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Did the Pandemic Erase All the Magic From Disney World, the Most Magical Place on Earth?

Did the Pandemic Erase All the Magic From Disney World, the Most Magical Place on Earth?

The answer? Sort of.

My husband and I are frequent visitors to the Magic Kingdom and Walt Disney World resort as a whole. Two weeks before the Coronavirus pandemic first emerged, we had just booked our flight for a spontaneous, magical weekend. The following Friday, we were canceling the same flight we had just booked, feeling the disappointment that all of us Disney fans felt as the gates to the most magical place on earth indefinitely closed and we all learned how truly bad Rapunzel must have had it in that tower.

The disappointment faded because we had a two-week vacation planned for the end of August. The parks would surely be open by then, right? This temporary closure was solely meant to flatten the curve. Walt Disney World would only be closed for a few weeks and when it reopened, so would the rest of the world and the restrictions that came along with the novel coronavirus would not only be a thing of the past, but one we’d reflect on in the history books and eventually a Saturday Night Live monologue. And we were right – the parks DID open…with mask requirements, temperature checks, park reservations and for us, as New Jersey residents, mandatory two-week quarantine periods if we even set foot in the Sunshine State.

With our trip only about a month away and so many of these restrictions in place and so much uncertainty up in the air, we made the decision yet again to postpone our trip for an entire year. Later that same day, it was announced that New Jersey residents no longer had to quarantine upon arrival to Florida and I just sat at my computer and cried. I’m not one to really complain, but man, did this year suck already! Vacations are necessary to recharge our batteries. Not having a break from the incessant fear, worry, news and internet trolls who live in the swells of Facebook were beginning to get the best of both of us.

About a month later, in mid-September, frustrated over trying to use our two weeks off as a staycation (which honestly just turned into cleaning my house all day), we took the plunge and booked a trip. As we got on the plane, the whole thing felt so surreal. We were really going to Walt Disney World! Soon enough, I’d be on Disney’s Magical Express, tearing up when they played the behind-the-scenes video of Happily Ever After. Soon enough, I’d feel the Florida heat smack my cheeks the minute I step outside the airport. Soon enough, I’d be eating Mickey-shaped waffles for breakfast and falling asleep on the world’s coziest pillows that one can only find at a Walt Disney World resort with Stacy from the Must Do Disney video talking softly in the background. I began to relax at the thought of it.

Navigating MCO

And then we landed. And oh boy, did it not really feel like Disney.

The Cast Members who work at the Orlando International Airport all wore face shields and there were plastic partitions separating us from them. We were the only ones waiting to go to the bus. There were no crowds of children wearing Minnie ears with Mickey Mouse stitched into their luggage. No talking. No laughing. Just me and my husband, jet lagged, hot and tired.

When we got outside to go to the bus, we had mandated seats all the way in the back. Every row was numbered to help with social distancing. One other family boarded. Okay, so maybe this didn’t FEEL like a normal trip to Walt Disney World but I’d make the best of it.

The video came on and it was completely different. Where was Jordan Fisher singing Happily Ever After? Where was the story of the soldier surprising his kids during a visit with Mickey Mouse at the Magic Kingdom? Where was the video of the Festival of Fantasy parade? I knew things were going to be different but, no normal video? Instead, it was replaced with Edna Mode reminding guests that face coverings were fabulous, darling.

All I wanted, when we got to the room was to eat something and watch Stacy say “Scratchy, scratchy, scratchy” as she rubbed Pluto’s belly in the Must Do Disney video. But the resort temporarily shut down room service and Stacy? Stacy was moved to a completely different channel all the way near the end of the channel roster. What. Was. Happening??

The next morning, as we headed to the main lobby to get breakfast, there was a small sign that requested all orders be done through the My Disney Experience app. You could only walk into Everything POP Shopping & Dining (at Disney’s Pop Century resort) if you were planning on browsing or buying something, but you couldn’t go in and try to secure a table if your meal wasn’t ready. The internet connection didn’t always work and when we did finally get the OK to grab our food, all of our meals were tossed in a brown box that had bacon grease stains at the bottom. All of the food was on top of each other. Even eating was different.

Magic Kingdom

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After breakfast, we stood in line to grab a bus to the Magic Kingdom, where yet again seats were marked and only so many guests were allowed on at a time. The temperature checks weren’t nearly as big of a deal as I thought they were. We both gilded right through them to later hold up our magicbands to enter into the parks instead of our fingers.

The park was crowded, but to a regular person’s standards, not a Disney person’s standards. Disney fans have seen a crowded park before and this surely wasn’t it. Within the first hour of the park, we rode Splash Mountain, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, and the Haunted Mansion (albeit without the stretching room intro).

Even with shortened wait times, the lines stretched and wrapped around weird buildings and areas of the park you probably never even noticed. There were markers all over the floor telling you where to stand and where to wait and Cast Members told you to stop eating or drinking if you tried to sneak something while in line (even if you were thirsty).

