The last few years have been unprecedented in so many ways for all of us, but the pandemic has hit Walt Disney World particularly hard. Starting with the closing of the entire resort complex (starting with the theme parks) on March 16, 2020, and running the gambit of constantly changing rules focused on health and safety.
These constant changes lead to the question that’s on the forefront of every Disney enthusiast: will Disney World be back to normal in 2022?
Will Disney World Ever Be the Same?
It’s unlikely that Disney World will ever be the same as it was in 2019, the last full year we had without a global pandemic. In 2020, the Disney corporation borrowed $11 Billion to keep the company afloat during a time when their revenue was drastically reduced due to closures and cancellations. Walt Disney World lost money every day it was closed, with some estimates guessing lost revenue of $20 million to $30 million per day. It’s going to take a lot of Dole Whip sales to make up that much lost revenue.
Even as Disney World finds ways to move forward in a world where Covid exists, some of the changes they’ve made are probably here to stay. For example, since reopening they’ve pushed the use of your smartphone to do everything form open your hotel room door, to ordering food inside of the parks. Almost all adults (and probably all teenagers!) are going to want to have their phone with them anyway, so using it for more and more things across the resort complex won’t be a hard concept to sell to the average guest.
Disney World Covid Restrictions
When Disney World reopened on July 11, 2020, it was with lots of new rules and restrictions for guests. The resort opened with limited capacity, and for the first time ever, Disney World implemented the Parks Reservations system, requiring guests to select which park they would visit each day.
Reservations were subject to availability, and allowed Disney World to better understand expected crowds at each park on a particular day.
Covid Waivers and Planning Changes
Before entering the park, Disney World guests had to indicate they understood the increased risk of Covid in the crowded theme park environment. Guests had their temperature checked prior to entering each park, and prior to eating in any sit-down restaurant on property.
Once they were inside the park (or a resort hotel), they had to follow the social distancing markers on the floor to ensure at least six feet of space between individual parties and wear a mask at all times. Park hopping was eliminated entirely, so guests were only able to visit their one reserved park on any given day.
Another big blow to planning a day at one of the four theme parks was the cancellation of the Fast Pass system in favor of the Genie+ reservation system. Previously, Fast Pass allowed you to make up to three reservations each day where you basically reserved a spot in line at a certain time. Using the Fast Pass system effectively relied on a solid understanding of which rides tended to have long wait rides, and which ones were easy to walk onto with minimal wait. It was great for people who loved to plan their days ahead of time, although a little less fun for those who were looking for spontaneity in their park day.
Face Masks and Hand Sanitizing
When Disney World originally reopened masks were required at all times while on property, whether inside or outsides. There were limited times when a guest could remove their mask, and they were expected to immediately don it again afterwards.
Guests could remove their masks when in their own hotel room. They could also remove their masks while they were actively eating or drinking. This means they could remove their mask at a table-service meal once they had been provided with their food or drink, which meant water was typically delivered to the table right away, thus allowing mask removal.
While outside of a restaurant, guests had to be stationary while they were eating and drinking. This means they had to physically stop moving and stand or sit in order to eat or drink, and they were also not allowed to do so in the queue for any ride.
The third place guests could remove their masks were in designated “relaxation stations,” which were outdoor locations that allowed for social distancing. Guests didn’t have to be eating or drinking to take advantage of these relaxation stations, but could simply have a break from wearing their masks.
Hand sanitizing stations were spread throughout the park, including three stations for each ride (at the queue entry, immediately before boarding the ride, and at the exit). Many rides added physical barriers of plastic sheeting, and even the ride queues had new plexiglass barriers between the different segments of the line.
On rides where physical barriers were impractical, an empty row was left between parties. All parties were seated in their own row, and no rows of seating mixed different parties together.
Closures and Supply Chain Issues
In addition to all of these new rules and restrictions, there were many closures throughout the property. First, both of the water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon) were closed entirely. Any entertainment where crowds could gather without social distancing were canceled, including live shows, parades and fireworks.
Within each park, select restaurants and merchandise outlets were also closed. Restaurants that were open operated with a reduced menu, and buffet dining was converted to family style. Many of the quick service restaurants were switched to mobile order only, requiring a smartphone to access food at these restaurants. Sometimes a quick service location would run out of capacity for food during peak mealtime hours, leaving some guests stranded with extremely limited options to eat.
