Travel and COVID: Orlando

Planning a trip to Orlando during Covid

Are you planning your post (or present!) COVID trip? It has been a long while for us since our last Disney trip, and I’m sure many of you can relate! Our big 2020 WDW trip, which we had been planning for a couple of years, was canceled last year, and with the parks (and international border!) closed, we didn’t know when we would be able to go again.

If you are anything like me it really helps to have something on the calendar, even if it’s far away, and even if it’s an “if.” In the late spring of this year, my travel agency owner said that she’d like to pop over to Walt Disney World for a trip to find out how things are going there during COVID. Since we are also Canadian, we were very interested to discover the process for travel in (what we thought was) the end of a pandemic.

I knew that I wanted to go, but I also knew that after the past year (we lost both my mom and a close family friend’s son to brain cancer) it would be impossible for me to go without my family. The agency trip was planned for the end of July (23rd-26th), so I pitched to my husband that I’d like for us to go before the agency trip. This would mean we’d get to go as a family, but would also mean that he would have to travel home with our three girls on his own. Much to my surprise (and delight!) he said let’s try it,  so we created a very aggressive plan to visit both Universal Studios and Walt Disney World in Orlando!

I’ve said this once, and I’ll say this again… the #1 thing I can’t stress enough right now is to book direct with Disney and Universal. And while you’re at it, I’d love to help you book too!  (It will cost you nothing extra to book with me… I promise!) Going direct with the supplier gives the ultimate flexibility, and especially now with the pandemic they have been more than gracious with cancellations and modifications. You really don’t want to book that “non-refundable” deal right now… it’s just not going to work out.

There were a LOT of things standing in our way to actually be able to go. The biggest problem was that the Canadian border needed to open; and we had two very important non-negotiables. 1) No more mandatory hotel quarantine (at our own expense), and 2) that my husband and I wouldn’t have to quarantine upon return to Canada. Coming into June COVID numbers were trending down, and we felt confident that they would open the Canada / USA international border for June 22nd.

Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, and when June 22nd came and went without the border opening we thought that was it for us. BUT, the announcement soon came that they were slowly opening the doors for fully vaccinated Canadians to travel without needing to quarantine upon return. My husband and I were both double vaccinated, but there were VERY unclear parameters for unvaccinated kids. In the end, we just believed that we would be able to make it work.

Here are all of the things that we learned about travelling to Orlando during this unprecedented time.

Travel

Flights were, by far, the most stressful thing about traveling to Orlando. Even if you aren’t Canadian, the airlines are just in really rough shape right now. There are flights being canceled on the daily. Not to mention, there are often changes even up to a couple of hours before your flight. So as far as tips go for flights… book the one that you want, but be prepared that it won’t unfold the way you hope.

3 girls with suitcases

Booking Flights

I booked third party with Expedia, which I’ve really liked in the past. There are times when booking with a third party is great; if you don’t get what you want from the suppliers, you can leverage that with a third party. However, in this case, anytime that WestJet changed anything to do with our flights I couldn’t deal with WestJet, I had to deal with Expedia… and Expedia could only get involved once they were notified… often much later than the updates I was seeing. And before Expedia could officially change any flights that were canceled on me, I had to give permission. This resulted in a lot of chaos and some really frustrating moments. 

If you want all of the nitty gritty details, you can read my Travel Diaries in my Facebook group here (go to July 5th, 2021 – Travel Diary #1). The gist is that a couple of weeks before we were supposed to travel, my flights were canceled. WestJet gave me what they considered to be the next best thing… but it ended up being a broken connection with a 34 min international layover. Then, because of budget cuts, they were only flying certain days of the week to Orlando, so we had to fly from Toronto to Atlanta, and then Atlanta to Orlando. We ended up with a HORRENDOUS layover (8 hours overnight in the Toronto airport).

Travel Tips (based off my experience)

– Download and monitor your flights on the airline’s app. In my case it was WestJet.

– Understand that what you book may not be what you end up getting. Try to keep a good attitude and give grace for the workers who are trying really hard to work in your favour. Assertively and kindly ask for what you want. Escalate to a supervisor if needed. There’s almost always something that can be done when you talk to the right people.

