Dispatch, Walt Disney World: First impressions after a year away

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Mobile ordering is encouraged throughout Walt Disney World, such as at the Gasparilla Island Grill at the Grand Floridian hotel.
Mobile ordering is encouraged throughout Walt Disney World, such as at the Gasparilla Island Grill at the Grand Floridian hotel. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

The last trip I took before the world shut down was to the Walt Disney World Resort in early March 2020 for the opening of Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway.

Covid-19 was already in the U.S., but reported cases were infinitesimal. I was careful about using hand sanitizer, and I remember doing a few foot bumps instead of handshakes, but there were very few masks being worn, and no one thought we were headed for what some have dubbed the Great Pause.

And when the world paused, so did my family. My wife, Kim, and I formed a Covid bubble with my mother, Mary Lou. We were strict about any other interactions: outside, distanced, often with masks. Everything -- yes, everything -- that came into the house was sanitized. Not even the groceries were spared.

But I suppose we have followed some recent trends. With the vaccine rollout in the U.S., our confidence has begun to increase. Kim and my mom are both fully vaccinated. I've had my first shot for several weeks, and my next is scheduled. So when Disney offered me the chance to visit this week, I said yes.

I've come full circle: My pandemic experience is now, officially, bookmarked by the Mouse.

I said yes because I've written about Disney's efforts to mitigate the spread of Covid-19, and because of the aforementioned vaccines. I talked about Disney in a podcast last fall with an expert, Len Testa, who'd also been in the parks and had positive things to day about Disney's approach.

Disney also invited Kim to join me, and it seemed like a serendipitous way to celebrate our last few months as a family of two. Kim is pregnant, and we have a little girl coming this July.

We flew from Newark Airport to Orlando midday. To be frank, I was less than impressed with mask usage in the airport and on the plane. I would hazard a guess that lack of enforcement played a part in it, but I sympathize with airline and airport employees who have been dealing with this for more than a year now.

I rented a car to get us to Disney property so we could avoid sharing a vehicle with others. That felt like the right move, especially while dodging maskless people while exiting the airport.

Once we arrived at our hotel, the Grand Floridian, though, things felt much different.

The check-in counters at the Grand Floridian resort at Walt Disney World have plexiglass shields and cups for sanitized and used pens.
The check-in counters at the Grand Floridian resort at Walt Disney World have plexiglass shields and cups for sanitized and used pens. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

Mask use here is being enforced. Sure, you see the occasional nose, or someone not quite distanced with their mask removed, but for the most part it's easy to distance yourself from others and feel safe (as of this writing, I hadn't been in the parks yet, but more on that to come). 

A lot of things are different. Mobile ordering has taken over as de rigueur, instead of sitting down or ordering quick-service meals at a counter. Barriers divide the monorails and other forms of transportation. Distancing markers are visible on the ground everywhere a queue could form. Checking in using Disney's app and bypassing the front desk altogether is encouraged. Hotel rooms now have educational placards explaining how Disney has enhanced its cleaning services, and remote controls are wrapped after being sanitized. 

It all contributes to a feeling of safety.

In fact, for the first time since that last trip to Disney in March 2020, Kim and I felt comfortable enough to enjoy a meal indoors, at the California Grill. We were both nervous leading up to the meal, but our friendly server Michael -- and properly distanced tables -- put us at ease.

Distancing markers in the line for Disney's monorail.
Distancing markers in the line for Disney's monorail. Photo Credit: Jamie Biesiada

When Disney first reopened its parks last summer, I was a little skeptical. Was that the right move in the middle of the pandemic, I wondered? But as things continued to drag on, it became increasingly clear just how vital tourism is to so many economies around the world, including in Orlando. And by fostering a safe, albeit not entirely risk-free, way to bring visitors back, Disney and other suppliers doing things right are serving their guests, their communities and, importantly, their employees.

That really hit home when, at the end of our dinner, Michael said, "Thank you for being here. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to work."

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