I know I said I wasn't giving any more information on how to plan a Disney vacation for free, but things are so different now that it's worth discussing the changes. Last weekend, I got a text from a really good friend who was at the airport when Disney announced that the following day they would be dropping the outdoor mask mandate. She wasn’t sure how to feel. On the one hand outdoor transmission is low, on the other hand there’s a lot of people at Disney, even at 35% capacity. We had debated back and forth about whether or not it was a good idea or even safe to go this spring. Ultimately she got a deal for a two bedroom suite at Old Key West for half its normal price and was convinced that things weren’t going to change anytime soon.
By all accounts, people have said they felt safer at Disney than their local grocery store. Obviously these people don’t live in Clarksville given our grocery store only just removed the one way arrows and you still get scowled at if you have your mask below your nose. At lower capacity lines aren’t that long and if you’re not really into dining or shows now seems to be an unusual opportunity. Her kids aren't at high risk and she and her husband are vaccinated. Some people jumped for joy to hear the masks were being phased out and others felt hoodwinked, not having been given time to cancel until they felt safer. My question is where and when are the next changes and who they’ll be good for. If you are ready to go, hopefully this post will help you plan accordingly.
Let me start with the current changes from the old system. First, you must have a park reservation. Having tickets does not guarantee you entrance. Park hopping has been brought back after 2 pm and so far no one has had trouble park hopping, however reservations have been filling up around 30 days in advance. Masks are currently required in lines and indoors. Socially distancing is still 6 ft, including in restaurants. Fast passes are currently suspended. Originally Disney said this was to help with social distancing but no one is really sure how. They are still using fast pass lines for rider swap (when parents swap off watching a child too young or short to ride), DAS passes (a special pass for those who are unable to wait in line), and VIP tours and Club 33 (expensive experiences that give you line free access). Many restaurants are closed, most shows are closed, and there are currently no fireworks, parades, or character meets. There currently aren’t extra magic hours, ticketed events (though a Halloween party has been announced), dining plans, free magic bands, or luggage services.
Instead of some of the traditional experiences people have come to know, Disney has made some adjustments to try and meet certain expectations as safely as possible. Instead of parades there are random cavalcades, which are like mini parades with a float or two of characters. They also have random characters stationed at locations around the four parks, but their appearances are random. They do not want people crowding waiting for Elsa and Anna to come out, so it’s unpredictable. Character dining does exist in a few places, mainly with characters in suits like Mickey Mouse, and are socially distanced. You can not go hug Mickey. Cinderella will make an appearance at Cinderella’s Royal Table but as she’s not wearing a mask or in a suit, she doesn’t make the rounds.
There are a few changes that people do like. Advanced dining reservations are now at 60 days out not 180. This means less planning in advance and the ability to be happier with a trip planned more last minute. Some people really like that there are no fast passes for the same reason. You had to carefully plan fast passes and your day revolved around them. The existence of fast passes does make lines longer for those who are waiting in stand by, so wait times are reduced some without them. However, it’s mainly lower capacity that is keeping wait times under an hour at top rides and under 20 minutes at the less popular attractions. Instead of magic bands, which do still work and you must buy, Disney now allows you to use the My Disney Experience (MDE) app on your phone for your tickets, payments and anything else the magic bands would do. There’s even an Apple Watch app that works as well. Mobile ordering of food has been expanded and you can now pay with a gift card in the app.
Unfortunately as capacity begins to rise, social distancing decreases (down to 3ft), relaxation of mask rules, the impending busy summer season and then the 50th anniversary in October, some of the changes are going to be problematic. If wait times for top rides are 60 minutes at 35% capacity, that theoretically means they would be closer to 85 minutes at 50% (yay Algebra). That’s still not completely unreasonable but as capacity rises to say 75% now you’re back to over a 2 hour wait. This is why fast passes were introduced in the first place. They help Disney control the flow of traffic. Which by the way they also use the app and estimated wait times. They’re often inaccurate to persuade or dissuade people from getting in certain lines.
