Here are some tips to help you get the most from your theme park visits, while also feeling safe.
Nearly everything we know about visiting Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando and the other Orlando theme parks has been thrown out the window during this unique time. At Disney you have to remember: FastPass? Gone. Park Hopping? Gone. At Universal, many attractions are utilizing Virtual Line, and some are closed temporarily.
Plus, with new safety precautions, not everything is working the way it was before. So, here’s some of my own personal tricks to have a good time while visiting, while somehow managing to feel safe at the same time.
Before we go any further though, I must remind you that while the theme parks in Orlando are open right now, they cannot guarantee your complete safety. Both Universal and Disney stress that any interaction with the general public poses an elevated risk of being exposed to COVID-19.
Safety issues aside, if this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime vacation for your family, you may want to reconsider as well. Parades, nighttime fireworks, and many other offerings are suspended at most of the parks. Plus, daily park hours have been cut substantially. For a local, or annual passholder, these might not be deal-breakers, but they may be if you’re heading in from out of town.
As an Orlando local, I can tell you that you’re much better off visiting on a weekday than on the weekend right now. A large proportion of guests in the parks are locals these days, and many can only get Saturday or Sunday off work—which is leading to 1 to 2 hour waits for many attractions at many of the parks on those days. If possible, visit in the middle of the week, like Tuesday through Thursday, for the lowest crowds possible.
Unfortunately, Walt Disney World is requiring everyone make a park reservation before arriving. This may mean that you’ll have to book your next visit a month or more in advance. However, some patient folks have discovered that you may see more park day openings appear when visiting the parks reservations page using a mobile browser. Also, refreshing over and over may reveal new reservations that weren’t available prior… If you have the patience, that is.
If you’re like me and want to avoid large crowds as much as possible, I would suggest arriving at the parks 1 to 2 hours after they open. Arriving at opening will cause you to have to wait in long lines as the security checks at all the parks can back up more than usual due to social distancing measures. Arriving a couple hours late usually means you can walk right in without any worries.
Since face coverings are required at the parks during this time, don’t forget to bring that! In fact, I suggest bringing at least two masks, or more, for each member of your party, per day. With the hot Florida sun you’ll be thankful you’re able to switch to a clean mask halfway through the day. All the parks sell masks as well, in case you find you need another at the last minute.
While the parks offer hand sanitizer stations around every turn, you still might want to bring your own. I carry sanitizing wipes with me to the parks—mainly in case I find myself sitting down to eat something and haven’t had a chance to wash up beforehand.
Also, keep in mind that it’s hurricane season and even without a named storm on the horizon, it will rain nearly every day in the afternoon. You might want to pick up some inexpensive emergency ponchos or small umbrellas to bring with you to the parks. It’ll save you some money when the rain starts coming down. Plus, a small umbrella is great protection from the sun while walking around!
Without FastPass reservations, making your way around the Walt Disney World theme parks feels a bit more carefree—at least when it comes to choosing what to ride next. Be sure to download the official WDW app. That way you can monitor the wait times for all of the attractions. I tend to see what part of the park has the highest wait times, and go to the opposite side instead. Do this throughout the day to enjoy short lines for every attraction. With only a limited park capacity, it seems to be a bit easier to monitor what everyone else is doing, and do the opposite!
At Universal Orlando’s theme parks, you can use the app to make Virtual Line reservations. This is extremely important on most days for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, but can also be useful for other attractions as well. I suggest checking the Virtual Line section of Universal’s official app as soon as you arrive. That way you can reserve a spot for the Hagrid coaster, or anything else offering virtual passes, early on. They tend to only turn this feature on once a standby line has gotten too long, but if it’s a ride on your must-do list, you’ll want to snag it early so you don’t miss out.
Experts seem to agree that dining outdoors is far safer than dining indoors at this time, especially around large crowds of people not wearing a face covering. I suggest checking out some of the lesser-known outside window cafes for lunch or snacks. You’d be surprised what amazing foods await you at places like the Fire Eaters Grill in Islands of Adventure or Sleepy Hollow Refreshments in the Magic Kingdom. Plus, they offer plenty of nearby outdoor covered seating.
Most quick service locations at all of the parks offer outdoor patio seating areas as well, so you’ll still be able to enjoy some of your favorite restaurants. Many are covered and some offer overhead fans to help you keep cool on even the hottest of days… But, most importantly, you may feel safer than if you were inside where the risk of infection is higher.
All of the parks at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando offer Mobile Order. That allows you to order your food before you even arrive at the restaurant, pay through the app, and just pick it up when it is ready. If for any reason you cannot use the app, or if you need to pay in cash, there’s always at least one register open at every quick service location. Just let the greeter know before you enter.
Table service locations won’t always have outdoor seating available, so keep that in mind when making a dining reservation. Places like Mythos at Islands of Adventure or Tony’s Town Square Restaurant in Magic Kingdom do however, so there are options.
In addition to rides, the parks can be a great escape from the world and offer some unique experiences. If you’ve been to the parks before, but want to get out of the house today, here’s a few experiences worth checking out.
Outdoor Animal Trails at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, SeaWorld Orlando, and Busch Gardens Tampa Bay are a fun way to spend time while social distancing. The trails in Africa and Asia at Animal Kingdom are often overlooked by most visitors, leaving the whole place to you and your party to explore by yourselves.
Distanced Character Selfies at all of the parks have become a new favorite hobby of mine. Sure, it’s not exactly the same as a regular character interaction, but some silly banter between me and a fairly distanced character helps break up the day. In the Disney parks, cavalcades of character floats, boats, and vehicles pass by regularly, offering a different kind of encounter as well.
Scavenger Hunts and other interactive experiences at the parks are another fun thing you can do. The Lion King scavenger hunt is still going on at Animal Kingdom and requires you to pass through every land looking for clues. You can also join the Wilderness Explorers and look for badges at Animal Kingdom. Remy’s Ratatouille Scavenger Hunt is going at Epcot’s World Showcase as well. Other long-time games like Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom are still happening too.
It’s a weird time for sure right now. And while many folks probably aren’t thinking about the theme parks, I’m sure some of you are. If you’re comfortable with the risk involved, there’s still some fun and magic to be found—but please, try and stay safe. Always follow safety guidelines. And I’ll see you on Main Street… From a safe 6 feet distance, of course!
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Alicia is a lifelong Floridian and has been visiting the Orlando theme parks since the age of 3. Her years of experience, both working at and exploring theme parks, allows her a unique perspective for helping others plan and get the most out of their own visits to the Orlando parks.