Disney fans find COVID-19 precautions, light crowd as 'The Place Where Dreams Come True' reopens
Forty-four years after they honeymooned at Magic Kingdom, Carol and Steve Show donned mouse ears with "44" emblazoned on the iconic headgear and posed for photos in front of Cinderella Castle.
The two were among the thousands of people who descended on Walt Disney World Saturday as Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom welcomed guests for the first time since COVID-19 forced the parks' closure March 15.
Those are the first two Disney parks to reopen, even as a sharp increase in new infections in Florida is charted.On Saturday, the state Department of Health reported 10,360 new cases, the 18th consecutive day that at least 5,000 new cases of the novel coronavirus have been announced, pushing total cases to 254,511.
Those making their way back to "The Place Where Dreams Come True" found a smaller, much more sanitized and COVID-19-conscious world.
Coronavirus-forced changes are many, from touch-free forehead temperature checks to hand-sanitizing stations and six-foot separations between guests in lines. Social distancing is emphasized by signs on everything from the ground to walls to trash cans, and reinforced by the addition of Plexiglass-topped partitions in lines for rides and partitions at registers in shops.
Masks are mandatory, except when eating. Cast members wear masks, too, or face shields. Crowd capacity has been limited. Food from sit-down restaurants, some of which aren't yet open, must be mobile-ordered before guests can enter the restaurant, remove their masks and eat.
None of that stopped the Disney faithful from snagging reservations as soon they opened up in late June, first for those with resort reservations and then for annual pass holders.
The Shows, both 64, "absolutely" have concerns about the spread of COVID-19 in Florida. The Port St. Lucie residents have "heard all the questions," especially, "Why would you be going there now?"
But their answer, said Carol Show, is: "Why wouldn't we?"
"We discussed this a lot," the retired teacher said. "We think Disney is taking so many precautions, we feel safer here than at stores. We're not very fearful people. We figure, let's live.”
Disney has not specified how many visitors it planned to admit Saturday or what that count will be in the foreseeable future. However, Len Testa, co-author of "The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World," told USA TODAY he expected to see about 15,000 guests — just 25% of capacity — on opening day.
"To put that number in perspective, the Magic Kingdom averages just under 60,000 per day," he said, adding that this week's preview events for annual pass holders drew 7,000 to 8,000 per day.
Guests lined up early at the Walt Disney World transportation center, where they could board the monorail, ferry or buses for the Magic Kingdom.
Those who opted to ride the iconic monorail from the Transportation and Ticket Center to the Magic Kingdom entrance stood in a well-marked socially distanced queue. The train’s cabins have been divided with vinyl barriers, and only one or two families were allowed in each.
On a normal, pre-COVID-19 day, the trains would have been filled to standing room only capacity, but Jess and Brandon Bullock of Sarasota didn't find much of a line. They did find freshly sanitized seats — one party per bench and no one standing, hanging onto handrails — and a much less frenetic crowd than usual.
"The feeling through security and monorail lines was pretty sterile," said Jess Bullock, 31. "Definitely not the usual bubbly atmosphere, but that's understandable."
Inside the park, they found shorter waits for favorite attractions and rides, though at times, Bullock said, waits were much longer than displayed on the Disney app or signs.
It rained at some points, and the 100-degree-plus heat index was stifling. Cinderella Castle glistened after a brief downpour, its blue and pink spires reflecting in puddles on the concrete. The Magic Kingdom's central hub was hosting light crowds of picture-taking guests as of noon.
Overall, the Bullocks were pleased with what Disney has done to welcome guests back, but "to be quite honest, I think Universal has done a better job," Bullock said.
"But Disney would be a close second," she said, adding that she and her husband will be back for a long weekend stay next week.
"I think the biggest thing is, Disney doesn't have as many places to rest and you don't see as many people out cleaning as you do at Universal."
Sisters Mary Griffin and Leslie Shinault of Rockledge were impressed by the welcome they got from cast members as they walked Main Street USA toward Cinderella’s Castle.
One visual indication of a smaller crowd: “We saw four strollers by the carousel, instead of hundreds,” said Griffin, 56. “And there’s no one stepping on your heels."
A major but strictly enforced downside: Those mandatory masks, which the sisters agree are “absolutely necessary,” given COVID-19 but “a nightmare” to wear for hours in 90-plus-degree heat, Shinault said.
Despite any glitches, waits and the rain, Carol and Steve Show said they were just happy to return to a place they have loved all their adult lives and have visited often since moving to St. Lucie County a few years ago.
Decked out in bride-and-groom attire, the two retirees were hard to miss in a fairly sparse crowd. Even Bullock reported seeing "the anniversary couple," who bought "Together Again" T-shirts, new to Disney shops in honor of the reopening.
"We couldn't walk anywhere without feeling like a celebrity," Carol Show said. "Everyone was offering us congratulations as we walked down Main Street ... all the cast members, even the Disney vice president, greeting everyone.
"It's our 'happy place.' And we're so glad to be back."
Contributing: Jayme Deerwester, USA Today, and Seth Kubersky. Contact Kennerly at 321-242-3692 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @bybrittkennerly Facebook: /bybrittkennerly
This story originally published to floridatoday.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the USA TODAY Network - Florida.