We asked Disney World guests about their dining, hotel, and theme park experiences — here's what they said.

By Elizabeth Rhodes
July 29, 2020
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The coronavirus pandemic has significantly changed nearly all aspects of the travel experience — hotel stays, meals out at restaurants, and visits to newly reopened attractions are coupled with new health and safety measures to help prevent the spread of the virus. So, what is it really like to visit the “Most Magical Place on Earth” now that it has reopened? We interviewed eight people who recently visited Disney World about their experiences in the theme parks, restaurants, and resort hotels to see just how different it is — here’s what they said.

If you’re planning to wait a little longer before your next Disney trip, we’ve rounded up a few ways to bring the magic home, including virtual rides and a delicious Dole Whip recipe.

Related: More Disney news

Courtesy of Disney

Theme parks are nearly empty, and a lot has changed.

Several of the theme park guests echoed the same sentiment — that they were confident in how Disney World was implementing the new health and safety measures, but that it’s ultimately up to guests to follow the rules so that everyone has a safer experience. Many entertainment offerings, including shows, fireworks, and character meet and greets, aren’t available right now, which can be disappointing, but the short wait times for popular attractions and low crowd levels are a welcome change for folks who have visited the parks since they reopened.

Nikki Meadows noted all the ways social distancing was being encouraged in the park and commented that “the public truly seemed to adhere to these rules” during her recent visit to Magic Kingdom. She continued, saying, “I’m excited to see how Disney continues to adapt amidst this pandemic, but I am truly impressed so far. Disney has been able to keep that magical feeling alive during these difficult times. To avoid crowding, characters come out at surprise moments throughout the day — distanced on floats — and cast members are so happy to have guests again, saying 'welcome home' as you pass by.”

Courtesy of Disney

Caprice C. Cole visited Magic Kingdom upon reopening, too, and said that some of the recent changes, like limited capacity in the parks and socially distant character encounters, were great. She added, “Capacity at Magic Kingdom is phenomenal. Majority of the wait times for attractions were 10 minutes or less. I'm a huge fan of the character experiences. There are lots of characters out at the same time throughout the park that you rarely see.” She also noted that there are social distancing markers and hand-washing stations everywhere, and sanitizer is provided at the beginning and end of every ride.

After visiting Disney’s Animal Kingdom upon reopening, Jasem Al-Hasawi said, “I did find that certain modifications hindered some of the charm we’ve come to love about the parks. Certain shows, classic parades, and character meet and greets were suspended, but they did find a way to make sure our special friends made an appearance periodically in the parks.” Jasem continued, “Animal Kingdom had characters rocking out on boats with music around Discovery Island, which provided that magic touch. Overall, the new social distancing guidelines and precautions were easy to follow and didn’t interfere with the magic of Disney. I will say that as long as we the guests follow the guidelines put into place for everyone within the park, Disney will take care of the rest.”

Epcot’s yearly Food & Wine Festival presents unique challenges.

Annual pass holder Raven Daria Megna visited the Taste of Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, a modified version of the beloved yearly event. She said of all the Disney parks, she was most concerned about visiting Epcot: “My first experience was full of people grabbing their drinks and snacks from booths, and then just walking around eating mask-free. This made me pretty nervous, and I actually snuck off to the World Showplace in between Canada and England, because it’s an indoor air-conditioned location with multiple seating areas, food booths, and enforced social distancing.” Disney World later amended the rules, prohibiting people from walking around while eating and drinking, and Raven said she felt much more relaxed after the change. She continued, saying, “Being back at Disney has been wonderful for me — a much-needed bit of magic for this crazy time — but with the Food & Wine Festival being centered around eating and drinking, and therefore a whole lot of mask removal and adjusting, I don’t think I’ll be visiting Epcot as often as the rest of the parks.”

Restaurants offer modified dining experiences, with three choices for character dining.

