Any time is a great time to take a vacation in my book, but with current circumstances as they are, now may not be the best time unless you want to relax out in the woods or on the beach somewhere. For those who enjoy an active vacation, now can also be a frustrating time since many tourist spots, restaurants and hotels are closed. However, it is a slightly different story in Orlando, Florida.
My wife and I weren’t even planning for a trip when a work-related opportunity popped up. Since we would be staying about two hours away from Orlando, we decided to extend our stay and visit Mickey. We’ve been here before – three times in fact – so we had a good idea of what to expect. Even so, it has been long enough that the theme parks have added new attractions since our last visit, so we were excited to see what’s new. We’ve also always dreamed of staying at a Disney-owned hotel and since the company was offering discounted rates during our visit, we took advantage of their offer.
This review will cover how things are different at the parks and hotels during a pandemic, thoughts on some of the newer experiences offered and a few tips here and there if you decide to go. I will give some insights on the Magic Kingdom, Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks, but unfortunately, I won’t be covering Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The reasons being, it will would have added another full day of expenses, we have at least three amazing zoos and animal parks and although we’ve heard great things about the newer Pandora section, neither of us are huge fans of the movie Avatar.
(Photos: Left: Walt Disney World Resort, Right: Jeff Totey)
Staying at a Disney Property
Though there are critics, everything that Disney does is done with class. Even their garbage cans are works of art. But that class comes with a cost. There are pluses and minuses staying at a Disney hotel and it really depends what type of experience you are looking for to see if staying within the resort area is worth it.
First of all, there are plenty of “Walt Disney World Good Neighbor® Hotels” just outside of Disney’s world that offer much cheaper rates, free shuttles to the parks and other perks like free parking and no additional resort fees. They have to keep their hotels clean and up to Disney’s standards to get the company’s seal of approval. If you’re thinking that staying on Disney property will enhance your kids’ visit, it will, but not to any great extent. If you’re kids are like what mine were like, they were just happy to ride the elevator and splash in the pool. No memories were harmed by staying at a cheaper hotel.
But my wife and are adults, so we can appreciate all of the perks that staying at a Disney resort can offer, so we opted to stay at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort. It opened in 1988 as one of the company’s first moderate resorts. It recently went through a major overhaul updating the rooms and themed areas. The pirate-themed rooms looked fun for families, but we opted for a standard water/pool view room. (Note, between the man-made Barefoot Bay and the resort’s six pools, many rooms are considered to be water/pool view rooms.)
(Photos: top right: Jeff Totey, all others: Walt Disney World Resort)
(Walt Disney World Resort)
We arrived to the resort via Disney’s Magical Express from the Orlando Airport (which will discontinue service in January 2022) and immediately noticed the nice, subtle tropical music playing. Given that any large gatherings are discouraged due to Coronavirus concerns, guests are encouraged to check-in online ahead of time and then go straight to their room. One one hand, this is a great thing in that you don’t have to stand around in a line at the lobby. But the downside with this policy was finding our room.
As it turned out, our room really wasn’t that far from where we were dropped off, but since we were hauling our luggage and didn’t really know where we were going, it felt a lot farther away. While we initially met two friendly resort employees who pointed us in the right direction, we had a really hard time finding our “village” (Aruba). They didn’t offer us a map (we were encouraged to use a map on our phone), directional signs were lacking and the maps that were posted, were confusing since they didn’t offer any “You are here” spots.
During our journey, we found two other employees in two different locations and asked for their assistance. These were apparently maintenance workers who were not interested in customer service. Neither one was willing to take us to our building. Not a great start to the trip.
(Photos: Top right: Walt Disney World Resort, close ups: Jeff Totey)
Once inside the room, we were greeted with more tropical music playing from the TV that offered information about the resort. The room itself was themed really well, very clean and very quiet. Towels and bedding were soft. Soaps and shampoos were a step up from most hotels. The barn doors separating the bathroom from the rest of the space was a nice touch too.
