This is what we heard from everyone as we walked towards our destination. People waved. People smiled. People cried out, “we missed you!” You would have thought we were heroes returning from some war instead of crazed Disney fans returning to our happy place in the middle of a worldwide pandemic.
Yes, despite the fact the COVID-19 infection is still plucking away at our world, Max and I trotted ourselves out to the Magic Kingdom for a special, limited capacity passholder preview event before the park officially reopened. It was not so much that we couldn’t stand to go another season without a Disney fix that prompted this act of recklessness. It was more that it seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see and feel what an uncrowded Disney park is like. As Disney reopened, they were severely limiting the number of people in the park. They did not publicize the number, but experts estimated the park would be operating at only about 25% of capacity. I have lived in the shadow of Disney parks all my life. Even with this wealth of experience and wisdom under my belt, I could not conceive of what 25% capacity would feel like. Short of having to fight an army of fire-breathing and vomit-spewing dragons to get in, there was not much that was going to stop me from experiencing a desolate Disney ghost town.
To further convince me that I should risk a potentially fatal disease or lifelong lung damage to go to Disney for this soft reopening, the fates decreed I should go. I have been a Disney passholder for nearly five years. In all that time, I have NEVER attended any of the special passholder events. I have never been one of the chosen few to receive the email invitation and respond within the first few minutes before the event reaches capacity. It is sort of like having to be the fourteenth caller when a radio station is giving away concert tickets. Odds are, it is never going to happen. A couple of weeks before this event, I was sitting at the car dealership waiting for an oil change. Bored, I was checking my phone lethargically. Coincidentally, I saw an email inviting me to register for the passholder preview event. I did not believe for a minute that I was going to be able to claim a space for Max and I because prior experience has taught me that, if you take an breath between the time the email goes out and the time you try to book a reservation, you are going to miss out. Just for giggles and because I had nothing else to do, I followed the link to register. To my utter amazement, I was able to sign us up for a day of Disney with a side of hand sanitizer.
We did think about whether going was an acceptable risk. There is so much drama in the media telling us that the Florida coronavirus numbers are climbing out of control. As I have said in prior posts, I have not felt particularly scared during this pandemic. On the other hand, I absolutely want to be responsible. I do not want to do anything that will put other people at risk, especially as I am doing volunteer work which does put me in brief contact with older, immune-compromised individuals. I decided to take a deeper dive into the numbers to analyze whether things are getting worse, better, or staying about the same. I looked at the Florida coronavirus infection rate for the middle of April. At that time, approximately 1% off the population had tested positive for the coronavirus. Today, the percentage is 1.92%, so there has been an increase. On the other hand, the percentage is still low, despite more testing and several months of reopened commerce in Florida. It has been around the 1.9% rate for several weeks. Less than 1/10th of 1% of Floridians have been sick enough to be hospitalized. In Orange County, where most of Disney is located, the percentage infected is about the same, but the daily infection rate amongst those being tested has been declining. For several weeks, the percentage of positive results of people tested has been below 10%. Additionally, ½ of 1% of all Orange County residents have been hospitalized.
Now, numbers are one thing. Depending upon what you look at and how you look at it, they can often tell you whatever you want to hear. I will not say that the virus is not a safety consideration. However, it did seem that the risk was reasonable for me.
Then, there is another factor… the pixie dust prescription. Disney has a whole lot to lose if they contribute to the spread of death and destruction. Disney also has a corporate culture that is about excellence and innovation. Disney also has a staff that is well-trained and resilient. Frankly, one of my motivating factors for wanting to go was to see the creative ways Disney employed to manage the risk while still spinning the magic.
So we decided to go, evaluate what we saw, and leave the second we felt uncomfortable.
We approached the entrance to the parking lot, excited and wary. The line to get into the parking lot was a bit of a struggle. I am not completely sure what was causing the delay, but I think it was due to the additional time it took to park the cars socially distant from each other. What was kind of interesting about the socially distant parking is that Disney came up with a way to do the social distancing without having people park further away than they would need to if the cars were traditionally spaced. I noticed when we left that the attendants must have shifted the flow of traffic to fill in the spots left between the earlier guests’ cars.
