Walt Disney World reopened to the public Saturday morning nearly four months after closing due to the widening coronavirus pandemic.
While the park's reopening may imply that the worst of the pandemic has passed, the opposite appears to be true. Its reopening coincided with a sharp increase in new infections in the Sunshine State. On Friday, the Florida Department of Health reported 11,433 new cases for a total of 244,151. Of the statewide total, 182,000 have been reported since June 5, about a week after Disney World announced its reopening date.
Florida also has the country's highest seven-day average with 63,064 cases reported in the last week alone, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The next closest is California with 56,304. Disneyland, which is located in Anaheim, has shelved its plan to reopen July 17 due to the spike in that state.
But what Disney-lovers returned to wasn't what they left in March: there are many more safety precautions in place. It's a totally different world for park visitors, who are required to have their temperature taken when they arrive. Face masks are mandatory, except when eating or swimming and hand-sanitizing stations are sprinkled throughout the park.
Only the Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom reopened Saturday and their combined crowds appeared to be in the 16,000 range. Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios set to follow on July 15.
In many cases, park employees (cast members in Disney parlance) wear face shields, but all wear masks and enforce the social-distancing requirements.
New signage was everywhere, stressing the mask requirement and social distancing.
And they're not just suggestions: Disney World's website makes clear that visitors are expected to follow the rules.
"You must follow all posted instructions while visiting Walt Disney World Resort," it says, even going so far as to spell out which kinds of face coverings are and aren't acceptable.
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"While 'safe' is subjective term, I felt more comfortable at Walt Disney World than I do in my local supermarket," said Seth Kubersky, a travel journalist and Disney expert from TheUnofficialGuides.com, who covered opening day for USA TODAY.
"Generally, I observed near-total compliance with the face mask requirement and on the occasion that folks' mask slipped below their noses, they fixed them quickly upon request," he added.
The additional safety did come at a price, though.
"The walls of plexiglass shields constant health safety reminders are reassuring, but also somewhat pulled me out of the 'fantasy,' " he noted. "However, the ability to experience all of the park’s headliners with little-to-no waiting mostly makes up for the eerie atmosphere."
Reopening day as it happened
In addition to reports from Kubersky, Britt Kennerly, of USA TODAY network partner Florida Today, also collected reports from inside the park. Here's how opening day went down:
4:45 p.m. Kubersky says farewell to Disney World after a long, hot day.
4:16 p.m. The Seven Dwarf Mine Train, a family-friendly roller coaster, would typically have the Kingdom's longest wait lines, but today guests are able to hop on after a 30-minute wait. Across the walkway, visitors can walk onto The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh with no wait whatsoever. – Seth Kubersky
3:47 p.m. On any ordinary day, Tomorrowland would be packed with visitors, but on reopening day, it's oddly empty. The Rocket Tower Plaza is practically deserted and even the iconic Space Mountain attraction has an empty line. – Kubersky
3:33 p.m. Disney has set up "relaxation stations" around the park where guests can take a break to avoid dehydration on a day with a heat index of 100ºF. It's one of several areas around the park where people can remove their face masks for a bit. – Kubersky
3:17 p.m. The line for Pirates of the Caribbean has diminished considerably since the morning. The posted wait is 25 minutes, but the actual wait time was under 10 minutes. Although the estimate was the same earlier in the day, riders said they waited 52 minutes. – Kubersky
2:14 p.m. Diners are socially distancing inside Adventureland’s Jungle Skipper Canteen restaurant. Seating capacity is reduced, tables are frequently sanitized, and physical menus have been replaced by QR codes. Guest may remove masks only while seated at tables. – Kubersky
2:09 p.m. Merida from “Brave” rides through Liberty Square on horseback, leading a procession of Disney princesses. Socially distanced mini-parades like this have replaced the traditional character meet-and-greet opportunities across Walt Disney World. –Kubersky
1:00 p.m. Lunchtime diners loiter outside Pinocchio Village Haus awaiting their mobile food orders. Disney is relying on smartphone app purchases to avoid queues for their restaurant cashiers. But that doesn't mean that guests can't sit inside - they simply need to order first and wait until the food is prepared. – Kubersky
12:36 p.m: A walk from Cinderella Castle into Fantasyland drives home just how light the crowds are in what is usually the park’s most congested area. The posted wait time for the classic ride Peter Pan’s Flight was 25 minutes at noon, but the actual wait was only 10 minutes even with social distancing stretching the queue outside the attraction’s façade. – Kubersky
12:27 p.m: The COVID-19-inspired merch speaks for Disney guests and staff alike. – Britt Kennerly
12:10 p.m: Cinderella Castle glistens after a brief downpour, its blue and pink spires reflecting in puddles on the cement. The Magic Kingdom central hub is hosting light crowds of picture-taking guests as of noon. – Kubersky
11:45 a.m: The heat index at Magic Kingdom is currently 103℉, so some guests are taking refuge inside the air-conditioned Hall of Presidents, where seats and rows are blocked off to promote social distancing. Masks are required inside for the guests, but not the audio-animatronic chief executives. – Kubersky
10:38 a.m: Big Thunder Mountain Railroad’s rustic queue has been carved up into a rabbits’ warren of plexiglass corridors, preventing guests from making contact as they pass by each other in the switchbacks. Interactive elements that previously entertained guests while they waited in line have now been blocked off, or disabled with their controls removed. – Kubersky
10:24 a.m. Guests scream through their face masks while taking the final plunge on the Splash Mountain flume ride. The park’s longest wait right now is actually for this ride’s gift shop, as collectors and resellers snap up stuffed animals and other merchandise themed to the attraction's controversial history, which is slated for a “Princess and the Frog” makeover. A text-based virtual queue is being used to handle the hour-plus wait to enter the store. – Kubersky
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10:30 a.m. The park doesn’t feel crowded at all, but the wait times posted on the Disney app and in front of rides and attractions are far from exact, said Jess Bullock of Sarasota. And new precautions might be what’s slowing things down, she said.
