It has now been 2 months since Disney first reopened their gates to guests following their nearly 4 month closure. During this time, we have continued to learn a lot about how the parks will be operating and what it might be like to head back in the near future. Back when the parks originally reopened we shared the five things that we learned during the first week. In this post we share how those initial findings have changed and what new things you should be considering.
Before we get to our list of what we learned, if you are interested in getting started with planning your adventure, check out our post about why we think heading back to either Disney World or Universal this fall or winter may be a great idea.
1) The crowds are still light, but it is getting busier.
Back when the parks reopened wait times above 30 minutes were few and far between. With many premier attractions having little to no wait whatsoever. Over the past few months however, the crowds have predictably gotten heavier as guests have started to feel more and more comfortable traveling and visiting the parks. While waits are a little longer, and some attractions are seeing waits up to around 60 minutes or more at their max, most lines are still very short and crowds remain far less than usual.
We did get a glimpse of what high crowds will look like under the new limited capacity over Labor Day weekend as the parks saw their highest wait times since reopening. And it's actually pretty encouraging. The wait times we saw looked very similar to what you would expect to see on an average day back in 2019. Without access to fastpasses to skip the lines, you will likely still have to arrive early at some parks to get all of the top rides in (see our note below about the specifics for each park). However, a 45 to 60 minute wait for some of the major attractions in the middle of the day is not bad all things considered.
Given the fact that Labor Day was probably as high a capacity as we will see through the end of the year, we can extrapolate that this will likely be similar to what the crowds will be like around the holidays. Considering the high crowds you would typically find around Christmas and Thanksgiving, it could be a great chance to experience this magical time with much lower crowds.
2) Touring strategy continues to evolve
Since the parks reopened, we have been keeping an eye on wait times and analyzing different touring strategies. As you would imagine, rides that have had to severely limit capacity tend to have longer wait times now. This is especially true for boat rides, but also applies to roller coasters and other thrill rides with non standard ride vehicles (like Test Track for example). On the other hand, dark rides where capacity was previously just two people per ride vehicle, tend to have much shorter wait times comparatively.
We have also seen that weekends are tending to have much higher crowd levels due to local and annual pass visitors. In the past, weekends were usually a bit busier, but not to the extent that they are now. If you are able, we would recommend planning Saturday and/or Sunday as your travel or pool day and avoid the crowds.
That being said, below are our current tips for visiting each park.
Magic Kingdom: We still recommend arriving at Magic Kingdom as early as you can. Even though Disney has been intentionally limiting access through delayed transportation options and limiting access to parking areas prior to opening, you should still try to arrive around 45 minutes prior to opening. This will leave plenty of time for delays you may encounter. Once inside the park you should start your day in Frontierland and Adventureland by visiting Splash Mountain, Thunder Mountain, Pirates of the Caribbean and Jungle Cruise (in that order). This will allow you to knock out three of the four boat rides in the park first thing in the morning. We then recommend just waiting in line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. We would expect the wait to be around 30 - 45 minutes at this point. Once you complete these 5 rides, you can head wherever you would like. For most people this will be either to Space Mountain or Peter Pan, two rides with traditionally long waits that are now much shorter.
Epcot: Test Track and Frozen Ever After should remain the top priority attractions. You do not necessarily need to ride them first as their waits will fluctuate throughout the day. Just try to head over when the wait is less than 30 minutes. Outside of these two attractions, you will be able to walk on to most other rides (or wait 15 minutes or less) so we would recommend just enjoying the park and visiting your favorite rides as it makes sense.
Animal Kingdom: We were amazed at how short the wait times were for the top tier attractions at Animal Kingdom when it first opened and really not much has changed. During the week, you do not need to arrive at park opening and should consider taking advantage of the afternoon in the park and staying until closing at 5PM. If you do plan to go on a busier day (like a weekend or holiday), we would recommend arriving 30 - 45 minutes before park opening and starting at Flight of Passage and then heading over to Na'vi River Journey followed by Everest and Safari.
