I Went to Disneyland and Other Theme Parks After They Reopened — Here's What Was Different

Outside at Disneyland During Covid-19

Liane Starr

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Outside at Disneyland During Covid-19
Liane Starr

Happiest Pandemic on Earth?

During the early days of the pandemic, California required theme parks to close — and, like everything else associated with the pandemic, the shutdown lasted much longer than expected. It was also unprecedented. Disneyland had shut down only three times before: after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, right after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and following the 9/11 attacks. But those were just one-day closures. This time, Disneyland was shut down for 412 days — and it wasn’t alone. Universal Studios Hollywood, Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Disneyland’s sister park California Adventure were all closed for over a year. When they reopened, there were new rules — and a very different experience. I went to Disneyland, California Adventure (including the new Avengers Campus), and Universal Studios Hollywood in June and late May, before the Disney parks dropped most mask requirements and social distancing. Here's what that once-in-a-lifetime experience was like, for better and for worse.

Related: Vintage Disney Photos That'll Make You Excited to Visit the Reopened Parks

Disney Hand Washing Station
Liane Starr

Hand Cleanliness Was a Theme

Disney has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to sanitation (when norovirus was a common threat, the company installed hand sanitizer stations on Disney cruise ships), so it was no shock to see motion-activated pumps everywhere (and they were at Universal as well). So, what was new? Disney also had mobile hand-washing stations so you could scrub away without entering a bathroom.

Related: 15 Ways the Coronavirus Has Changed Americans’ Daily Lives

Masks on at Disney
Liane Starr

Masks Were Worn, Period

Masks were required, and although people grumbled and protested at Costco, drugstores, and other locations across the country, compliance was high (admittedly, some noses were peeking out). This was no big surprise, given that both Disneyland and Walt Disney World don’t believe the customer is always right if he or she is breaking the rules, and reportedly have had no problem kicking out people who dropped their masks. Medical exemptions were not accepted. 

Related: 25 Places to Take the Family Now That Disney is So Expensive

Disney Princess Tiana
Liane Starr

Characters Were Met at a Distance

No, Mickey and Minnie weren’t doling out hugs, but lots of characters were available for meet and greets, even if it was more of a meet-and-wave experience. Some of these interactions were more successful than others. Black Panther stood at a safe distance but could still talk to my kids (and convince them to make the Wakanda Forever arms-crossed greeting), but it wasn’t as easy for other characters. While it was charming to see Goofy mime a fishing skit from a second story over California Adventure’s lake, a female pirate at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog" had to yell down from balconies to the little kids who wanted to talk to them.

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Designated Dining Area in Disneyland
Liane Starr

Getting a Lunch Table Wasn’t Always an Option

The biggest problem for most theme parks seemed to be food service. While many seating areas lost some tables and chairs to enforce social distancing, it wasn’t always clear where they had ended up. People with trays full of food were left wandering around looking for tables that weren’t turning over. 

Related: 25 Official Disney Recipes

Disney Covid Food Stands
Heidi L./Yelp

Ordering Food Wasn’t Easy

Of course, people were only wandering around desperately if they could get the trays of food in the first place. At Disneyland and California Adventure, food that wasn’t available at a kiosk had to be ordered online, and the wait could be two hours or more. At Universal Studios Hollywood, food choices weren’t great (overpriced Panda Express, anyone?) but lines were shorter.

Related: 25 Official Disney Recipes That Will Make Your Kitchen the Happiest Place on Earth

Large Lines Form Outside of World of Disney Store during Disneyland Coronavirus Closure; Disneyland to Become Massive Vaccination Site
Kelvin Cheng/istockphoto

Everyone Was From California

This wasn’t a change you could see (although there were more black hoodies and T-shirts than pre-pandemic), but only California residents were allowed to enter any of the theme parks as part of the state’s efforts to stop the spread of the coronavirus. That largely meant most people had been to a park previously — so even though no one looked lost, no one seemed awestruck, either.

Crowd at Disney During Pandemic
Liane Starr

Reduced Crowds Didn’t Mean No Crowds

One of the biggest advantages was that crowd size was reduced to either 25% or 35% of capacity, depending on the virus rates in the surrounding county. While that meant less crowding, it didn’t mean no crowds at all — or attempts at crowd control. While some parts of every park seemed empty, people still congregated at the most popular locations. Spots like New Orleans Square in Disneyland (where the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion rides are) were still surprisingly crowded.

