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Saturday, August 1, 2020

Through the Looking Glass

I have long been a fan of Disney World. I grew up going on a pretty regular basis and, as soon as they were old enough, my husband and I brought each of our children to Florida to be indoctrinated into all things magic and Mouse. Yet, I was firmly in the – “What?!? How could opening Disney World possibly be a good thing? We are in the middle of a pandemic!” - camp. I thought it was crazy that the parks were opening, and I thought that the people who would go must be equally crazy. Imagine my surprise, then, to find myself purchasing tickets and excitedly riding the monorail up to the gates of the Magic Kingdom.

It all started with a drive to Florida. Our family of five was going stir-crazy at home. My husband has been working from a make-shift office in the corner of our bedroom since school shut down in late March. He spends most of his waking and all of his sleeping hours within the same four walls. For my and our three kids’ parts, given that we were only socializing with others outside, and that Texas gets H-O-T in the summer, we, too, were tired of the same view and the same company. Lucky enough to be able to, we rented a friend’s vacation home in the Florida Keys and set out for a road trip. My husband would work in a different house for a change, and I would do laundry and cook in a different laundry room and kitchen. Sigh. The pool and change of scenery would be a welcome reprieve, though! As would a backyard pool.

Our route from Austin to Islamorada took us through Orlando, where we were taunted by Disney souvenir shops and billboards of Mickey Mouse beckoning us to join the fun. All of us bemoaned the fact that we were so close, yet so far. My husband I mused that it would be a long time before we’d see Disney World again. The pandemic would have to pass, so too the massive crowds that would surely follow that milestone.

Our time in the Keys was just the reprieve we needed. Relaxing by the pool, I read a local publication. In it were stories of people who had gone to Disney World and were sharing their experiences. No lines. No crowds. Strict safety measures. Reports of feeling safer in the Magic Kingdom than out in the real world. Could it be?

I shared the news with my husband, stating that after seeing the billboards and reading about the parks, it was killing me not to go. All it took was his reply, “Well, you know I love it, too…” His upcoming birthday provided the last excuse I needed to justify the whole crazy venture in my head. “We can go for your birthday!”

Disney has a new system in which you purchase your tickets and then make a park reservation, allowing them to keep the numbers of visitors to each park within a desired range. I found it easy to buy our tickets online, and to get a reservation for the Magic Kingdom for one day. The day before, we drove up to Orlando, stayed in a hotel near Disney Springs, Disney’s shopping/entertainment area, and masked-up to take a look around.

Disney Springs definitely had visitors, but the multiple empty parking spots showed just how many less there were than during a typical day. Masks were required, sanitizer was plentiful, and distancing was enforced in the shops, although we tried to spend as little time inside as possible. We did queue up, however, to purchase some cute Disney masks – even forcing the birthday boy to don a Goofy mask. Then, it was back to the hotel to rest up for our big day.

We planned to get to the park early, not knowing how long the new entrance procedures might take. We needn’t have worried. The parking lot held a few rows of cars, followed by seemingly endless amounts of empty asphalt. The ride over on the Monorail was equally different, yet not unwelcome. Used to being crammed in with several other excited families, we were the only family allowed into our car – after sanitizing, that is.

Next came the temperature check station, followed by a quick security check. After that, we were in! Where usually visitors congregate in front of the train station until the gates are officially opened, we discovered that the park had switched to a soft opening, likely so that crowds didn’t form. Park hours had been shortened from 9 a.m. – 7 p.m., with no fireworks, but at 8:40 a.m., we were already making our way up Main Street.

“Making our way” was not the crush and rush of visits past. In fact, it was the first time we’d been able to see much of the ground on Main Street at all. There were huge pockets of emptiness and we giddily looked at each other to check that this was, in fact, true. 

Fantasyland with no lines! Truly a sign of the apocalypse...
From there we moved through the various lands – Fantasyland, Tomorrowland, Adventureland, Frontierland, and Liberty Square with the same ease. With literally no lines to wait in, wearing a mask in the heat was extremely bearable. By the time we started to feel warm, we were under cover. Although still technically outside and walking through the series of twists and turns designed to keep massive crowds organized, we were cooled by the blasting air that Disney uses to keep people reasonably comfortable. Before you could say, “Go,” we would find ourselves hopping into our seats, lap bars being lowered, and the next escape from reality appearing before our eyes.

