The Walt Disney World Resort is now on the eve of its 50th anniversary celebration, launching October 1, 2021. While an anniversary always brings new offerings and major changes, it’s fair to say that the resort has undergone an even larger transformation than in any normal anniversary year.
The last two years have brought significant change to Walt Disney World – particularly when it comes to logistics and planning. The parks were closed entirely from March to July of 2020. When Disney World reopened in summer 2020, everything was highly modified. Slowly but surely, Disney made incremental adjustments that nudged the parks back to something more closely resembling normal operations. But in that same time, Disney also hit some big reset buttons on several features of a Walt Disney World vacation many guests took as a given.
Even as the 50th anniversary celebration begins, the situation at Walt Disney World remains fluid with many more changes possible. It’s a lot to keep track of if you’re planning a trip for the big event. Your strategies will need to evolve with the evolving conditions at Disney World if you want to get the most out of your vacation.
So we’ve compiled a cheat sheet of what you need to know before you visit Walt Disney World in 2021 and 2022 to help you have the most magical trip possible. Let’s dive in to what trips during the 50th anniversary celebration will look like.
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Public Health Modifications at Walt Disney World in 2021
When it comes to health and safety, Walt Disney World, like every tourist attraction, has gone through modifications and then reversals of the modifications and even reversals of the reversals at times. It’s complicated, that’s for sure!
Here’s a rundown of the current conditions and restrictions at Walt Disney World. You can also keep up to date by checking Disney’s website.
- Masks are no longer required outdoors for any guest. All guests must wear masks indoors except when dining. This includes indoor attractions and queues.
- While Walt Disney World has not made an official announcement, park capacity seems to be back to normal levels. While park reservations are still required, they are no longer difficult to get with the exception of big holidays.
- Testing or vaccinations for visitors are recommended but not required.
- Vaccines for most Disney World cast members are mandated as of October 22, 2021.
- Guests self-determine their own distancing and cast members may encourage guests to fill in all available space in some environments.
- Fireworks and nighttime spectaculars are back at Magic Kingdom and Epcot, guests are allowed to stand wherever they want during these shows. Expect tight conditions in any good viewing spot.
Essential Tips for Walt Disney World 50th Anniversary Trips in 2021 & 2022
As we stated above, lots of things have changed and will continue to change at Walt Disney World, so it’s important to stay ahead of these changes. Here are some tips to help you handle the biggest changes we’ve seen at Walt Disney World as the resort kicks off its 50th anniversary.
You Still Need to Plan Ahead, But Not as Much as Before
(In)famously, Walt Disney World used to require a serious amount of pre-trip planning. But gone are the days of having to decide where you want to eat six months in advance or deciding what you want to ride two months in advance. It’s become very doable to take things as they come on your Walt Disney World vacation.
That being said, if you want to maximize your trip, you still need to do some pre-planning. Here are the main things you need to plan in advance.
On-site Hotel Reservations
For the next few months at the end of 2021 it seems like there are no on-site hotel rooms available. This likely isn’t a reflection of the number of rooms available, but a function of the staffing Disney has available for its hotels. Our advice if you’re planning a trip to Walt Disney World and want to stay on-site, make reservations early.
If you’re booking a package that includes tickets, you only need to make a $200 deposit. For a room-only reservation, you need to pay the first night as a deposit. These deposits are fully refundable, 30 days in advance of your trip for the package and 5 days in advance of your trip for a room-only reservation. In our opinion it’s preferable to book and cancel than to wait and not get the on-site room you want.
If you’re willing to stay off-site, you will have many more options. Again, we recommend booking refundable reservations. Prices fluctuate greatly and you might be able to find a different hotel or even rebook your reserved hotel at a lower rate.
The biggest change Walt Disney World guests should be aware of is the introduction of theme park reservations. You will need to make a park reservation for every day you plan to be in the parks. That means you need to tell Disney whether you plan to visit the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Hollywood Studios, or Animal Kingdom on any given day. If you have a park hopper ticket, you can park hop to the other parks starting at 2:00 pm (park hopping doesn’t require a separate reservation).
