Yes, it's been one crazy roller coaster of a year. There have been lots of twists and turns, and understandably most of us are ready for things to "just get back to normal." We were hopeful that with the new year, our biggest worries would be whether we snagged FastPasses for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar: Flight of Passage precisely 60 days in advance of our upcoming Walt Disney World vacation. Now, we see that's still a bit unrealistic. While there are hopeful signs with COVID-19 vaccines rolling out, it will take some months before Walt Disney World is back to normal operations. Still, there are some positive signs that things are moving in the right direction.
We know plenty of you planned trips for 2021 well ahead of the pandemic. Some of you booked trips in 2020 thinking it would all be over by the time the new year rolled around. And there are some of you who just need a break from all the madness, and a trip to Disney World seems like the perfect escape. Rest assured, the Disney magic is alive and well. Yes, you can still have a ribbeting vacation. But there are still changes you should expect if you're planning to visit Disney World in 2021. Here are the key things you need to know.
19 Key Things to Keep in Mind If You're Visiting Disney World in 2021
1. Masks and other safety measures aren't going away any time soon.
If you were hoping that by 2021 you wouldn't have to wear a mask in the theme parks, you will have to wait a bit longer. While there are promising signs that things are improving, Disney expects mask requirements to be in place through 2021. Disney is strictly enforcing its mask policies, and you should read up on them and other safety protocols before you go. Please note that health and safety measures are subject to change at any time, so we recommend going with the flow and expecting the unexpected. While masks are required, we have some hopful tips for wearing masks at the theme parks.
2. Physical distancing will continue.
One of the major ways Disney is keeping guests safe is by keeping parties separated, and Disney has confirmed this is expected to be in place through 2021. This is done through a variety of measures, including expanded queues, ground markers, curtailed entertainment and limits on how many people can enter shops, rides, restaurants and transportation. This can mean more disruption and sometimes waiting longer for things like getting on buses, boarding rides or entering shops. Rest assured, Disney is working to make changes to help improve safety and effciency, such as adding plexiglass dividers between ride vehicles so that more people from different parties can ride at once. We expect to see more of these efficiencies rolled out in 2021, but we do recommend preparing for some slowdowns and delays.
3. Entertainment, shows and character greetings are still limited.
Fireworks, parades, nighttime spectaculars and other mass shows that typically draw big crowds are not hoppening right now. While a handful of character dining experiences are available, including Chef Mickey's and Hollywood & Vine, typical character meet-and-greets are not taking place. Instead, the parks have debuted character cavalcades that run sporadically throughout the day. While things are different, we’ve found them to be no less magical. While we’re physically distant, Disney has mastered character interactions not being socially distant. Disney has tested fireworks shows at EPCOT and Magic Kingdom after the parks have closed, so hopfully that points to these frog favorite forms of nighttime entertainment returning at some point in 2021. Likewise, "Festival of the Lion King" will return this summer to Disney's Animal Kingdom!
4. More and more restaurants are reopening, but they're still operating at lower capacity.
While more and more restaurants are reopening, and capacity is increasing, there are still isn't quite as much availability as there was pre-COVID-19. For this reason, you should absolutely make dining plans in advance and reservations for table-service restaurants, so you're not left with tired, hungry tadpoles. Advance Dining Reservations can be made 60 days in advance. And don’t froget about Disney Springs (where we’ve spied the most dinner availability when we’ve checked). More options are slowly rolling out, so keep an eye out! The latest? Disney Junior Play 'n Dine has returned to Hollywood & Vine at Disney's Hollywood Studios!
5. Mobile Order is a must-do.
While its not required, Mobile Order is all but a must-use for quick-service restaurants. With the limits mentioned on the table-service restaurants, quick-service restaurants are in more demand than ever and wait times are up since the parks have reopened. No one wants to spend more time in line for a hot dog than for a ride! Thankfully, with Mobile Ordering at Disney World, you don't have to. It's pretty easy to set up mobile ordering using the Disney World app, and we've got a full guide to walk you through it. (Psst ... on the app, you can also check table-service restaurants near you for walk-up availability!)
6. Capacity is going up in the parks, although limits are still in place.
When the resort reopened, Disney World initially capped its park attendance at 20 percent. While the parks initially seemed empty, they now feel more crowded as Disney has increased capacity to 35 percent. We would expect as COVID-19 cases decrease, those limits will be increased. Disney CEO Bob Chapek confirmed in February 2021 that capacity increases would be determined by vaccine rollout going forward. Even with capacity limits in place, with fewer entertainment options, and limits on indoor spaces, including restaurants, there are times where the parks will feel more crowded than they actually are.
7. Park reservations are still required.
To manage individual park capacity, Disney World implemented a Park Pass reservation system wherein you needed to reserve the park you plan to attend on each day of your vacation. As more people have returned to the parks, it has become more and more important to book your park reservations earlier, especially if you want to visit around holidays and weekends OR you want to visit Disney's Hollywood Studios. This park has been hitting capacity much sooner and with more regularity than all of the others, largely because of the popularity of its attractions. You must have already purchased and linked your park tickets in order to make park reservations. At this point, the Disney Park Pass reservation system is set to be in place until early 2023.