Disney is slowly bringing back shows. This will also alleviate wait times as currently all there is to do is ride rides and eat. The reasoning behind not having parades or fireworks shows is that they create a cluster of people. As capacity rises this becomes even more problematic. Although some would argue it’s a money problem as much as anything else. Those fireworks shows cost about $50,000 a night. It was an easy way to cut costs. The dining situation will become significantly worse as capacity rises. Currently it’s difficult to get desired dining reservations, although let’s be honest, it has been for years. But with restaurants operating with social distancing they simply can’t move more people through the door. This is why the dining plan is gone. They simply can’t promise you that you can get enough food to equal the cost.
For the most part Disney has obliterated the incentive to stay on property, which is why so many resorts are closed, they couldn’t fill them even if they wanted to. You used to get the services of the magical express. The bus still takes you to and from the airport, until 2022 when they are suspending the service all together. But currently you can’t have your luggage automatically transferred to and from the airport. There are no extra magic hours for resort guests to get early access to the parks. They have announced that there will be a replacement to this perk but no time frame on when it will be implemented.
Magic bands are no longer free. They’re not really necessary, as we ‘re all carrying phones around that can transmit the same signal, however they became a quintessential symbol of a Disney vacation so people aren’t happy about that. You also got early access to fast passes, dining reservations and the option to buy the Disney dining plan with an onsite stay. Transportation to and from the parks is currently the only real perk. Besides that Disney bubble feeling you get by never leaving property.
So what changes do I think will stay and which ones will go?
1. Park reservations are here to say. Hopefully people will stop being surprised they need these and then freaking out the week before when the park is at full capacity and they can’t in. Disney has said they’re keeping them because it makes park staffing easier. Currently you can’t park hop till after 2 pm and I hope that changes to whenever you want but I am not sure if it will. For Disney this will be about staffing and not managing capacity going forward. They'll be easier to obtain once the parks are back at capacity.
2. There is no reason to bring back free magic bands. It’s an easy way to cut costs and the technology is made obsolete by smartphones. They’ve used exclusively phones and plastic cards at Disneyland since the system was installed.
3. The Magical Express is not coming back because again it’s an easy way to cut costs and there are alternatives. Those alternatives are not free to use, but if you’re spending thousands of dollars to visit Disney World, the $100 or so dollars you’ll likely be spending for transportation isn’t going to stop you from coming. Mears transportation has already announced that they will offer the same bus service, there are no other details. A train from the airport is in the works but there is no real timeline.
4. I suspect luggage transfer will come back, it can easily be run by the airlines and not Disney. I suspect that Southwest, which is one of the largest airlines bringing families to Disney, will offer some sort of similar service, paid or not, but that is pure speculation. It certainly would entice people to fly Southwest.
5. Disney has announced that they’re replacing the early morning magic, where resort guests get into one park a day that rotates between the four parks, with a 30 minute early entrance to any park for resort guests. Here’s the problem, that’s a worthless perk if they’re allowing anyone in early which they have been for years. They call it rope dropping when you get to the park early enough to be there when the literal rope drops at the park's opening. However it’s well known that they let anyone there as early as an hour and a half to get in line for top rides like Flights of Passage, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and Slinky Dog. Our first trip with Scarlett we entered the Magic Kingdom right at opening time and went straight to Seven Dwarfs and the line was already 2.5 hours. They can’t advertise this early entrance as a resort only perk if they don’t put the kibosh on letting anyone in before park opening. They have in the past prevented this at the early morning magic parks which tells me this is actually a move to stop rope dropping while also appeasing resort guests. It’s also a staffing issue.
6. Dining plans will come back. Why? Because Disney makes bank on those. Spoiler alert, unless you got a free dining promotion AND have a big family, they don't save you money they just are prepaid. If it's just a family of three like us, free dining is usually costing you more on your resort without an equal compensation in your spending on dining. Without the dining plan you would eat much less and pay Disney less. You always see people buying a dozen Mickey rice crispy treats for the plane ride home because they didn't use all their credits. They know this so they will continue to convince people they're getting a good deal by buying them.
7. Mobile Ordering is here to stay. Currently almost all quick service restaurants require you to pre order your food through the app and you have to wait till your order is up to get your food. We’ve done this for years but it wasn’t quite as straightforward with alcoholic beverages and you had to use a credit card so if you wanted to pay cash or with a Disney gift card you needed to physically get in line. I am actually not sure how they’re handling the alcohol now, but it’s easy enough to have the person who hands you the food check your ID. I ultimately think cash will be phased out and you can now pay in the app with a gift card.