Since Disney has opened up its capacity restrictions, park reservations aren’t too difficult to get right now except on the busiest of holidays, but definitely remember to book these sooner rather than later just in case. You can always change them later or even on the day of if needed when there is availability.
Thankfully, you no longer need to make dining reservations six months in advance (!) at Walt Disney World. Instead, Disney World has adopted the much more reasonable Disneyland policy of 60 day reservations in advance of your trip. Remember that if you are staying on-site or at certain Disney partner off-site hotels you can make dining reservations for the length of your stay 60 days before your first night.
Goodbye Fastpass+… and Hello to Genie+, Lightning Lane, and Individual Attraction Selections
Another big planning change is the sunsetting of Disney’s old Fastpass+ system, which had you reserving three Fastpass+ reservations 30-60 days in advance depending on where you were staying. You no longer need to make any decisions about what attractions you want to experience on a given day of your trip before you get to Disney World. Just make your park reservations and decide what you want to experience while you’re in the park. That all sounds great in theory, but of course there’s a giant castle-sized catch.
With the retirement of Fastpass+, Disney has introduced a litany of new concepts for its guests to decipher. Walt Disney World’s replacement for Fastpass+ involves both free and paid ways to minimize your wait times in line. Unfortunately, getting true Fastpass+ like access will require some extra money.
Disney has announced this new system is coming Fall 2021, but no specific date has yet been announced. Most guests with 50th anniversary trips planned are going to experience these systems, except perhaps those there in the opening days of the celebration. The short version of the changes:
- Fastpass+ has been discontinued, the Fastpass+ queue has been branded as Lighting Lane.
- Disney Genie will be an update to the My Disney Experience app aimed to help you minimize your wait times.
- All guests can use Disney Genie to alert them when lines are short for various attractions.
- For $15/day/guest, guests can upgrade to Disney Genie+. That will allow them to reserve Lightning Lane access to attractions throughout the day (similar to the old Maxpass at Disneyland).
- Certain marquee attractions (up to a maximum of two per park) require you to purchase separate Lightning Lane access, these are called Individual Attraction Selections (IAS). You cannot get Lightning Lane access to these attractions via Genie+.
- You do not need to purchase Genie+ in order to purchase IAS or vice versa.
- Lightning Lane access for both Genie+ and IAS will be day of only, you cannot reserve in advance like the old Fastpass+ system.
- Virtual queues will still be in effect as needed (currently only at Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure at Epcot).
As you can see, the short version of these changes is actually…quite long. Fastpass+ wasn’t a simple system, annd the new system definitely takes it to another level of complication. Be on the lookout for a Trips with Tykes guide to Genie+ strategies at Walt Disney World once the new system goes live! In the meantime, check out Genie+ tips and tricks for Disneyland.
Be Prepared to Adjust Your Touring Strategies (and Wait in More Standby Lines)
As the above section would indicate, Walt Disney World guests need to be prepared to adjust their touring strategies. For those who knew how to maximize Fastpass+, there’s no getting around the fact that you likely will be waiting in more standby lines. (There’s no way to know for sure until Genie+ officially debuts).
One aspect of touring we’ve already gotten to see in practice is the new 30 minute early theme park entry offered to guests of Walt Disney World resorts and select off-site resorts, available in every park each day. Early theme park entry replaces Extra Magic Hour which used to allow on-property guests access one hour early – but just to a single park each day.
During early theme park entry, everyone is let through the turnstiles, but only guests of the select resorts are allowed into the actual attraction areas of the parks 30 minutes before official park opening time. During this 30 minutes you could ride one headliner if you’re at the front of the line, though it might be more efficient to ride two mid-tier attractions. Mark early theme park entry as developing.
Overall, you will need to be much more flexible. We think it’s a good thing that you’re no longer locked into three attractions at three specific times due to reserved Fastpass+ reservations, but the drawback means you’ll have to think much quicker on your feet. Utilizing all the tools at your disposal including all the new Genie offerings will be key to maximizing your time in the parks if attractions are your main goals.
