“You can still find moments of magic as long as you’re looking for them.”

By Julie Tremaine
July 13, 2020
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It was a decidedly unmagical moment for a company that makes magic its business when Disney announced on March 12 that its theme parks in Florida and California would be closing. The announcement came the day before the U.S. government declared a national emergency, and the day after the World Health Organization deemed the coronavirus a global pandemic. For many, that the disease could fell a multi-billion dollar juggernaut like Walt Disney World, which had only closed its gates six other times in nearly 50 years, was the signal that things were about to get really bad in America.

They did. And then they got a bit better — enough for theme parks like Universal Orlando to open on June 5, and for Disney to announce at the end of May that it intended to open its Florida parks starting July 11. But things started to get worse again, especially in Florida, where the infection rate has been rising. On July 10, the day before Magic Kingdom reopened to the public, the state hit a new record for single-day infections, reporting 11,433 cases. On July 12, it shattered that record, with 15,300 cases, the highest single-day infection rate in the country.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

And yet, in the middle of all of this, Disney reopened, welcoming its first hotel guests in late June, in a scaled reopening that has only some of its properties and restaurants currently operational. On July 11, guests started streaming into the Magic Kingdom, and I was one of them. The experience was better than I expected in some ways, and harder in others.

I’m not here to encourage you to go to Disney, or to suggest that you’ll be safe in a theme park right now. I chose to go, and I did it in the safest way I could, but that was a personal choice and not one I want to make for you. I will tell you, however, that Disney does not hide the health risks that come with reopening the parks, evident in the thousands of signs telling people to maintain social distance, wear face coverings, and clean their hands. This is also apparent in the hand sanitizer and hand-washing stations around every corner, and in the presence of cast members with spray bottles, sanitizing everything from tables to walls.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

Signs marking off tables as unavailable and indicating social distancing in ride queues are easy to see and abide by. Shops in the park have designated entrance and exit doors, and cast members keeping track of each person entering to maintain the required capacity limits inside. Character meet and greets are no longer offered, though characters do pop up from time to time. Gaston rode his horse down Main Street, U.S.A., waving to those who happened to be there at the time. “Your horse is beautiful!” a woman shouted to him. “Thank you,” he said. “I know I am.”

Credit: Julie Tremaine

Though you can’t take a photo with Mickey, or see evening fireworks, you can do almost everything else. Because of the decreased capacity in the park, ride times were lower than I’ve ever experienced: five minutes for Space Mountain and 30 minutes for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. (Both can be over two hours on busy days.) The longest wait time of the day was 50 minutes for Pirates of the Caribbean, and that was only because they paused operations to spray the boats with sanitizer and run them through the ride to give them time to dry. That’s now required every two hours on every ride in the park.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

While almost all the rides are operational — PeopleMover was out of commission, but that’s the only one I noticed — some have been modified. There is plexiglass and plastic sheeting on Jungle Cruise boats to keep parties separate. The Haunted Mansion’s pre-show, in which you’re typically “trapped” in a room with stretching walls, isn’t happening at all. (As an aside, I was sure that the room really moved. Learning that it’s effectively just a walk-through with a raised ceiling was way too much information for me.)

The flying elephant in the room: Masks. They’re required everywhere, unless you’re eating or drinking, and every single person I saw in Magic Kingdom complied with that rule. Disney photographers won’t allow people to remove them for photos either. Seeing everyone do their part to try and keep themselves and others safe, and not hearing a single person claim they shouldn’t have to wear a mask, was pure bliss. No one wants to wear a mask in 90-degree Orlando weather, but it’s the price for going to Disney, and everyone there was willing to pay it.

Credit: Julie Tremaine

People have complained that, with a limited Disney experience at the moment, ticket prices should have been lowered. It’s true that there are things you can’t do. Many restaurants and shops are closed right now, and plenty of quintessential Disney moments aren’t quite the same. Even if you could dine at Cinderella’s Royal Table (currently closed), you wouldn’t be allowed to take a photo with the princesses. Riding Space Mountain and not hearing a single scream of delight was an eerie experience. But you can take an uninterrupted photo in front of the castle right now because there are hardly any people to photobomb your shot. And you can still find moments of magic as long as you’re looking for them.

I had heard there would be no parades, but I didn’t know there would be pop-up cavalcades throughout the day. Imagine my surprise when all of a sudden the parade music came on and a float with Mickey, Minnie, and friends rolled by me.

“Minnie!” the little girl next to me shouted. “Yeah! That’s my girl!” Then, Mickey waved at me, and suddenly I was waving back — totally out of character for me. In the next moment, I was crying. I hadn’t felt that kind of pure joy since all of this happened. Debate all you want about whether it’s the right time to open up the parks, but in that moment, everything was okay, and I was okay, too.