8. You need to allow more time to use Disney transportation.
In order to physically distance passengers in separate parties on transportation, including queues and loading zones, guests should expect to wait longer for buses, boats, the monorail and Disney Skyliner. Disney's Minnie Van service has been temporarily suspended. If you're looking to avoid this, consider using ride share services or renting a car for this reason.
9. Events are still hoppening, albeit with modifications in place.
While Disney's two biggest events, Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party were canceled for 2020, many more events did take place in 2020 and will be taking place in 2021. EPCOT's International Food and Wine Festival went forward with more physical distancing but none of its panels, concerts and private events. Festival of the Holidays and Festival of the Arts also hoppened with similar measures. And the latest EPCOT festival, Flower & Garden, is also modified, but WILL have concerts on the weekends. Disney World is also planning "The World's Most Magical Celebration" for its 50th anniversary, which will run for 18 dazzling months beginning in October 2021!
Keep in mind that Park Passes may fill up early for special events. For example, Park Passes for Oct. 1, 2021, are already full for annual passholders, who have a separate "well" of Park Pass availability. Hotels are also filling around this date, so we'd highly recommend booking if you plan to attend.
10. Park hopping has returned — with some modifications.
Park hopping has returned as of Jan. 1, 2021 — with some stipulations. You need to make a reservation for the park you plan to start the day in, but you're free to hop to another park at 2 p.m. — provided it has capacity.
11. Some resort hotels remain closed.
While capacity continues to be limited, not all of the resort hotels have reopened. Most have now reopened or have reopening dates, but a still are still TBD. Disney's All-Star Movies Resort is set to reopen March 22, 2021, and Disney's Polynesian Village Resort is set to reopen in summer 2021. Disney's Beach Club Resort will reopen May 30, 2021, and Disney's Wilderness Lodge will follow June 6, 2021.
Additionally, some resort hotel services have been suspended. Club-level service is temporarily unavailable. While Disney is offering its Magical Express transportation to and from the airport for resort hotel guests through the end of 2021, guests must now transport their own luggage.
With the limited capacity on hotel rooms, we highly recommend booking as soon as you have your dates set, especially if it's during a traditionally busy time such as holidays, summer and spring break.
12. Water parks are slowly reopening.
Disney's Blizzard Beach reopened March 7, 2021, with health and safety measures in place (read all about the experience in our Blizzard Beach guide). Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon water park remains closed until further notice. We are hopful both will reopen in this coming year!
13. Extra Magic Hours are going away and a new Early Theme Park Entry benefit is coming.
Early Magic Hours haven't been hoppening since the parks reopened, and now Disney has announced that a new Early Theme Park Entry benefit will debut in time for the 50th anniversary celebration. The new Disney Early Theme Park Entry benefit would allow on-site hotel guests and guests at select off-site hotels to enjoy 30-minutes of early entry to ANY theme park, EVERY day.
14. FastPass+ is not currently hoppening.
With expanded queues and physical distancing on rides, Disney has disabled FastPass+, its skip-the-regular lines service. The FastPass+ queues are still being used for guests with disabilities and Rider Swap, but for now, there is no way to make advance reservations for rides.
15. MagicBands are no longer free, but you will have less need for them in 2021.
As of January 2021, MagicBands are still available for purchase to all, but they are no longer provided free for resort hotel guests. Disney has brought some of the functionality of MagicBands to an all-new service called Disney MagicMobile. Disney MagicMobile provides a contactless way to access MagicBand features such as theme park entry through your iPhone, Apple Watch or other smart device. Guests can create a Disney MagicMobile pass through the My Disney Experience app and add it to their smart device’s digital wallet. Just like a MagicBand, MagicMobile works by holding or tapping your smart device near an access point. Digital room keys will continue to be available through My Disney Experience.
16. Now more than ever, you need to plan your time in the parks.
In this interim time without FastPass+ and the full return of entertainment, it is perhaps more important than ever to have a plan when visiting the parks. At least have all of your family members decide at the outset which rides are most important, so that no one is left disappointed. If you want more direction than that, we frogs have added new Disney World park plans that take into account these changes to help you plan your best day.
17. You need to know the latest ways to make reservations for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
A virtual queue is the only way to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ... it's not always easy to do. Disney has added some capacity back to the attraction by adding clear plastic dividers to separate parties, but reservations for the most popular ride in all of its parks remains hard to come by. If riding is a priority, consider making Disney's Hollywood Studios park reservations for multiple days and make sure to read up on our tips for securing a boarding pass on Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
18. As soon as you know you're going, you should book the trip!
This goes for hotel reservations, park reservations and tickets. It's doubly true if you will be visiting during a holiday, peak times or major events, such as Disney World's 50th Anniversary. With limited capacity and demand increasing, you need to book as soon as you feel comfortable doing so.
19. Consider travel insurance.
While Undercover Tourist has generous refund and modification policies, in these times, you may want even more peace of mind. Our travel insurance offers reimbursement up to 100 percent for pre-paid, non-refundable tickets if you cancel or interrupt your vacation for a covered illness, injury and more. You'll find it as an easy add-on in your cart before you purchase!
Here's to better times in 2021! While this is a lot to consider, we think the benefits of a fabulous Disney World family vacation are toadally worth it. Have a tip you think other vacationers would benefit from knowing? Share it in comments below!
Related: Best Time to Visit Disney World