for guests. This can come out to at least 2 guests not being able to ride on average. For side-by-side roller coasters like Big Thunder Mountain RR, this means 2 empty seats every other row. That’s about 10 missing guests per run. You can see what we’re getting at.
Right now at Disney World, the 2 most popular attractions are Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Both are located at Disney’s Hollywood Studios making this park very popular. Rise of the Resistance is part of a virtual queue accessed through Disney’s Mobile App. This queue fills up within seconds for the first and second half of the day so it’s important to know how to get in. You can read our guide on how to get a guaranteed boarding group for Rise of the Resistance.
As for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway, you’re going to want to be at the park prior to opening and make a mad dash to the attraction to avoid a 100 minute wait time. This is the best advice we can offer. You may want to see our daily itineraries for this park, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, and Epcot to help make the most of your days. They tell you where to start out, how to spend your time, and how to avoid the crowds as you try to do it all.
FastPass+ used to be everyone’s best friend when it came to getting things done in the parks, as did Extra Magic Hours, which were also nixed as a result of the pandemic. With these services temporarily suspended, all park guests are forced to use regular lines on every attraction and show, and Disney resort guests are unable to beat the lines by being in the park before or after normal park hours. We don’t expect FastPass+ to come back until social distancing measures are removed from the parks. This could be around early summer 2021 or maybe close to October 1 and the 50th anniversary for those who are planning, but that’s just a very rough guess.
Unfortunately, Extra Magic Hours will not be returning, at least as far as we know. However, they will be replaced by Early Theme Park entry in time for the 50th anniversary to begin. This new perk will allow hotel guests of Disney resorts and other select hotels to get into any of the parks 30 minutes early every day of the week – a very valuable headstart to stay the least and one of the best bonuses for staying at a Disney resort.
PARADES, FIREWORKS, AND CHARACTERS
Disney has suspended their major firework and parade shows in all parks for now. We expect them to come back sometime in early-mid summer when social distancing measures are removed (just a guess). Don’t fret though as Disney has come up with some great ideas to keep guests entertained in these departments. As far as characters go, there are no personal interactions available at this time.
At Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park guests can still catch characters zipping around the waterways dancing it up on boats. These new interactions are really fun and can be seen throughout the day in most lands.
At the Magic Kingdom theme park, Disney is running mini parades throughout the day. These consist of 3-4 floats with characters on them. They start around Splash Mountain and end at Main Street U.S.A. Personally, we love these mini parades and think Disney should make them a new standard. They keep large crowds from forming and don’t disrupt the flow of traffic like the normal parades do. And, they are still a lot of fun for everyone. You can also listen to the Dapper Dans down on Main Street. At night, Disney has been doing projection shows on Cinderella’s Castle accompanied by a few fireworks. These shows don’t run for very long but they are fantastic to watch.
Over at Epcot and Hollywood Studios, guests can enjoy similarly bite-sized character parades as well as random pop-ups where Disney friends like Joy from Inside Out stops by to frolic with a butterfly net over in Epcot’s Future World or Stormtroopers patrol Galaxy’s Edge – from a socially safe distance, of course. Of course, Epcot’s can’t-miss major festivals are still going on including Food & Wine, Festival of the Arts, Festival of the Holidays, and the currently running Flower & Garden Festival. Plus, you can catch live musical acts like the Voices of Liberty or Mariachi Cobre as well.
WHEN TO VISIT
With capacity limits in place, we almost considered skipping this section of the guide. This is because Disney seems to be running pretty close to current capacity limits every day (which sits around 35%). Having said that, we can’t say for sure and we know that there are days of the week that are still better to visit than others. This also applies to certain weeks of the year.
January and February are typically great months to visit and we think this still stands during COVID. If you’re thinking of visiting during these months try and avoid any of the holidays including Presidents Day and MLK Day. In general, you want to avoid anytime school may be out. These days tend to bring in the weekend warriors for a quick 2-3 day trip. That and locals tend to come during these days with work off.
