Table of Contents[Hide][Show]
- 1. Disney World Changes: Our #1 Piece of Advice
- 2. Walt Disney World Policy on Face Coverings
- 3. Shorter Park Hours? Maybe
- 5. Disney Water Parks Opening
- 6. No Extra Magic Hours - Early Entry Instead
- 9. Phased Reopening May Impact Your Resort Hotel Choices
- Where Can I Buy Discount Disney Tickets?
- 10. Reservations to Get into the Parks
- 11. No Parades and Reduced Nighttime Spectaculars
- 13. No Disney Dining Plans + Changes to Advance Dining Reservations
- 14. No FastPass+
- 15. No "High-Touch" Interactions
- 16. Special Experiences on Hold
- 17. Limited Pin Trading
- 18. Embrace the Technology
- 19. Hand Sanitizers Everywhere
- The Big Question: Is Disney Worth It Right Now?
It’s jaw dropping when you think about how much the world has changed in the last year. If you’re ready to get back to travel and you’ve got the most Magical Place on Earth at the top of your list, here are some of the Disney World changes you’ll see this year and next year. From character interactions to pin trading, here’s what to expect.
Changes, changes, and more changes. Some Disney World changes are exciting, like new rides. But many of these post-pandemic changes involve Disney taking away something — like the free Magical Express bus service and free MagicBands for Disney hotel guests — which is making them much less popular.
Read on for everything you need to know to prepare, from how things work in the parks now to Disney World changes coming in 2022.
Join our NEW Facebook Community: Making Travel Easier. We promise to always tell you what we would tell our best friend -- what works for kids, what doesn’t and what you need to know before you go to have the Best. Family. Vacation. Ever. Our group of travel experts are ready to answer your travel questions!
Editor’s Note: This info is current as of August 3, 2021. TravelingMom is working hard to keep you up-to-date on the latest Walt Disney World info.
TravelingMom Tip: You can now book Disney vacations up to 500 days in advance! That means you can book now for visits in 2022. All it takes is a $200 down payment. The balance isn’t due until 30 days prior to travel. You can get details on this, as well as help booking, from our partners at Get Away Today. Not only does the company have the lowest prices, it offers a best price guarantee. If you ever find park tickets cheaper, Get Away Today won’t just match the price, the company will beat it.
1. Disney World Changes: Our #1 Piece of Advice
Know. The. Rules.
Things are different right now. Everywhere. Disney does a great job at keeping guests and potential guests informed. Get familiar with the main Walt Disney World website, download the My Disney Experience App and get familiar with how it is set up in advance of your visit.
Read the signs in the resort hotels, in Disney Springs and in the parks.
If you think you or someone in your group is an exception to any of the rules, research it ahead of time. Don’t assume. You can still have a very magical time at Disney World right now but planning is more important than ever.
TravelingMom Tip: Bookmark or save this guide to Disney World changes to refer to later.
Heading to Disneyland instead? Here’s what you need to know about Disneyland in 2021.
2. Walt Disney World Policy on Face Coverings
The Walt Disney World mask policy has changed several times. The newest update was made on August 1, 2021. We detail that update below but strongly advise rechecking for new guidelines close to your travel dates.
Face coverings are required for all Guests (ages 2 and up) while indoors and in Disney buses, monorail and Disney Skyliner, regardless of vaccination status. This includes upon entering and throughout all attractions. Face coverings remain optional for all Guests in outdoor common areas.
ShopDisney sells lots of cute Disney-themed masks and you can also buy Disney masks at the gift shops throughout the resort and in Disney Springs. As long as you have to wear a mask at Disney, might as well get into the theming and wear a Disney mask!
Need help planning your Disney trip? Get all your questions answered from our Disney Planning & Fun Facebook Group!
3. Shorter Park Hours? Maybe
When Disney World first reopened, the hours were quite a bit shorter than what we were used to. As of publication time, the hours appear to be nearly back to normal, although our best advice is to check often when planning your Disney trip and daily while at the resort.
Become intimately familiar with the park hours calendar as you plan your vacation and plan your time in the parks. You’ll need to work within these parameters – and expect they may change – as you get closer to your family vacation.
If you are a free and easy go-with-the-flow type of planner, this might be a little difficult for you but if you are going to have a successful visit in 2021-2022, you’re going to need to plan your time in the parks around the current, posted hours and accept that you might not have as much time in the day to be in the parks as you’d like.