The resort is actually quite beautiful with Caribbean accents and colors. All along Barefoot Bay, were “beaches” complete with sand, lounge chairs and a few hammocks. The island, called Caribbean Cay, features a large playground and serves as the location for the “movies under the stars” at night. A bridge connects the island to center of the resort known as Old Port Royale. It is here where you’ll the main deluxe pool, the gift shop, four eating establishments (the quick-service restaurant Centertown Market, the pool bar known as Banana Cabana, the pool-service Spyglass Grill and Sebastian’s Bistro). Only the first two were open during our stay and while you can eat in the Centertown Market, you need to order your food ahead of time on your phone.
The resort also offers boat rentals, bike rentals, volleyball courts and a jogging trail, but none were available to use due to COVID-19. Honestly, we were too busy visiting the parks to take advantage of these relaxing amenities and it might be worth booking an extra day just to relax during the middle of your trip.
(Walt Disney World Resort)
The Pluses and Minuses
The pluses of staying at the Caribbean Resort (and especially in the Aruba village) included the transportation options to the theme parks. Our room was only a short walk away from both the bus service and the Skyliner gondola service. We loved the Skyliner as it takes you right from the Caribbean Resort to both Epcot and Disney Hollywood Studios. Once you disembark, you can walk right into the parks! (Well, of course after getting your temperature checked.) One thing to note though, the boarding lines do get longer during other times of the year.
While staying at the resort, we also appreciated that Disney didn’t go overboard promoting itself. Instead of getting bombarded with Disney music and colorful characters at every turn, things are a lot more subtle. (There was one picture of Mickey Mouse in the room where we stayed and that was about it.)
The downside of staying at the property is that you might feel that you are trapped. There are no other restaurants nearby, so if you don’t like the resort’s food, you’re kinda stuck. We actually thought it was fine, but we’re not terribly picky. In addition, there is also easy access to Disney’s Rivera Resort which offered different dining options. Both resorts offered food-to-go, so you could pack them up and take your meals to the room.
Also, with the exception of the maintenance crew, the employees at the resort were all very friendly and helpful, but there wasn’t a lot of them. You would think that a few more would be on hand to help answer questions. Maybe it’s different during other times, but overall, this felt a bit impersonal. A lot of communication comes from your phone instead of in-person interactions.
The Theme Parks
Yes, the current pandemic does effect even “The Most Magical Place On Earth” and it is noticeable everywhere you turn, but overall, the Disney crew does a great job of allowing guests to get as much “magic” as possible while still being safe. You’ll hear numerous recordings reminding you to keep your mask on at all times with a promise that those who do not adhere to the rules will be asked to leave immediately. We also didn’t see anyone disobeying the rules or become unruly, so that was nice.
Currently, the parks are allowing up to 35% capacity (up from 25%) so the crowds are much easier to deal with than normal times. I think the longest we had to wait to get on a ride was about 40 minutes with most of our wait times being anywhere from 10-25 minutes. With less people, you would think that the wait times would be even shorter. But with social distancing measures in place, many of the ride vehicles were only partially filled keeping space between parties. Standing six feet apart from others make the lines for the rides stretch out a long ways from the entrances. This looked a little clunky and also made for some confusion on where the endings of the lines actually were. It is also worth noting that because of social distancing, Fast Passes are not in use right now.
Anything at the parks that could involve a crowd has also been eliminated including parades, fireworks and up-close-and-personal meet-and-greets with characters. You will still see many of your favorite friends, but in different ways. Small groups of characters ride around in floats in mini-parades throughout the day and some characters like Captain Jack Sparrow and Mary Poppins will interact with guests at a distance. This felt a bit strange, but it was better than no interaction at all.
Many of the smaller shops and eateries are closed and most encourage pre-ordering meals ahead of time. Bigger restaurants still offer sit down dining, but at reduced capacity. We wanted to eat at the Sci-Fi Drive-In at Hollywood Studios, but we waited too long to make reservations (a couple of weeks before we left home!) so I recommend that if you want to dine at a special spot, be sure to make plans now.
