When Walt Disney World reopened on July 15, 2020, the Orlando theme parks made a number of pretty enormous operational changes. Now that the parks have been open for nearly 6 months, Disney has been making additional tweaks – both big and small – that affect the guest vacation experience.
It’s now a new year, and Disney is already keeping all of us on our toes with more changes and news in 2021. The first days of 2021 have brought some big announcements and some immediate differences. If you are planning a vacation this year, it’s vital to understand what differences you can expect all over the Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney World Changes in 2021
Before we get into the incremental changes that have started or are coming in 2021, it’s important to note that many of these changes from 2020 still remain. Masks are mandatory. Social distancing stickers and hand sanitizer stations are everywhere. For now at least, popular features like Fastpass+ and the Disney Dining Plan are still absent. You also have to make a reservation daily to enter a park under the Disney Park Pass system.
In short, if you haven’t visited since March of 2020 and earlier, the Disney vacation experience has changed substantially. Be sure to check out my post with all the 2020 Disney World changes for a refresh.
But what about 2021 you ask? Here are the 9 biggest Disney World changes for 2021 we know about the first few weeks into the year.
1. Park Hopping Has Returned
When Disney reopened in 2020, guests were limited to visiting one park per day. As of the first of this year, park hopping is back!
But that doesn’t mean park hopping as we once knew it is really back. This new park hopping system has some major differences. You’ll still need to make a Disney Park Pass reservation at the first park that you intend to enter for the day. If you want to park hop elsewhere later, you can only move to the next park after 2:00 p.m. (No hopping earlier to Hollywood Studios to try to snag a boarding pass for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance!). While a reservation for that second park isn’t required right now, guests’ ability to hop can be limited by capacity.
After 2:00pm, you can at least hop to as many parks as you can get to before each park closes. Of course, note that Disney World generally has shorter park hours these days, so there won’t be as many hours to try to hit additional parks.
Is a park hopper ticket worth it right now with these hours limitations? It really depends on your park touring strategy as well as when you will be visiting. I’m personally a fan of park hopping, especially because my family loves eating dinner in Epcot after spending most of the rest of the day in another park. But this current park hopper options costs just as much as the old one with less flexibility. In short, this might be the time to skip it if your budget is tight.
(Whether you are buying park hopper or one-park-per-day theme park tickets, be sure to save money by purchasing in advance from Trips With Tykes partner and authorized ticket broker Get Away Today. Their tickets load seamlessly into your My Disney Experience account and give you all the same privileges as the ones you purchase from Disney directly. Don’t purchase direct from Disney and pay more! Book your Disney World park tickets from Get Away Today here OR request a full vacation quote from Get Away Today to take advantage of hotel and other package discounts.)
2. MagicBands Are No Longer Free
Disney MagicBands have been a popular part of the Disney technology experience since they were introduced in 2013. Previously, on-property hotel guests received a free MagicBand shipped to their home before a Disney vacation. No longer in 2021. As of January 1, 2021, MagicBands are no longer complimentary.
Disney plans to replace some of the features of MagicBands with an improved app experience. Phones, for example, can already be used to unlock room doors in Disney hotels. But all these features aren’t rolled out yet, so a MagicBand still comes in pretty handy.
How can you still take advantage of the usefulness of MagicBands without the full cost? On-property guests can still get MagicBands at a discount, including the premium bands that had been available more recently as paid upgrades. The process for ordering these is similar to the old process for customization on the Disney website that many guests have done for years.
And, if you still have MagicBands from previous vacations, don’t throw them away! Most of them are still usable as long as they are active and visible in your My Disney Experience account.
See all the details in my complete guide to Disney MagicBands.
3. Park Capacity Will Continue to Increase
When Walt Disney World re-opened in July of last year, it did so with a substantially reduced number of guests. The estimates in these first few months were that the parks capped capacity at 25%. Not long before Thanksgiving, Disney confirmed that it had raised that capacity to 35%.
And just this week, Disney has expanded park capacity further to 40%. January is normally a pretty low crowd time, and it doesn’t look yet like all that capacity will be used just yet. But make no mistake – the parks will get more crowded. And Disney will raise the caps further, especially as things improve on the public health front.
As park capacity continues to increase, expect changes to the attractions themselves to accommodate more people. Disney has already eliminated some social distancing on rides, although thankfully not in queues. For example, there is no longer an empty banshee between parties on Avatar Flight of Passage. Similarly, multiple groups are now also being loaded into a single cockpit on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run. Most coasters like Slinky Dog Dash and Rock ‘N’ Roller Coaster are now no longer leaving rows empty between parties either.
4. Early Entry Is Coming Back (But Not Extra Magic Hour)
For many years, Disney offered a benefit known as Extra Magic Hours (EMH) to its on-property hotel guests. Some parks opened early or stayed open late for these hotel guests only.
While Extra Magic Hours are not coming back yet, they will instead be replaced with a new kind of early entry. Later this year, all four parks will open early every day for on-property hotel guests, but only by 30 minutes. This means that on-property guests can get a short head start on the park for which they make their morning’s park pass reservation.
It also means that off-property guests are going to be at a major disadvantage for rope dropping anything! On-property guests will fill the queues of the most popular attractions every single day in every park before others can even get in the gate.