Here are our guides for how to spend one day in the parks:
4. Waiting in Line – What to Expect Right Now
Disney World is currently operating at reduced capacity. Without getting into the math of it or a discussion of capacity versus average attendance, the park does feel relatively “normal” in terms of crowds right now. Walking onto Main Street U.S.A. and Hollywood Boulevard early in the morning felt pretty crowded. The wait times and population density – in my opinion seems about average for spring.
This should all get easier when the Disney Genie Service launches this fall. It will tell you when ride lines are shorter.
TravelingMom Tip: Bring the fun home with this cute Disney gear for back to school.
Lines for Attractions
Wait times can be found on the My Disney Experience App and are also posted at the regular entrance to the attraction. For the most part, these posted wait times are accurate, although we did get through the line and the ride at Big Thunder Mountain Railroad in less than 10 minutes versus the posted 40. That might have just been some good luck. In general, expect the wait to be about what is posted.
Here’s the different part: The start of the queues will not be where they usually are. For example, the line to ride Avatar Flight of Passage in Disney’s Animal Kingdom started in Africa. When we got in line, almost to Harambe, the posted wait time was 75 minutes. I rode this ride on a previous trip with about the same posted wait time and we got in line at the normal spot in Pandora.
Another example is The Haunted Mansion in Magic Kingdom – the queue started over in Adventureland, almost back to the entrance to the queue for Tom Sawyer Island.
If you have been to Disney World before, the above references probably make sense to you. If you are a first-timer, they might not, but just know that more and different space in the parks are being used for socially distant queues.
The lines for attractions seem to be moving pretty well and Disney does a great job with distance markers. For the most part, guests are doing their part, too.
Knowing Where to Line Up
It’s usually pretty easy to tell where the line is forming. There’s a cast member with a sign at the end of the queue so you know you’re lining up in the right place.
To line up to ride the Rock n’ Roller Coaster in Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we were lined up halfway down Sunset Boulevard (a side street off of Hollywood Boulevard, which is the park’s main street.) That wasn’t the confusing part. The confusing part was that once the line reached a certain point on Sunset Boulevard, the line had to be on the other side of the street, near the entrance to Fantasmic. We got in line on one side of the street and then saw the end of the line on the other side of the street and everyone in our line was wondering if we were in the wrong line.
Again, this is a reference that won’t make sense unless you’ve been in the parks before. Just know things are a little off and don’t be afraid to ask if you have a question about something. The Cast Members are really doing an excellent job and they’re there to help you have the best experience.
Disney veterans may notice the absence of certain pre-ride experiences. Avatar Flight of Passage and The Haunted Mansion have modified pre-ride experiences.
Lines and certain other things were different and sometimes confusing but none of these current Disney World changes detracted from our experience.
Lines for Stores
Stores in the parks and in Disney Springs are enforcing capacity limits. You may have to wait in line to go into a store, which is definitely a new experience at Walt Disney World. The days of just popping into a store to browse are gone and if not gone, very different.
My family and I stood in line to go shopping at Black Spire Village in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge for almost 45 minutes. There are four shops in this marketplace. We had to stand in line to get into the marketplace and then again to get into the individual merchants. This is a small area and the space is very limited.
Unless you are really interested in the merchandise, I recommend skipping this. We stood in line without really thinking about it and the time we stood could have easily gotten us on another ride on what was a tightly scheduled day.
TravelingDad John Vanda had this to say about lines for shopping at Walt Disney World:
“There were multiple occasions where we didn’t go into World of Disney at Disney Springs for example because it was a 30 minute wait just to be let into the store and start shopping. Getting a Starbucks (my wife was grabbing these ornaments from each park) took 35 minutes. We didn’t budget time for that.”
For now, shopping at Disney might be something you have to prioritize or carve out time for. If your time is limited, you might have to choose between checking out the new merchandise – always fun – and an extra ride.
5. Disney Water Parks Opening
If you are a superfan of Disney Water Parks, we have some good news. Blizzard Beach is now open. This favorite family water park opened in March and has been popular with spring breakers and will provide some cool relief from the hot Florida sun as we head toward summer.
No word yet on when Typhoon Lagoon might reopen.
6. No Extra Magic Hours – Early Entry Instead
Extra Magic Hours – a perk available to people who stay “on property” at a Disney hotel – was discontinued shortly after the reopening after the pandemic. In January, Disney announced that EMH is permanently going away and returning, with changes, as Early Entry.
Extra Magic Hours used to give resort guests access to one of the four parks each day, either before or after regular park opening hours. There was a published schedule that dictated which park had Extra Magic Hours on which day. This was pretty easy to plan around.
Early Entry will be a 30 minute early access versus an hour. Guests staying at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel will be able to use Early Entry at any park on any day. More flexibility, less time. Fair tradeoff? You decide. Based on social media discussion, this is one of the least popular Disney World changes.
