The return of travel brings the return of reassuring old habits. Just as some people feel incomplete until they can root for their favorite baseball team in person again at their local ballpark, others find comfort—deep, soul-soothing, here's-where-I-belong comfort—by playing in a Disney park.
To serve those vacationers who crave a return of normalcy, all of the U.S.-based Disney parks are now once again open for business.
But that doesn't mean they work the same way as before the pandemic. I've already written about the broad cuts in entertainment, shopping, and spectacles that were not accompanied by a commensurate reduction in ticket price. Yet the parks are still at capacity, so apparently plenty of people are content to pay more for less.
Visitor procedures have also changed. Some of the new policies are temporary, and some will last years into the future.
Disney's rides, design, and attitude remain as bright and celebratory as ever—but as a consumer reporter, I feel obliged to inform would-be Disney-goers about a few things that might otherwise affect a return to the magic.
1. You need both a ticket and a reservation, and that's a scheduling minefield.
You may no longer simply walk up, buy a ticket, and enter a Disney park. Because availability and pricing are being controlled from day to day, you must arrange everything weeks or months ahead of time.
First, you must consult the official Disney calendar to ensure there are entry slots available for the day you wish to attend. Then you can buy a ticket voucher, which you must then immediately apply to a reservation slot on your desired day. Simply buying a ticket is not enough. The reservation seals the deal.
Complicating things is the new tiered pricing system. Although Disney parks have been pretty much operating at the same daily capacity levels all year, the company still charges higher prices on certain days, such as weekends.
If you accidentally buy a lower-tier ticket for a higher-tiered day, you won't be able to use that ticket. And it's easy to spend too much by mistakenly purchasing a Tier 5 ticket for a day that only required a cheaper Tier 3 or Tier 4. To avoid wasting money, make sure your purchased tier level matches the day you'll be going.
To make things worse, at Florida's Walt Disney World you could wind up purchasing a four-day ticket only to discover that you can't get a reservation for Disney's Hollywood Studios (currently the most popular park onsite) on any of the days of your visit.
So if you're planning a trip to Orlando, it's crucial that before doing anything else you consult Disney's Theme Park Reservation Availability calendar to see if you can get into all the parks you want to visit on all the days you'll be in town.
Only then should you buy your ticket vouchers (Disney doesn't call them vouchers, but that's what they are). Then go back to the calendar to snap up those free calendar reservations before they vanish.
Like I said, the process has gotten complicated. And it won't change for a while—Disney World's theme park reservation calendar currently extends into 2023.
2. If you don't have the app, you'll be helpless.
Disney's primary method of dealing with the pandemic has been to push planning to the mobile app.
Without the app, you'll have to keep asking for help from staff all day, and that will often require waiting in more lines.
Before you go to the parks, ensure you've downloaded the correct app and added a valid credit card to your account—you won't be able to order food if you don't.
Also make sure to connect your ticket to your account—and have everybody who's going with you do the same.
A day or two before your visit to the park, use the app to create a party so Disney's systems know you're all doing the same things together. (Under Tickets and Passes, look for the plus symbol at the top right, and from there "Link tickets and passes." It's faster and easier if you can scan the bar code on every person's ticket.)
Once you have pre-registered a credit card and established your party, you can begin your day.
3. Order food ahead of time or you might go hungry.
At nearly every restaurant where you used to be able to walk up and place an order (Quick Service in Disney parlance), you're no longer allowed to walk up and place an order. Not even for a beverage. On both coasts, staff members monitoring restaurant entrances tell guests to come back once they have obtained a pickup code from the apps.
Now you're required to get on your smartphone and place a "Mobile Order" in advance using your credit card so that no cash changes hands. You'll be assigned an "Arrival Window" time slot for pickup.
I'm not sure why, but there don't seem to be enough Arrival Windows to supply everyone allowed into the parks. On one visit, I got off a ride at 11:45am hoping to grab a bite to eat nearby, but the app told me that no pickup slots were available until well past 1:20pm.
This is why it's crucial to order your meals far in advance—in fact, the second you walk into the park wouldn't be too early. Then you can plan your day around meeting your Arrival Window assignments.
You're still allowed to bring food from home (no hard-sided coolers allowed). I also hear some guests have had luck getting around the Mobile Order timing window shortage by placing an order and then going back and changing the window to something earlier, if one becomes available.
4. The apps act up.
On one recent day, at the exact moment I was trying to place a mobile order, the app crashed on my phone and wouldn't let me back in. The bouncer at the food service location had to take pity on me and let me in to order the old-fashioned way.
I'm not the only person this has happened to. On another day, a friend could barely get the app to work for him at all—nothing would load. He spent his day at Disney fuming.
Because the company is forcing everyone to use the app for so much of the experience—making reservations on the most popular rides, getting onto those rides when the time comes, finding and ordering food, finding approved places to eat that food, and even check wait times—the day is pretty much ruined when the app doesn't work.
