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"After The Pause" - a Post-COVID Walt Disney World Trip Report

Those of us who watched Frozen II had a variety of opinions. Some loved it, some critiqued it or analyzed it and experienced a variety of emotions from it, yet none of us were aware we were observing an uncanny parallel to the way our real life story would unfold in 2020.

We all believed “some things never change.” But in a few short months, our list of “things that never change” has narrowed dramatically. Walt Disney World is no exception. From mandatory face masks to indefinitely canceled parades, change is now etched deep into the Disney image.

Since 2014, Walt Disney World has been a constant in the heart of my family. As Florida residents, we decided on a whim to become season passholders and took our 2-year-old daughter 14 times in six months! Since then, we visited roughly once or twice per year. Our lives changed with moves in and out of state and the arrival of our second daughter, but Disney always stayed the same. Walt Disney World might be a one-time experience for some families, but for my family, it’s home away from home.

Our first visit “post-COVID”

On July 21, 2020, we arrived on Disney property for the first time “post-COVID.” As we drove up, I was ambivalent. My husband and kids were beside themselves with excitement, but I was unsure if it was possible to have fun at Disney in midsummer with a mask on all day. Two little words changed everything for me. I will share those two little words with you in just a minute.

As the parking attendant greeted us, his effervescent energy spilled over onto me. I set down my iPhone to be swept away and transported into the World cultivated by every Disney Cast Member. From the most sought after Disney costumed characters to the less coveted roles of trash collector and parking attendant, every single employee is regarded as an actor in a theatrical production called everyday life at a Disney theme park. This elevates every single task, regardless of skill or pay grade, from boring and ordinary to essential and vital to the “magic” we all think of when we think of Disney. 

This is what keeps us coming back for more, this ability to change only two little words and yet change everything. “Cast Member” is a genius word change, but those aren’t the two little words that changed everything for me that day. For me, it was the words Mr. Parking Attendant chose when referring to COVID-19. He said, “Is this your first time returning since ‘the pause?’” 

The Pause. Not “is this your first time returning Post-COVID?” No. You’ll never hear any discussion of unpleasant or negative topics from a Cast Member. Not if they are worth their Disney salt. You’ll only hear words that delight, amuse and make you think. 

The Pause. How gracious. How elegant it now sounds to close for four months and lose billions of dollars in revenue. No, when on Disney property, we will still dwell on the positive. Walt Disney World, an amusement park for millions, was a dream in Walt Disney’s heart, and it lives on today, in the hearts of all his cast members. It was a dream come to life during the Great Depression. It survived World War II, Vietnam, 9/11 and the market crash of 2008, and it will survive COVID-19. 

Visiting Walt Disney World after “The Pause”

Like all of us, Disney must make adjustments to survive. For an indefinite period of time, there will be no fireworks, no parades, no character meet and greets, nothing that causes people to cluster together less than 6 feet apart. Life’s cruelties can rob us of almost anything, but nothing, not even COVID-19 will ever have the power to rob us of our hearts, our hopes and our dreams.

“They can’t take that away,” said both Cinderella and Snow White. Disney movies inspire us, and this message is at the heart of every Disney movie. Our bodies can be broken, our lives can be re-arranged, but our Spirit cannot be destroyed. A song will always be available within our hearts.

Disney movies do not naively ignore grief and suffering, but instead, artfully turn a sour situation into a positive opportunity. And this, I believe, is why Walt Disney World is STILL “the most magical place on earth.”

Could you visit and be disappointed? Certainly. It depends on you. If you have eyes to see, you’ll notice the magic happening in new and creative ways. Instead of scheduled parades, there are surprise appearances throughout the day. A float here or there, wafting down Main Street with musical fanfare. A princess or two, or five, waving from a balcony over there. You might miss it, or you might not. 

Instead of jostling for position in the hot sun for an hour before Disney’s former daily 3:00 pm parade, you can enter the park with low expectations and come away with charming memories… like the time we entered the park and found 7 princesses waving to us and only a handful of other people. We basically had a private audience with all the princesses! Or the time we caught the tail end of a parade float and found ourselves ditching our plans and RUNNING to catch a glimpse of our favorite characters.

But what about the mask?

Wearing a mask all day will not be the most enjoyable part of your visit, I’m not gonna lie. But I did get used to it eventually. At first, I constantly fiddled and fidgeted with my mask, but eventually, like wearing socks and sneakers all day, I stopped thinking about it and so did my 4 and 7-year-old girls. They actually think wearing a mask is cool. It bothers them far less than it bothers my husband and myself.