7. Farewell Magical Express
Disney announced in January that it would stop offering Magical Express baggage handling immediately and stop offering the Magical Express bus service altogether in 2022. Disney’s Magical Express is (was?) free transportation from Orlando International Airport for guests staying at Walt Disney World Resort Hotels.
One of the best parts of this service was the magical bag handling. Disney would retrieve your luggage from the baggage carousel and deliver it to your room. This meant you could bypass baggage claim, scan your Disney MagicBand, hop on a bus and start having fun in the parks.
On the trip home (sometimes laughingly referred to as the Tragical Express), guests could check their bags at the resort and enjoy every last drop of their Disney vacation in the parks without worrying about their baggage on the shuttle back to the airport.
The Magical Express will go away entirely in January 2022. While the buses are still running for guests with reservations at a Walt Disney World Resort Hotel through 2021, there is no baggage handling service. You bring, you carry.
Disney World changes typically don’t go over well with guests and this one has not been well received.
Disney World Changes with Parks Transportation
The transportation from Walt Disney World Resort hotels and the parks and from park to park is still running as normal but with reduced capacity. This may mean you’ll have to wait longer for the bus, monorails or Disney water transportation.
During our April visit, the monorail was only running between the transportation center and the parks. There is currently no monorail service from the monorail resorts (Grand Floridian, Disney’s Polynesian Resort and Disney’s Contemporary Resort) to the parks or between the resorts. Being able to hop on the monorail directly from a resort is a big draw in booking those resorts so if you are planning to stay in one, know that this might not be available.
There are also no trams running in the parking lot of the parks. If you are driving and don’t snag an up front parking space, be prepared for a trek.
8. MagicBands Changes
MagicBands can act as your park ticket, your method of payment and your room key. They’re even waterproof so you can wear them in the pools and Disney Water Parks. Before the pandemic, MagicBands were free for guests staying at Walt Disney World Resort Hotels and for Annual Passholders.
When you got your MagicBands in the mail – usually 2-3 weeks in advance of your vacation – you knew it was getting real. You could even select the color.
No More Free MagicBands
Beginning in 2021, Disney has discontinued the free MagicBands for resort guests. (Disney visitors who were not staying on property have always had to buy their MagicBands.)
Now, guests staying at Walt Disney World Resorts have the option of adding MagicBands to their reservation for an additional fee. Guests staying at a Walt Disney World Resort can pre-order exclusive MagicBands that will be ready for pickup upon check in. These MagicBands run fron $5 to $25.
This is another unpopular Disney World change.
You can also purchase MagicBands in the park or reuse MagicBands from a prior trip. Just make sure your Magic Bands are connected to your My Disney Experience Account and make sure all your info is correct.
Even though the MagicBands are no longer free, I still recommend them at least the adults in your property. Although you can use the app and/or a paper ticket to do the same things MagicBands can do (open your room, tap into the park, charge food and merchandise) it is super convenient to have a wearable device that does all these things.
Until some sort of FastPass system returns, I don’t think MagicBands are necessary for kids who are with their parents 100 percent of the time. That said, it’s really easy tapping into the park when everyone has their own band.
9. Phased Reopening May Impact Your Resort Hotel Choices
As of early February, it looks like all of the Disney hotels will be open by mid-summer 2021. However, your Disney vacation planning may be impacted by hotel availability.
Disney reopened its resort hotels on a phased reopening time table. Guests are permitted to make reservations based on a hotel’s projected reopening. But if we’ve learned anything about 2021 travel plans, it’s that we need to be flexible. You can read more about current availability and Disney’s phased reopening of the resort hotels here.
Where Can I Buy Discount Disney Tickets?
Searching online for discount Disney tickets can feel overwhelming. It’s important to make sure you’re buying from a reputable website. Our TravelingMom team recommends Get Away Today for discount Disney tickets and vacation packages.
If you ever find park tickets cheaper, Get Away Today won’t just match the price, the company will beat it! Great customer service is another reason why we recommend Get Away Today. From buying your tickets to planning your Disney vacation, they help you every step of the way. Read our full review of Get Away Today here.
If you want to know what it would cost to go to Disney World for your family, ask for a free quote here.
10. Reservations to Get into the Parks
Ah, the good old days when you could wake up and decide which park you wanted to visit that day. EPCOT and the World Showcase by day and Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Star Wars after dinner? While that would have been entirely doable with a park hopper ticket pre-2020, that plan doesn’t work in 2021.