Disney hasn’t indicated when this early entry benefit will become available, but it referred to offering it as part of the resort’s 50th anniversary. This means it likely won’t be coming in the first half of 2021 and will be a benefit saved for later in the year.
And speaking of anniversaries…
5. The 50th Anniversary is Coming
Whether the world is back to normal or not, there is a pretty big Disney date that is coming up later this year. October 1, 2021 is the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Walt Disney World Resort.
Disney has been planning for this date for years, but due to current circumstances, the big celebration’s scope and timing is still very much a question mark. While Disney usually kicks off its anniversary celebrations before the actual anniversary date, it seems safe to assume that Disney will wait to do that until the fall because of the uncertainties of this year.
Just what will be involved in the celebrations is still TBD. Anniversaries are usually celebrated for well over a year so expect the event to carry over, perhaps through the end of 2022.
6. Disney Waterparks Will Return
While Disney’s four theme parks have been open since last summer, the two water parks have not been. As the weather gets warmer, Disney is planning to bring one back online. Disney’s Blizzard Beach will reopen on March 7, 2021, just in time for the spring break crowds and warmer weather.
The opening of Blizzard Beach means that a few ticket types that include water parks that had previously been unusable are back into play. Look for the Water Park and Sports option (if you don’t intend to also park hop) or Disney’s Park Hopper Plus tickets (if you plan to both go to a water park and park hop). Note you will be able to buy these tickets at a discount from Trips With Tykes partner and authorized ticket broker Get Away Today!). Water park only tickets will again be available too.
Will Disney’s other water park Typhoon Lagoon join Blizzard Beach by reopening later in 2021? That very much remains to be seen. My best guess is that Disney is waiting and seeing whether things are much more back to normal in terms of demand and risk by this summer. If so, I could see a second water park returning. If the timeline takes longer into the fall when most of the warmer weather is over, then Typhoon Lagoon could well remain shuttered an additional year.
7. More Hotels are Reopening (and Opening)
With limited park capacity comes limited demand for hotel rooms. For that reason, Disney World has not been operating all of its on-property hotels since its reopening last summer. But as the park capacity increases, Disney needs to reopen more hotels to accommodate an increased number of guests.
Hotel reopenings in 2021 to note:
- All Star Movies: Reopens March 22, 2021 with newly renovated rooms. This will be the first of the three All Stars to reopen, opening up some more much-needed availability in the value hotel category.
- Beach Club: Reopens May 30, 2021
- Disney’s Wilderness Lodge: Reopens June 6, 2021
- Disney’s Polynesian: Reopening Summer 2021 TBD. While DVC villas are open at this resort now, much of the property has been under a renovation that will feature Moana more prominently.
As for new hotel openings, there is a big one coming to Crescent Lake. The Walt Disney World Swan Reserve, Autograph Collection will open adjacent to the Swan and Dolphin and will also be a Marriott branded property. Like the Swan and Dolphin, this hotel won’t be Disney owned or operated. Instead it will have a hybrid status with some of benefits of the on-property hotels.
Last but certainly not least, it’s possible that a big on-property hotel opening could be coming by the end of 2021 – Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser. This immersive 2 day experience is much-anticipated by Star Wars superfans. It will be more like an all inclusive cruise than a hotel and will likely be Disney’s priciest hotel yet.
8. New Attractions are Expected
Right before the parks closed in March 2020, a brand new attraction – Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway – opened at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. With the 50th anniversary approaching, Disney had announced an impressive slate of new attractions to follow in 2020 and 2021.
Sadly, the shutdown of the parks and the overall business hit that Disney has experienced means that some attractions that were announced are now no longer coming in time for the 50th anniversary celebration. Some have been canceled altogether. But not to fear! There are still new attractions, restaurants, and shows likely coming to the resort this year that will keep guests busy. Look for the following:
- Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure (Epcot): Located in Epcot’s France Pavilion, this is trackless dark ride that has already been popular at Disneyland Paris. Rumors are that the ride is almost ready and surely will soft open in the first half of 2021.
- Harmonious (Epcot): Harmonious is brand new evening spectacular coming to Epcot, likely before the year is up. Two barges are already in place in the lagoon and testing has started.
- Space 220 (Epcot): This brand new table service themed restaurant was originally slated to open in late 2019, so it should surely be ready this year.
- Woody’s Roundup Rodeo BBQ (Hollywood Studios): Toy Story Land is getting a table service restaurant all its own. Date still TBD but it seems very likely for this year.
It’s possible that the timeline for other attractions could be accelerated to open before the year is out. While Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind in Epcot is likely not possible this year, watch for Tron Lightcycles in the Magic Kingdom which still has a chance.
9. Disney’s Magical Express is Retiring
Last but certainly not least, the end of the year 2021 brings a big retirement to the Disney World transportation system. Disney’s Magical Express, the service providing free motorcoach airport transfers to and from on-property hotels, will shutter completely.
The service’s last day will be the last day of the year. How can families successfully get to and from the Orlando airport without all the logistical hassles? Keep following my guide to flying to Walt Disney World where I’ll keep the latest options updated regularly as this change approaches.