Negotiating Disney World during the Pandemic – Tips to Cope and Chill

I have cried a few sad tears along with my happy tears at Disneyland. It is something that happens sometimes when you are a local or a frequent park goer. That is because Disney isn’t life, it is a part of life. And while walking in those gates can be a balm for the soul, it can’t shut down all of the emotions you have. 

A few years back, I committed to join a group of friends to walk around Disneyland with a private tour guide. It was planned months in advance and I was really excited for it. Unfortunately, I had to deal with the passing of a very beloved Grammy the week before the scheduled tour. I thought going on the tour would be healing for me, so I pushed myself to go. I left midway through in tearful shambles. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t want to be upset at Disney. And I have a rule that if I ever get really upset for any reason, it’s time to leave. 

Alex and I learned an additional lesson about coping with negative feelings at Disney just two days into our January 2021 trip. We both have developed some anxiety around other people in 2020. I know we aren’t alone in that. But, we did not realize how much it had affected us until we went to the parks. 

We were at Walt Disney World in early January 2021 at a time when the attendance had just increased from 25% to 35% of full capacity. It is also the same time that they brought back park hopper and offered special discounts to Florida residents. So, crowds have increased when compared to the images of the park that we saw just weeks and months ago. 

We felt safe going because we are familiar with Disney Parks. We are Disneyland locals and passholders. And, before I moved to California, Disney World was my home park and I would visit 2-3 times a year. We don’t have children and it was just the two of us traveling together, so we agreed it would be totally manageable.

We really thought we knew what to expect. We had heard various things around the internet about health and safety procedures and crowd levels at the parks. Some of it was actually from official Disney sources. But, somehow we had conflated seeing everyone having wonderful experiences on social media with official Disney resources. Somewhere along that path, we had convinced ourselves that if everyone on the internet loved their experience then we will too. 

That is not to diminish anyone else’s experience, but to say that it was foolish of us to think that we could have predicted how comfortable we would be before we even got there. 

Every purchase pays an artist

Our first day at Epcot went relatively well. We started getting a lot of questions via Instagram about comfort and crowd levels. Most of them I even answered by saying we felt comfortable. But, when the sun went down on the World Showcase, there was a definite shift in our comfort level. I immediately stopped replying to messages because if people are relying on our answers to decide whether to take a trip or not, I don’t want them to be as surprised as we were about how quickly your comfort level can shift.

The next day at Animal Kingdom we had another experience that made us uncomfortable. In our case, we waited in a socially distanced line for Flight of Passage only to be asked to sit directly next to someone who was not in our party. (Note: this attraction did not have any plexiglass dividers). We opted not to sit down and they let us wait for the next group. They made sure to seat us with only one other person in the chamber more than 12 feet away. But when we got off of the ride, there was a mass rush of guests down the stairs with no distance markers or any enforcement of social distancing. We were left to wonder why we had waited in a socially distanced line, just to be crammed into a room with strangers at the end of it? 

We decided to go to Guest Relations to ask about cleaning and distancing standards for the park. We were informed that the cleaning schedules and guest seating procedures differed depending on the attraction. Some attractions are seating all rows at peak times. 

This was upsetting to us because we had driven across the country to be here and then they were telling us that we had to seek our own comfort? They weren’t going to guide us through the whole park while spraying Lysol in front of us and Cloroxing every step before we took it all while asking people to back away??? 

Oh wait, we are being stupid. Of course they aren’t! Nor should they have to. It is our decision to be here so it is our responsibility to take care of our own comfort. We can’t rely on anyone else to make us comfortable or keep us safe! We are adults and Disney is doing what they can. It is unrealistic to expect Disney to do everything perfectly all the time according to everyone’s individual needs. 

I told the cast member at Guest Relations that we came because we had heard the crowds were low, they were not seating every row, and that they were cleaning ride vehicles between each guest. When the cast member asked where I had seen this information, I realized I was just going off of what I had seen from happy people on social media who had visited months ago. It took us a few hours to absorb all this and come to the conclusion that we had set unrealistic expectations. 

So, we had to decide if we could shift our focus to enjoy the rest of our time here, or if it was time to get a refund for our tickets and head home. 

We chose to stay and take care of ourselves. If there was a situation that made us uncomfortable, we would opt out. If we felt crowded we would choose to turn around and find a quiet spot to regroup. 

To be clear, we are NOT discouraging anyone from coming or assuming anything about anyone else’s comfort level. We are here after all. So, why would we discourage others from coming? 

What we are saying is that your experience may differ than your usual one depending on your own comfort level. If you are a little bit anxious like us, you will just need to decide if it’s worth it to you to still be here even if you have to take lots of breaks and maybe even leave the parks for a while.

Honestly, the biggest variable is the other guests. You have to assume the most comfortable person in the world is there, because they probably are. You cannot expect everyone to have the same level of concern. In that regard, it is honestly not any different than going anywhere in your hometown, like the grocery store. You can’t expect it to be utopia just because it is Disney property. 

If you are like the Disney goer that I was in the “before times” you are all about maximizing park time, looking to get all the photos, wanting to ride all the rides, and eat all the snacks. That may not happen for you if you go during the pandemic. But, the good news is that it may force you to have a totally new and different experience. (See list of suggestions at the end of this post). 

We decided we are going to have a very low key and slow paced time. That is how we are able to cope with the way things are right now and still feel like we are doing the best for ourselves and others. But, we are also prepared to walk away and not let it disappoint us. Disney will be here for years to come and in healthier and happier times too. 