One thing worth mentioning, keep your cell phone in your pocket while waiting in lines. The queue lines are really part of the experience and we saw many people missing all of the clever touches because they were too busy playing games or checking out their Instagram accounts. Ironically, Disney actually encourages guests to play games on their phones while waiting in line. Come on families – use this time to interact with each other!
Perhaps the oddest thing we saw while vising the park was an older couple who were pushing two baby strollers that held their little dogs! Why Disney allowed this I don’t know.
Finally, understand that not everything at Disney is expensive. EVERYTHING at Disney is expensive. I’ll give Disney a little slack right now since they are doing everything they can to stay afloat during this pandemic with Disneyland being closed for a year now and movies having to bypass theaters, but seriously, couldn’t they offer just a few trinkets that are actually affordable? Walt wanted his theme parks to be accessible to everyone. It’s hard enough for families to scrape together money for airfare, hotels and food not to mention theme park tickets.
Personally, I think Disney should re-think their thinking on souvenirs. They are really just advertisements for the parks. Why not make them more affordable? They would sell a lot more and get more free advertising. Why can’t they offer at least one thing at a super cheap price – like the classic Mickey ears? Seriously, this was the one thing that was actually depressing about the parks. If you can’t make the parks more affordable, at least you could make things more affordable once we got there couldn’t you?
The Magic Kingdom
Of the three that we visited, this park seemed to fare the best during the pandemic. It’s a beautiful park and the only disruption was that the railroad was closed due to the work being done on a new Tron-themed ride in Tomorrowland. Only the larger shops and restaurants were open, but plenty of grab-and-go places were open as well.
Main Street, U.S.A.
The early 20th century small-town feel of Main Street, U.S.A. is not only inspired by Walt Disney’s childhood, but also from the film, Lady and the Tramp. You’ll notice that many of the “businesses” located here have windows that bear the name of people who were influential with Disney. It was hard to pinpoint what was missing from Main Street, U.S.A. at first, but then we realized that it was the missing characters, no vintage vehicles were going up and down the strip and no live music. However, a smaller than usual Main Street marching band did make a few appearances, so that was nice.
Although located at New Orleans Square in Disneyland, The Pirates of the Caribbean attraction is located here. The line looked especially long, but it moved swiftly. It’s a cool spot to wait during the heat of the day. If it’s been awhile since you’ve experienced it, you’ll notice that some new changes have been made. You’re probably aware that the scene where the pirates were chasing women was changed to pirates chasing women with food. More recently though, the scene where a pirate is auctioning off women has been changed to show a few pirates, including one woman pirate, auctioning off loot that they have acquired from the townspeople. While some people are not happy with the changes, it didn’t change the experience for us at all.
There has been news that The Jungle Cruise will get some new changes as well, but they haven’t been made as of yet. Though corny, the Jungle Cruise is always fun and still a must-see in our book. (It really does depend on the verbal skill of the Skipper that can make or break an experience. If you get a dud, you might want to try it again later in the day.)
And while Disneyland’s Swiss Family Treehouse has been taken over by Tarzan, the WDW version is still standing proudly and is worth a walk through as there is rarely a wait to get in. We didn’t bother with the Enchanted Tiki Room during this trip (though it does make for nice break) nor the Magic Carpets of Aladdin since they are just another version of Dumbo.
Currently, The Hall of Presidents is closed for refurbishment, which happens right after a new president takes office in Washington D.C. (It will reopen later this year with a new President Biden making a brief speech.), but the Liberty Belle Riverboat was in operation and so was the Haunted Mansion. We noticed a huge change with the latter attraction. Instead of being ushered into the “stretching room” and greeted by the “ghost host,” we were escorted right through the room and onto our “doom buggy.” We also felt that the inside of the mansion seemed darker than usual making it hard to see some of the spooky creatures. This certainly took some of the fun out of the experience. However, we enjoyed the newer special effects regarding the “hitchhiking ghosts” at the end of the ride.