Related: Cost of Disney Through the Years

Reopened Oaks Amusement Park in Portland

Ride Capacity Was Changed

While most rides were unchanged due to pandemic restrictions, rides that usually involved sitting next to or near strangers had plastic shields between seats, or parties were separated by rows. For rides that involved boats or cars on an indoor ride, usually each vessel was limited to riders in one party — which could mean just one or two people getting an entire car to themselves. Even if that made for a cool selfie, it also made for a longer line. 

Related: How to Avoid Long Lines at 14 Busy Places, From Costco to Disney

Parking Garage at Disneyland
Liane Starr

Parking Was Easier ...

Getting into the parking structures for all the parks we visited was far easier than usual. And I never got stuck in the spot farthest from the elevator or stairs — or worse, on the roof, where your car and its contents bake in the sun. So that part was a treat.

Walking Inside Disneyland
Liane Starr

... But Getting Into the Park Was Harder in Some Places

While you weren’t likely to be stuck on the rooftop when you parked, those handy parking trams for Disneyland or California Adventure that whisked you from the parking garage to the park entrance? During the pandemic, they weren’t running — at all. That meant 15 minutes of walking to get to the park and, more importantly, that same slog as you were leaving the park, when little kids were usually exhausted and bleary-eyed.

Disney Avengers Campus
Liane Starr

New Rides Were Still Hot Tickets

Surprisingly, even if most of us were stuck at home during the pandemic, theme park designers and construction workers were hard at work. The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash at Universal Studios Hollywood and the Avengers Campus at California Adventure both opened during the pandemic. While this meant long lines for both, the Avengers Campus line was really, really long. If you didn’t get into the virtual queue that opened at 7 a.m. or noon, you were standing in line for a long, long time — seven hours on opening day, then three or four hours on the days after that. 

Related: 19 Expensive Mistakes to Avoid at Disney

Waiting at the Entrance at Disneyland 2020
Craig Y./Yelp

Wait Estimates Were Often Way Off ...

While reduced crowds meant fewer people in line, no one at the parks seemed to know how to estimate the actual wait time of socially distanced lines. We eventually came up with our own math — 45 minutes meant less than 20, one hour meant a half hour, tops — no matter how long or circuitous the line appeared.

Long Line at the Theme Park
Liane Starr

… But Forget FastPasses

Given that FastPass kiosks at Disneyland and California Adventure usually attract small, dense crowds (and lines were shorter overall anyway), the FastPass service was shut down during the pandemic. You could still buy an Express pass to line-jump at Universal Studios Hollywood, however, if you were willing to cough up about $100 per person.

Disneyland Tickets
Amber L./Yelp

You Needed Reservations

Buying a ticket wasn’t enough. At Disneyland and California Adventure, you also needed to make a reservation. At Universal Studios Hollywood, you had to specify what day you were coming. If you needed to reschedule? While that was technically possible, you often had to do so within a tight window (for Disneyland, tickets that allowed two park visits required the second visit happen within 13 days of the first, for example) and after the parks reopened, some days were completely full within minutes.

Related: 26 Ways to Do Disney on a Budget

People in Line at Disneyland
Liane Starr

Virtual Lines Were Problematic

The two hottest attractions at Disneyland and California Adventure — Rise of the Resistance and Webslingers  — both required getting into the virtual queue at either 7 a.m. or noon if you didn’t want to wait in line for hours with no guarantee you’d get in, period. But even with the parks at just 35% capacity, the queues filled up in seconds. The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash at Universal Studios Hollywood was just as problematic. Even when you got into the virtual queue, when your time arrived, you were invited to stand in line for 45 minutes to go on the ride. While the virtual queue idea could be a great addition with fine tuning, it needs a lot of work.

Disneyland During Covid
Liane Starr

Was It Worth It?

Full disclosure: I am not overly fond of theme parks. Most of the time they’re intensely overcrowded, food and drink are wildly overpriced and usually unhealthy, and you’re assaulted by stuff to buy. Being the parent of two tweens, however, visiting these places is a necessary evil. But with pandemic restrictions promising crowds that were a fraction of the norm, it seemed like an ideal opportunity to get some of these visits out of the way. Although there were unhappy surprises (it turns out those FastPasses at Disneyland were sorely missed, for example) and the nerve-wracking aspect of going anywhere during the pandemic was always back-of-mind, it was definitely worth it.

Related: Disney Bucket List: 18 Things You Don’t Want to Miss