– Pack with carry-on luggage only. I know, I know. This isn’t for everyone… and it’s not our preference either. We just knew that if our flights were changed on the go, it would be far less stressful to have everything with us and roll then it would’ve been to hop on a different plane not knowing where our luggage might end up.

– Be flexible. Have a plan B and a plan C and a plan… you get what I mean. One of our backup plans (in case of flight cancellations) was to rent a car and drive to Orlando, as long as we landed anywhere in the USA within 8 hours driving distance! I have heard story after story of flight delays, so we wanted to make sure we were mentally prepared.

– Plan a “flex day” if possible at the beginning of your trip. Our flight was scheduled to arrive at noon in Orlando; we planned not to be in a park on that day so if anything did go wrong we wouldn’t miss out.

Staying Safe

This was a concern for us for sure. When possible, book a direct flight from where you live to your destination. In the case of an international flight, this means everyone on board has been tested and is (at that moment at least) COVID and symptom free. In our case, I booked Vancouver to Toronto, then Toronto to Orlando (ensuring everyone on board would be tested). Unfortunately we had an Atlanta to Orlando connection added, which meant that we were flying with people who did not need to test in order to fly, which did make us very uneasy.

The airports in Vancouver and Toronto were eerily quiet. We had no issues distancing at all. We boarded a plane that wasn’t too full, and were handed Lysol wipes for our hands and seating areas (this was true of all the planes we boarded). On the flip side, all of the American airports we found ourselves in (Atlanta, Orlando and Seattle, respectively) were packed with people. At the moment, airports and airplanes both require masks to be worn, which we think is great. Even if they didn’t, we would’ve chosen to wear them.

However, there was no distancing when it came to the tables where people are eating, the gate areas where people are sitting, the line ups to board the planes, or the actual seating on the airplane. It was all “business as usual,” other than the fact that masks were being worn. They were very strict about masks on unless eating or drinking as well.

We were also unable to all sit together on one of the flights, exposing our kids to the people sitting beside them, which isn’t awesome… particularly when people are eating and drinking and have their masks off.

International Rules for Traveling

Another reason why flights were so stressful is the constant rule changes when it comes to COVID testing, border restrictions, and even individual state laws when it comes to what is expected when you arrive in a specific state. Even Ontario and BC have different rules! The best thing to do is look before you book, look periodically after you book (in that you should be keeping up with current law/rule changes), look right before you leave, and look before you come home. This, of course, is an advantage to booking with me as well, because I will do all of that for you. In the case of Orlando, I needed to check both the laws for all of Canada and the USA. Then more specifically, rules for BC and YVR, Ontario and YYZ, and finally Orlando.

Here is where I found the most up to date information:
Canada
Vancouver, BC
Toronto, Ontario
United States
Orlando, Florida

It’s hard to even type out all of the hoops and headaches that we encountered when it came to traveling there and back safely according to all of the rules… but I will say that it was 100% worth it.

The most important pieces to know are:

COVID Testing

It cost my family of five just under $1800 CDN to test properly for the trip. At the time of our trip the US required either an Antigen or PCR test. (As of this blog post they are still requiring this.) Heads up: There is SO much misinformation out there, and when you call the COVID testing places they will not help you. It is up to you as the traveler (or me as your TA!) to ensure that you have the right test done at the right time. I was told by another travel agent (not with my agency) that WestJet won’t accept the Antigen test. This is not the case.

Testing to Enter the USA

There are multiple testing sites in the Vancouver airport, and you can find the details here. We were tested at Ultima, which is $120 per person and the cheapest option. However, it isn’t open on weekends and doesn’t have very flexible hours, so keep that in mind. I called and booked two weeks ahead of time.

I received confirmation numbers via email, and also called the day before travel to confirm our appointments (you can never be too sure!). Our flight to Toronto was at 1:30pm and I booked us for 9:30am just in case. We got there a little early, and it took 30 min to fill out the paper work and all be tested. We were allowed to walk around the airport while we waited for our results, which took about 30 min. Thankfully, we tested negative and got the paperwork to prove it. Heads up: You do not want to lose that paperwork!

