Ready to wrap up this pandemic? Disney World is open for business, and during these crazy times in the world, the smartest play is to visit the Happiest Place on Earth. Alas, Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif. remains shuttered (although, it is scheduled to reopen on April 30), but Disney World in Orlando is already partying like it’s 2019.
You will find social distancing—or social Disneying, as they put it—at Disney World, in some ways, and in other ways, not so much. They ask guests to stay six feet apart on lines for rides. Sometimes people follow the rule, and sometimes people bunch up. You cannot get an autograph from Mickey or Goofy because they are waving to you from boats or rooftops across the park instead of giving out hugs and high-fives. But those small changes notwithstanding, Disney World is still Disney World, most of the rides are open, and you and your family can have a great time.
It may seem like an insane thing to do—travel to Central Florida and be around thousands and thousands of other people. Disney’s top priority, however, has always been safety, and today that means safety during the COVID-19 pandemic. The parks are sparkling clean, as are the Disney resort hotels. The flights are full, and to my untrained eye, they look a lot cleaner than some of the supermarkets or drugstores here in Boston, where everybody goes without thinking twice. Obviously, every family has to make its own decision, but we made ours, we had a great time and we don’t regret it for a minute.
If you’ve never been to Disney World, then you can think of Orlando, Fla. as a giant campus built around the idea of family fun. Other entities, like SeaWorld, have theme parks, but Disney is still the main draw, with its multitude of hotel options and its four main parks: Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Epcot.
We spent three nights at Disney’s Riviera Resort, and the experience was what Disney strives for—nothing less than perfection. I remember reading in a business book decades ago that consumers unconsciously benchmark every experience, every visit to every store and every purchase against Disney, which was and is the last word in outstanding customer service. As they teach at Disney’s consulting arm, the Disney Institute, “We do things that only one guest in 100 might notice, but you can feel perfection.”
We stayed at the Riviera Resort, an absolutely gorgeous hotel in the Provencal style, featuring Murphy beds, not sleep sofas (the difference between heaven and hell for your back). From there, you can get to the parks by a free Disney bus or, in the case of Hollywood Studios, gondola. You can also drive; there’s free parking for Disney hotel guests.
If you’ve only got two days, I would propose a full day in the Magic Kingdom, where most of the iconic rides can be found, along with the iconic lines. Disney says that they have been capping attendance at roughly one-third through the pandemic, but you would never know it, because the Magic Kingdom and the other parks we visited were packed to the gills with fun-seekers.
The lines were long, but staring at other people on lines at Disney seems to be part of the experience. Unfortunately, Disney has taken away the FastPass system, which allows you to make a reservation to experience a specific ride during a given window of time, thus skipping the long standby line. They’ve also taken away the single rider option. I can’t figure out why they got rid of FastPasses and single rider. I don’t see how they limit social distancing, but then, I don’t run Disney.
If you really want to skip the lines, the best way to do it is with the VIP experience. Groups of up to 10 can hire a VIP guide who will meet you at your hotel or at one of the parks and bring you through all of the secret VIP entrances that Disney doesn’t want its regular guest to know about. You will cut all lines and get in at least double the number of rides. Your checkbook will go for a big ride, too, because the minimum for the VIP experience is $4,500, which gets you seven hours of line-jumping.
Whether you go VIP or stand in lines with the proletariat, one day at the Magic Kingdom should suffice. We spent our second day using the park hopper, which allows you to visit more than one park in a single day. In the morning, we went to Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which has been described, accurately, in our experience, as a “half-day park.” You’ve got the Everest rollercoaster, which our kids loved and did twice; you’ve got the Kilimanjaro Safari, which saves you a trip to Africa because you see so much wildlife in such a short amount of time; and you’ve got, above all, the Avatar ride, which gives you the experience of riding on the back of a banshee through an immersive virtual reality world. No matter how long the line is, Avatar is worth the wait.
We left the Animal Kingdom around 2 p.m., the time that park-hopping becomes possible, left the park complex to get COVID testing, so our kids could get back to school on time (we were all negative, thank you), and then rounded off our Disney experience with a visit to Hollywood Studios.
The signature rides there are the Rock N’ Roller Coaster, the Hollywood Haunted Mansion, which is even more terrifying than the one in Anaheim, and the Star Wars rides. A little bit of advance planning is necessary because the primary Star Wars experience fills up early; you want to get on the virtual queue to ensure your place. A half day at Hollywood Studios seemed to be enough.
I’d been to Epcot on a previous visit, and it’s a bit of a snooze fest, especially if you have children. It’s an interesting enough experience, but you aren’t paying Disney money just for interesting. A full day at Magic Kingdom and half days at each of the other parks that I mentioned would be the wisest choice.
If your pocketbook permits, stay at a Disney resort instead of any of the other hotels in the area. There’s just something about an immersive Disney experience, and there are always lovely Disney cast members in the lobby with magic iPads who can solve any problem and make your Disney day even better.
Book everything in advance, as the parks require advance reservations. The hotels sell out, and the VIP experience also fills up way in advance, despite the hefty price tag.
As I said earlier, everyone has to make his or her own judgment as to the wisdom of traveling and being around crowds during the pandemic. We made the decision to go, and we don’t regret it for a minute. I strongly suspect that your family will feel the same.