By: Amanda Krause
Disney World is widely considered the most magical place on Earth — but that isn't necessarily true during a pandemic.
Since March 2020, the Orlando, Florida, theme park has experienced a 116-day closure, thousands of employee layoffs, temporary shut-downs of staple attractions and restaurants, and more. As a result, both Disney diehards and fans ready for their first visit are left wondering if they should plan a Disney World vacation in 2021.
Unfortunately, the answer is no if you're hoping to experience a magical, once-in-a-lifetime trip this year.
Disney World isn't operating as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic
Mickey Mouse ears and character-print clothes have been the wardrobe staples of Disney parkgoers for years. Now, masks are a mandatory part of that dress code.
At the time of writing, Disney World requires all parkgoers and employees — including those who have received COVID-19 vaccines — to wear two-layered face masks in its theme parks. They can only be removed while swimming, or eating and drinking in a stationary spot. Bandanas, neck gaiters, and other non-protective face coverings are also prohibited.
Other new safety measures include limited crowd sizes, required temperature checks, social distancing through place markers and physical barriers, and reduced contact at hotels, gift shops, and dining locations.
Disney World fans are still flocking to the theme parks each day, so these new guidelines might seem manageable to some. But what might be a bigger deal-breaker is the fact that some attractions and restaurants are temporarily closed.
Among the unavailable staples are character meet-and-greets, evening firework displays, daily parades, and live shows like Fantasmic.
These changes would be disappointing at any theme park. But at Disney World specifically, what's a vacation without hugging Mickey Mouse, staying late to watch fireworks behind Cinderella Castle, and seeing Broadway-like performers throughout the parks?
Some restaurants, including Casey's Corner in Magic Kingdom and Pizzafari at Animal Kingdom, are also closed for the time being. Some open restaurants, on the other hand, have limited menus. Of course, you'll be able to purchase fan-favorites including Mickey Mouse-shaped foods, but the theme parks typically have tons of other unique options to experience — and some of them won't be there this time around.
That being said, Disney World ticket prices have generally remained the same since the theme park reopened in July 2020. Standard admission costs upwards of $109, and park-hopper tickets are even pricier, starting at $174.
If you're planning to take your first-ever Disney World trip in 2021, you should probably hold off
AJ Wolfe, the founder of the Disney Food Blog, told Insider that Disney World is "very different" right now, with "a lot missing from the general experience you would normally have."
"Are you going for your very first trip ever, or your only trip ever?" she said. "Are you bringing the whole family and spending 16 mortgage payments? Now is probably not the time to go if that's the case. You're not going to get the full experience — you're just not. I don't think there's any way to sugarcoat that."
Take Cinderella's Royal Table, for example. The iconic restaurant allows parkgoers to dine inside Cinderella Castle while princesses greet them at their tables for approximately $62 per plate. The experience is different now, though, as a result of the pandemic.
"You're still spending a ton of money, getting a rushed meal experience with generally the same food that's not all you can eat, and you only see one princess — Cinderella," Wolfe said. "She just kind of comes in and waves from afar, and that's all you get."
You'll also want to consider your resort options. If you've ever dreamed of staying at Disney World's Port Orleans Resort, Polynesian Village Resort, or Animal Kingdom Lodge Jambo House, now isn't the time. All three locations and some others are temporarily closed, with little to no insight from Disney as to when they might reopen.
And if you plan on spending only a day or two at the parks, you'll need to figure out how to do so without FastPasses. The service — which allows parkgoers to skip the lines of busy rides — has been temporarily suspended as a result of new safety guidelines. Park-hopping is an option, so you can see more than one park in a day, but infectious-disease expert Dr. Scott Weisenberg previously told Insider that doing so could increase the risk of spreading and catching COVID-19.
As a result, Wolfe recommends saving money for a future trip in which you could potentially stay at a better hotel, spend more days at the parks, have better dining experiences, and more.
Kayla Hemphill of the blog Hemphilly Ever After agreed, and noted that who you're traveling with should also be a factor in deciding whether or not a 2021 Disney vacation is right for you.
"If you're a family with little kids, and seeing characters and parades are really important to you, then I would definitely say wait," Hemphill told Insider. "You're going to be missing out, and not getting the most out of your tickets — especially if you have children who can't ride everything."
"There are a lot of things not available right now that would really make your trip so memorable and so Disney," she added.
Disney World is currently best suited for annual passholders, Florida locals, and other frequent visitors
According to Wolfe, Disney World's COVID-19 safety precautions and unavailable attractions will be "more of an inconvenience than a major disappointment" to people who have already experienced the theme park.
Hemphill, a Disney World annual passholder, said visiting the theme park now is actually "almost nice" thanks to a "change of pace."
"We had to slow down because there are no FastPasses or dining reservations," she said. "We just had to go, experience it, and not do as much planning, which was kind of refreshing. We were even able to enjoy some of the little details around Disney that we hadn't seen."
Longtime Disney World fans might also enjoy staying at the theme park's resorts and dining at the available restaurants during this unique time. The theme park is offering numerous discounts for its on-site hotels, and some food services have also been improved, with some restaurants offering plated meals instead of buffets.
There's a lot to look forward to at Disney World in the coming months and years
At the end of the day, it might be easy for adults and parents to postpone their next Disney World vacation. Young fans, on the other hand, might take the news a little harder. That's where Disney's future plans come in handy.
If you decide to visit in 2022 or later, you'll be able to experience new rides including Remy's Ratatouille Adventure and Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind at Epcot, as well as the TRON Lightcycle Run in Magic Kingdom.
The theme park is also set to open new restaurants and hotels in the following months and years, including La Crêperie de Paris, Space 220, and a "Star Wars"-themed hotel. That's not to mention Disney World's 50th-anniversary celebration, which begins in October 2021 and will likely extend into 2022.
"Disney has a whole lot on the docket," Wolfe said. "So there's still a lot of new attractions, specialty stuff, exclusive merchandise, food, etc. that will roll right into 2022 and beyond."