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Dispatch, Walt Disney World: Back in the parks

Senior editor Jamie Biesiada visited the Walt Disney World Resort on a media trip hosted by Disney, experiencing the property for the first time since March 2020.

There are some notable differences in visits to Disney's theme parks now and before the pandemic, but the experience is still fun and, most importantly, feels safe.

One of the first big differences to the theme park experience is that in addition to having a ticket to enter a park, you also have to have a park reservation. In peak times those can be hard to come by.

It's a phenomenon that's overtaken the entire attraction and activities marketplace over the course of the pandemic: You can't just drop in; you need a dated and, sometimes, time-stamped reservation to enter.

There are also new health and safety protocols to meet. In addition to undergoing a security check before entering a park, you have to have your temperature taken (this is a requirement for table-service dining, too). This does offer some level of reassurance that those around you aren't symptomatic.

Also reassuring is that the parks are only open at limited capacity, which enables guests to distance themselves from other guests. Disney is operating around 35% capacity. While lines can still get long at attractions in the midafternoon and evening, many lines move quickly -- and many just appear longer because they are designed to keep each party six feet away from others.

On Friday morning, my wife Kim and I arrived at the Magic Kingdom right when it opened at 8 a.m. We walked onto the Haunted Mansion, waited about 15 minutes for the Jungle Cruise, then proceeded to walk on Pirates of the Caribbean, Dumbo and Haunted Mansion again. We left right after lunch. Crowds in the morning were noticeably light; they grew a bit as the day went on but it never felt crowded like the parks did in the "before times" (though it's important to note that we missed the spring break season).

Disney's strict observance of masking seems to be paying off. While some still wear masks incorrectly, and occasionally you see a person wandering without a mask properly affixed at all, mask usage is better here than anywhere else I've been. I would attribute that to cast members, signage everywhere and frequent notifications via loudspeaker to keep masks over your mouth, nose and chin at all times.

You can remove a mask while stationary and eating or drinking, in designated rest areas or to snap a quick photo. No one appeared to be abusing the photo policy: Masks come off quickly and are quickly replaced.

Mobile ordering food from quick-service restaurants has proven to be a great way to get your meal while avoiding standing in a line. On Friday, before we left our room at the Grand Floridian for the morning, we put in a mobile order for Pecos Bill's Cafe to be picked up between 11:30 a.m. and 12 p.m. Just before 11:30, we logged into the app and notified the restaurant we were there. Within 10 minutes our food was ready at a designated pickup spot, and we took it to a table outside to enjoy.

Also of note: Guests' experiences at some attractions will be different now with some pre-shows have been eliminated in spaces that would have placed guests in too tight quarters. For instance, the stretching room in the Haunted Mansion is just used as part of the queue. It's not the "full" Disney experience, but it didn't detract from the attraction itself, especially for guests who have visited before. The lack of fireworks at night is a bit of a bummer, but parades have been handily replaced with character Cavalcades that randomly appear throughout the day. I favor the Cavalcades to parades in spades. I usually wouldn't bother lining up for a parade in advance, nor did I enjoy standing next to so many others, but Cavalcades neatly remedy both of those issues.

On Thursday night we spend some time wandering the shops in the Contemporary Resort before dinner at California Grill. As we skirted some other shoppers, Kim noted that it would be nice not to have to think about things like physical distancing again (this is true in life, not just at Disney World).

But sooner rather than later, the new norm simply became the norm, and we were enjoying ourselves immensely after a long, strange 13 months at home.

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