Testing to Come Home

If you are lucky enough to be near a Walgreens with ID Now testing, it is free, even for Canadians. Use the address of the hotel where you are staying. It is a drive thru test… so you need someone to drive you, or you need to convince an Uber / Lyft driver to take you there, let you test, and drive you back to where you are staying. We found a Walgreens 13 min from the park, and had a friend drive us in the heat of the day on one of our final park days. It took 40 min total to drive there, get tested, pick up a Starbucks, and go back to the park.

The ID Now test is a NAAT test and guarantees results in 24 hours. You need to time your test to be TAKEN within 72 hours of travelling home (NOT 72 from when you receive your results). In my case, I did a PCR test in Walgreens, but the results didn’t come in time for my flight. I had booked a back up test at Orlando airport for $179 USD that was rapid. You definitely want to pre-book this just in case… the stand-by line was 6-8 hours long.

One more tip: Make sure to arrive early, and not late, for all tests. We actually showed up 45 min early for our pre-booked test and it was no issue. If you are late, you go to the back of the queue which you don’t want to do.

ArriveCAN

If you are traveling from Canada to the US and are double vaccinated (coming home at least 14 days after your second dose) you don’t need to quarantine upon your return home. When we travelled in July the kids still needed to quarantine even though Dan and I didn’t. As of August 9th kids no longer need to quarantine, but they do have to limit contact and follow certain rules for 14 days. If you aren’t vaxxed, you will need to quarantine.

Regardless of whether you are or aren’t vaccinated, you must download the ArriveCAN app on your phone and complete the registration process in order to re-enter Canada. You can download the app before you depart for your trip but until you receive your negative test results to come home you will not be able to complete the registration. The app asks for your flight info, passport number, proof of vaccination status, and declaration of a negative test result.

One of the things that we found to be challenging with the app is that it wasn’t super clear regarding the different rules for my husband (no quarantine) versus my girls (quarantine). If you have to quarantine because you aren’t fully vaxxed, one really important thing to note is that you are NOT free to leave quarantine after 14 days just because you are symptom free.

There was a Day 1 and Day 8 at home COVID test the girls had to take, and they weren’t free from quarantine until after the Day 8 test results came back. I spent a LOT of hours on the phone asking if we could go somewhere else for a rapid result instead and the answer, no matter who I talked to, was always no. There was also confusion between the nurses we were talking to and the government website about what was and wasn’t allowed for my husband (for instance, did he have to quarantine until the day 1 test came back).

One Last Thing

There are also very specific instructions for all travelers, even if you don’t have to quarantine. All of this information is available via links within the ArriveCAN app. When you get conflicting info, my suggestion is to always default to that which is in writing. For instance, my husband and I were required to wear masks in public for the 14 days after getting home, and have proof of our negative test results on our person at all times. As of now, testing when you arrive back in Canada is random, so be aware that you may be selected!

Ok, now that all of that is taken care of, let’s get to the fun stuff! We did a split stay between Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World. Even though the same Florida state rules apply to both, the approaches to COVID safety between the two resorts were vastly different. Keep reading to learn about our experiences with the two!

masks

 

Universal Studios

Between the two, Universal was more relaxed as far as rules go. Some may like that, but for us it was rather unnerving. In writing, Universal was asking for unvaccinated people to wear masks inside at all times. This was not enforced at ALL. Right after we left (and as I write this) masks are now “encouraged for everyone to wear inside.” I assume this will be enforced similarly to what it was when we were there; which is to say, not enforced. On more than one occasion, we heard people saying that they canceled their Disney vacations and switched to Universal because they are “more relaxed with rules.” As far as feeling safe goes, we definitely felt more on edge at Universal. There were very few people wearing masks inside.

Universal City Walk

Transportation

Unless you are staying at one of the Universal properties within walking distance of CityWalk and the theme parks (and that distance is relative as our property was technically walkable but 20-25 min away) you will be relying on the transportation system (buses or water taxis). These are free… but loaded with people. Like standing room only. We had a hard time feeling like we had control over our daughters’ (who are unvaccinated) safety. If you are traveling during the pandemic, I do think this is something worth knowing and mentioning.