A few children WILL fight the mask all day, but children have been crying and melting down for one reason or another at Walt Disney World for decades. They will receive far more compassion and understanding from Cast Members than adults will receive for bucking the mask.

You will find a myriad of mask options on the market. If you’d like to purchase the mask I find least offensive, visit my Etsy shop! I sewed dozens of masks for myself and my family before I landed on a style I like best. These masks are now available to you on Etsy in a variety of patterns - including some Disney prints.

The silver lining: short lines

Standing still for long periods of time, bored to tears in a long line, is usually when kids and grown-ups alike have a variety of meltdowns. If you go to Walt Disney World this year, before crowds are allowed to return, you might be so busy walking and moving from ride to ride, you won’t have time to think about your sweaty mask. I’ve lived in Florida off and on for 20 years. I’ve never seen the Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom or EPCOT this quiet, not even on their quietest day of the year! Disney is capping park reservations at an unheard-of low number, compared to park capacity.

We SAILED through Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Usually a three-hour wait, the app told us it would be a 30 minute wait. In reality, it took us 15 or 20 minutes - the amount of time it takes to walk the long walking path that leads to the ride. Occasionally we would stop for a few seconds at the 6 ft markers to wait for the party in front of us to start moving again, but not for long. 

Space Mountain was a 10-minute wait. Aladdin, Dumbo and the Prince Charming Regal Carousel were all opportunities to stay on and ride 4 or 5 times in a row! One or two people got off, and one or two joined us while we sat comfortably, waiting for the ride to begin again. 

Now that we’ve entered August, attendance is picking up. This only means that instead of a 20-30 minute wait for Splash Mountain, you might face a 45-minute wait. But that is still a far cry better than the usual 1-2 hour wait. We have been to the Magic Kingdom several times since The Pause, and we still accomplish all of our usual rides by lunchtime instead of struggling to finish them by the end of a long, exhausting day.

As an adult, Animal Kingdom is the location of my favorite rides: Pandora’s Flight of Passage and the Na’vi River Journey. Again, 30-minute waits were advertised, but we never experienced a full 30-minute wait. We rode and turned around to ride again, multiple times. Incredible! If you hate waiting in lines, you might want to grab this experience while it lasts. It’s definitely the silver lining.

Disney excels at safety and cleanliness

If going to the grocery store, or going out in public in general, makes you cringe, Disney World might be the one place you can be in public and rest easier, compared to other public outings. People don’t always follow the rules in grocery stores. Very few people observe the floor markings.

In some states, masks are not mandatory right now, so several shoppers will not be wearing a mask. They might be squeaky clean, or they might not. You just never know. It’s understandable at a grocery store, a place we all are forced to visit, young or old, rich or poor, every week our entire lives. Old habits die hard. But a visit to Disney is a luxury most people do not take for granted. At Disney, everyone seems to be on their best behavior. If a mask is required, like it or not, everyone will comply.

If you’re concerned about all the germs that will escape those masks, hand sanitizer dispensers stand at the entrance and exit of every ride, every store, every entrance and exit and a few more here and there just for good measure. There are gloved Cast Members whose sole task is to walk along the railings on pathways and wipe them down every few minutes as children and adults alike, pass by and lean on them or mindlessly brush them with their curious hands. 

When you purchase something, the counter is wiped down after each customer. The list of precautions is endless. But you get the picture. Historically, a Disney park is the most germ-infested place on earth. Currently, it appears to be one of the most sterile places on earth. My children typically catch a cold, cough or stomach bug every single time we go to Walt Disney World. Just the price we pay for a good time. We’ve been to Disney five times in the last few weeks and, so far, no one has come home sick.

I know not everyone is ready quite yet to get out and visit Walt Disney World, but if you are, it is truly a great time to go. You might feel sad not to see fireworks or character meet and greets or parades, if those are usually your favorite attractions. But absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you keep your love of Disney alive, someday, when fireworks and standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers is allowed once again, perhaps you’ll appreciate it even more than ever. 

Recently, while waiting in a line, my daughter asked, “Mommy, what is Disney World all about?” 

“I mean, is it all about the rides? Or the Princesses? Or Mickey Mouse? Or the Fireworks? Or the shows?” 

“What is it about, Mommy?”

I’m not going to tell you how I answered her. Each of us will struggle to put it into words. But that’s the magic we have come to love.