Thursday, July 09, 2020

Walt Disney World in the time of Covid

Let me just start by saying how much I missed this place. It was always my happy place and I'd like to hope that it will remain that way. 

That being said. Times are changing and its a very different world we are living in now compared to 4 months ago. 

The Walt Disney World Resort has been closed for just shy of four months now thanks to the onslaught of the Coronavirus. In an attempt at normality and no doubt one to save dwindling bottom lines, the parks are putting their big mouse toes into the reopening waters. 

Opening full time to guests again starting July 11, the powers that be were gracious enough to give their employees a Cast Member Preview to one park. Thankfully, both my daughter and my best friend work at Disney, so I was allowed to tag along with them to Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom respectively on July 7th, and 8th. 

What follows, are my observations as to what could very well become the norm for attending The Happiest Place on Earth in the age of Covid 19.

We masked up and headed to Magic Kingdom bright and early. We clearly were not the only anxious Cast Members clamoring for some good old fashioned fun. The changes were instantly recognizable as soon as we pulled through the parking gates. 

Cars were being waved through in small groups of about 15-20. Once through the first checkpoint, cast members were filling every other space in the parking lot to encourage the start of a socially distanced day.

Once parked, there were no trams running in the parking lot, and we had to hoof it on foot all the way to the ticketing and transportation center. 

As promised, there was a temperature screening tent. Outside vendors from Advent Health were glad to make sure you weren't running a fever in the most magical of Disney ways. They'd point what looked like a small lazer blaster at your head and if you were good, you got to move on to the next checkpoint. There they'd have you put your loose belongings into a clear plastic Disney bag, and send you through the metal detectors.

Both the Monorail and the Ferry Boat were running. I was somewhat concerned about how crowded and safe the Monorail would be, but I was pleasantly surprised at how well they practiced social distancing. 

We were first corralled into a staging area and instructed to stand on dots on the floor with our groups. (Dot standing is a BIG thing in this revamped version of line waiting)

Then as the line into the Monorail waiting area moved, we were directed there and instructed to maintain our distance according to the instruction bars taped to the pathway.

Once at the top of the station where the Monorails themselves were, Cast Members moved us onto more dots. They only allowed two groups per car. One on each side. The seats seemed to be resurfaced, and there were new vinyl partitions inside the cars themselves.

When we arrived at the Magic Kingdom, guests simply flooded out of the Monorail as if not a single stinky virus had ever infected anyone. The lack of social distancing there, was pretty spectacular. Thankfully we were at the front of the masses. 

Once at the entrance gates, there were more of the taped distance instruction bars on the floor. When one group went through, the next was allowed to scan their tickets.

Walking back on to Main Street was admittedly surreal for me. Its almost as if it was my first time in this park. I guess in some ways it was. I'd never been to THIS particular version of the Magic Kingdom. 

Being one of the first groups through the gates, the road to Cinderellas new and improved Castle was basically empty. There were several Cast Members sporting their masks along the sidewalk, and they were all applauding us and welcoming us home. Made us feel like royalty. And it gave me goosebumps. All I could replay in my head, was when Han Solo boarded the Falcon again for the first time and said..."Chewie, we're home"

The Castle itself, looked pretty wonderful, but that's just my opinion. There were the usual band of Disney Photopass photographers scattered around, but not as plentiful as usual. I didn't see any issues with social distancing here since there were so few of us in the park still, but I also didn't see nearly enough markers on the floor for the area. 

After the announcement that Splash Mountain would be going away soon and being replaced with the Princess and the Frog, we knew we wanted to make the ride and the merchandise shop our first stop. So we headed there next. 

There was already a small line to get into the store and to the ride. Here there were floor markers a plenty. We weren't the only ones who wanted Splash Mountain Merchandise. I grew up with the movie. My mom took me to see it at the theaters back in the 80's. And Splash Mountain has always been my number two favorite ride, so I definitely wanted to make sure I added a few items to my collection before Brer Rabbit and the gang vanished for good. 