The scene was repeated over and over all throughout the day. Ninety-nine percent of the time it was incredible. The other one percent, our filter would imperceptibly shift, and either my husband or I would be struck by just how strange and surely wrong the world must be for this experience to be true. I actually stopped to take a picture when I saw that the wait time at Space Mountain was listed as zero minutes. Assuming he had cut in front of me, a man backtracked and apologized. When I explained that all was good, I had just stopped to take a picture because I never thought that wait time would be possible, he shook his head in understanding, “I know, it’s so weird, right?”


Surreal was the word that kept coming to mind. So surreal in fact that by noon my husband was saying things like, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. When would we ever again get to do Disney like this?” It progressed into, “You know, I think I can move tomorrow’s meeting. Let’s try to go to one more park. I don’t think this will ever happen again.” And we did. Before mid-afternoon, we had purchased tickets online, made our reservation for Animal Kingdom, and extended our hotel stay by one night.

There were no fireworks, but because we had kept moving constantly all day, we didn’t mind the earlier closing time. We saw everything we wanted to and our feet, in true Disney World fashion, were killing us. In an effort to prevent crowds from gathering, there were also no parades, but floats would randomly appear. Having been before, though, and being so delighted to breeze through all of the “lines,” we were happy to trade the full parade away. Also missing, were character meet-and-greets and autograph signing. There, again, Disney had a solution. Characters would appear – socially distanced – at unscheduled times to interact with guests. After walking through Cinderella’s castle, my children were hailed by Cinderella’s wicked stepsisters, Anastasia and Drizella, who were standing at the railing of the castle balcony. There ensued a five-minute back-and-forth conversation between my three and the stepsisters. They talked about souvenirs, traded jokes, and shared names. None of that would have happened if, as in trips past, we needed to move along for the 30 children lined up behind mine.

And what about feeling safe? Truthfully, we did. Certainly more so than at various stops along the road home, when we’d see people with their mask down around their chin, or with no mask at all. Disney World is very strict about its safety requirements. Masks must be worn at all times, and must remain pulled up. At one point, I saw a woman pull her mask down from her nose and, within a mere 30 seconds, a staff member was politely asking her to pull it back up. Guests are allowed to remove their masks when eating or drinking. When Disney World realized that some people were doing so while walking, they tightened their guidelines to include the rule that you must remain seated when eating or drinking. For those that need a break from their masks, designated spots are set up around the parks to provide them a moment of respite.

Lines are clearly marked for social distancing, and visitors are regularly reminded not to move to the next line until the party in front of them has done so. There is sanitizer present to use before getting on a ride and after disembarking, as well as sanitizer visible at a plethora of spots around the park. Rides were periodically stopped to be sprayed down with sanitizing solution, then run through one rotation to allow the sanitizer to dry, before guests were loaded up again. 

Guests are also requested to make any food orders through the Disney World mobile app, and to approach the restaurant only once the food is flagged as ready. There are numerous outdoor seating areas, and, as with ride lines, Disney World’s propensity to air condition the outdoors made dining outside comfortable enough. Should you wish to sit inside, tables were clearly marked off to ensure proper distancing. The same was true of seats in shows, cars on rides, and lines for popcorn and Mickey Mouse head ice cream treats.

I never thought we would have gone to Disney World, and even felt hesitation sharing that we had, knowing that most would think as I did – What?! Are they crazy?!? Having done so, though, I will tell you that it was just the break from hard reality that my people and I needed. It is hard to focus on your troubles when cherubic-faced dolls are singing, “It’s a small world, after all” at you. Or, when your son actually kicks his heels up like a leprechaun when he realizes that, not only has he become tall enough to drive his own car at the Tomorrowland Speedway, but that he doesn’t have to wait 60 minutes to do so.

Right now, a bit of magic is what everyone needs, and we felt so lucky to have slipped through the looking glass to get a little for ourselves. We began the long drive home to Texas with hearts a little bit lighter, smiles a little bit bigger, and maybe a sparkly pair of Mickey ears or two.


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