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Driving to Walt Disney World During a Pandemic

About a year ago, we had planned a trip to Walt Disney World for my birthday on July 24th. We would be traveling from July 23rd to July 27th. My parents are Disney Vacation Club members and they booked a trip for my birthday using their yearly Disney Vacation Club points.

Fast forward a year and the world is in a very different place. Without going into all the details, my parents weren’t able to cancel the trip without losing their points and money so I wanted to shed some light on what it looks like traveling to Walt Disney World and the process of getting there.

We decided to avoid the airports and drive down to Florida from New Jersey. At this point in time, New Jersey is one of the few states that isn’t currently seeing large spikes in COVID cases. Governor Murphy has also mandated that anybody traveling from Florida (along with a growing list of states) must self quarantine for two weeks after arriving back in New Jersey. So I figured, while I’m self quarantining, what better way than to share my experiences driving along the east coast and my experiences in Walt Disney World.

Anybody who knows me will know that I am a huge Disney fan. I have been to Disney World over 40 times in the last 20 years and also own an annual pass and a Disney Vacation Club Membership so I can stay at Disney’s resorts at least once a year.

I was a little apprehensive about traveling to Walt Disney World at first. The resort sees millions of guests a year from all around the world. If there was a place the virus would spread, I felt like this would be the place. I did some research before leaving. I watched videos and read articles about the efforts Disney was making to keep guests safe. I was hoping for the best.

Driving down to Florida was an experience. It was a 16 hour drive from New Jersey. We decided to drive overnight to avoid most of the traffic. We had to cross through Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia before reaching Florida. I was curious to see how different states mandated social distancing and mask wearing.

From driving through these states down and back up, I can tell you from the few stops we made to get gas, they are not doing a good job. Two instances in particular stood out from Georgia and Virginia. In Georgia, on the way down, the rest stop made no mention anywhere that masks were required to enter the building. We walked into a gas station to quickly use the bathroom, and noticed the door only explained that hand washing was recommended. Inside the building, people were walking around totally mask-less. The cashier did have a piece of plexiglass blocking himself from customers, but that was the only precaution.

Driving back home from Virginia was another scary situation. We decided to stop at a Wawa about a mile off I-95. We got gas and noticed the few people outside were also wearing masks while pumping their gas. As we walked up to the door to use the restrooms, we saw a sign on the door that said masks were mandatory to enter the building. This felt very hopeful. Virginia seemed like they were following the same rules as New Jersey.

When we entered, it was a different story. Out of the 20-or so people in the Wawa, maybe 5 of them were wearing masks. The Wawa employees had masks on and plexiglass separating them from customers, but didn’t seem fazed that most people in the store were walking around like a pandemic wasn’t happening. There were social distancing markers on the floor spaced out every six feet. Nobody seemed to notice them. We couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

Driving to and from Florida was the most stressful part of the trip. Once we were in Walt Disney World, it was a totally different experience. Out of the 40+ trips there, I don’t think I have ever felt more safe. I have read so many articles stating that Walt Disney World isn’t the same with everything going on. Some people say Walt Disney World has lost some of its magic. Some people think Disney is irresponsible opening their doors while Florida cases skyrocket. I couldn’t disagree more.

We arrived at Disney’s Boardwalk resort later in the day. We had gotten a text that our room was ready. The text had our room number already on it and the Disney Experience app had said if we had our room number, we should skip going to the front desk and go straight to our room. This was to limit contact with other cast members and guests.

The one big rule in Walt Disney World is needing to wear masks anywhere on Disney property. It didn’t matter where you were. If you were inside, outside, outside 50 feet away from everybody, masks were mandatory at all times. After getting out of the car, we put our masks on, grabbed our bags and proceeded to our room. We had to get through the main lobby in order to get to our room. As we walked past the front desk, we put our heads down, assuming Disney’s cast members would be less than thrilled that we decided to put everybody at risk to try and enjoy a few days at the most magical place on Earth.

This changed really fast. A cast member from across the lobby shouted over to us and welcomed us to the resort. We stopped and he approached us from a safe distance and was super excited to welcome us to the Boardwalk resort. His name was Kirk and he explained some of the new policies Disney was implementing and said if we ever needed anything, he would be there for the rest of the night and the next day. He made some jokes with us and made us feel really welcomed. Kirk’s positive attitude and genuine happiness would resonate through the rest of the trip as every cast member we interacted with seemed happy to be there.

Going back to Disney’s policies, while in the theme parks, a mask must be worn at all times. This meant on the rides and walking around the park. In order to get into the park, every guest needs to get their temperature taken. Disney had white tents set up in front of each theme park where an employee does a contactless temperature check. As long as the temperature is under 100.3, you’re allowed into the park. I was worried that the hot Florida heat would increase my temperature as I approached the tents but it didn’t (at least not enough to get over 100.3). Towards the end I got sunburn on my forehead (the place they check your temperature) and I still passed. While I would think the temperature check wouldn’t be effective if somebody wasn’t showing symptoms of the virus, it was just another layer of protection that I welcomed. There were also cool down tents with fans located close to these temperature checking tents. If somebody tested over the 100.3 limit, they could relax and cool down in the tents until their temperature dropped.

