The COVID-19 pandemic has taken so much from everyone. Some more than others. But no one has escaped unscathed. In the realm of Walt Disney World, even with the parks back in action for months now, and even Disneyland on the verge of a return, so much remains different with perks, features, and options still vacant from the guest experience.
As Disney fans, we miss what we once had. The flexibility, the freedom, the ability to enjoy a nostalgia-filled dalliance in one of the most immersive and joyful places in the world. That world, that Disney experience, is gone. It is unlikely to return anytime soon, if ever. That being said, there are several features of a pre-COVID visit to Walt Disney World that are gone that have made an impact on the guest experience.
With this in mind, here are five things the pandemic took from Disney fans and my thoughts as to whether or not they will return.
1. Disney Dining Plan
The Disney Dining Plan can be a contentious issue with avid Disney travelers. Love it or hate it, there is a sizeable contingent of visitors to Walt Disney World who enjoy the flexibility of paying for their meals ahead of time and to make it part of the journey through the resorts and parks. Since the parks opened up again in the summer of 2020 in Florida, the dining plan remains an elusive option for travelers.
I’ve personally enjoyed the dining plan on several occasions because it makes sense for my family. While I haven’t made it back to the parks since the pandemic hit, it is something that would be greatly missed by me personally when my family returns. My guess is that the dining plan will return when it is safe and economically viable for Disney. It may not return in its original state, but the fact of the matter is, Disney makes too much money from the dining plan to not bring it back.
2. True Park Hopping
The Park Hopper ticket option is one of the most popular features for any Walt Disney World traveler because it provides one simple thing: freedom. Freedom to move, freedom to choose when and where you go, and to do so on a whim. There are countless situations where park hopping is wanted and needed, including when you have dining reservations, different opinions and wants from your traveling party, or you simply have to leave or your six-year-old won’t stop talking about the Haunted Mansion while you’re at Epcot trying to have a peaceful margarita at the Mexico pavilion.
Like so many of the features Disney has cut or altered in the past year, a number of factors played into the elimination of the Park Hopper option. Health and safety, contact tracing, staffing considerations, you name it. Park Hopping is simply challenging to maintain during times of financial uncertainty, let alone all of the other factors that have altered our everyday lives over the past year.
Of course, “park hopping” is happening in some way right now. I put quotations around “park hopping” because I don’t want anyone to confuse this version with its more popular predecessor. Yes, you can switch parks. No, you cannot do it on a whim and change what park you want to go to at the last minute. The park reservation system is in place limiting who, when, and where you can park hop to. Freedom? Not quite.
In the end, the more full, un-quotationed, Park Hopping will certainly return in time. Perhaps toward the end of 2021 or 2022 once the reservation system is either changed or eliminated entirely. If not, there will be some annoyed Disney fans wanting to bail on a less than exciting morning or afternoon at the parks.
It's the little things that make a trip to Walt Disney World magical. Sure, the immersive lands, the rides, and the collective experience of being at a theme park with friends and family make Disney World special, the small touches of Streetmosphere that build the world for us all. Whether it's the more formal members of Disney Streetmosphere like the Dapper Dans and Citizens of Hollywood or the less formal like the artistic janitorial staff, these touches of entertainment make Walt Disney World what it is: uniquely immersive.
There is no doubt that Universal and other smaller theme parks have taken atmosphere performers from the Disney playbook and applied it to their own parks, but Disney was the first, and did it well. COVID-19 has taken much of the Streetmosphere from the parks, however. The reasons for the missing performances isn’t just about health and safety around crowds, of course. There is a financial factor to this decision as well.
Disney is a massive corporation with decades of strong finances, especially around Walt Disney World, but that was pre-COVID. Losses have been significant and the powers that be are unlikely to make a decision that would damage their ability to turn a profit during what is -- at best -- a precarious time. I do believe Streetmosphere cast members will return in a gradual manner, it just will not be predictable, much to the chagrin of park guests, the detriment of the parks themselves, and the livelihoods of these talented and important members of the Walt Disney World team.
4. Disney’s Magical Express
This one is still raw for many, myself included. Disney’s Magical Express is set to be no more as of January 1, 2022. Now, this is not specifically tied to the pandemic as it continues to operate, but the financial challenges of the time have forced Disney to make cuts for the short and long term that they may not have considered before. The Magical Express is one such aspect of the business.
In the grand scheme of Walt Disney World, the Magical Express isn’t exactly a legacy feature of its operations. Having started operations from the Orlando International Airport in 2005 to Disney property, it has a loyal following of guests and families who rely on it to get to Disney and back. Is it a perfect system? Definitely not. But it is part of the experience of getting off your flight, making your way through the airport to the Magical Express check in kiosk and getting on the bus. The moment you sit down, you immediately feel like you're actually starting your Disney vacation before even setting foot on Disney property. Nothing can quite replace that. And people let that be known very quickly after the announcement was made.
This bus system is actually operated by Mears, making the financial considerations a contractual decision more than simply operational. There were likely a number of factors that went into the decision with money being the main consideration. Seeing the immense reaction from Disney fans, Mears decided to create a new Mears Connect service to help fill the gap left by the Magical Express. Details are light on the new service, but I know a number of families are already relieved to hear something will be there to help get us to Walt Disney World and back to the airport.
My gut, though, tells me that we haven’t seen the last of the Magical Express. Will it be like it was in the before times? Likely not, but as guests return and they realize that Disney has taken away the convenience of hopping on the bus to get on property without a replacement, we may see a continued groundswell of pressure to bring it back.
5. Close Proximity Character Interactions
Character interactions have been a mainstay for the Disney parks since the times of Disneyland. From meet and greets at restaurants like Akershus, Crystal Palace, and Cinderella’s Royal Table to interactions throughout the parks, Disney fans young and not so young have cherished meeting their favorite Disney characters.
Due to safety precautions for the sake of cast members and guest health, Disney suspended close proximity character interactions and replaced them with a mix of distance character spottings and small cavalcades. The feedback on these interactions have been fairly positive considering they aren’t what everyone remembers, but the new experiences still aren’t the same.
The return to close interactions with characters will happen. It will likely be done in stages as Disney ramps back up, opens up more capacity at restaurants, and can guarantee a renewed layer of safety for character cast members. I know my kids are looking forward to the chance to interact with Pooh and the gang at Crystal Palace while I eat semi-warm buffet wings in between taking photos. It’s really what dreams are made of right now.
I could have listed many other lost features like fireworks and Minnie vans, but these are five I believe will have an outsized impact on guest enjoyment and value over the long term. We all want to get back to a 2019-era Walt Disney World experience. It’s not going to happen. But we can look forward to some of the magic returning in due time. I just hope Disney knows how much magic they need to pile back on with a shovel instead of sprinkling it on like a chef with a teaspoon of saffron. If they don't, the crowds are not going to be coming back as quickly. I know I won't be and I'm certainly more loyal than your average Disney visitor.