walt disney world 50th anniversary edition Mickey Mouse character meet and greet Main Street USA magic kingdom indoors with masks

Masks and Mouse Ears: A Guide to Doing Disney in a Pandemic 

A couple years ago, I wrote an article about how to choose a theme park annual pass that best fit your family. At the time, we had a Sea World annual pass and visited Disney World parks four times that year. Then… the world changed. 

When COVID-19 hit and everything shut down, we were forced to essentially forfeit the last few months of our annual pass and drastically changed everything about our family’s traveling life. After what feels like a lifetime of sticking to the outdoors, this past February we decided to visit Disney World once again in celebration of Avery’s fourth birthday. We spent a total of four days on-site at Disney resorts, with three park days at Animal Kingdom, Epcot and Magic Kingdom. We found that nearly everything had changed. 

walt disney world 50th anniversary edition Mickey Mouse character meet and greet Main Street USA magic kingdom indoors with masks

Tips on how to take on Disney World like a Pro in 2022

If you’re anything like us and haven’t been to Disney in a while, it can seem pretty intimidating. The magic is still there, but you don’t want to go into a Disney trip (especially post-shutdowns) blindly. Here is a guide to visiting Disney World in a new era: 

SAVE YOUR SPOT: Reservations now required to enter Disney parks

One of the first differences we noticed when purchasing tickets was the new park reservation system. All of the 4 parks now require a park reservation for each member of your party.

To begin making Disney theme park reservations, log in to your My Disney Experience account on the website and click “Disney Park PassSystem.” Available day will show as “green” in color.

While there is really no such thing as a “slow” day at Disney anymore, these reservations DO max out and you could be left without a visit to your favorite park if you don’t plan ahead. It’s essential to check the available reservations (or “green days”) on Disney’s website at your desired park before purchasing your tickets, then immediately make your reservation after purchase to secure your spot. 

walt disney world magic kingdom indoor character meet and greet with masks with tiana

MASKS AND MOUSE EARS: Disney World’s Mask Policy

At the time of our visit, masks were required at all indoor spaces within the Disney resort complex. That included restrooms, indoor ride queues, any rides that passed through an indoor space, shops, restaurants (when not eating), Disney-provided transportation, common indoor resort areas and all indoor character interactions. The rule was strictly enforced and you wouldn’t get far in the parks without a mask. This helped us feel a lot more comfortable with the safety of our visit. 

About a week after our trip, Disney announced they were dropping the mandates for all indoor spaces except transportation. Masks are still required on Disney buses, monorail, ferries and the new skyliner system, but are optional for guests otherwise. The announcement states that they are no longer required for vaccinated guests, however no proof of vaccines will be required to enter and the masks are basically on the honor system now. 

If you do feel more comfortable wearing one, however, that is absolutely your choice and I strongly recommend mask lanyards. They may seem a little dorky at first, but they save you from fumbling for a mask as your line shifts indoors, or the dreaded “mask in a puddle” after it slips from your pocket. They can also easily be removed for photos. Be sure to bring several masks with you as they get sweaty, dirty or possibly lost. Keep in mind that just about everywhere will be packed, especially Magic Kingdom, and you will be spending a lot of time indoors for ride waits or other attractions. 

Occasionally, mask vending machines can be found on property. They are pretty sparse, so don’t rely heavily on them. I spotted on in a Skyliner terminal and some masks may be found in gift shops.

disney digital app new genie plus genie + service maps and reservations on phone

KEEP YOUR DISTANCE: Digital Services and Apps allow for Social Distancing

One of the best changes in the works over several years and is certainly here to stay is Disney’s move towards a no-contact system. To reduce wait times for many things and limit guest and cast member contact, Disney’s “My Disney Experience” app is absolutely required for your trip nowadays. Guests can mobile order food, check wait times for rides, navigate the park, make reservations for dining and parks and, in some cases, shop right in the shops from their phone with mobile checkout. 

If you’re not sure how to navigate the expansive app or unsure if what you are looking for is offered in it, just search it! Character meet and greets, coin press machines and more can all be found easily with the search bar. It is a magnifying glass icon located directly to the left of the center plus sign (+) on the bottom icon bar of the app screen.

Walt Disney World social distanced character meet and greet Winnie the Pooh at Epcot theme park

The Disney property map is a hugely useful tool! Use it to find wait times, attraction locations (and anything else on-property like hotels and restaurants, shows, restrooms, PhotoPass spots, guest services, shops and transportation.