Several times an hour, the music would be interrupted as a pre-recorded safety message played through the parks reminding guests to only eat and drink while stationary and to wear their face coverings at all times.

Hollywood Studios

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The next day at Hollywood Studios, it was more of the same. Temperature checks were no big deal and we glided right through the gates and headed to the best ride to ever be constructed at a Walt Disney World park – the Twilight Zone’s Tower of Terror. The line wrapped all the way back toward Fantasmic! – another experience I sorely missed. Like the Haunted Mansion, you just breezed through the entire queue line for the Tower of Terror.

There was no Rod Serling telling you that this was a regular maintenance service elevator, still in operation and ready for you. It wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but there’s something about those interactive experiences that made you feel like you were part of the story you’d soon be experiencing.

When we hoofed it over to Galaxy’s Edge, there was a line of people that wrapped around the entire planet of Batuu. We thought it was just to enter, only later realizing on my second trip, it was the line just to go ride Smuggler’s Run. My husband and I turned around, opting instead to stand in line for nearly three hours to ride the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway – a cute, extremely imaginative ride that I wish was longer than three and half minutes.

Disney Springs

Our brief weekend was coming to a close and we ended it at Disney Springs chowing down on some amazing food you can only find at Paradiso 37. On the ride back to the airport, we both felt like the trip was the mental break we needed. But was it magical? Absolutely, positively, no… just, not at all.

A Second Chance

A little over a month and a half later, after safely quarantining at my house for two weeks (easy to do when you work remotely), I went back down with my girlfriends. When we landed, the face shields and partitions were still up and even worse, we took a regular Mears vehicle to our resort instead of Disney’s Magical Express, despite having a reservation for it.

We finally got to our resort – Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort – at around 1:00 am in the morning. Without missing a beat we got up a short five hours later to tackle our first day at the resort.

We went to Disney’s Hollywood Studios and missed the same queue for the Tower of Terror, stood in the long, winding line to ride Smuggler’s Run, tackled every single ride in Toy Story Land, stopped off for Ronto Wraps and Blue Milk, and countless water breaks.

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The next day at Magic Kingdom, we waited in lines that stretched longer than the ones my husband and I stood in, rode Splash Mountain twice in a row and did everything we could to take photos that would probably do really well with Instagram’s new algorithm. When the weekend ended, I was ready to go back, missing my home away from home as soon as I sat down in the front seat of my husband’s car.

So what was the difference? On the surface, it might look like I had a more enjoyable time with my friends than I did my husband but nothing could be further from the truth. What changed the trip for me was having a completely different expectation than I did the first time I visited the parks since their reopening. That first visit was a little bit like culture shock.

When you visit Walt Disney World often, you become accustomed to what the experience will be like from the moment you get on Disney’s Magical Express to the time you get off it. You know what videos you’ll watch and what music you’ll hear. You know what route you should take to get somewhere quickly and what kind of souvenir you can find in which store.

But on that first visit, the majority of shops were closed. The routes you’d normally take weren’t always allowed. Tables were sectioned off so you had to stand far more often than you normally would on an average visit. You couldn’t just walk around with your dole whip float, drinking it as you took pictures in Adventureland or stood in line for Pirates of the Caribbean. You were hotter wearing the masks because let’s face it – it’s Florida.

For me, a Walt Disney World vacation is supposed to block out the real world and because of the safety measures and reminder announcements, it brought the real world to Disney. That was a lot to get used to, especially when there was so much riding on having a weekend where you wanted a break from reality.

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On my second trip, I knew what to expect so I couldn’t be disappointed. And so I just sat on a bench as all of Hollywood Studios lit up their Christmas decorations on Sunset Boulevard as soon as the sun went down. I soaked in the magic of Hollywood Studios because there WAS magic. It floated everywhere around me to the point where the Cast Members reminding guests to wear their masks and social distancing didn’t feel like something forgein, but rather a part of the experience.

Conclusion on Disney World in a Pandemic

If you’re traveling to Walt Disney World for the first time since our “new normal” emerged, my advice to you is to remember that you’re the only one responsible for creating and experiencing the magic. Sure, you can get frustrated and even annoyed at how different the experience feels, but you can also get connected to all the things that feel familiar – the heat of that beautiful state, the magic you feel the first time seeing Cinderella Castle, how GOOD a dole whip float tastes when you haven’t had one for months at a time. Sure, you may not be able to see someone’s face and the wide smile they may have, but those twinkles in an eye still exist and you can see them in abundance when you walk through the parks.

People may make fun of us Disney adults who seem willing to sacrifice everything to visit Walt Disney World – even during a pandemic – and that’s okay. Not everyone needs to understand the magic we know exists there. Better yet, maybe it should just be our little secret.