The Universal Parks

There are three Universal parks, plus CityWalk (the shops / restaurant district). The two main parks and CityWalk can all be walked between easily. Outside is crowded (especially when the parks open and close), but at least you are outside. The walkways had a lot of people, but we felt okay about it. The lines for the rides aren’t distanced at all. They cram you in, and we noticed that (as a general rule) people aren’t aware of being really close to others. We started a “COVID sandwich” strategy, in which the girls were always between Dan and I in a line. Dan and I had to stand with elbows out at some points, but for the most part, this strategy worked. For attractions like Hogwarts Express they are also having multiple parties in one space, so it really is difficult to be confident that you are doing everything you can.

Volcano Bay (Universal’s water park) was the day we felt the most safe… likely because it’s completely outside. You still have to take a bus there, but we took an early bus that wasn’t very full. We enjoyed the day and felt that even though it was somewhat crowded, we were good.

Restaurants and shops seemed to have no restrictions or rules at all… all tables were being seated, there was no capacity limits in the stores. We didn’t have any issues booking table service dining for Universal either. As far as cleaning protocols and hand sanitizer stations, they were both non-existent. We didn’t see any cleaning measures taken and even at the beginning of the day most hand sanitizer containers were completely empty. For up to date info on COVID related policies at Universal, check out their safety guidelines here.

What’s Changed at Universal During COVID

Dan and I went a year before the pandemic and then again this summer. We did not notice a drastic difference in most ways. They had parades, and there was no crowd distancing that we observed in any capacity. Park capacity numbers aren’t something you can concretely find, but I suspect it’s pretty close to max capacity at this point. They are allowing the Express Pass to be used (you can either pay for this or stay at one of three premier Universal hotels to get this for free). This means the lines are a bit longer for stand by, because they always let loads of Express Pass people in and make stand by wait. We still found the actual wait times to be quite a lot less than posted though, which we loved!

For characters, you can’t touch them so they are behind a rope and you can talk to them from a distance. There are no menus in restaurants, just QR codes that you scan. One thing we also really liked is the fireworks/night time show in front of Hogwarts replayed every 20 minutes or so, which meant smaller crowds and you could go at any time after dark to see it!

Here’s what I would say. Things can and do change on a dime, so regularly watch for news about the parks. Also, capacity can be an issue. There was a time that both main parks could hit capacity, and unlike Disney you can’t reserve the parks ahead of time. Your best bet is to buy a ticket or package through a travel agent (like me!) to get the early admission into the park (for free) and get there first. We did see that Volcano Bay was at capacity on one of the days we were there, so this is definitely something that can happen.

 

Walt Disney World

We arrived in WDW and immediately got in line for the bus to Disney Springs (after dropping off our luggage at the resort). We noticed right away that things were different. The bus driver showed up with a mask on, and was very clear, “no mask, no service.” We also felt that the resort areas, and Disney Springs, had a lot less crowds then we were used to seeing the days before at Universal.

We weren’t sure what to expect as far as shopping went, but it was similar to CityWalk. There wasn’t any traffic flow arrows or capacity limits except for the LEGO Store. (It had a large line up that wound around the outside of the store.) Disney was testing a cool new feature at the World of Disney Store; you could scan your items with your phone for checkout and not have to line up at a till. Then at the exit you show your receipt and you are good to go. We really enjoyed this feature! You can also send purchases back to your (Disney) hotel room from Disney Springs, and in the parks as well, which is awesome.

Since we’ve been, Disney also announced that masks are now required inside for ALL guests… and I know they are enforcing this. For up to date, minute by minute info, the very best place to check is Disney’s own “Know Before You Gosite. It was a very quick turn over from no masks to masks, so this is really going to be your best bet for current info.

