After being closed due to COVID-19 for over a year, the theme parks at the Disneyland Resort are making their triumphant return on April 30, and we have an exclusive look inside the recent Cast Member reopening preview from our special guest correspondent Christopher Schmidt.
This week, fortunate California residents—joined vicariously by Disney fans around the world—will celebrate the reopening of The Happiest Place on Earth. Tuesday, April 27, through Thursday, April 29, were Cast Member-exclusive soft-open days. Friday, April 30, represents the official end of the Disneyland Resort lockdown, with both Disneyland and Disney California Adventure welcoming back limited numbers of reservation-securing Californian guests.
Our guest correspondent had the privilege to attend the first soft-open day at Disneyland Park, and while he would have been thrilled to sit on a charmingly appointed trash receptacle and just take in the park, fortunately for us he got to enjoy far more than that, and then send in the following report.
Organizationally, logistically, and from a health and safety standpoint, Disneyland’s return largely follows the pattern already established at Walt Disney World. In this article we endeavor to detail what is new and different, and what you can expect as you make your way back to the Disneyland Resort. Spoiler alert: Despite a few compulsory restrictions, the only thing lacking during the soft open was oppressive overcrowding, so go ahead and set those expectations high; COVID protocols and limitations, notwithstanding, Disney will exceed them.
What’s New, What’s Changed, and What to Expect
Significant swaths of the new procedures will be familiar to those who have recently attended Walt Disney World, Universal, or any international Disney Resort. They are, however, generally foreign to pre-COVID Disneyland guests.
Aside from securing an advance park reservation, none of the new guidelines are terribly difficult to abide. Still, you will want to be aware of the changes, or potentially find yourself on the wrong side of a resolutely impenetrable security checkpoint.
To enter Disneyland, Disney California Adventure, or a Disney Park, you now need more than a mere ticket. The California parks will be observing COVID-determinate crowd limitations. At the moment, the limit is set at 25% of normal park capacity, for each park. To avoid surprise overcrowding, Disneyland and Disney California Adventure require guests to acquire tickets and theme park reservations in advance and link the two.
Once on site, guests will note several alterations to the security and bag-check arrangement. Whether entering from Harbor Blvd. to the east or the parking megaplex on the west side of the resort, one is first subjected to a courtesy temperature check. This process is touchless, and if guests are keen to listen to directions as they approach, they need hardly even break stride (assuming no one in their party is sick).
Next come the adorable paraphernalia sniffing canines. K-9 teams became a resort staple before the pandemic, making their way throughout Downtown Disney and the Esplanade. Apparently, for now, at least, they are part of the adapted screening process. Again, without tremendous disruption, if you are paying attention, and not smuggling anything untoward, this is nary a blip on your way to the parks (fight every temptation to pet the dogs).
Then comes the ubiquitous bag check, now with significant improvements. Recent resort guests may have noticed how the bag-check process has become far less cumbersome. Whether representing a true policy shift, or security Cast Members have simply become far more efficient, crossing this threshold is profoundly more pleasant. If you don’t have a bag, you often don’t even have to subject your items to inspection. Holding your phone, keys, and sundry accoutrements in front of your body, in an obvious manner, most often suffices.
On the initial days of soft open, temperature screening began at 8:30 a.m. at both east and west access points. Even with the longish walk along the road normally used by the parking tram (which is currently unavailable), guests from the west side begin to trickle into the entry plaza by 8:45. For those who arrive by 9 a.m., or reasonably soon thereafter, there is little difficulty, aside from the traditional, unavoidable parking issues. Guests can expect to get to the gates rather easily and may be enjoying that first E-ticket attraction in relatively short order.
Soft-open guest reservations were held slightly below 25%. As more Cast Members are brought back and retrained, levels will increase. The first few days are a fair indication, however, that crowd levels will be far below what we were used to.
Disneyland operating at 25% capacity does not mean one can expect there to be one-quarter of the people they are used to seeing in the parks because this assumes that Disneyland operated at 100% capacity during your previous visits. Even when you can’t get up or down Main Street, or locate an attraction without an interminable wait, Disneyland was likely not at its true maximum capacity.
Still, the 25% limit is going to result in smaller crowds than most are accustomed to. With a little planning, it is possible to enjoy both Rise of the Resistance and Millennium Falcon Smuggler’s Run without sacrificing your entire visit, and Peter Pan’s Flight had less than a 10-minute wait almost the entire day. Granted, a Cast Member preview is an operations anomaly, with a lower-than-average frequency of small children. Throughout the resort, however, signs of usually low crowd levels were welcome and obvious.
