A visit to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando looks much different in the era of Covid-19, but thanks to reduced capacity at the parks, mandatory face mask usage and social distancing, it does feels safe, according to Kristen Buckshire, the owner of Travel Ease LLC in Cape Coral, Fla., who visited over the weekend with sons Grant, 9, and Carter, 5.
Buckshire took the three-hour drive from Cape Coral to Orlando last Friday, the day before Disney began its phased reopening of theme parks: the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom on July 11 followed by Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios on Wednesday, July 15.
She and her boys visited the Magic Kingdom on opening day Saturday and spent the following day at Animal Kingdom. They planned on two rest days in between before venturing to Epcot on Wednesday.
Kristen Buckshire, owner of Travel Ease in Cape Coral, Fla., with her sons Grant, 9, and Carter, 5, in Disney's Animal Kingdom on Sunday, the day after it reopened to the public.
"I felt very safe in terms of what Disney was doing," Buckshire reported from her hotel room on property at Bay Lake Tower at the Contemporary Resort, where she is staying between park visits. "Take, for comparison, we're all going to a grocery store on a normal day. I wear my mask diligently, but where I live in Florida, there are no mask requirements, so it might be half of the folks aren't wearing masks. I actually felt safer knowing that Disney was continuously cleaning the area and that everyone was wearing a mask."
Even outside the parks, Buckshire says she feels very safe. At Bay Lake Tower, she said occupancy is low. Things like TV remotes and shampoo dispensers have been bagged with notes that they have been cleaned, adding to her peace of mind.
Much has changed at the parks, including entrance procedures. Guests have to have their temperatures checked. If they are below 100.4 degrees, as Buckshire and her children have been, they are admitted to the park. But if their temperature registers above that mark, they are brought to a secondary screening area.
According to Buckshire, a friend of hers registered a higher temperature after walking to the park from the parking lot (trams aren't currently running). She was escorted to an air-conditioned tent, where she was allowed some time to cool off. After a few minutes, she was retested, registered a normal temperature and was allowed to enter the park.
Some ride vehicles have been retrofitted with barriers to separate guests. Here, Kristen Buckshire's sons Carter and Grant are on a safari vehicles on Kilimanjaro Safaris. Photo Credit: Kristen Buckshire
Security checks are more abbreviated than in the past. Guests are asked to remove large metal objects like water bottles or umbrellas from their bags, then go through a metal detector. Buckshire said she didn't encounter any lines at the park entrance as she had in the past, when security guards would physically search through guests' bags.
Inside the parks, reduced capacity means little or no wait times for attractions. On Sunday, Buckshire and her children waited just five minutes to ride Flight of Passage in Animal Kingdom; pre-Covid-19, the attraction regularly generated waits in excess of two and three hours.
As for the park's face mask requirement?
"I'm not going to sugar coat it," she said. "It is difficult to wear a mask in 95-degree weather in the middle of July."
Buckshire said her boys didn't have any issues with the masks, but she found it challenging at times. There are areas where guests can take off their masks safely distanced from others, some air conditioned and some not.
"It's definitely going to change the way that we set up our clients for touring the parks and how we advise them," she said. "I'm thinking full days in the park probably are a thing of the past right now. I would recommend half days in the park, or I would recommend what we're doing: a rest day in between park days just to enjoy the pool and a character meal or heading to Disney Springs."
Mask compliance was good, Buckshire said. And Disney employees were quick to ask guests wearing their masks improperly -- over their mouth but not their nose, for instance -- to fix them.
Cleaning and sanitization efforts were visible frequently throughout the parks and on attractions, she noted. Guests are being loaded onto attractions in a socially distanced manner when possible, and, in some cases, attraction vehicles have been modified. For instance, the trucks that take guests around Kilimanjaro Safaris in Animal Kingdom have plexiglass partitions separating the rows.
Characters are still appearing throughout the parks but are doing so at random times and typically on a float or, in some cases, on horseback. Buckshire said the experience is different but well done.
Dining is the one area where Buckshire said she feels some improvement is needed. A limited number of dining venues are open now, and at quick-service locations, guests need to use mobile ordering on the My Disney Experience. Buckshire reported a lag time of about 20 minutes between ordering and getting to go inside and get food, leading to a number of guests lingering outside the venues.
She said she expects that problem to be solved as more restaurants are opened.
"Overall it's been a good experience," Buckshire said. "I'm pleased with it. But I do think there are a couple of [practices] that will change as time goes on," mainly with dining.
Travel Ease has had some interest in theme park vacations, said Buckshire, who was also at Universal Orlando Resort's opening last month. She said she got a little spike in bookings after that.
With Disney, a number of her clients who visit frequently are interested in going soon. Many of them are mainly focused on rides and attractions, so short wait times are a priority with them. They are OK with the idea of giving up some of the park's other experiences, she added.
As for first-timers, Travel Ease is encouraging them to hold off visiting for now.
"We've been trying to push them to 2021, because we don't feel like the full experience is there for them," she said.
Buckshire said her trips to Orlando's theme parks have been important for her to educate her travel advisors as well as her clients. Travel Ease's specialty is family travel, and a good portion of that means travel to Disney.
"Because we are such Disney specialists, we knew that the moment they announced the parks were reopening that it was important for us to be there," she said.