Disneyland Resort traditionally draws millions of visitors from around the world each year to "the happiest place on Earth," but after closing for more than a year because of the pandemic, the resort was forced to make some major changes aimed at safely welcoming guests back.
A month after the Southern California attraction reopened to out-of-state visitors, I took a road trip from Arizona to see how much of the magic remained.
Crowds are back
When I visited the weekend after July 4, Disneyland and California Adventure parks were packed.
Since reopening, Disneyland Resort runs on a reservation system, so you must reserve the park that you want to visit in advance, with some capacity limitations.
Disneyland makes clear on its website that offerings are subject to change.
"Certain parks, hotels, restaurants, attractions, experiences and other offerings may be modified or unavailable, have limited capacity, and are subject to limited availability or even closure, and park admission and offerings are not guaranteed," the site reads.
The reservation system didn't appear to do much for crowd control when I was there. Within two hours of the parks opening each day, crowds would fill the walkways, packed together so tightly my shoulders brushed others in high-traffic areas.
A few social distancing markers remained on the ground, but no one seemed to follow them. Both while walking freely around the park and while waiting in line for rides and food, people stood less than a foot away from each other.
Masks were few and far between
Very few people, adults or children, were wearing face masks either inside or outside when I visited.
There was no way to tell who was vaccinated. Many of Disneyland's guests are kids younger than 12 and not yet eligible for vaccinations.
At the time, Disneyland Resort rules required only unvaccinated guests to wear face coverings indoors.
Starting July 30, all guests ages 2 and up will be required to wear face coverings indoors, regardless of vaccination status. The rule applies on many attractions and in enclosed transportation vehicles.
The food offerings are greatly reduced
About a quarter of the food options, both quick service and table service, were temporarily closed when I visited. You're also required to have a ticket and theme park reservation for the same park on the same date to dine within parks.
The venues that were open were often offering reduced menus. For example, Flo's V8 Café at Cars Land in Disney's California Adventure offered pot pie and club sandwiches pre-pandemic. Now, they only offer burgers, fried chicken and chicken nuggets.
Short staffing may be partly to blame for the food limitations.
On my first day, I dined at Blue Bayou, a fine dining restaurant located within the Pirates of the Caribbean ride. They typically offer a complimentary bread service before your entrée arrives, but I noticed it was missing. I asked the waiter about it, and he said the restaurant is running at half-staff, so they had to cut the bread service.
On the rest of my trip, I noticed bread's disappearance ran deeper than just the one restaurant. Sourdough bread bowls are popular at the parks, and restaurants that typically served them were either completely closed or offered soup with a roll on the side instead of in a bread bowl.
Mobile ordering is highly encouraged
The resort has been heavily relying on Mobile Order, a system they rolled out a couple years ago where guests can order food through the Disneyland app and skip the line to pick it up.
If the goal was to reduce queuing and crowds around food venues, the results were questionable. Because so many people were encouraged to mobile order, lines formed in the mobile order pick-up areas.
The system is not the most intuitive, so there are cast members at the front of most quick service restaurants guiding guests how to use it.
FastPasses have disappeared
The temporary elimination of the FastPass system is a silver lining for guests who would typically be waiting in the regular line. MaxPass service through Disneyland's mobile app has also been suspended.
Before the pandemic, guests could go to the entrances of rides and reserve a FastPass, which allows you to skip to the front of the queue at a designated time to greatly reduce wait times.
The major downside of the FastPass system was that it made the regular queue drag on because people were constantly allowed to head to the front of the line. Because the FastPass system was temporarily discontinued, it made waiting in line for rides a breeze.
The overall wait times of rides were about the same as pre-pandemic, but the lines were almost constantly moving. This made waiting in lines that were up to an hour and a half long for popular rides such as WEB SLINGERS: A Spider-Man Adventure in the new Avengers Campus of California Adventure much more enjoyable.
Character meet-and-greets are socially distanced
A quintessential Disney activity for any kid -- or kid at heart -- is visiting with their favorite characters.
To maintain social distancing, characters are roaming in garden areas behind short fences or on platforms to encourage guests to keep their distance.
Instead of waiting in long lines to chat with your favorite character, almost every meet-and-greet is a free-for-all where you walk up until you're about 6 feet away to meet them.
Characters do their best to take turns with each person, and you can snap a quick photo with them, too.
For young children who enjoy the one-on-one interaction and don't quite understand social distancing, this could be a less-than-ideal experience. I saw many a toddler race toward their favorite character only to be grabbed from behind by their parent to stop them.
On the other hand, this is a great opportunity for people such as myself who like taking photos with characters but not necessarily waiting in long lines or interacting too much with them.
During a typical trip, I don't have time to wait to see characters. But on this past visit, I was able to speak to and take photos with at least half a dozen characters.
It's still magical
Despite some significant changes from my last visit, I enjoyed my trip just as much as pre-pandemic times.
Disneyland has thrived for over 65 years, and its ability to adapt while still holding onto the magic is what keeps people coming back -- even amid a pandemic.
The week before I visited, Disneyland reintroduced the evening fireworks show, which was a spectacular celebration of joy and perseverance. And we could all use a little bit more of that these days.
The theme park might look and operate a little differently, but the magic of Disneyland remains strong.
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