In addition to closures and reduced menus, the Disney Dining plan did not reappear with the reopening of the parks. Many Disney guests were used to utilizing the various levels of the Disney Dining plan to better plan ahead for their food costs. In some cases, guests received free dining plans when they purchased specific ticket and hotel packages. Without this option, all meals and snacks must be paid for out of pocket at the time of purchase.
Entertainment and Character Experiences
Even when the parks reopened, not all of the live entertainment reopened with it. Most of the live-action shows, such as the Indiana Jones Stunt Spectacular and Festival of The Lion King, remained closed. There were no scheduled parades, and no evening firework shows. The evening show at Epcot (previously Epcot Forever) and Fantasmic at Hollywood Studios remained shuttered.
Perhaps one of the most disappointing Disney World Covid restrictions was the change in how you could interact with the various characters. With the new rules, characters were no longer accessible to the guests for any kind of physical interaction, including both hugs and autographs. For many guests, interacting with the characters is one of the most magical parts of the Disney World experience.
Characters were socially distanced from all guests, typically behind a rope or on a balcony that was not accessible to guests. For example in the Magic Kingdom, characters were often present on the terrace of the Main Street Train Station (as the train was not running due to continued construction on the new Tron ride). They would wave at and interact with guests from there, but were clearly restricted in their movements.
Current Disney World Covid Restrictions
As the pandemic has shifted and progressed, so have the current Disney World Covid restrictions. We entered the new year with many of the harshest of the original restrictions listed, but with many Covid related rules still in place. It’s still hard to know if Disney World will be back to normal in 2022.
Guests are still required to acknowledge the Covid waiver indicating they understand the increased risk when entering the crowded theme park. For guests staying on property, a prompt appears within the My Disney Experience app reminding them of this. Covid waiver warnings are also pushed to your My Disney Experience app throughout the day, typically shortly after you’ve entered a park. Signs with information about the Covid waiver are also still present at the entrances to each individual theme park or resort hotel.
Updates to Park Reservations and Planning
Park reservations are still required for each day a guest wants to visit a theme park. Capacity limits seem to have increased, although Disney is notorious for not sharing these numbers with the public, so much of this information is inferred from statements made by high-level Cast Members.
In good news, however, limited park hopping has returned! Guests are now able to park hop after 2:00pm each day, as long as the part they are entering still has capacity for guests. Guests MUST visit the park they have the reservation for first, and then are eligible to park hop when the window opens after 2:00pm. On most days this presents no problem, but on extremely high traffic days such as Christmas Day, park hopping has been cut off to some parks (typically the Magic Kingdom), due to capacity limits.
The Fast Pass system has not returned, and instead has been replaced by the Genie, Genie+, and Individual Lighting Lane systems. This confusing conglomerate of systems functions on three levels. Genie is a planning tool that operates right on top of the My Disney Experience app. It’s free for everyone to use, and can help you make the most of the time in the park. Genie+ is a paid service that allows you to book return times in a manner that is similar to the old Fast Pass ways.
However, you can’t book return times ahead of time, and can only book one at a time. It’s available for almost all of the most popular rides and experiences in the park. Some popular rides require an additional purchase in order to secure an individual Lightning Lane return time. The pricing on these rides is dynamic, and can be found on one to two rides in each park.
Changes to Face Masks and Hand Sanitizers
Masks are currently only required at indoor locations, including indoor ride queues. Disney World Cast Members are typically stationed within the ride queues at the point where the line moves indoors. While guests are in the queue outside the building, masks are optional, and then required when they move indoors.
For some rides, this line of demarcation is clear. For other rides however, there are some inconsistencies on where “indoors” truly begins. Lines that are under a portico but are otherwise open air (such as Pirates of the Caribbean) are typically treated as outside, with masks not being required until you enter the show building itself. Mask enforcement in these nebulous areas depends on the Cast Member assigned to that location. This has led to some confusion for guests on when they are required to put on their masks.
Hand sanitizing stations are still present throughout the parks and hotels, but have been reduced in number from when the parks initially reopened. During busy times or at high traffic locations, these hand sanitizers are sometimes out of cleaning solution and it can be a struggle for Cast Members to keep up with demands.
Re-openings and Continued Supply Chain Issues
Many of the closed restaurants have reopened. Some of the buffet restaurants have returned to the buffet style, while others have remained family style. For the buffet restaurants, guests are required to wear a mask any time they are away from their seat, including at the buffet lines. They are also required to use a clean plate for each trip to the buffet.
Quick service locations continue to emphasize mobile orders, although some have now added a single service window where orders can be placed in person. Mobile order has continued to be a challenge during some high volume times, or when there are technology issues.