Needless to say, we weren't the only ones with that idea. People were snagging everything they could and then some. Funko Pops, Ornaments, Pins, T-shirts etc. We admittedly were just as guilty. They were only allowing so many people in the shop at a time, but once inside, the only place there were social distance markers was on the floor by the registers. There were also plastic partitions to protect the cashiers from the guests.

By the time we walked out...there wasn't much left.

One of the downsides to the new world of Disney Parks, is that package delivery to the front of the park was not available. So in an effort to protect our buys, and not completely exhaust our arms from carrying it around all day, we made a quick pilgrimage back to the cars. 

When we returned, we went right back to Splash Mountain to take another plunge into the Briar Patch. There was still a long line to get into the gift shop, and we were looking at about a "15 minute wait."

The line though extended all the way to the front of the attraction. It felt much longer due to the 6 ft break intervals in the line. 

Once inside the line queue, there were newly installed plexiglass partitions, and between rides, there were cast members suited up like Ghostbusters with proton packs who'd spray the ride vehicles down with disinfectant. 

The Log Chutes themselves were loaded up by party only. Which means they were only filled by your specific group. If you were by yourself, you got a whole ride vehicle to yourself. And they were only filling every other vehicle. I can imagine this sort of thing will eventually cause longer delays in boarding. But I applaud the effort to maintain Social Distancing guidelines.

The ride itself, is exactly what I remembered. Magical. It will always be one of my top three, but I am empathic with the need for change, and I'm sure The Princess and The Frog will be a neat alternative.

After Splash Mountain, we rode Thunder. Again, plenty of social distancing markers on the floor. And several plexiglass partitions installed inside the ride queue. Once you're in the loading area, they fill the carts up according to party size. Then each party or group fills up every other cart.

The ride ran smoothly, but the water elements were turned off. 

On our way to The Haunted Mansion, there was a small one float cavalcade of characters and dancers that made its way through the streets of Frontierland. It was good to see Pluto, Donald, Minnie, and of course the Mouse himself Mickey. Sadly, thats pretty much the entirety of the characters we saw that day.

The Haunted Mansion is hands down my number one favorite attraction in Florida Disney. So I was more than a little sad at the overall experience in this new age version. 

First and foremost, the walkthrough at the entrance was blocked off. You couldn't visit the statues, and bookcase in the courtyard, or interact with any of the other cool finds. 

There was no wait to enter the ride itself. It was heartbreaking to walk right through the stretching room and directly over to the Doom Buggies. The usual creepy intro that we all know by heart had vanished into the graveyard. No, stretching paintings, no hanging body, no wicked laugh challenging you to find a way out. It was just dead space. 

For whatever reason the ride itself, was unusually DARK. To the point you could not see a lot. Especially in the early rooms. My daughter and I couldn't decide if it was just our eyes not adjusting to the dark as they usually do in the stretching chamber room, or if it was just technical thing. 

My daughter, also claimed to have not seen the Opera Singing Lady....and I don't think I did either. 

That being said, it feels like the ghosts in the graveyard were touched up, because their glow and detail seemed much more bold than usual. It was a saving grace!

After popping into the gift shop, where they were only allowing a set amount of people at a time, we made our way quickly through Peter Pan, Winnie the Pooh, and Small World. Again, all of them overflowing with social distancing markers, and group specific car loading. 

We kinda felt ridiculous smiling behind the masks. LOL

At Mickey's Philharmagic, the entry line was the same, and sadly, instead of handing you your 3D glasses, you still self served yourself to them. But once inside the waiting lobby, there were Cast Members directing your party specific Disney Dots where you'd await your showing. 

When Goofy finally gets the doors open to the theater, every other row is blocked off, and the ushers direct you to your row. Every 3-4 seats there is set of chairs blocked off to promote social distancing between parties. The show, while familiar and refreshing, still had the water spray effects, but was missing the blasts of smells. 

You do have the bonus of your 3D glasses fogging up because of the masks you now have to wear. 

There isn't a thing though that can make me not love this attraction. 

Hunger had set in at this point and we were ready to eat. Most of the quick service locations had Closed signs in their windows, and from what we'd heard, none of the sit down locations were taking advanced reservations. So we made our way to Be Our Guest, where we managed to score an in person reservation. 