Transportation

As with the buses, all transportation on Disney property required masks to be worn. They didn’t play around with that rule at all. This includes buses, boats, the Monorail and Disney’s Skyliner. As with Universal, Disney transportation is being fully loaded… there is no distancing. The transportation with the least risk is going to be the Skyliner, because there is a max of 8 people and they are spacious, with open air. My suggestion is to walk as much as possible. The best resorts for this are Contemporary to Magic Kingdom, and then Boardwalk, Dolphin/Swan, Beach and Yacht Club to Epcot and Hollywood Studios. My next choice would be the Skyliner and Friendship boats… with the buses being last. This may impact which resort you choose to stay at (for instance, the All Star Resorts only have the bus option).

The Parks

We visited all four parks, and I even visited Blizzard Beach water park after Dan and the girls went home. Overall, the parks are very crowded and again there isn’t a lot of concern about distancing. We didn’t see any cleaning protocols with Disney either, and their hand sanitizer stations were also mostly empty. One positive thing as far as COVID goes is that the line ups for rides and attractions are being kept outside as long as possible. This wasn’t easy during the heat of the day, but it was definitely safer.

Some of the hardest lines were Space Mountain (wrapped around the popcorn carts and Joffrey’s) and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster as there was very little shade available until you hit the inside section of the queue. I did try to (gently) put in the Cast Members ears that water misters and umbrellas would go a long way towards guest satisfaction. It’s really hard to be outside in a line for 45 min in the heat of the day with the sun directly on you.

The most difficult time to stay distanced was at rope drop (everyone crowded in one area) and then during the fireworks in Magic Kingdom (literally thousands of bodies pressed against one another). If you are concerned about this, might I suggest the fireworks / nighttime show at Epcot… you can enjoy it from anywhere in the International Showcase and distance from people without issue.

Park Reservation System

This is one of the major changes since reopening. Not only do you have to have a valid ticket to visit Walt Disney World, but for the four main parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios) you MUST have a Park Reservation for the park you want to start in on a given day. The two parks that fill up most quickly are Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. Animal Kingdom sits in the middle, and Epcot is the least likely to fill up (probably because of the 11am opening time; though that is changing to 10am in October, so it will be interesting to see if demand changes). You can see live park availability here.

Thankfully, they have opened up Park Reservations through all of 2022… so unless you are trying to go in the next 6 weeks, things are pretty open (except like, Christmas season and New Year’s Day). As soon as you are ready to go to Disney World, you will want to make your best guess as to which park you want on which day… and I am happy to help with this as well!

It’s a tricky balance. First, guessing crowd size (most crowd calendars have gone out the window). Second, planning around events happening (like runDisney, or special events that cause the parks to close early). Third, how you personally want to spend your vacation (we started at Hollywood Studios on our first ever Walt Disney World vacation and it wasn’t awesome for most of our group).

You can change your Park Reservations (if things are still available), but it’s good to have SOMETHING planned, even if it needs to be changed.

Park Hopping

Once upon a time, you could simply go to any park you wanted whenever you wanted with a Park Hopper ticket. Now it’s limited to only park hopping after 2pm (I’ve heard of people being allowed in at 1:45pm, but no earlier), and you want to make sure that the park is available first, especially if you are going in a really busy week.

We had zero issues park hopping on any of the 7 days we went, including a very hot day to Blizzard Beach during the afternoon. But if you’re worried about it, you can call (407) 560-5000 to check and see what parks are available. After 2pm, you are good to go as long as there is availability, and can go back and forth as you please. You always have guaranteed entry into the park that you originally reserved on that day as well, so you can go in and out as much as you want.

One additional thing to mention. If you want to ride the ever-coveted Rise of the Resistance attraction in Galaxy’s Edge, you MUST have a valid Park Reservation for Hollywood Studios for that day and you MUST check into the gates in order to try for the second virtual queue at 1pm (the first is at 7am). This is the only way to have a chance to ride it! (Watch for my trip report, coming out soon, for tips on how to get on Rise!)

Here are some other things that have changed since the parks reopened.

Characters and Parades

Character interactions look different at the moment. They are still popping up here and there as a surprise (and truthfully, I think more often than before COVID!), but you aren’t going to get an autograph or a hug/picture directly with them. You can still get photos, it just looks different! As far as parades go, they are still not back. However, there are “cavalcades” that used to happen randomly, but now you can find the exact times in the park app! I got a little thrill every time we heard the music change, indicating that characters were going to be coming by! It was SO FUN.