Menus at most restaurants are still reduced from their pre-pandemic days. When you ask a Cast Member about this, most of them indicate that supply chain issues have posed a serious problem. This has resulted in some disgruntled guests when they were not able to get specific items, such as POG juice at Ohana.
Changes to Entertainment, Character Experiences
Parades have begun to return, but only during after-hours hard ticketed events. The cavalcades have continued to run, however, and I’ve found those to be even better than the parades in many ways. Cavalcades eliminate the need to line up for that perfect parade viewing spot hours ahead of time, leaving more time to enjoy everything else the parks have to offer.
Character experiences have not yet returned to normal, and it’s still not possible to get that special hug from Mickey Mouse or your other favorite Disney friend. Instead, daily calvacades and the return of some character dining is the best way to meet your favorites. Character calvacades operate within each theme park, and typically feature a float with characters surrounded by themed dancers. At character dining meals, the characters visit each area of the restaurant, and are skilled at positioning themselves so you can snap that perfect selfie.
One new-ish way to interact with some characters is to see them randomly throughout the parks. Although there have always been some wandering characters based in their appropriate lands, such as Peter Pan or Alice in Wonderland within Fantasyland, there have also been more sightings of other characters greeting guests from different parts of the park.
While not as good as a hug or an autograph, it’s still fun to see Winnie the Pooh out with his net chasing butterflies in Epcot. This brings the characters to live in a new way, while still maintaining that social distance.
Disappearing Perks and Magical Moments
One aspect of the changes at Disney World is a little harder to track: pixie dust perks and magical moments. Although these special perks were never specifically included in a guest’s visit, many of them were so predictable that they were almost expected in certain situations.
Pixie dust perks and magical moments are those times when Disney World Cast Members were able to provide a little bit of something special to make a guest’s day brighter. Often these happened either when a guest had a problem with something, or when a guest shared that they were celebrating something special, such as a birthday or an anniversary.
Some of the magical moments I’ve been lucky enough to experience in the past included free cupcakes, free desserts with a special message written in chocolate, free popcorn and even free laundry detergent! Most of these were associated with getting engaged in the Magic Kingdom, or resolving a problem at the resort. We even had a Cast Member stage a special photo op with the famous Lady and the Tramp spaghetti scene inside of Tony’s! When I was in the park on my actual birthday during Covid, none of these previous perks and magical moments occured.
Even some regular and paid for experiences have been downgraded during the pandemic. Previously, dinner at Cinderella’s Royal Table included a special photo with Cinderella, a sword or magic wand for each guest, and a table-side visit from several other princesses. During the last year, this dining experience has cut out the photo with Cinderella, and she is now the only princess to appear (socially distanced) during the meal. Instead of wands and swords, each guest was given a pre-autographed postcard from Cinderella. The menu options were also reduced, although of course the price of the meal did not decrease.
Disney World Changes in 2022
It’s hard to know if Disney World will be back to normal in 2022. I expect there will continue to be Disney World changes in 2022, as the pandemic continues to evolve. With new Covid variants appearing on a regular basis, and frequent changes in guidelines from the CDC, it seems inevitable that more changes are still to come to one of the happiest places on earth.
A big change kicked off the new year, with the end of Disney’s Magical Express service between the Orlando airport and Disney World resort hotels. Guests will now have to collect their luggage themselves and take an alternative method of transport to reach their hotel. Mears Connect is a new service, run by the same transportation company that actually ran the buses before, and will take guests to their hotel for a flat fee. Other options still include ride shares, taxies, and individual car services.
It’s likely that many of the changes we’ve seen over the course of the pandemic will remain the same. Disney will likely continue to have the Covid waiver in place, with both electronic notifications and signage throughout the resort property. This is a non-intrusive and low-cost change that will likely continue throughout all of 2022.
Park reservations are also likely here to stay for 2022. Their benefit to Disney World is two-fold. First, park reservations will continue to help limit capacity, especially during high volume times. Disney has the ability to raise or lower this capacity limit based on what is happening real time with Covid. Second, park reservations help Disney have a better understanding of their staffing needs. If they see a particular park has low attendance on a particular day they can re-assign some of those Cast Members to areas where they might be needed more.
I think that hand sanitizing stations will continue to be placed around the park, although perhaps with a reduction in number. Many guests carry their own hand sanitizer with them, and Disney itself sells small bottles in cute themed cases around the park. Guests will be encouraged to continue using hand sanitizer frequently, but they’re going to become more and more responsible for providing it on their own.