Hollywood Studios: This park has been the most interesting study over the past few months. Without fail the wait times in the park are the longest immediately after park opening and drop consistently throughout the day. This is due to everyone attempting to arrive early enough to snag a boarding group for Rise of the Resistance when they become available right when the park opens at 10AM. However, you can now also grab a spot at 2PM! This means that you can plan to arrive later and look to land one then. The longest wait in the park is consistently Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. If you can make it to the park 45 minutes to an hour before opening we would suggest to start here and then head over to either Toy Story Mania or Tower of Terror and Rock “n” Roller Coaster. If you choose to arrive late, plan to ride Mickey and Minnie at the very end of the day when the lines are shortest.
Our main take away from all of this is that rope drop is significantly different and likely much less important than before. We would still recommend getting there early for Magic Kingdom and maybe Epcot as well (due to its shorter hours), however when it comes to Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios we now think it could be equally effective to get there a little later and plan to stay until close. Or, since the parks are only open for 8 or 9 hours a day, you can do both!
3) Disney continues to do a great job of keeping those who choose to visit safe.
There have not been any major reports of outbreaks or of people claiming to have gotten COVID from visiting Disney World. While we can’t be sure it hasn’t happened, from what we can tell most people say that they feel safe visiting and that Disney has done a great job of enforcing social distancing and mask wearing rules and of keeping the park clean.
When the parks reopened we shared the below statement on their safety protocol that still applies
Disney continues to require everyone to wear masks and cast members are actually reminding people and enforcing the rules on this. All of the queues are marked with sections 6 feet apart for guests to stand in while waiting in line. Pre shows are no longer being used on most rides and the ones that are, are significantly limiting the number of people in the room. Plus, any queue where people would end up standing beside one another have plexiglass to separate guests.
Ride capacity is also being limited with most rides leaving 1-2 rows between parties or only loading one party per ride vehicle. On a few rides they have even installed plexiglass between the rows for additional safety. Additionally, they are shutting down every ride and doing a full and thorough cleaning every 2 hours.
Finally, since the parks are so empty, there is no real need to get within 6 feet of another guest while walking throughout the park, with entire areas often being completely empty.
One of the biggest changes that Disney made after opening, was how they dealt with people choosing to eat food while walking around the park. They had originally stated that you could remove your mask to eat or drink. However, within the first few days, they changed their rule to now only allow removing of masks while standing still or seated to eat food or drink. This solved the concern that people would walk around maskless all day with a “drink in their hand” claiming they were drinking.
4) Everyone is at a different place about traveling right now and that's ok!
Interestingly enough, the initial backlash around reopening has died down significantly since the first few weeks. This is largely due to what we mentioned above with the incredible safety measures Disney continues to adhere to. However, we understand that everyone is at a different place and should continue to feel open to make their own decision based on what is best for them and their family.
To help you make your decisions, we found this blog post from TED-Ed to be very informative and helpful.
5) It's going to be different for a while, but we are ready to go back!
We don’t foresee much changing over the next few months when it comes to Disney’s operating procedures. Park Hopping is still not allowed and FastPasses remain unavailable. And you do still have to wear a mask throughout the park. Disney also recently announced the cancellation of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Parties throughout the holiday season, just as they had done for the Not So Scary Halloween Parties this fall.
We did however get one slight change when it was announced that Magic Kingdom would be open for one extra hour coinciding with the start of Disney’s Holiday celebration, Festival of the Holidays, on November 6th. While this is a sign that they are expecting a slight increase in demand for the holiday season, we would not expect anything major in terms of crowds as it's only one hour at one park. When this announcement was made, Disney also stated that Epcot would shift from being open from 11-7 to 12-8. This is likely due to having more time at night for annual passholders and to showcase Christmas decorations in the park and not because of any concerns regarding an increase in crowd level.
All this being said, the short wait times and opportunities to try different hotels and dining have us itching to go back. Plus, for those of you from the south, there are deals to be had! Disney is offering up to 40% off for people from most southern states. Shoot us a note and we would be happy to point you in the right direction!