FastPass

Currently, there is no FastPass. Now, you may see some people in that line… but I promise you, they do NOT have FastPass. What was the FastPass line is now being used for VIP Tours, Ride Recovery (if you are on a ride when it breaks down, for instance), Switch Pass (for parents traveling with littles), and DAS Pass (Disability Access Pass). This may be an unpopular opinion, but we LOVED no FastPass in the parks. First of all, the lines moved lightning fast. They looked REALLY long… but they were constantly moving. And because they weren’t constantly letting people in for FastPass, the overall wait times for everything were much shorter!

Of course now we know that Disney Genie+ is coming, and FastPass is officially a thing of the past. Obviously we will be sharing more about this as new info comes out; for now, you can check out what we do know here.

Attractions

Not too long ago, Walt Disney World added back their “pre-shows”… like the stretching room in Haunted Mansion, and the video intro in Tower of Terror. There’s no denying that these add so much to an attraction. The problem is, these pre-shows are literally them cramming you into every available space with no room for distancing. We all chose to wear our masks (which are currently required again… a call we agree with!).

The line queues are another area where we noticed a drastic difference. First of all, the wait times were WAY off. We noticed that when the lines looked really long, the wait time would go way up. However, we are stubborn, and don’t like to zigzag the parks, so we’d get in the line… and it was ALWAYS much less than posted. Our two theories are: 1) they are trying to dissuade you from getting in crowded lines so they post higher wait times in hopes you leave and go somewhere else, or 2) outside lines move faster with less to look at / interact with.

For example, the line for Haunted Mansion was wrapped down onto the docks by the water, but the interactive area was totally roped off. By the time the outside portion of the line was done, you were in the stretching room and basically on the ride. The other three that stand out are Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Railroad. In all three of these cases the lines were an hour or less, even though they wove all through the park!

Dining

There are several different things to know about dining at the moment.

First, the Disney Dining Plan is still not back. Disney has hinted that they WILL be bringing it back, and everyone assumes it will be for the 50th Celebration (starting October 1st), but nothing has been announced yet. A lot of people depend on it for budgeting, and for splurges on things like Character Dining.

Second, speaking of Character Dining… it’s still a modified experience. I had the pleasure of eating at Topolino’s Terrace for a character brunch. It was fantastic and I absolutely loved it! If you are taking older kids that understand WHY they can’t hug Mickey, it’s really lovely. We saw Mickey, Minnie, Donald and Daisy about six times each over the course of our time there. They came out individually, stopped briefly in front of each table, waved, posed for pictures, danced, flirted (in the case of Donald), and then moved on. You are not supposed to get out of your seat, and you can’t ask a Cast Member to take pictures.

Third, dining reservations are even harder to get now then they were before. Unless you are staying onsite, Cinderella’s Royal Table in Magic Kingdom, Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater and 50’s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios, and any other Character Dining is very hard to get. There is a chance… obviously SOMEONE is getting the reservations! But it’s a 60 day window now for booking instead of 180 days, and the pent up demand makes things harder. Thankfully, there really are a lot of options, and you will never go hungry at Disney!

Kid Stops

In both Epcot and Animal Kingdom there are things for the kids to search for and collect. While the Kid Stops in Epcot didn’t include Cast Members from the countries represented by each pavilion (we are hoping for this to return soon!), it was still really fun… as was the Wilderness Explorers Handbook at Animal Kingdom.

Overall, I am beyond glad that we went. I don’t regret going for one second. That being said, if any of us came back with COVID my husband and I would have a different feeling about the trip for sure. I sincerely hope that things get better and we can see people (both international and domestic) enjoy the parks this year. It’s been such a hard 18 months.

For our complete trip report, including a breakdown of what we did every day, check back soon!
I hope that this post helps you with wrapping your head around traveling again… and when you are ready to take the plunge, I am here for you!

In the meantime, if you have any questions about staying safe in Orlando, I’d be happy to answer them for you!

Have a magical day,
Erica

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