March and April of 2021 are going to be big for spring breaks despite many of them being online. We try to avoid these months if we can. If you can’t, the earlier in March or the later in April the better. We understand though that your state or school district dictates these dates. It doesn’t mean you should give up on planning a trip. Just be prepared for a busier week and we’ll help you navigate the rest. You’ll be able to enjoy the 2021 Flower and Garden Festival (typically runs March thru May though this year it’s running through July.)
Graduation is going to be very interesting this year. Typically held during the end of April and into May, grad nights at Disney World can get crazy. However, we don’t anticipate Disney hosting any of these this year if they have their current guidelines in place. What this means for you is probably a great May month to visit before the summer crowds hit.
Summer 2021 is going to mark a giant step towards normalcy at the parks and is not a recommended time to visit if you can avoid it. We anticipate with a decent amount of vaccines having been given that Disney will be able to increase their capacity limits and more people are going to be willing to travel.
We do offer a deeper dive into the best times to visit Disney World which typically applies to any visit during any year. If you want to go beyond even this take a look at our friends at Touring Plans who offer the internet’s best crowd calendar backed by a ridiculous amount of data. Most people can get away with using our calendar but we know there are others out there who want more.
HOW LONG TO VISIT
During COVID guests may want to extend their vacation for as long as they can. A lot of things play into this including how long you’re willing to wear a mask day after day. And because attractions can have physically longer lines and wait times due to capacity changes you may not be able to get as much done in a day as when FastPass+ is available and Disney is able to use every row in an attraction.
We typically refrain from telling guests how long they should play in the parks because every group is different. Some have been every year for the past 20 years. Some have never been at all. Some may love the ambiance of the parks more than the attractions. We will tell you that the average family spends 5 days at the parks with the park hopper option. Whatever the case may be, right now we are suggesting you add 2 additional days to your vacation if possible to make up for lost time.
PARK TICKETS AND ANNUAL PASSES
Park tickets are pretty much back to normal for 2021. Disney brought back the park hopper option on January 1st. Purchasing them hasn’t changed and we always recommend you buy your tickets from an authorized seller like Undercover Tourist. They can help guests save up to $79 per ticket vs. buying directly from Disney. You can read more about discounted tickets in our 2021 tickets guide.
The only thing you need to be aware of with park hopper tickets is how they are functioning right now. While park hoppers allow you to go from one park to another as many times as you want, they are a bit different during COVID. Guests must still make a Park Pass Reservation in advance and must attend that park first that day. After 3pm, guests may then head to a different park, no Park Pass Reservation required.
If you are worried about having to cancel your vacation after purchasing tickets, don’t fear. With Disney’s date-based tickets guests can actually change their dates as many times as they need to without a fee. The only time you would need to pay more is if you choose new dates that cost more per day. In this case, you just pay the difference which for most guests will only be about $15-$20 more.
If a guest in your party gets COVID and is unable to travel, their ticket can be used another time or the entire group can change their plans to new dates. In some cases, a refund can be issued on the ticket.
If for some reason the entire resort has to close again, refunds will be issued to guests as they have always done.
If you’re lucky enough to have an annual pass prior to the pandemic, you’re probably going to want to hang on to it and renew it when it comes time. This is because Disney has stopped issuing new annual passports for the time being. This means you cannot purchase one despite your best efforts at a box office or guest relations. Guests who were planning to upgrade to a pass using their park ticket are also out of luck. We suspect Disney will bring these back in late summer 2021 though, like everything, it’s up in the air.
Do you have any suggestions on things we may have missed? Any additional expert advice that you think should be shared? We love to hear this from you so please leave a comment or send us an email. If you loved reading this article we have plenty more! You can sign-up for our free monthly newsletter below to stay informed about park news, special offers and so much more.
Dean has been writing and blogging for over 10 years. He specializes in Disney theme park news including updates, openings, special events and general advice for travelers. He doesn’t shy away from the good, the bad and the ugly. His previous work includes being a Cast Member at Disneyland and working as a travel agent.