While Disneyland is updating its Splash Mountain ride from the Song of the South theming to the Princess and the Frog, the Magic Kingdom version of the ride is still operating, so it was fun to experience it one last time before its makeover.
We actually finished our day at the park by riding the Big Thunder Railroad, which has a different look and feel when it’s dark out.
If you are of a certain age, you know the dark rides have come a long way since their beginnings. Not only are the rides themselves updated, the queue lines are a lot more fun to experience. The original Snow White ride and Mr. Toad’s Wide Ride are no longer here, but Peter Pan still is and his ride is just as popular as it always has been. However, the most popular ride in the park by far is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train which blends the classic dark ride with a roller coaster. I loved every part of this ride including the queue line which starts in the woods outside the dwarf’s’ cottage. It looks just like it does in the movie.
The line also features a number of interactive elements but of course, they were “hands off” during this time. You board the mine train which whisks you off to the diamond mine where the trains slows down considerably and you get to see the dwarf’s hard at work singing to the “Dig, Dig, Dig” song then the song shifts to “Heigh Ho” and it’s off from work you go. The ride ends with the train slowly passing by the Dwarfs’ cottage where you can see that Snow White is dancing with Dopey and if you look closely, you’ll see the witch peering inside as well.
If you haven’t seen the Journey of the Little Mermaid, I recommend that too. Boarding your clamshell, the ride is a gentle trip through some of the best scenes from the movie and an abbreviated storyline. The best part is joining in for the “Under the Sea” party.
And in case you don’t think that The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh has anything to offer you, I suggest you give it a try – unless you’re a hater. It will really bring you back to your childhood. This version of the ride is much better than the one at Disneyland.
Less crowding also allows you time to really see the park in ways that you haven’t done before. For instance, many people just walk through Cinderella’s Castle barely noticing the amazing mosaic artwork on the ways telling the famous story. The detail is beautiful.
Expect shorter lines at the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train when the new Tron Lightcycle Power Run roller coaster opens later this year (maybe). Until then, Space Mountain is still running smoothly and so is the part ride/part video game, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin. We were able to go on this one many times. I’d skip Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress unless you a fan of nostalgia. With exception to a few updates over the years, the revolving theater’s show has pretty much has stayed the same since it debuted at the New York’s World Fair in 1964. (It moved to Disneyland in 1967 and then WDW in 1975.) It hasn’t aged well and is quite dull compared to the more contemporary attractions.
Of the three parks we visited, Epcot looked a little worse for wear. This is mostly due to the major construction projects happening throughout the park. As you probably are aware, currently the park is divided in half: World Showcase (which features mini landmarks, restaurants, attractions and shops modeled after different countries) and Future World.
Since we entered the park at World Showcase (instead of Future World which was the only entrance for many years) we started our journey there. As always, it looked great. The only thing missing were the live music performances. There are a couple, but most of the others are not operating right now. That takes a little of the fun away, but not much. However, I did hear two guests complain that they thought that the area was just a bunch of shops and restaurants to spend money. And they’re right to an extent. There is a lot to explore at Epcot, but they are little things as opposed to big attractions and many people just walk right past them.
There is a new Ratatouille ride coming in the France section of the park which should be fun. I wasn’t sure about incorporating movie characters into World Showcase, but so far Disney has done a great job. I still love the Gran Fiesta Tour Starring the Three Caballeros. By adding Donald Duck and his friends, it totally transformed the ride. (However, we noticed that there were some technical difficulties near the end of the ride where animation was replaced by three wooden cutouts of the characters).
Frozen Ever After is also a great update to the former Maelstrom attraction in the Norway pavilion with another amazing queue line that weaves in and out of the land of Arendelle including a trip through Wandering Oaken’s Trading Post and Sauna. The animatronics on this ride are a step above older ones with more life-like movements and projects.