The reservations system to get into the park is one of the first post-Covid Disney World changes to roll out and it’s one that guests have mostly liked since it’s (so far) resulted in thinner crowds at the parks.
In order to get into one of the parks you’ll need both a valid park admission ticket and a Disney park pass reservation. As of January 2021, park hopping is back but you will still need to make a park reservation So planning is a must. It will be much more of a production to move from one park to another.
Park hopper hours begin at 2 p.m. and last until that park closes. As with all ticket and reservation related things, refer to your My Disney Experience App.
And, because it bears repeating: Guests must have both a ticket and a reservation. Foot stomp.
At this time, we don’t know how long the reservation system will be in place. My guess is at least through the 50th anniversary celebration (October) and probably through the end of the calendar year. It’s working well and the parks will be busy for the “World’s Most Magical Celebration” so I do not see them lifting this requirement this year. We’ll see if I’m correct!
11. No Parades and Reduced Nighttime Spectaculars
One of the biggest Disney World changes is with parades/character interactions.
Parades and nighttime shows draw big, enthusiastic crowds every day. That’s why Disney suspended them when the parks reopened in 2020. For now, the Disney World parades have been replaced by character cavalcades. Think of these as mini parades that aren’t scheduled. These offer some opportunity to see characters in action and to enjoy elements of parades that make them so popular, such as music or waving at princesses.
Nighttime shows are reduced. In early July, Happily Ever After returned to Magic Kingdom and EPCOT Forever returned to EPCOT. Shows haven’t returned to Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom yet.
12. Character Cavalcade 101: Disney World Changes
After spending four days at Disney in late March 2021, I’m going to say this: I don’t miss the parade and I’m in favor of keeping the character cavalcades. They’re so cute and fun and I love the element of surprise when they pop up – and they do pop up pretty often.
And, as much as I loved the afternoon parade in Magic Kingdom, I didn’t love having to be there an hour beforehand to stake out a good spot and still being crowded. Having a pop up parade in short bursts is a lot more fun.
Although you can’t plan your park day around the cavalcade the way you can around a parade, you will see plenty of characters during your day at the park. Although the character cavalcades can happen anywhere, here are the spots by park where we’ve seen them.
Where to Find Magic Kingdom Character Cavalcades
The elevated stage by the park entrance almost always has characters. When you’re coming into the park, turn around and look up. There will often be music and dancing so it’s pretty hard to miss. This is a fun “See ya real soon” when you’re leaving the park. You never know who you might see up there but we’ve spotted the Fab Five (Mickey, Minnie, Donald, Goofy and Pluto) as well as the Dapper Dans.
The regular afternoon parade route is still in use and you’ll see character cavalcades using that route very regularly. We saw Tinkerbell, all of the Princesses, Mickey and Minnie, and marching bands. We also saw Chip and Dale on the bridge in Adventureland which is right by the parade route.
Where to Find Disney’s Animal Kingdom Character Cavalcades
All of the character cavalcades are via boat. You can see them from a number of different places in the park, but they all end up going into the arena where the Rivers of Light show normally is.
We saw Chip and Dale, Pocahontas, Rafiki and Timon, and a very lively Calypso style band.
Where to Find Disney’s Hollywood Studios Character Cavalcades
The parade route we’ve observed is from the Frozen Singalong entrance down through the gate between Star Tours and the Indiana Jones show. We’ve seen Chip and Dale walking with Minnie and Mickey in cars as well as a Pixar spectacular with The Incredibles, Edna Mode, Woody, Jessie, and the Green Army Men.
Socially distanced character interactions have been reported in Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If you want to get a selfie with Kylo Ren or some Storm Troopers in the background, you might get lucky.
Where to Find EPCOT Character Cavalcades
Character cavalcades in EPCOT start right between the Mexico and Norway pavilions. We spotted Mickey and Minnie in a vintage roadster. Other folks we talked to said they’d seen princesses and Anna and Elsa by themselves.
Character cavalcades have the same energy and a parade – they’re just shorter and more frequent so the crowds in the gathering spots don’t tend to accumulate as they would for a longer parade. You also never know what time they’re going to be (although about once an hour is a safe bet.)
No Character Meet and Greets – for Now
In order to comply with social distancing guidelines, there are no character meet and greets or one-on-one interactions. That doesn’t mean you won’t see your favorites or get to interact with them.
Your kids might miss the hugs and the up close and personal experience, but Disney has gone out of its way to still make it special.
We think Disney is doing a great job. I’m sure there are guests who miss the experience of standing in line to meet characters and get autographs. We’re really happy with the way things are right now but hope those more intimate experiences (and hugs) come back real soon.