Across the resort, restaurants have implemented new health and safety measures. Mobile ordering and cashless payments are the norm for quick-service eateries, while socially distanced tables and other precautions have been added at table-service restaurants. Many popular character dining experiences are temporarily unavailable; in fact, only Garden Grill Restaurant in Epcot and Topolino's Terrace – Flavors of the Riviera at the Riviera Resort currently offer on-property character dining (although you can also find a character breakfast at Ravello at the Four Seasons Orlando).

Michael W. visited Ravello at the Four Seasons Orlando for one of the few character dining experiences currently available, and said it was the best part of his quick trip to Walt Disney World. “The whole experience was fantastic and incredibly memorable. I knew that this would be a different type of character dining experience from anything that I had done in my probably hundreds of times before. There wouldn't be a buffet, the characters wouldn't stop at my table, and I most certainly wouldn't be able to run up and give my favorite character, Goofy, a great big hug. But just being in the same room as them was as magical and a great experience.” There are new safety measures in place, like temperature checks and modified dining with table service replacing the standard buffet. When talking about this socially distanced character experience, Michael said, “For me, this would have been enough. The parks could have remained closed and just having a one hour 'dose' of magic and a great meal would have sufficed. This is how they started the phased reopening in both Shanghai and Hong Kong (for months), and I think it would have been a great way to kick things off here in the U.S.A., especially considering the fact that COVID numbers are still very much on the rise. Overall, it was one of the most memorable and positive experiences that I've had in a long time, and it gave me the right amount of pixie dust to know that everything will be okay.”

Nicole Latini visited Topolino’s Terrace at Disney’s Riviera Resort for their socially distanced character dining experience. She said, “This was our first character dining experience ever, so I have nothing to compare it to. However, we had an amazing time and enjoyed it very much. We highly recommend it for the food alone. We felt extremely safe, as the closest party to us was at least 15 feet away... and the characters came right through the middle!” The characters danced around the tables, waving and posing for socially distant photos with guests (who had to stay seated while dining), according to Nicole. She summed up her experience, saying, “Overall, we loved it and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

Nikki Meadows dined at table-service restaurants in Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge, and she was similarly impressed with the measures taken. “Tables are distanced six feet apart. Some of the locations even skipped parties in between tables. Waitstaff wore masks and didn’t linger longer than they needed to. They had QR scanners for the menus, so that multiple guests weren’t touching shared surfaces. I also saw a lot of sanitizing going down. I was overall truly impressed,” she said.

Courtesy of Disney

Hotels are less crowded, but some are better for social distancing than others.

Walt Disney World resort hotels began a phased reopening in June, with many properties reopening in July with new health and safety measures in place, including increased cleaning and temporarily paused benefits and programs.

Natalie Nieves stayed at Disney’s Riviera Resort in mid-July, and upon arrival, she said it was busier than she expected. While waiting for her room to be ready, she ate at Bar Riva, where she said everything was “amazingly” socially distanced. She also said she used the app to mobile order her breakfast every morning from Primo Piatto, which offered socially distant seating. They even visited the pool, and she noted that “even though it was a little busy, everyone kept their distance.” One of the perks of staying at this particular resort is the easy access to the Skyliner gondolas that take you to Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and other nearby resorts. Natalie said, “Everything around the resort was very beautiful, and utilizing the Skyliner was useful for us. Each family got their own gondola and we never waited in a long line for that to and from any park.”

Tabitha Powell stayed at the Polynesian Village Resort and the Fort Wilderness Resort with her husband and three kids during their recent trip to Disney World. She pointed out that while their stay was still magical, there aren’t as many activities happening around the resort. Thanks to the low crowd level, the family did get to have one of the Polynesian pools to themselves — a rare occurrence in the July heat — but events like the Magic Kingdom fireworks and the Electrical Water Pageant (which can usually be seen from the Polynesian) aren’t happening right now. Tabitha had just arrived at Fort Wilderness when we spoke, and she mentioned that it was spread out, with hundreds of campsites and cabins, so it could be a good option for those aiming to stay socially distant from other guests.