A few other touring strategy changes to keep in mind:
- Guests of deluxe and deluxe villa on-property resorts can access some attractions during extended evening theme park hours (available on limited dates at Magic Kingdom and Epcot so far).
- The virtual queue for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance has been paused indefinitely and replaced by an old fashioned standby line. This promises to be the longest line in Disney World in 2021 and will likely only get longer when Individual Attraction Selection launches.
- While one virtual queue is disappearing, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure in Epcot will offer a virtual queue of its own when it officially opens to all guests October 1, 2021. There will be no standby line. If you want to ride, make sure you know how to snag spots in the queue at either 7:00am or 1:00pm daily during the release times.
- For guests with park hopper tickets, park hopping is still limited to 2:00pm or later.
- Evening after hours events at Magic Kingdom for Halloween (Boo Bash) and the holidays (Very Merriest After Hours) will affect park hours and crowd dispersement. Watch those party dates closely.
Adjust Your Dining Plans & Expectations
If attractions aren’t your main goal, it’s likely that dining at Walt Disney World remains a high priority for your family. Unfortunately, dining seems to be one of the biggest pain points at Disney World right now since the reopening.
A combination of supply chain and staffing issues have resulted in fewer restaurants being open and shorter hours for a lot of the restaurants that remain open. Gone are the days where you can be sure you’ll be able to find something substantial to eat late at night in the parks. And the choices may be even slimmer if you wait to eat when you return to your hotel late in the evening.
When will these issues sort themselves out? It’s hard to tell, but we’re confident that when these issues have been mostly sorted out, the return of the currently suspended Disney dining plan for resort guests will likely signal that the situation has much improved. Until then, here’s what you need to know about adjusting your dining plans and expectations at Walt Disney World.
Table Service Restaurants
Due to low staffing, the reality is that not every table is being filled at table service restaurants. Restaurants may not always look busy, but it can still be difficult to find a table or you may have to wait.
With that in mind, it’s really important to make dining reservations immediately at the 60 day window when it opens (this time varies, but it generally will be sometime between 4:30-6:00 AM ET). If you are staying on-site, make reservations for your entire trip at once. That will give you the best shot at the table service reservations that you want.
If you don’t manage to snag the reservation you want, websites like Mouse Dining are great tools to help you snag a hard to find reservation by notifying you of cancellations or Disney adding capacity. Mouse Dining has both a free and a paid version, and we’ve been able to snag a number of reservations using the service already.
Walkup availability is variable but definitely an option. You can also enter a virtual queue for same day availability via the My Disney Experience app. So don’t give up if you don’t get those dining reservations you want!
Another quick tip: lots of restaurants, including the new Space 220 restaurant at Epcot, have lounge seating that is walkup only. You often will find lower waits for these lounge seats (think the equivalent of bar seating in restaurants).
Quick Service and Mobile Ordering
Mobile ordering remains the most convenient way for most guests to order quick service food at Walt Disney World. While many quick service restaurants have reopened their walkup lines, you generally will wait less if you mobile order through the My Disney Experience app.
Place your order in advance of meal time (like while you’re queuing for an attraction) and tap “I’m here” while you’re walking over to the restaurant to save the maximum amount of time. Of course, like every rule there are exceptions – at random times walkups might beat out mobile orders, but in general mobile ordering is the way to go.
Master the My Disney Experience App
As you may have gathered, a solid understanding of the My Disney Experience app has become a prerequisite for a successful Walt Disney World trip. On any given trip, you’ll likely use the My Disney Experience app for:
- Virtual queue enrollment
- Disney Genie and wait times
- Disney Genie+ Lightning Lane reservations
- Dining reservations
- Mobile ordering
- Hotel check in (if staying on site)
- Room key/Mobile Magic band (if staying on site)
Walt Disney World has slowly but surely moved into the 21st century, and technology will remain at the forefront of the guest experience. Before any trip to Disney World, it’s good practice to play around with the My Disney Experience app to get a feel for how it works. Time spent learning the app before your trip means less stress during your trip and less time with your face in your phone.