Disney has made a big push towards mobile food orders in recent years, with many quick service dining spots now only available for mobile orders. Guests can pre-schedule their food, click “I’m Here” when they arrive, find a spot to sit and grab their food in just a few minutes upon arrival. This greatly cuts down on the lines to order indoors and gets everything moving more efficiently. Plus, you can utilize your ride wait times by pre-ordering meals for the fam and stay ahead of the hangry meltdowns. Given the resurgence in visitors, sit down restaurants will require a reservation to get in and can be made as early as 60 days in advance. 

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Magic Bands, the wristwatch-looking bands, are essentially the keys to kingdom, especially if staying at an on-site resort. They can be used to open your hotel door, pay for anything with just a tap via your connected credit card and used to redeem the new lightning lane system for rides. They are no longer free for resort guests, but basic solid color bands start at $10 online when you pre-order for your visit. They don’t need charging and as long as it is connected to your account at purchase, you don’t need to do anything else but wear it. 

While masks can now be removed for photos during character interactions, they are still done a little differently. All characters now stay at least six feet away and can’t have physical contact (that means no more high fives or running up to give them a hug). Autograph books are also not being signed at this time. 

GENIE+ AT YOUR SERVICE: Disney’s Newest Program for Rides 

By far the biggest difference this past year was the rollout of the new Genie+ system in December 2021. Since then it has also caused mass confusion as guests try to figure out exactly what is going on between similarly named things like Genie, Genie+, Lightning Lanes and Individual Lightning Lanes. Here’s a breakdown: 

Genie: This is the base of the new system and is free to everyone. Using your previously mentioned Disney app, Genie will ask what rides are at the top of your list, what shows are a must-see and what other experiences are important to you. Then, the Disney Genie Service will create a Tip Board with details on wait times, height restrictions and other info. You are free to follow this or not use it at all. 

walt disney world 2022 social distanced character meet and greet outdoors no masks with cinderella characters

Genie+: This is a new paid service that essentially replaces the previous FastPass service. Previously, every guest would receive three FastPasses included in their tickets to use throughout the day. Now, to bypass lines, the Genie+ service is required and costs $15 per ticket, per day. 

Our family found this to be absolutely crucial and wouldn’t have been able to do much without it. Wait times can skyrocket to 150 minutes or more for the parks’ most popular rides. Genie+ allows you to schedule as many Lightning Lanes (the new FastPass) as you can fit in your day. 

Lightning Lanes (LL): These are basically the new FastPasses, and are how you skip long lines for rides. Using the Genie+ system you can book your first LL at 7 a.m. if you’re staying at a Disney resort, or at 9 a.m. (or park opening time if different) if you’re not. After that, you can hold up to two LLs at a time, and they can be booked two hours after your previous one (or two hours after park opening if you booked at 7 a.m.) or after you have cleared one out by using it on a ride. 

Individual Lightning Lanes (ILL): ILLs are the same as LLs, but they are not included in the Genie+ system and require an extra fee. They range from $7 to $12 per ticket, per ride and you can purchase up to two per park. These are typically available for the parks’ newest and most popular rides like Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Frozen Ever After and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Ride ILLs can change each day, and can be purchased independently of Genie+ (meaning you can buy one or the other, or both). I advise buying ILLs immediately in the morning via your app as they can sell out quickly, then snagging your first LLs if using both systems. 

Walt Disney World Kevin Up Character meet and greet with mother and girl child

If all of this seems a bit overwhelming, don’t worry. There are tons of other people in the same It’s a Small World boat as you and they’re looking for answers, too! Join Facebook groups about going to Disney well before your trip and scroll through all the questions. I joined “Taking Tots to Disney,” and several groups about navigating the Genie+ system that helped so much. Disney’s website has a massive Frequently Asked Questions page as well. 

With so many visiting not only to make up for their lost trips of 2020, but also to celebrate Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration, there will definitely be crowds. Gone are the slow days of Disney, but there are plenty of ways to make the most of your time. Do your research ahead of time and you’ll be well prepared. 

If you choose to stay at a Disney resort, look into the perks and utilize them! All hotels offer transportation within the resort. By using a bus to get to Magic Kingdom, we bypassed hours of waiting to drive in, park, ride a tram to the monorail or ferry then ticket center, and went straight to the front gate. Resort guests pay $15 per day for parking at the hotel, but get free parking at the theme parks if taking their own vehicle. 

By planning ahead, and using all the services Disney has to offer, we had a truly magical time celebrating! 

*All information is accurate at time of printing but is subject to change without notice. 

walt disney world 50th anniversary castle decorations 2022 with family

Disney World 


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