I’m hopeful that masks will no longer be required by the end of 2022, but they seem inevitable for the short term future. With the new variants that keep appearing, most places that already have mask requirements in place (such as Disney World) will be unlikely to change this requirement. If anything, it’s possible that there will be additional restrictions on the types of masks worn by guests, based on the new information that only the surgical masks and N95 masks are effective at protecting people from the airborne particles.
Guests should check the most recent guidelines right before their trip to ensure they’re in compliance with any changing mask rules. It’s also possible that the mask rules will change overnight. My trip in May started with masks being required everywhere (indoors and outdoors), and then changed to indoors only mid trip, causing mild confusion as Cast Members struggled to keep up with the new policy.
It’s likely that restaurants will continue to have limited menus and struggle with supply chain issues throughout 2022. Supply chain issues are affecting business of all types and sizes, and Disney is unlikely to escape unscathed. Some restaurants, such as Victoria and Albert’s, may remain closed for all of 2022 if they are unable to guarantee the quality of the food, or hire the appropriate chefs and staff.
I was told by a Cast Member that the previous executive chef at Victoria and Alberts had moved to Citricos, leaving an opening that would be a challenge to fill. They also reported continued struggles with staffing, which are likely to get worse as the Great Resignation trend continues. I predict that most buffet restaurants will return to their traditional buffet styles, with continued mask use required when at the buffet line.
The supply chain issue is also likely to continue to impact available merchandise, especially as it relates to their ongoing 50th anniversary celebration for the Magic Kingdom. We’ve adopted an aggressive strategy to buy something we want the first time we see it, even if it means schlepping it around the parks with us (resort delivery is another thing that was canceled that is unlikely to return soon due to staffing shortages). Otherwise, that shiny new souvenir is likely to be sold out by the time you return to finally make the purchase.
A new restaurant issue for 2022 is likely to be the reduced portion sizes for an increased price. Disney publicly stated that this was their new plan due to inflation, and included a dig at the American population for the current size of our waistlines.
While Christine McCarthy’s comment was perhaps in bad taste (even if it’s probably an accurate reflection on the health of most Americans), it’s clear that Disney is looking for ways to improve their margins on food costs.
I think it’s unlikely that the popular Disney Dining plan will return soon. Disney is simply facing too many unknowns when it comes to the supply chain for food and drink products. Reinstating the Dining Plan could lead to very unhappy guests who are expecting a pre-pandemic level of dining perks, and are disappointed in the limited selections currently available both in the parks and at the resort hotels.
One area that I think will improve greatly will be the character experiences and interactions. Disney has continued to push forward on finding new ways for characters to meet and interact with guests. Positioning characters throughout the parks in their “natural” habitat has been a fun way to see them in action outside of the traditional character meet and greet.
Full-blown parades and fireworks are likely to return or continue in 2022. Disney World began slowly rolling out parades at the very end of 2022, mostly for their hard-ticketed after hours Christmas party. Since parades and fireworks are held completely outdoors, the Covid risk is minimal even with the uncontrolled crowds that surround them.
I sincerely hope that Disney World will keep one of their new attractions with the sporadic character calvacades throughout the day. I saw more of the calvacades during my 2021 trips than I ever saw of the parades on previous visits. The calvacades are both frequent and short, which allow guests to pause their day to watch them instead of taking hours out of their day to line up to ensure a good parade-viewing spot. Calvacades are also a great place to see characters that aren’t always out and about in the park, such as Clarabelle.
One final trend that I predict for 2022 is the continued push to utilize your smartphone for almost all of your needs both at the resort hotels and within the theme park. It seems likely that Disney will continue this trend, encouraging guests to make use of their phones for planning, purchasing, and paying while on property.
Using your phone, you can already:
- Check into your hotel room
- Open your hotel room door
- Create or modify a dining reservation
- Place a mobile order for food
- Make a park reservation
- View your park reservations and park tickets
- View estimated wait times
- Find information for parades, fireworks and other showtimes (when they’re available)
- Make Genie+ Lightning Lane reservations
- Join mobile ride queues (when available)
- Make Individual Lightning Lane reservations
Whether or not Disney World will be back to normal in 2022 still feels a little up in the air, especially as new Covid variants are popping up. For some guests, the magical experience they’ve come to expect is no longer available, and what is available has become more and more expensive. That being said, I’m optimistic that with a little bit of planning, patience, and self-made pixie dust, anyone can have a great visit to Disney World this year.
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