For example, she said, Pirates of the Caribbean “said 25 minutes but we waited 52 minutes. Splash Mountain has said 45 minutes all morning … from what we’ve heard from others, they’ve been waiting much longer as well.”
“It looks like they’re sanitizing each vehicle between riders and letting them run empty,” she said. “So it’s slowing things down significantly.” – Britt Kennerly
9:50 am. There’s only a 15-minute wait right now for the “world famous” Jungle Cruise, whose boats now sport plexiglass barriers, breaking up the bench seating. The skippers deliver their pun-filled spiels about “the backside of water” from behind face masks and transparent vinyl curtains. – Kubersky
9:30 a.m. A sign of the times: The vintage ragtime music that normally plays on Main Street USA is now periodically interrupted by safety announcements. – Kuberksy
9:20 a.m. Waving cast members line the curbs of Main Street USA, enthusiastically welcoming guests back to the Magic Kingdom. Reminders of COVID-19 are ubiquitous, from safety signage in every trash can, to hand washing stations and hand sanitizer dispensers at nearly every entrance and exit. – Kuberksy
9:10 am. An employee stops one family because their child is using a neck gaiter without earloops, which are prohibited under Disney's mask policy. They are asked to go back to their car or purchase a mask from a vending machine at the checkpoint. – Kuberksy
Guests stand in socially-distanced queues waiting to ride the iconic monorail from the Transportation & Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom entrance. The train’s cabins have been divided up using vinyl barriers, and only one or two families were allowed in each. On a normal, pre-COVID-19 day, they would have been filled to standing-room only capacity. – Kubersky
9:05 a.m. Minutes after doors opened, there is no wait for the touch-free forehead temperature checks administered by AdventHealth. – Kubersky
8:45 a.m. Fifteen minutes before the public reopening of the Magic Kingdom, cars are flowing freely through the parking toll plaza with none of the backup seen at this time during a preview for annual passholders on Thursday. Employees are socially distancing cars by leaving empty parking rows between arrivals. – Kubersky
How are guests feeling?
The Rodriguez family, Cynthia, Mauricio and Haley, felt safe visiting the park noting that there was hand sanitizer everywhere.
On the other hand, Jay Lao and Nico Saporito, who traveled to Disney World from Miami, waited for 40 minutes to ride Splash Mountain. They noticed some discrepancies between Disney's reopening and Universal Orlando's reopening, including the use of hand sanitizer.
"Here they’re not even enforcing it before or after, it’s there if you want to take it," Lao said, referencing Universal's requirement to use sanitizer before and after rides.
Vivica and Martin Ray of St. Petersburg, Florida, reported no problems so far. While wearing a mask was not much fun due to the 90-degree heat, they acknowledged, "it's safe."
That said, they said there's still a little room for improvement, like running more buses from the resorts since capacity on each is limited.
"We understand the safety concern," Martin said, "but it would have been nice if they sent a bus to each stop." – Kubersky
'There's no one stepping on your heels'
Sisters Mary Griffin and Leslie Shinault of Rockledge, Florida, were impressed by the welcome they got from cast members as the annual passholders walked Main Street USA toward Cinderella’s Castle.
They were struck by one visual indication that the that crowd capacity is definitely smaller: “We saw four strollers by the carousel, instead of hundreds,” said Griffin.
“It feels like after a hurricane, when there’s hardly anybody here,” said Shinault.
“It feels wonderful,” said Griffin. “It’s a stress release for me, and this is just what I needed.”
The limited crowd and social distancing offer a welcome change from shoulder-to-shoulder lines where “you’re herded like cows,” Griffin said.
“They’re sanitizing everything, keeping everyone six feet apart in line, everybody has a mask on any there’s hardly anybody here,” Shinault said. “We haven’t been run over by a stroller yet.”
“And there’s no one stepping on your heels,” Griffin added.
Disney has not specified how many visitors it planned to admit Saturday or for the foreseeable future. But based on updates from park insiders, Len Testa, co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," estimated there were about 10,000 guests in the Magic Kingdom and 6,000 at Animal Kingdom as of 1 p.m. Saturday. That is about 17% of capacity and a smaller number than the 15,000 he was anticipating.
"To put that number in perspective, the Magic Kingdom averages just under 60,000 per day," he told USA TODAY, adding that this week's preview events drew between roughly 7-8,000 per day.
"If you look at the lines, too, it's pretty easy to confirm very low attendance," Testa noted. Virtually every ride was a walk-on." – Kennerly/Jayme Deerwester
Park execs are equally psyched to be back
"We had an amazing morning with the Cast before reopening the park today," Josh D'Amaro, the park's chairman of Experiences and Products, said on Instagram. "I’ve missed you all. So happy to be together again."
A post shared by Josh D'Amaro (@joshdamaro) on Jul 11, 2020 at 5:28am PDT
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Contributing: Britt Kennerly, Florida Today; Jayme Deerwester, Morgan Hines, USA TODAY; Seth Kubersky
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Walt Disney World reopens after COVID-19 shutdown: What it was like