8. 60 day advanced dining reservations (ADR) are here to stay, maybe pushed out to 90, but there’s no way they go back to 180 days. Most people’s biggest complaint about Disney World is how long it takes to plan. Moving up ADR allows people to plan a trip less than 6 months out. People also hated that you had to book dining before your fast passes and then having to choose between the hard to get fast pass and the hard to get dining reservation. I myself have hated that choice which has come up more than once.
9. Finally, that leaves fast passes. They’re coming back, absolutely, 100%. They existed for a reason. At full capacity without fast passes, all lines are insane. The people who are saying right now that they love the stress free low planning without them but they’re going at 35%, this summer it’s going to get ugly. Really ugly. That said what form they come back in is questionable. Bare with me as I explain what I am speculating will happen.
Originally you went to a ride and got a ticket with a time to come back. You only got one at a time. Pre-covid you booked 3 in advance, at 60 days for resort guests and 30 days for off site guests, a major perk to staying on Disney property or sister hotel. After you use your first 3 you could then get more one at a time. You also could only book your fast 3 passes for one park but could add other parks after you used them if you park hopped. You could buy more if staying at a Club Level in a deluxe resort. So in addition to paying more for your room you would also have to pay a significant cost for more fast passes, but you also got to book them at 90 days.
At Disneyland you can buy something called a MaxPass that allows you express access to all rides. It’s only $20 per guest and all guests in your party need to buy it. Disneyland is a distinctly smaller park and has many fewer guests. Universal Orlando charges between $70 to $260 for an Express Pass depending on the season and day. It’s parks are more in size with Disney World's and the cost reflects what the price point is to keep the sales low enough for the pass to actually be an express wait. Universal also offers free Express Passes to guests staying at their premium resorts. It's worth noting that the Express Pass can not be used on the hottest new rides.
The question is what will Disney World do? Either, they will come back exactly as they were because they don’t really have a better solution or they will have a much more robust system that may benefit resort guests. I do not think they will follow Universal’s system to only offer fast passes at an exorbitant cost, that’s very off-brand for Disney. I think they will offer something along the lines of the park hopper fee which is around $80 per person for your entire stay. I think it will cost significantly more than $80 but I don't think they'll do day by day because that will deter people from taking longer trips. In addition to the paid fast passes I think they will have virtual ques for more popular rides like they currently do for Rise of Resistance in Hollywood studios. Anyone can join that que which will appease those who can't afford to pay for the fast pass. The big question is what perk are they going to offer resort guests in the wake of losing early booking of fast passes in the old system. It could look very much like Universal where Deluxe resort guests get the fast pass for free.
I am sure they have a team of data scientists, psychologists, engineers, cast members and a focus group of guests running scenarios. They want to know how to manage wait times for the fast pass line and the standby line. They need to know what will improve guest satisfaction and what will hurt it. They need to know what will incentivize guests to stay on property and they need to know what will stop guests from going to Universal instead. It’s complicated and they haven’t announced a solution yet because of it. But capacity is about to rise and we’re going to see just how bad wait times are without fast passes. Plus it will be hot, restaurants will be slow to open up, shows will be slow to open up, fireworks will be slow to open up. People will start complaining and other people will start to hesitate if they should go. Something is coming, we just don’t know what and I am not convinced they do either.
This is my assessment of the situation. No one but Bob Chapek, the Disney CEO, does, and maybe not even him. Anyone who says they know is speculating, relying on rumors, or making it up. You see on Facebook, Twitter and blogs, cast members claiming they do know, but they don’t. Maybe the fireworks tech has been told by his boss that fireworks aren’t coming back till October, but the reality is that anyone who actually does know isn’t talking about it. That’s how you get to be the guy or gal who knows, by not spreading rumors. If you call the helpline, some cast member might tell you something and then call right back another cast member will tell you something completely different. Hopefully some of this was helpful and if not at least entertaining to read. You can find my first post on planning Disney here and my second one here. Here's to hoping the magic returns for us all soon.