One of the best places to eat in the park include Les Halles Boulangerie-Patisserie in the France pavilion which features a pretty extensive menu of sandwiches and super-fancy desserts. It is one of the cheapest places to eat in the park too! Highly recommended.
While the World Showcase half still looked great, it’s the Future World half that is all disjointed. Buildings that were once full of attractions and activities are either half empty or closed altogether. Epcot has had a hard time staying relevant and it shows. There is still a few good things to see here, but they are starting to show their age. There’s a LOT of construction signs up too, which takes away some of the magic as well.
The attraction Mission: Space is still fun but super short and Test Track was fun once you boarded, but the queue line was all messed up. Numerous elements which are meant to be interactive sit pointless with blank screens. No effort has been done to dress up the area which totally takes you out of the experience.
One of the best rides in the park is Soarin’ Around the World. The film is breathtakingly better than the previous film which only featured California landmarks (until 2016). On the downside, the queue line is the worst in the whole park. You have to stand in long lines with nothing to look at. They could have made the area look like an airport with travel posters or something. Instead, you stand in a dimly lit corridor with neon-ish looking blue lights weaving up and down the walls. (This is a good place to take out your phone.)
I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised by our ride through Spaceship Earth this time around. In the past I found the ride to be rather boring, but this time, my wife and I both agreed that it was more interesting for some reason. I guess it’s been a long time, because in 2008, the ride had reopened from a long closure with a few new elements, new interactive activities on board your “time machine” and a new narration by Judi Dench. The newer script and Dench’s voice made all the difference.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
This park holds some of the best experiences of the three parks but it comes at a cost. Originally called Disney-MGM Studios, the park is almost completely different than when it first opened in in 1989. Originally, the park was designed to be rival Universal Studios Hollywood making it partly a real film studio with its own tram tour. It was all about movie-making with The Great Movie Ride taking center stage. The problem with the initial concept is that Universal Studios has a long history of great movie-making right on the same lot whereas the Disney version did not. Still, the park was unique in that you could watch real animators working on the latest animated projects and you could learn about sound editing, makeup and more.
Today, the park has the look and feel of old Hollywood with amazing “downtown” streets and shops with vintage billboards. Everything about it looks and acts like old Hollywood, but there really isn’t much movie-making features here anymore. Instead, it feels more like an extension of the Magic Kingdom than a park that it is uniquely its own.
There is an “Animation Courtyard” that doesn’t feature much of anything about animation. (It does feature an amazing gallery and exhibit area about Walt Disney though.) The Chinese Theatre which used to house the Great Movie Ride which used to showcase some of the best scenes from great movies is now just a fancy wrapping for the new Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. The new ride is amazing but it has nothing to do with movie-making.
The park recently went through an extensive expansion and reimagining adding both Star Wars’ Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land. I was quite surprised to see so many adults in the Stars Wars area. There was even a waiting line to get into the Market Merchants of shops. The place is themed well from head to toe. Even the bathrooms are themed. (I would have included a photo, but that would have been creepy.) Here you can build your own lightsabers and customize your own droid to take home. Both are very spendy and again, we only saw adults in line ready to build.
Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge
Galaxy’s Edge only features two attractions – Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. The latter allows you to “fly” the Millennium Falcon. While watching the screens in front of you, you are also responsible to hitting buttons that light up in front of you. I doubt that they actually do anything with the ride, but it is fun to pretend that they do. It’s similar to Star Tours but different enough to be enjoyable. (By the way, Star Tours: The Adventure Continues is the update of the classic ride that was done a number of years ago but is so much better than the original which features a mix of different ride films for a different experience each time you board. Ironically, it is located in the Echo Lake area, not Galaxy’s Edge.
We were not able to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance because only a limited number of spots were available for guests and those spots were filled up almost immediately.