Capacity restraints make it generally easy for guests to maintain a healthy distance from one another in walkways and even on attractions, where spacing markers are provided on the ground. Dining, however, is another issue. At peak mealtimes, when most everyone is trying to eat all at once, Disneyland has a bit of a problem. Most patios and eateries have notably fewer tables than they did previously. Spacing is good, and it’s easy to enjoy what is likely an infection-free meal even among many of your fellow guests. Disney has also re-designated considerable seating and real estate specifically for dining. It does not appear to be sufficient, even at 25% capacity.
Turns out, previously popular dining establishments are still really popular. Jolly Holiday Bakery Café and Red Rose Tavern, for instance, suffering limited seating to begin with, boasted few open tables for much of the day, and essentially none during the lunch rush. Nearly every operating eating area faced similar issues. Nearby benches were redesignated, as mentioned, and any surrounding open area is now occupied by the tables that were removed from their respective patios. This helps a little, though without good timing or fortune, you could find yourself eating your beignets at the Galactic Grill.
Increased need for already precious space is compounded by the new guidelines restricting guests from eating while ambulatory, since you may only remove your face mask while stationary. Once upon a pre-pandemic, Disneyland had ample seating for everyone who wanted to enjoy a leisurely meal, and for anyone else wanting to rest a spell on a park bench. Now that everyone with even a simple churro, popcorn, or anything edible will need a seat, there aren’t generally enough to go around. This is not a visit-spoiler, by any means. Still, it’s something to consider when planning a meal or rest break.
On the plus side, distancing has a positive impact upon wait times. As observed earlier in out-of-state parks, and as one might expect, 6 feet of distance between parties in a queue results in lines that are much, much shorter than they appear. A line that extends out beyond the Splash, Space, or Big Thunder Mountain queue-proper may have once been a deal breaker. With distancing, there’s a fair chance the expected, even posted, wait is wrong by half. Even accounting for the open spaces, since one does far less standing still, waits can feel shorter than before.
Bear in mind that distancing requirements have caused Disneyland to temporarily eliminate elements of some indoor rides, especially those involving pre-shows. For example, guests may bypass the Haunted Mansion’s stretching rooms and take the stairs down instead, and Rey’s hologram briefing may be skipped at Rise of the Resistance. Expect these adaptations to adjust further as operations ramp back up.
Finally, distancing also applies to the Disney characters, who make elevated appearances from the Main Street train depot, New Orleans Square’s balconies, and other points around the parks. Unlike at Walt Disney World, there are currently no mobile character cavalcades or mini-parades at Disneyland Resort.
An offshoot of the above dining dilemma, Disney’s mobile ordering system will face its own set of challenges during the COVID recovery. Once an indispensable tool of the impatient and well prepared, mobile ordering is likely to become the norm amidst a germ-averse populace that has lost its penchant for standing in the company of strangers, especially in the presence of food.
Mobile ordering is an ideal means of getting your items quickly and beating a hasty retreat. Not, however, when everyone is doing it. No, one Disney Cast Member preview does not a norm set. It is arguable that a higher-than-typical frequency of Disney Cast Members are already aware of and thus take advantage of the practice. But, mobile ordering was catching on preCOVID. Couple that with our newly developed fear of standing in another’s presence, and this potentially delicate system runs a real risk of becoming overwhelmed.
Compounding the challenge of securing a Disneyland theme park reservation, park hopping has also been restricted, so you can’t visit your second park of choice until 1 p.m. In addition, boarding groups required to experience Rise of the Resistance are distributed at 7 a.m. and noon only to guests who start their day in Disneyland Park, and not those park-hopping for Disney California Adventure. Therefore, carefully consider if the park hopping option’s extra expense is worth the additional afternoon freedom of movement.
ONE FAN’S BIASED CONCLUSION
Closed out of an abundance of caution, Disney has done everything they needed to do to ensure guest health, safety, and well-being. From signage, to spacing, to a surfeit of sanitizers, every step has been taken with guest confidence in mind. Disney wants you safe, Disney wants you happy, and they want you back.
For all there is to see and do at Disneyland, check out The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland by Seth Kubersky with Bob Sehlinger, Len Testa, and Guy Selga Jr. All Disneyland fans should also check out The Disneyland Story: The Unofficial Guide to the Evolution of Walt Disney’s Dream by Sam Gennawey. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and sign up for our newsletter here. Be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.