While waiting we'd wanted to check out Gastons Tavern and the Beauty and the Beast shop, but both were closed.

We opted instead to ride the Little Mermaid ride. More floor markers. And intercom announcements where Cast Members advised that there would momentary delays while ride vehicles were cleaned.

We were fortunate enough to get to ride through twice because there was no one in line for the attraction at that point. 

It was finally time for grub and grey stuff. 

When we finally entered the restaurant, we noticed the amount of available tables. It looked as though they were trying to keep everyone as socially distanced as possible. Some rooms though still felt more crowded than others. 

We were seated in the back corner of the Rose Gallery. It was quite empty in there, and we were told we could remove our masks as long as we were at the table. But if we stood up to use the restrooms, or to visit the other rooms, we'd need to place our masks back on. 

Given our location, I felt comfortable removing the mask. Not sure I would've been as relaxed in the other rooms. 

Our server was wonderful, and masked. Very friendly, attentive and glad to be working again. They didn't give us paper menus. Instead they had us scan a QR code with our phones and that showed us the menu. 
The food was a mazing as usual. And the Grey Stuff was indeed delicious. 

The Beast made brief appearances, simply walking into each of the rooms and waving. No photos ops, unless you were quick and at a significant distance. 

After lunch, we were fortunate enough to ride the Mine Train. It said there was a 35 minute wait, but we basically walked right on. The plexiglass partitions were there. Walking through the line often times made me feel like I was a rat running through a maze. 

And I failed to mention, that had sanitizing stations like this one were found almost everywhere you turned in the park. Around every store, restaurant, and throughout the attractions. They are motion sensor type so you don't ever have to touch anything. They all worked, although some took a few waves of the hand, and a few were stingy with how much sanitizer they were willing to give. 

When the Mine Train was done, we made our way over to the Tomorrowland. I needed a bathroom break, and although I'll spare you any photos, lol, I will give you the rundown.

Not much has changed there, other than every other stall was available. 

And much to my chagrin, I saw two different dudes use the facilities and leave the bathroom without washing their hands. It was an awful and disgusting thought before this pandemic. But for crying out loud people....WASH YOUR DAMN HANDS NOW!!!

Space Mountain was beyond a pleasant surprise. There was absolutely no wait to board.

Again, plenty of social distancing markers along the queue, and once in the boarding area, the ride cars were loaded group specifically. 

The Cast Member made sure to remind my buddy that he needed to wear his mask at all times. 
We got to ride it three times in a row with zero wait. It was kinda cool. 

We decided to close out the day with Pirates Of The Caribbean and another go on Splash and Thunder Mountain. On our way to Pirates, we got a glimpse of the new and improved character Meet and Greets. 

While Jack Sparrow was NOT wearing a mask, he was keeping quite the social distance. Yo Ho!

As had been the case with every other ride, our party had it's own boat. And every other boat was empty. 
We closed the day, walking right on to Splash Mountain and Thunder Mountain once more. 

I'm going to miss Brer Rabbit.

Day two took us over to Animal Kingdom. I won't bore you with too much of the same stuff. Although there were a few things to note.
Starting with parking. There were no trams running in the parking lot at all. They were assigning parking every other space as they did at Magic Kingdom. And the same temperature checks were at the gates before you entered. 

Once inside there weren't any photo pass people by the Tree of Life. 

But there weren't many people either. So the photo ops were good. Despite the masks. I think its those moments that are going to take the most getting used to. 

Pandora was beautiful and empty first thing in the morning. 

We managed to ride it twice in a row, with again no wait. If you've ridden it before, you'll notice that some of the ride queue items have been by passed. For example, you no longer wait in a room and get matched to your own Avatar. 

You still social distance by standing on dots with your party. And although I think they're supposed to wipe down the ride between every guest, I noticed that didn't happen either time. 

Always take advantage of the hand sanitizer stations by the ride exit in case they accidentally forget. 

There may not be a lot of character meet and greets anymore, but there are still great photo ops. 

