Disney World in 2021
I have more clients booked to visit Walt Disney World in 2021 than I have in any previous year. Some of this is because people who booked last year have pushed it back. Some people are just tired of being stuck at home and they want some magic in their lives. And others have heard how great Disney is with fewer crowds and have decided to give it a try.
Of course, like so many other things, visiting Disney in 2021 is going to be different than visiting at any other time. This article surely won't hit every difference, and it's no substitute for doing your own pre-trip research to see if the trip is right for you, but I'm going to try to detail the changes that I've noticed. The following pictures are of my family and me from previous trips! Let this serve as my son's modeling portfolio.
Luggage and Magic Bands
Previously, the fun started when a box arrived in the mail, filled with personalized Magic Bands. You were also sent the yellow luggage tags pictured above, that allowed you to check your luggage at the airport, and not see it again until it was delivered to your room. Both of these programs have changed. Magic Bands are still available for sale, and you can still reactivate old ones, but Disney is no longer shipping free Magic Bands (let's be honest - they were never actually FREE). Disney is testing a new method of using your cell phone to access reservations, enter your room, etc., but it has not yet been fully implemented. In addition, while Disney's Magical Express is still running in 2021 (discontinued next year), luggage service is not. You must claim your luggage from baggage claim, and it will travel with you on the bus to your resort.
Parker Hopper Tickets and Fast Pass+
When Disney World first reopened last year, it had eliminated park hopping (visiting more than one park per day) and Fast Pass+ reservations. Fast Pass+ is still on hold, but park hopping is back! Disney is currently utilizing the Disney Park Pass reservation system, and you must make a reservation to visit a certain park on a certain day. After 2:00 pm, you may enter another park if there is availability. If you currently have Disney travel plans, you should have made park reservations already. If not, I suggest you do so immediately. You can change your plans, but you can't make a full park accept your reservation!
Disney dining has always been a fun adventure. Between character meals, high-end signature experiences, and creative dishes, there are entire blogs and message boards dedicated to eating at Disney World. There have been a lot of changes with dining and I'll try to hit them all. First, your favorite restaurants may not be open. In my family, we each have a different favorite restaurant. Of them, two out of three are currently closed. Buffets have been closed or switched to family-style dining. Character meals exist, but characters won't get as close as they used to (see Donald and Goofy pics above).
Did you hate setting an alarm to wake up early 180 days prior to a trip to make dining reservations? You still have to set that alarm, but you can wait a few more months. Dining reservations still exist, but the timeline is now 60 days prior to travel. If eating at sit-down restaurants is important to you, start doing some research. While more restaurants are starting to reopen, finding reservations can still be a challenge, particularly in the parks themselves.
The Disney Dining plan has always been a polarizing topic. People who loved it thought it was great to order the steak or lobster without worrying about the price. They loved having a dessert with every meal, and loved being able to say YES when kids asked for snacks they wouldn't normally buy (see soft pretzel above). People who hated it thought it was too much food and too expensive. There's no need to debate it currently, because the Disney Dining Plan doesn't currently exist. I suspect it may return once more full-service restaurants open.
Disney Resort Hotels
When Disney World reopened last year, it only opened a few of its resort hotels. More are scheduled to open this summer, but if your trip is only complete when you stay at one particular resort, you'll want to make sure it's open!
The photo above isn't going to happen this year. Some people plan their Disney vacations around hugging characters, collecting autographs, and interacting with Chip and Dale. If these things are vital to enjoying your trip, this isn't the year to go.
But if you will be thrilled to see Chip and Dale having a picnic in the grass as you walk by, or watching Donald trying to pull weeds in a flower bed, or waving goodnight to Pooh and Tigger as you exit the park, you will be in for some fun surprises!
Disney is letting their characters leave their meet and greet stations and move a bit more freely around the parks - they pop up fairly frequently - always in a non-public area to avoid being surrounded like The Beatles. You may not get a family photo with Mickey photo to frame for your living room, but you don't have to stand in line for hours to see Donald in every park every day (spoken from experience.)
Fireworks, Parades, and Shows
Have you ever sat on a curb in the blistering heat, in a crowd, for an hour, waiting for a Disney parade to start? I have, and I don't recommend it at any time, much less this year. Disney agrees, and parades have been replaced by cavalcades - fun surprise appearances by characters. If you suddenly hear music, start looking around, because Mickey and Minnie may be riding by on a float, a princess might be riding a horse down the street, or Goofy might float by on a boat in the river at Animal Kingdom.
In addition, the end-of-night shows have been halted at all parks. These large-scale productions with fireworks have long drawn crowds together. While I think Disney may add fireworks back into the evenings, I see them as being fun surprises that people can enjoy while spread out through the parks - not shows with specific start times.
Is Disney World right for you this year? I don't know. It's important for you to have a clear understanding of what might be different. Some of these changes may make for a better experience: no FastPass+ system has led to regular lines moving much faster, for example. And some changes may make for an experience that is challenging: it's not super easy to get dining reservations at the most popular restaurants.
As you've seen from these photos, we've enjoyed Disney vacations over the years. We went when our son was 4, again when he was 7, and again at 10. Do you see a theme? He's 13 this year. We already have a huge trip planned to the Caribbean in June. But guess what? We're also going to Disney World. It's going to be a different experience. And I can't wait! (Shh. Don't tell him. He doesn't know yet.)