How Disney’s Theme Parks Are Changed Forever Following COVID

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have largely returned to their pre-pandemic state over the past few years. If you did not know any better, a stroll down Main Street, U.S.A. in 2023 looks like everything has stayed the same. But if you have gone through the trip planning process at any point since March 2020, you know that the truth is far from that.

When the parks first reopened, temperature checks were as standard as bag checks, and you could not walk into a restaurant or gift shop without passing several hand sanitizer dispensers. While Disney lifted many COVID-era restrictions that were in place throughout 2020 and 2021, some changes are still in place.

You will not find Disney’s once-abundant supply of face masks for sale though some are still there but are harder to spot. Physical distancing markers placed six feet apart on the ground of each queue are a thing of the past. But how you plan and budget for a Disney vacation in 2023 looks very different now than how you would have gone about it in 2019.

Overall, pre-planning encapsulates the Disney park experience nowadays, with the idea of a spontaneous vacation feeling more and more like a thing of the past. Jen Dunyon from Disney travel reseller, Get Away Today, shares, “Since the COVID-19 shutdown, families have needed more guidance and expert assistance in planning a Disney vacation. We’ve found that guests who just show up to the theme parks like in the past have a sub-par experience. It’s important to manage guest expectations and make sure they know how to navigate all the new tools and conveniences to have the best experience. Reservations, mobile ordering, Genie+, etc. are all new since COVID-19 and take some navigating.”

Families looking to visit Disney in 2023 feel the pressure from that extra step in navigating more strongly than ever. Two years after Disneyland’s reopening and nearly three years after Disney World’s reopening, guests must anticipate the following major differences before booking their next trip.

Disney Park Pass Reservations

The most significant COVID-era change that remains today is the Park Pass Reservation system at Disney World and Disneyland. It is the one change that impacts every guest because park entry now requires a purchased theme park ticket and a confirmed reservation. This mandate applies to all ticket types: guests staying at the Disney hotels, Disneyland Magic Key Holders, Walt Disney World Annual Passholders in many scenarios, guests with regular day Disneyland and Walt Disney World tickets visiting from off-property accommodations. Park Reservations can fill up beforehand, so booking your park reservations before travel is paramount.

Making a Park Reservation is simple enough; most guests will make their reservation when purchasing park tickets. Whereas in the past, guests had more spontaneity with how they mapped out their vacations, these days, you must have a precise plan for which park you intend to start your day in. If you are Park Hopping, you only need a reservation for the first park, not for any subsequent parks you visit that day. Walt Disney World recently relaxed this requirement for Annual Passholders for most afternoon visit scenarios.

Some see the new system as an improvement, especially during peak seasons when the parks would historically reach their maximum capacity. Cori Carroll, founder of Disneyland Tips and Tricks–Your Questions Answered on Facebook, shares, “I think that it’s great that families don’t have to worry about traveling from afar only to be turned away at the gates, as they know for sure that they will have a spot in the parks, especially on those super busy times of the year at Disneyland.”

Disney Genie and Genie+

Before 2020, guests who frequented the Disney theme parks were familiar with a system known as FastPass+. It allowed guests to bypass the standby lines for most rides by reserving a one-hour return window to use the expedited FastPass queue. Park admission included access to FastPass+ at no extra charge — something that Disney’s competitors did not offer.

In 2021, over a year after the parks reopened with no FastPass+ system, Disney rolled out a new program called Genie+ at Walt Disney World and Genie+ at Disneyland. It was accompanied by Disney Genie, a free in-app system that helped guests plan their day by recommending which rides to head to. Genie+, on the other hand, was the new version of FastPass+. While the mechanics of Genie+ are essentially the same as FastPass+, there is one significant difference: Genie+ is not free. Prices vary, but you can expect to pay anywhere from $15 to $25 per guest per day to use Genie+ in Disney World. Guests had seen the price go beyond $25 than that on days when park attendance was estimated to be at its highest.

There are a lot of intricacies with Genie+, notably that purchasing includes the ability to book return times for most rides, but not all. The most popular rides require a separate purchase to book a return window to use its expedited queue, which was renamed Lightning Lane with the launch of Genie+.

Changes in Dining and Mobile Experiences

Grabbing your favorite meal or snack in the Disney theme parks can still look and feel different at times from what it did before 2020. Two of the most significant differences include the suspension of the Disney Dining Plan, a program that allowed guests to pre-pay for food when booking their vacation, thus giving them more of an “all-inclusive” feel to the trip. Nearly three years after Disney World’s reopening, the Dining Plan has yet to be reinstated, though Disney once stated that it intended to bring it back at a later date.

Another dining change that many believe was for the better was the increased presence of Mobile Order. Though Mobile Order predates 2020, the contactless way to order and pick up your food became necessary during the pandemic. For a time, it was the predominant way you could dine at Disney’s quick-service locations. Though more options have been made available recently, many guests still rely heavily on Mobile Order for the convenience of the service.

Beyond mobile order, your mobile phone plays a major role in the Disney vacation experience today. From booking Lightning Lane reservations to Mobile Ordering your meal to even skipping the checkout line at gift shops, you may constantly find yourself on your phone.

Disney’s in-park apps have been important planning tools since before the COVID-19 pandemic; however, it now feels more like a necessity to navigate the parks. Cara Beigel, Co-Founder of The Insiders Disney fan page, shares: “The biggest change that has come to the parks since the COVID-19 Pandemic is most notably the reliance on the Mobile App. Many of the mobile food ordering systems do not have many options for customization, which can be a problem for someone with many food allergies. I go often enough to know how to utilize the app and find something to eat, but many casual park-goers find it very difficult to find alternative options. One thing that has been great, is the mobile checkout in stores like World of Disney. We have saved a ton of time not waiting in those long checkout lines!”

Disney’s theme parks have experienced many changes since 2020, initially out of necessity to keep its Cast Members and guests safe. As time passed and public health measures became less prevalent, these changes became a more permanent fixture in how guests plan a Disney vacation. If you have not returned to the House of Mouse since the COVID-19 pandemic began, it is worth studying what is different. It could very well reshape how your family prepares for a Disney vacation.

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