Making our way over to the Safari, we got to see a few of my favorite Ducks. While it would've been nice to get a pic with them, it was still good to see Disney doing their best to give us the magic moments we love. 

The Safari religiously has epic wait times. Hopefully this is the new norm. We were able to walk right on after having been in the park and ridden Flight of Passage twice, and The Navi River cruise. 

Once aboard the jeep, we were instructed that we could remove our masks for the duration of the Safari, but would need to put them back on before returning to base camp. There were new plastic partitions installed between each row. We wondered why this couldn't be done on the parking trams. I feel like while its a good idea, it might create a bit of a stuffy and hot situation if you're in one of the middle rows. Lucky for us we were in the back, and able to take a decent selfie!

The Safari itself was a welcome return. And all the the animals were out. One of the passengers tried to question if the jeeps were kept in action while the parks were closed to keep the animals accustomed to them. Sadly the question went unheard by the driver, but it was an interesting thought. 

At the conclusion, there was a small team of cleaners, waiting to wipe down and disinfect the jeep before the next Safari ride began, and we made our way off. 

Surprisingly, Rafiki's Planet Watch and the train ride over were in operation. Social Distancing markers were on the train to keep passengers apart. 

Once in Rafiki's area, the petting zoo had been almost completely closed off, but there were still animals and trainers available to answer questions. No animal petting was allowed though. 

The only other available attraction was the Art of Animation class. 

One of the tougher aspects we ran into, was the lack of available snackage and eating. Since advanced reservations were not available, it was a challenge to eat. You either had to wait over an hour or longer to get into the higher end locations like Tiffins or Yak and Yeti, or stand around waiting to get into the limited quick service options. Wait times were greatly elevated due to social distancing and relatively small dining areas. 

Making our way over to Dinosaur, we became quickly disheartened. Perhaps because of the rain, maybe because we'd been spoiled by the lack of wait times for any other attraction, but this particular queue was unbearably long. The longest in fact of any we'd encountered over the past two days. 

You have to look a little closely, but you'll see the plexiglass partitions to the left of the image. Once inside the Trex room, there weren't any partitions, just markers on the floor. Unlike The Haunted Mansion, you still have to go through the movie presentation where Seeker explains the mission. There are Disney Social Distance Dots on the floor to help keep you "safely" away from others. 

I wondered why they did this here, but not on the Haunted Mansion.

Once in the vehicle staging area, only one party per time rover. Some of them literally had one passenger. 

The ride itself was in perfect working order and even had a couple of cool additions. 

Despite the rain, we managed to ride Expedition Everest twice in a row, again with zero wait time. 

The staging area had these plexiglass partitions in place as well. Again, not all rides had this. I'm not sure the thought process as to why some do and some don't. 

The Yeti still doesn't work. :0(

And you know, that was about it. We managed to basically do all of Animal Kingdom in under 5 hours. 

Overall, the experience over two days in the parks was new but not unwelcome. Disney has done a lot of great things to help practice social distancing and to keep the attractions clean. As with anything there is still going to be a learning curve. I don't know how many people will be in the parks when you compare Cast Member previews to General Public attendance. I also don't know what people themselves will bring to the table. Cast Members seem to get it, because they work there and know what to expect. They know the guidelines to abide by. The common guest may not. 

There are certainly going to be challenges and heart aches that Disney and its Cast Members are going to do their best to deal with.

If you're reading this, and you play on going to the parks. Please, adhere to the guidelines. Help make it a safe place for everyone to enjoy. Be kind to the Cast Members, they're glad to be back. They're willing to take safe risks to bring you the magic. Help them to help you. Wear your masks, take advantage of the sanitizing stations, and bring lots of patience with you. This experimental overhaul HAS to work so that we don't lose it again! 

Overall, I had two wonderful days and I felt fairly safe being there. And more importantly it was nice to feel some of that long overdue Disney Magic. 

1 comment:

Locoduckfan3 said...

Awesome post! Very informative. I wonder too how it will be when they open up to the general public. Hopefully like you said, people will adhere to the new rules. Great post- thanks for going into such depth about your experience.