Have you visited Walt Disney World since the pandemic started? If not, you’ve missed plenty.Management has changed several policies, some of them temporarily. Others represent permanent updates to longstanding Disney rules.
Here are the ways that Disney is different now than two years ago.
Park Passes Now Required
One update requires more adjustment than the rest. For many years now, theme park admission has worked only one way.
We buy a ticket to the parks, and then we show our proof of admission at the entrance. After that, we enter the park.
Alas, COVID-19 forced theme park attendance restrictions. Walt Disney World needed to enforce social distancing policies for everyone’s safety.
During this timeframe, park officials required an unofficial head count of expected guests for a given day.
So, Disney introduced Park Passes as a way to acquire that data. Now, park guests must reserve a Park Pass for the day.
Disney only sells a specific allotment of Park Passes. When you don’t have one, you cannot enter the park, even for afternoon park hopping.
While a writer at The Motley Fool believes Park Passes won’t be around forever, they have outlasted the pandemic.
Disney has extended them because something unexpected happened as the pandemic waned.
After people had spent two years trapped in their houses, they couldn’t wait to go to Disney. But unfortunately, the parks haven’t fully staffed up.
Management still needs to know how many guests will visit to staff the parks properly. As long as this matter persists, Park Passes remain a necessity.
The Dining Window Has Changed
Here’s a simple but significant change.
Historically, Disney had implemented a 180-day booking window for Advanced Dining Reservations (ADR).
When you wanted to eat at your favorite Table Service restaurant, you needed to plan six months in advance.
While planners loved this practice, the spontaneity crowd absolutely despised it. They didn’t want to think about vacation dining half a year ahead of time.
When Walt Disney World reopened, Disney quietly modified its policy to shrink the ADR window.
Now, you cannot book until 60 days before your trip. There’s one vital caveat to this rule, though.
Let’s say that you’re visiting for six nights. You can reserve tables for each night of your trip once your 60-day booking window opens.
You should utilize this competitive advantage as much as possible.
Official Disney Resort Benefits Are Different
For many years, official Disney resort guests used Extra Magic Hours as a way to spend extra time at the parks.
Generally, one park a day either opened 60 minutes early or remained in operation 60 minutes late.
During that extra time, the only people at the parks were those staying at Disney resorts.
Management has since split this amenity into two different options. Now, Disney resort guests use a new amenity, Early Theme Park Entry.
This benefit entitles guests to 30 minutes of morning access before each theme park technically opens to the public.
Whereas Extra Magic Hours only applied to one park, Early Theme Park Entry works everywhere.
Simultaneously, Disney introduced Extended Evening Hours, a more limited but remarkable amenity.
With this enhancement, official resort guests can spend two hours at a theme park after it closes to everyone else.
Disney generally only hosts Extended Evening Hours twice a week. Thus far, the general pattern has involved Mondays at EPCOT and Wednesdays at Magic Kingdom.
You can think of this amenity as an after-hour ticketed event that’s free to official Disney resort guests.
Stating the obvious, you should always stay at an official Disney resort.
No Annual Passes for People Outside Florida/California
Nobody saw this change coming, and we don’t know how permanent it is.
When Disney introduced its new Disneyland annual pass program, Magic Key, it included access for everyone.
The passes came in four tiers, and out-of-state guests could purchase them. Similarly, the same statement applied to the return of annual passes at Walt Disney World.
Later, Disney fans complained about Park Passes and how they limited the use of annual passes.
At this point, Disney stopped selling out-of-state annual passes at Disneyland and then Walt Disney World.
Currently, Walt Disney World annual passholders cannot renew their annual passes.
Nobody knows when this policy may change, as the whole thing has felt like Disney’s legal team is running the show.
They may have noticed exposure in the wording of annual pass access relative to Park Pass requirements.
Dining Plan on Hiatus
This one qualifies as another mystery that remains.
When Walt Disney reopened, most restaurants didn’t return. Obviously, Disney didn’t see a need to bring back the dining plan without these places.
Over time, most Walt Disney World restaurants have reopened. However, the dining plan has yet to return.
Late last year, park officials indicated that the Disney Dining Plan would come back in 2022. Well, it’s May, and we’re still waiting.
FastPasses Aren’t Free Now
This rule change counts as the bitterest pill for many Disney fans.
I know that many of us saw this one coming a mile away. After all, Disney was among the last theme parks to offer a free skip-the-line option.
When Disneyland switched to MaxPass in 2017, the writing was on the wall for Walt Disney World.
Still, guests remain hostile about the notion of the new versions of FastPass, Disney Genie+ and Lightning Lane.
One costs $15 per day plus tax for up to eight attractions. The other costs up to $15 for a single E-ticket attraction.
Do you need to buy these amenities to have a great time at Disney? Of course not.
I knew people who spent 10 days at Disney and never used a FastPass. They hadn’t even heard of it.
For this reason, this price only matters if you’re someone who might pay for it.
Also, I should add that Disney Genie is operational now. It’s a free virtual assistant that will help you maximize your park visit.
Once you’re good at Genie, you’ll do more at the parks even when you don’t pass for Lightning Lane experiences.
You’re Gonna Need a Phone
You’ve likely figured this out from reading down to here. Several of the experiences I’ve mentioned require some sort of phone usage.
With your phone, you can show park admission, book Park Passes, prove you’re staying at an official Disney resort and schedule Lightning Lanes.
Plus, Disney emphasizes Mobile Ordering now as a means of serving meals quickly. And you WILL use Disney Genie more than you think.
For all these reasons, you’re gonna need your phone, and you’re gonna wear it out with heavy usage.
Magical Express Is No More
Finally, I’ve got one bummer to share with you. Disney could no longer rely on Mears Transportation Group for reliable service.
Mears laid off more than 90 percent of his staff during the pandemic. Afterwards, many of its hires were new, inexperienced bus drivers.
So, Disney grudgingly bit the bullet and ended Magical Express. There remains a chance that it’ll return one day.
Until then, Mears is operating its own service, while an upstart named The Sunshine Flyer provides a themed “train” experience as a bus option to and from the airport.
Also, please remember that Minnie Vans will return this summer. These vehicles represent the most stylish way to move around the Disney campus.
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Feature Photo: Photo: Four Seasons