A welcome respite
Return to Disney sparks emotional reaction in annual passholders
Walt Disney World’s annual passholders got a taste of what they’ve been missing for four months on Thursday. They returned to Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom parks to preview the soon-to-reopen attractions.
“I sobbed. I had to compose myself before I came in,” said Arnick Flemming, an annual passholder who lives in Lakeland. Like most Disney fans, she had not been in a theme park since March, when the coronavirus pandemic shut down much of Orlando’s tourism industry.
Passholders were greeted by Disney employees calling “Welcome back,” new cleaning regimens and unusually wideopen spaces along the walkways of both previewed parks. The limited capacity for the event is a lead-up to similar measures for when the parks open to the more general public this Saturday. Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme parks are set to reopen Wednesday.
“It’s crazy,” said Brittany Reinsel, 27, a first-grade teacher from Kissimmee who visited the parks twice on weekdays and every
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes just to be here for now.”
Steven Foster, who attended Disney World on Thursday
weekend before the pandemic. Those visits never compared to Thursday’s light crowds, she said, calling it a Disney fan’s dream.
The wide pathways around the park were missing the tight crowds and it took more time to walk through the winding queue of Space Mountain Thursday morning than it did to wait in line. Peter Pan’s Flight and Haunted Mansion were practically walkup rides early in the day. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, known for drawing long lines, posted a wait time of less than 30 minutes by the afternoon.
Disney employees were visible cleaning seats and tables, and hand-sanitizer stations popped up in the queues. The emptier park also made Reinsel feel comfortable, she said.
“I feel safer here than going to the grocery store,” she said.
Other visible changes included plastic partitions installed in many locations, including close-quartered ride queues and between rows on some ride vehicles, including the trucks for Animal Kingdom’s Kilimanjaro Safaris, an open-air trip through a Disney-created savanna.
Signs on the ground throughout the parks helped visitors maintain the recommended 6 feet of distance between groups.
That physical distancing extended to Disney characters, who previously met with fans on an up-close, one-on-one basis. Now they are farther away, mobile and appear at unscheduled times. At Animal Kingdom, a rotation of costumed characters appears on boats. When people heard characters’ voices and a change in the background music, they scampered to the shoreline, waved at Mickey Mouse and company as they glided by and moved on.
The characters appear frequently at Magic Kingdom, but it’s difficult to pin down exactly who and when. They show up unannounced, usually riding on a single float that travels down the normal parade route through Frontierland and then down Main Street to the front of the park.
On Thursday, Goofy waved from atop a float while dancers and a man on stilts performed below. Later in the day, a majority of the Disney princesses, including
Cinderella, Tiana, Belle and Jasmine, greeted visitors. None of the characters wore masks, but they were at least six feet away from the light crowds who watched.
Passholder previews continue Friday, but those reservations were snapped up quickly.
Meet and greets, parades and nighttime spectaculars are among the many coronavirus cancellations at
Disney World, at least temporarily.
“I’m willing to do whatever it takes just to be here for now,” said Steven Foster, who spent Thursday morning livestreaming for his YouTube channel from Animal Kingdom. He and his friends took advantage of the small crowd to hit popular rides such as Expedition Everest and Flight of Passage.
He had already secured slots for three more park days in August. Disney World now requires advance park reservations as well as tickets to enter any theme park.
“Get back to life people. It’s time to quit living in fear,” said Foster, who lives in Bradenton.
He said he was accustomed to wearing a face covering, another new requirement to enter a Disney World theme park. Disney is setting aside locations in the parks — dubbed relaxation stations — where visitors can remove their masks. At Animal Kingdom, one is on the waterfront with an uninterrupted view of the iconic Tree of Life; the other one, located inside the Pizzafaria restaurant, features air-conditioning.
That relative tranquility — and the park’s soundtrack — was occasionally interrupted by a loudspeaker announcement that reminded folks across the park to wash their hands, wear their masks and keep their distance.
Alexa Pianowski, an annual passholder from Winter Haven, said she was pleased that visitors were respecting her personal space and the mask rules.
“I love it. It’s not crowded at all, but everyone seems to be happy and respecting the rules, which is awesome,” she said.
The light crowd allowed Flemming to enjoy previously unseen details within the park.