Once we got into the parking lot, everything was smooth and comfortable. Directed by smiling, waving, and welcoming cast members, we boarded the ferry to go over to the park. There were clear social distancing markers on the floor of the boat to indicate where to stand. Everyone was wearing masks. The cast members had masks AND face shields. When we disembarked, we stood in a fast-moving line so that only one party at a time could exit the ferry. Later, when we were going back to the parking lot on the monorail, cast members permitted only one party on each monorail car.
The first thing we noticed at the entrance to the Magic Kingdom was that there was no line. For any of you who have been to the MK, you know that it is a bit of an ordeal. Wait to get entry to the parking lot, park your car, take a tram to the transportation center, wait in line for bag check, wait in line for either ferry or monorail, wait in line to get into the park. Even though there are always multiple turnstiles available to enter the park, there are lines at every one of them if you get there anywhere near park opening time. On passholder preview day, THERE WAS NO WAIT.
And no people. At least, that is the way it seemed when we stepped foot on Main Street. It was almost spooky. There was almost no sign of life. Max really, really likes getting Starbucks when we go anywhere for a day trip. He is happily content to do pretty much anything I want for the rest of the day, but he really does want that latte first thing in the morning when we are on an adventure. He will forgo it if we have something critical that we must get to first, but the morning Starbucks truly is important to him. He does not ask for much, so I suck it up and factor waiting in the huge lines at Disney Starbucks locations as part of my plan for the day. On passholder preview day, there was no line. I think there were two people in the coffee shop. By the time I recovered from the shock and awe of this phenomenon, he had his coffee and we were on our way.
Such was the order of the day. We walked on to virtually every ride. I rode the Seven Dwarves Mine Train for the first time, with a 20-minute wait. The wait for Splash Mountain was similar. The queues on the other rides… oh wait, there were no queues.
From a safety point of view, it was amazing. Except for a few cast members and Max, I doubt I got closer than 10 feet to anyone the entire day. I think they expanded the space between social distancing markers to allow for antsy children and for large parties. There were a couple of times when I had to inch forward off my spot to peek ahead to see if I was supposed to move. The people in front of me were so far away, I could not see where they were! There was hand sanitizer at the entrance and exit of each ride. The cast members employed huge industrial containers of disinfectant attached to their backs to periodically spray all the ride cars. With ride vehicles designed for more than one party, they sometimes had one party in the first row and one in the back row if there were several rows in between. Usually, it was just one party for vehicle.
From a magic point of view, my reaction was a little more mixed. To be completely honest, there was an initial sense of weirdness and forced gaiety. Having so few fellow revelers did result in a slightly less festive atmosphere. Many of the eating and shopping dining venues were still closed. There were no Mickey-shaped pretzels to be had. The absence of shows and parades did seem sort of “less than.” On the other hand, having such short waits was uber magical. The seemingly genuine and extremely vocal welcomes from the cast members made me feel “especially special.”
As the day wore on, I found the magic. Every now and again, there was a pop-up presentation- a group of dancers, huge parade float carrying a character, or streetcar of singers. I cannot call them “parades,” because the very nature of a “parade” suggests more than one exhibit, one following behind another. These were more like parade snapshots- one band, one drill team, one float. The most magical moment of the day was when we ran across Tinker Bell riding atop a giant treasure chest around the circle at the end of Main Street. Because there were so few people, she could identify individuals standing below, smiling at her. She noticed my quarantined Tink shirt and pointed at me. She laughed, waved, and blew kisses to me. I walked beside the float all around the circle. It was like Tink and I had our very own parade.
It may not have been a personal, side-by-side visit with my Pixie Princess, but it was a new and different kind of magic.
Have you done anything wild and unpredictable as the world starts to reopen? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Have a magical day!