Toy Story Land
I’ve to got to say that “Toy Story Land” is one of the weakest names for a Disney “land.” It features three attractions: Toy Story Mania, Slinky Dog Dash and Alien Swirling Saucers. We’ve experienced Toy Story Mania at Disney’s California Adventure (known there as Toy Story Midway Mania) and loved it, but here, the ride’s setting is a little different. You’re welcomed to the back yard and you are the size of a game piece. The place looks like a young boy (Andy) has spread out all of his toys and games on the backyard lawn and just left it a mess. Inside a game box, guests board vehicles armed with equipment meant to shoot a variety of targets with different games. Similar and yet very different from the Buzz Lightyear ride at Magic Kingdom.
The theme continues with Slinky Dog Dash, with more toys spread around the yard lit up with Christmas lights. The roller coaster isn’t terribly thrilling, but it is really fun. Not too scary for little ones for not too tame for the adults riding with them.
The Alien Swirling Saucers looks like a different take on the Mad Tea Party ride at Magic Kingdom. Instead of spinning, riders rotate back and forth and travel from one spinning circle to the next. I doubt anyone gets nearly as dizzy as they do on the Tea Party.
At the other end of the park at Sunset Boulevard you’ll find The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror (which is so much better than the former California Adventure version), Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith and the new Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy. Three different attractions that don’t have a common theme whatsoever.
People mourned when Disneyland closed its version of The Tower of Terror, but this one was the original and better one. Yes, its an elevator ride but this elevator goes sideways for part of the ride. Like the Haunted Mansion, this ride suffers from the temporary removal of the library scene when guests witness an old TV set playing an old episode of The Twilight Zone (which never existed by the way) which sets up the plot for the right. Without it, the ride doesn’t make any sense. Nobody seemed to mind though.
The indoor Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith is also missing it’s Recording Room scene when guests learn that the band is late for a concert and have to take a taxi to get there quick. Of course, we get to go along too. However, with out this scene, the ride doesn’t make sense. But it is fun to ride indoors and travel in loops in the dark.
Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy is an attraction that is set up to resemble a lecture of sorts given by an animatronic Lightning McQueen (which is really pretty impressive) and large animated screens the surround the room. I thought this attraction was just okay, but little drivers will think this is awesome. You can even check out a couple of the life-sized cars outside of the studio.
Mickey, Minnie and the Muppets
Do not miss Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. This ride opened just before the pandemic hit, so many people are unaware of this new ride. The gist of the story is that you are part of a cartoon riding in a train lead by Goofy, but the train breaks apart and the two mice try to save you. It’s mix of animatronics and animation and is so very clever. The only downside is that the characters are modeled after the newer Mickey Mouse Cartoons shown on Disney Channel and Disney+ instead of the classic Mickey we all know and love.
As for Muppet Vision 3D, it’s still good, but after, but the attraction has been running continually since 1991 and it could use an update. It looks a little tired and some of the effects were not working during our showing. Still, it’s hard not to love the Muppets.
For a great meal, although pricey, make reservations for the 50’s Prime Time Café where you can enjoy homemade favorites served by relatives that you didn’t know you have while watching clips from various 50’s TV shows right at your table. From the host/hostess to the waiter/waitress, every person here is playing a part and it is an experience not to miss.
A Few Tips
- All three parks have Starbucks locations where you can earn stars (but not bonus stars) with each purchase. However you cannot redeem stars for free items here. Still, we found these cafes to be an easy place to grab a breakfast sandwich and an afternoon pick-me-up.
- You CAN bring with you outside food and drink to the parks.
- Allow yourself some time to just sit and people watch. Get a coffee or a snack and just relax a bit. It will make your day feel a little more relaxing. If you’ve got kids, take them to a play area and allow them to run around awhile.
- If you can, book an extra day to just rest at the hotel.
- Bring good walking shoes and/or inserts.
- Purchase t-shirts before you go at The Disney Store, Target or Kohl’s. It will save you a ton of money and you’ll be dressed for the park before you get there.
I write about pop culture, arts and entertainment in the greater Seattle area.