It's less than ideal that guests are now hunched over their phones all day trying to make and realize plans. It's also problematic that although Disney has free Wi-Fi that usually works, the company has not supplied additional places to recharge. Your phone will drain quickly, so you really must bring backup power.
In general, I've noticed that most (but not all) cast members will help you make alternate arrangements if you demonstrate that the app isn't working correctly. Staffers seem to be used to the problems.
But don't expect to be able to solve tech issues by phone. The wait time for a phone rep at Walt Disney World is routinely around 90 minutes.
5. Virtual Queues require fast reflexes and early hours.
A few popular rides, such as the much-advertised Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at both resorts, do not offer a standard walk-up line. Seating is only dispensed by lottery via the app, and the first Virtual Queue ticket allotment of the day happens at 7am sharp, hours before the parks open. A second lottery happens at both parks just after lunchtime.
At the appointed hour (keep refreshing that screen!), new slots become available, but you have to be lightning quick about clicking through—and your entire party has to be pre-programmed in your phone if you want them to join you.
At Disney's Hollywood Studios, I was shut out of both drawings on the same day. I never got to ride. That means Disney was admitting more people into the park than the marquee attraction could accommodate. (On another day at Disneyland, I was able to snag a spot by waking up at 6:45am and getting my fingers warmed up to win the first lottery.)
To me, the Virtual Queue system seems profoundly unfair for a host of reasons. It favors the young, moneyed, and nimble. Not everyone has the reflexes to succeed at the Virtual Queue system, or they may lack the computer literacy, the visual capacity, the upgraded smartphone, or even a phone at all.
Disney cast members told me that if guests have disabilities or other impediments to trying for the Virtual Queue—such as owning a phone older than the iPhone 6—those visitors can wait in line at Guest Relations to plead their case for a spot in line at Rise of the Resistance.
It's a little like getting a ruling overturned on appeal at court. This is that Disney magic we hear about? The whole thing seems primed for a rise of the resistance.
6. Seating can be hard to find.
Scoring a meal is only half the battle. You also need a place to eat. While social distancing rules are still in effect, about half the tables and counters are blocked off, so in peak times it's not particularly easy to find an approved spot to eat and drink what you've purchased. (Eating as you walk is not allowed.) Strangely, there are entire areas of some of the parks that could be used for shaded overflow seating, but aren't.
You might think you can take a break by ordering a beer to sit with, but even that has been complicated. At Disneyland, the app warns that if you want a beer, you also have to order an adult meal. I added a bottle of water to my order and that seemed to get around the ban, but it's unclear whether that's because the app was on the blink or because the warning was a sly wink to begin with.
7. You'll wear masks more than you do in the real world.
Mask mandates are ever-shifting, but Disney's have always been on the conservative side. Experts expect Disney to retain some form of mask requirement well into the fall.
In California, masks are required at all times—even on rides. In Florida, that was the case until early May, but now the rules have loosened and masks must be worn in queues and on rides only.
Disney seems to have no appetite for wading into America's intense partisan divide, so the parks are unlikely to loosen mask rules by asking guests if they've been vaccinated. As long as unvaccinated visitors are still mingling in the crowds, Disney will probably keep insisting on rigorous face covering until the pandemic is in its final stages. (Update, June 16: At both resorts, masks are no longer required for vaccinated visitors in most cases, but there are some places, such as on transportation, where they may still be mandatory.)
8. You will spend a lot of time in the sun.
All ride queues are currently diverted outdoors. In California, where the weather is generally pleasant, that's not much of a hardship on most days, but in 95-degree Florida, the brutal heat can be draining. Guests are now expected to snake around makeshift, socially distant queues in scorching temps, and to my surprise, Disney has not set up many fans or parasols to make the exposure more bearable. I saw no moisture misters at all. Come prepared!
With all that sweating, everyone is thirstier, too, and that translates into longer lines at the food-and-drink carts. You'd be wise to carry your own water bottle to refill at fountains and in restrooms. (Update, June 16: Most social distancing rules have been rescinded at both resorts.)
9. You will walk a lot more than usual.
Parking trams are not currently running. You must walk from where you parked your car. When I finally reached the gates at Disneyland, I checked my health app and saw with amazement that I had already walked 1.3 miles before I set foot inside a park.
That return walk can be downright grueling at a the end of a long day. "Tell people to leave a little gas in the tank at the end of the day," suggested a friend who went to Disneyland the week after I did.
10. People with limited mobility may feel stranded.
Because the parking trams aren't running, people with mobility needs no longer have transportation that takes them from their cars to the wheelchair and electric scooter rentals desks, which are near the park gates.
Disney World's four parks have not established satellite rental locations at the parking lots, as you might expect; guests are expected to walk all the way. (Disneyland has a location in the Pixar Pals parking structure, but can run out of supplies early.)
For this reason, if you need wheels to get through a Disney day, Frommer's strongly recommends you bring your own until the trams are returned to service.
Jason Cochran is the author of our award-winning guidebook to Disney World, Universal, and Orlando, available as a paperback and e-book.