We are happy to report that we have since been back to Animal Kingdom, on a Saturday no less, and we had a great time. Starting the day with our new mindset made a world of difference. We set deliberate intentions for the day before going so that we had a plan. And if the planned activity didn’t work for us, we just moved on to the next without disappointment.

We refuse to use Disney strictly as a form of escapism. Most of the time, it does wonders to comfort and entertain us, but we can’t pretend that we don’t ever experience any negative emotions there. We can’t pretend there aren’t occasional breakdowns of anxiety, feelings of impatience with each other, or even sheer exhaustion. But we can control how we react to them. Sometimes that means taking a breather and sometimes that means leaving. It doesn’t mean we did it wrong. It doesn’t mean the trip was ruined. It doesn’t mean dwelling on the negativity. It just means we are human beings living a life that we are lucky enough to spend in Disney Parks. 

Confirmed Policies and Procedures from early January 2021:

  • Cast Members are parking every other row in the parking lots to give you lots of room to get out and get situated at a proper distance from the next car. They later fill in the empty spots. 
  • They are still doing temperature checks before you enter. 
  • Security is now a walk through and you do not have to remove anything from your bags unless instructed to do so. 
  • Parkwide standard of masks being required. There are gentle reminders given to people who do not comply. There are signs and announcements reminding guests to wear masks over their nose and mouth. The only exception is when actively eating and drinking while stationary. Guests are warned that they may be asked to leave for not complying. 
  • The parks are at 35% capacity to the knowledge of Guest Relations staff. 
  • There is no parkwide standard for cleaning rides. However, you can ask any cast member at each ride and if they can’t tell you, they will ask a supervisor. For instance, we asked at Kilimanjaro Safari on January 5th, and they said the ride vehicles are cleaned 3 times a day – morning, noon, and night.
  • Ride queues are still socially distanced with 6 foot markers and plexiglass as needed. However, exiting the ride can sometimes be a free-for-all. 

The last thing we want to do is complain about being at Disney, so we came up with some ways to enjoy ourselves even during one of the most challenging times. 

Alex and Emily’s suggestions for a chill out:

The Grand Floridian Lobby

    Magic Kingdom

At the Contemporary
  • Hub grass and chill.
  • Tomorrowland is pretty wide, spacious and less crowded.
  • Take a walk to the Contemporary for a break. Look at the mosaics, watch the monorail, or take a photo in the Mickey photo opp close to the Sand Bar.
  • Ride the Monorail to the Grand Floridian and take in the ornate lobby, or have a drink by the pool at the Courtyard Pool Bar.

    Animal Kingdom

Seating Area Behind Tamu Tamu
  • Visit Discovery Island for great views of the Tree of Life in an uncrowned area. Play spot the animal! (Because there is a reason toddlers always shout out the names of random animals – its fun!)
  • Grab a dole whip (available with rum!) at Tamu Tamu and find a table in the quiet, shady seating area behind it.
  • Asia and Africa in general are less crowded. The bridge between Africa and Pandora is nice if the queue to Flight of Passage hasn’t extended that far. There is a big open area right on the Africa side of the bridge.
  • Ride the Wildlife Express to Rafiki’s Planet Watch and/or draw a
    Disney character at the Animation Experience. If it’s too crowded on the outpost, turn around and get back on the train because the train ride itself is very nice. You get to see some backstage animal areas.
  • Take a bus to Animal Kingdom Lodge and take in the beauty of that resort. This is a great time to make lunch reservations at the nearest resort for a midday break. 
  • Join the walk up list for the Nomad Lounge as soon as it opens (11:00 am usually). It fills up fast, but it’s a great place to chill by the river with a drink or snack and watch the character cavalcades go by.
  • If you must Pandora, we recommend getting in line for Na’vi River Journey right before park closing. That way, when you get off, the land is almost empty and you get to see it glowing!

    Epcot

Rose & Crown
  • Future World is generally less crowded so it’s a great time to go see Figment and the Phoenicians. 
  • The Land Pavilion gets crowds due to Soarin’, but if you can just make it to Living with the Land you know that’s a chill vibe. It’s dicey getting in and out of the Pavilion though.
  • The Seas has open areas, although some remain crowded. But it is possible to find an out of the way spot to stare at some tranquil fish for a moment of zen. 
  • Walk to the Boardwalk for a break, snack, drink, or some good old bench sittin’.
  • Go watch Canada Far and Wide. There is lots of space in the theater and it’s such an awe-inspiring show. Plus, Catherine O’Hara’s voice could soothe me on my darkest days. 
  • Grab an outdoor table at the Rose & Crown Dining Room and have a pint of peace. 

    Hollywood Studios

The Mediterranean Wave at Bar Riva – A refreshing and not too sweet frozen drink.
The mosaics at the Rivera. These are in the first archway when you enter the resort from the Skyliner.
  • This one is tough. It is pretty dang hype there right now, BUT…
  • The area around Indiana Jones is pretty open since the show isn’t happening right now. You can go hang out by the ride exit and look at the themed vehicles and props. 
  • Muppet 3D vision and courtyard area can be chill 
  • RIDE THE SKYLINER TO THE RIVIERA! Look at the mosaics, but also visit Bar Riva for a drink or snack to achieve a Côte d’Azur calm. My friend Teresa suggested this and it was the best Disney advice I’ve ever followed!
  • Ride the Skyliner to The Art of Animation to say hello to some of your favorite characters in oversized statue form. 

Let me know if you have any suggestions you would add! I think these tips can be used anytime to take a break, hopefully even after pandemic panic time.

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