After the temperature tents, there were the security lines. Pre-COVID, you were expected to have a security guard look through your bags. That’s not the case anymore. You can walk straight through the metal detectors with your bag and everything in your pockets. There were some exceptions to the rules. One guard told us if we had metal water bottles in our bags, we would have to remove those. There used to be really long lines at security a year ago. This trip, we walked straight through. It didn’t matter the time of day.

Lastly, the final step of getting into the park is scanning your MagicBand or Disney card (to show you have access to the park). Typically after scanning one of these items at the terminal, you would have to scan your fingerprint to prove it is you. They have totally removed the fingerprint scanner. You scan your band or card and you’re good to go. The entire process felt so streamlined. What usually took 5+ minutes to get through, took about 30 seconds from the tent to getting in the park.

Disney put hand sanitizer stations everywhere. They were located at the entrance and exit of every single ride. They were also placed around the park in high touch areas. They were always full. There may have only been one time where one didn’t dispense anything. I saw cleaning crews throughout the day constantly inspecting the sanitizer stations and refilling them if needed.

Once on the lines for attractions, there were 6 foot distancing markers until getting on the ride vehicle. Everybody followed these markers really well. There were only two instances throughout the trip where I saw somebody disregard them. Once on the ride, parties would be separated from each other. If it was a smaller ride vehicle (Splash Mountain or Space Mountain) only one party at a time would ride so you wouldn't be riding with groups you didn't know. On the rollercoasters, groups were separated by a row or two to keep social distancing.

Disney cast members did a really good job of enforcing the social distancing and mask wearing guidelines. They would be quick to tell somebody to take a few steps back or to pull up their mask if somebody had their nose poking out. There were only a few exceptions to the mask wearing rules. You could take a mask off in designed relaxation stations where chairs and tables were properly socially distanced. You could also take off your mask to eat or drink while in the parks, but you needed to be stationary (no eating or drinking while walking) and socially distanced from others around you.

Almost everybody, surprisingly, followed these guidelines. There have been many times on my past Disney trips where people did not show any kind of personal space. I’ve had people standing on top of me, literally hitting into me. I’ve had kids waiting behind me so closely in line that they sometimes walked in front of me. This Disney trip didn’t have any of that. For once, it felt like I had my personal space.

Attractions in the park, essentially, had zero wait times. Rides that I would normally avoid because of the long waits were walk-on. It took 6 minutes and 58 seconds from getting on line for Peter Pan’s Flight to sitting down in the seat (and most of that was just walking through the line). I never see that ride under an hour wait. Sometimes it’s up to 90 minutes. Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom is usually a multi-hour wait. It was a 15 minute wait, while again, most of that just walking through the line. For some reason, Carousel of Progress in Magic Kingdom felt more crowded than usual. I’m assuming people wanted to get out of the heat and inside somewhere cool.

Speaking of the heat, it was hot. It was mid-90’s all week with around 50% humidity. The actual feel usually hovered above 100 degrees. I consider myself relatively healthy. While wearing the mask definitely made everything feel a little hotter, it wasn’t unbearable. We went indoors to gift shops and on rides enough times where it didn’t feel like we were outside baking in the hot sun for too long. I discovered a trick where I would get a cold water, drink it, and put my mask back on and breathe out. It was like my mask had air conditioning.

Having said that, we did see two people get carried away on stretchers. I’m assuming it was because of the heat. So, if anybody is planning on going, just make sure to drink lots of fluids and go into a shop to get air conditioning if it’s feeling too hot.

We tried indoor dining. Out of all the things we had planed to do in Walt Disney World, I was most nervous about this one. Back in New Jersey, indoor dining still isn’t available due to the risks. I was okay taking my mask off outside because we were usually pretty far apart from others. But what would indoor dining look like?

Well, indoor dining was a lot smoother than I thought. All the restaurants were limited capacity and a lot of effort went into making sure tables were far enough away from each other. Disney’s rules are that you have to wear your mask inside except when sitting down at your table. So you need to mask up when walking in and out and going to the bathroom. Below is a picture of the Sci-Fi restaurant in Hollywood Studios. This was maximum capacity. Of course, all the servers had face masks and plastic shields over their faces and made sure we were comfortable.

Menu items were also limited everywhere in Walt Disney World. This meant some food options were removed on restaurant menus and a lot of our favorite snacks were missing from many of the bakeries around the parks. We only found one bakery that sold the signature Mickey sugar cookies (Zuri’s Sweet Shop in Animal Kingdom).

For indoor theater shows, every other row was closed and many seats had signs on them to keep parties socially distant.

We witnessed cast members cleaning down rides as we waited in line.

Lastly, while in this phased re-opening, Disney has decided to cancel all firework shows and parades. But that didn't stop them from cutting out the magic altogether. Throughout the day, Disney would have little mini parades pop up where characters would be driven around on cars or on a horse drawn carriages. There would also be socially distant character interactions. We watched Winnie the Pooh in the distance trying to catch butterflies.

Having spent a few days at Walt Disney World, I really have to commend what Disney is doing. At a time where cases in Florida are setting records, I felt more safe there than I have anywhere else during this pandemic. Disney is taking all of their precautions very seriously. The magic was still there. Yes, we had to wear face masks and while the parks were open, some of the shops were still closed. These are definitely uncertain times for sure. On the way to Walt Disney World and on the way back home, I saw a version of the world I wish I didn’t have to see. People weren’t taking any of this seriously. But in that magical world in Orlando, Florida, I couldn’t help but be happy. The magic is still very much alive there.

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