13. No Disney Dining Plans + Changes to Advance Dining Reservations
Disney Dining Plans are still on hold for now. Character Dining is making a socially distanced comeback. Characters no longer visit your table for hugs and autographs. There will be a character procession or socially distanced interaction. Guests will be reminded to stay at their tables while this happens. You’ll get an opportunity to get pictures with your favorite Disney friends from a safe distance.
Available character dining at time of publication:
- Toppolino’s Terrace, Disney’s Riviera Resort
- Garden Grill, EPCOT
- Chef Mickey’s, Disney’s Contemporary Resort
- Hollywood & Vine, Disney’s Hollywood Studios
While not historically considered character dining, Be Our Guest (Magic Kingdom) is open and the Beast is regularly making socially distanced appearances in his castle during meals.
We’re crossing our fingers that more character dining experiences will be phased back in soon.
You can (and should) book dining reservations if you plan to eat at any table service restaurants. The current booking window is 60 days out, down from the 180 days it has been in the past.
Disney’s current goal is to allow people to make reservations closer to their actual travel dates. It is kind of hard to plan most things long term right now. We think that 60 days is more than adequate to make dining reservations, especially since you won’t be competing for those coveted character meal reservations.
14. No FastPass+
FastPass+ has been a way for families to maximize their time at Disney by “skipping” the line at popular attractions.
Disney has cancelled FastPass+ bookings and is not taking new bookings at this time.
As the park begins to see more visitors, this is one of the Disney World changes guests do not like.
15. No “High-Touch” Interactions
Bye-bye to the non-socially-distanced Bibbidi Bobbidi Boutique, Harmony Barber Shop and Character Couture makeovers, at least for now. Resort salons/spas are currently closed.
Other items defined by Disney as high-touch interactions may include playgrounds and play areas, both in the resorts and the parks. If/when these activities are open, capacity limits may be enforced.
16. Special Experiences on Hold
In addition to the “high touch” experiences, special tours and behind-the-scenes experiences have also been put on hold for right now.
One of the best behind-the-scenes experiences at Walt Disney World is the Senses of Africa Breakfast at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Lodge. If they bring it back, I highly recommend.
17. Limited Pin Trading
If you love pin trading and you’ve been worried about the availability and safety of it, we might have some good news for you! We don’t have an official list of pin trading locations in the parks but we’ve heard reports of pin trading being alive and well.
“We found it a Covid-safe experience,” TravelingMom Sarah Gilliland says of her recent visit to Walt Disney World. “You describe the pin you want, the cast member grabs it off the board and wipes it with a Clorox wipe and places it in a box or on the table. Guests never physically touch a cast member. They then pick up your pin, wipe it clean, and place it back on the board for others to trade.”
Although you might not find as many pin trading boards – super high touch areas – you might see other guests who are obviously pin traders. Pin traders will have visible lanyards or other containers – a popular one is a wearable pin wallet that looks like a little purse. It’s up to you whether you approach them as individuals and ask to pin trade.
18. Embrace the Technology
Touchless check-in and the resort and touchless payment are the way to go. Get familiar with asking yourself “Can I use my device to do that?”
Your trip to Disney will be easier. Technology really does make our lives and travels easier and right now, it keeps us safer.
19. Hand Sanitizers Everywhere
This is a good change that we want to see stick around! We’re seeing ample hand sanitizing stations throughout the parks.
TravelingMom Tip: It’s still a good idea to carry your own. Even in non-pandemic times, kids’ hands are pretty gross and any theme park is going to contain lots of high touch surfaces.
The Big Question: Is Disney Worth It Right Now?
When words and phrases like “pandemic” and “social distance” began to be a part of our everyday vocabulary, most of us didn’t expect things to go on for this long.
But, they have.
Should you postpone your Disney vacation until after Covid-19 is no longer a threat? Or should you arm yourself with info and go with precautions? That’s a highly personal choice. Disney right now isn’t going to be exactly the same as Disney 18 months ago. Or 18 months in the future.
On the plus side, capacity limits mean smaller crowds, which means less time spent waiting in long lines and more time riding the ride. However, so much is different or absent.
Do you have visions of starry-eyed children hugging Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse? What’s being offered right now is going to fall short of that expectation.
I get that logic.
But Main Street U.S.A. is still Main Street U.S.A. The magic of Pandora and Splash Mountain and all of (well…most of) our favorites are still going strong.
TravelingMom and Disney expert Sarah Gilliland had this to say: “Are things the same? No, not even close. Can you still have fun? Absolutely, especially if you plan appropriately and manage expectations.”