Be Prepared for Changes to Your Transportation Experience at Walt Disney World
One huge change that will take effect at the beginning of 2022 will be the removal of Disney’s Magical Express for on-site hotel guests. While that won’t affect trips this fall, be sure you have a plan for how you will get to the resort if you’re staying on-site next year. Rideshare options remain plentiful, but you can also make a reservation with the new Mears Connect service which replaces Magical Express (with a fee).
Once you’re on-site, if you haven’t been to Walt Disney World in a few years you’ll definitely want to familiarize yourself with the new Disney Skyliner. It not only connects four hotels and two theme parks, it also legitimately serves as an attraction in and of itself, especially to transportation obsessed kids! You’ll also need to continue to utilize Disney’s bus system, monorail, and boats.
Note that staffing issues have affected Disney buses, so Disney has been contracting out some of the bus routes. That means slightly longer wait times and a slightly less magical experience until the staffing issues are resolved.
If you’re renting a car, Disney continues to charge for parking at its resorts. For non Disney guests, you will have to pay for parking at the theme parks. Car rentals have gotten expensive as agencies have not replenished their fleets after massive selloffs during 2020. Sites like Autoslash are useful for getting the best car rental price. Like hotels, book a refundable car reservation and monitor regularly for better prices.
If you are driving to the parks for early morning rope drop, be aware that many parking lots are not opening as early as they used to in past years. You simply may not be able to access parking lots to beat your fellow guests who have the advantage of staying within walking distance of a park.
Prepare Yourself for Unexpected Changes at Walt Disney World
One difficult thing about writing this guide is how quickly things can change at Walt Disney World. Guests may have have very little notice of further changes.
For example, Disney said that Disney Genie would debut in the fall and implied it would be ready for the 50th anniversary celebration that starts on October 1st. But as we write this in late September we still haven’t heard anything about Disney Genie’s official debut date. On the other side of things, Disney said early theme park entry would begin on October 1st, but late last week they announced that it would begin on September 26th instead. And Disney World completely did away with the virtual queue for Rise of the Resistance with only one week’s notice.
Since reopening, Disney’s MO has seemed to be to announce changes and implement them relatively quickly, with few exceptions. What that means practically is that you may read this guide and feel ready for what you need to do differently at Walt Disney World only for Disney to change something up at the last minute.
Our best advice is to constantly check your My Disney Experience app and follow the Disney Parks Blog. We’ll also keep updating this guide as the news breaks for the 50th anniversary as well as keeping you posted on all the changes on our podcast Disney Deciphered.
New Offerings for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary and a crowded 2022
We’ll end this guide by reminding you that Walt Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration which begins on October 1st will run through 2023. We already know some of the big new attractions coming during this time.
Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure opens on October 1st, 2021 along with two new nighttime spectaculars, Disney Enchantment at Magic Kingdom and Harmonious at Epcot. Throughout the 18 month anniversary celebration you can expect exciting new openings and offerings here and there, including hopefully Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind and/or TRON Lightcycle Power Run.
We think that the 50th anniversary combined with everything pointing in the right direction in terms of public health will lead to a very crowded 2022. Be sure to make your plans early, study this guide to keep track of all the changes, and stay tuned here at Trips with Tykes as you plan to celebrate 50 years of magic with Walt Disney World and crowds from around the world!
Where to Book Your Walt Disney World Vacation
Planning a visit to Walt Disney World? Book your Disney vacation with trusted Trips with Tykes partner, Get Away Today. Get Away Today sells park tickets at a discount, helps you find great deals at both on-property and off-property hotels, assists with all the logistics of a Disney World vacation with its free concierge service, and provides complimentary price monitoring so you can lock in newly-released discounts.
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(Looking for info on all the recent changes at Disneyland? Check out this guide to doing Disneyland differently in 2021.)
About the author: Contributing writer Joe Cheung loves traveling with his wife and three children. He has been writing about using miles and points to reduce the cost of family travel since his wife was pregnant with their first child. He loves traveling all around the world with a special place in his heart for travel to Asia and all things Disney. When he’s not writing, you can find Joe chatting about Disney World on the Disney planning podcast Disney Deciphered that he and Leslie co-host or working as a travel agent specializing in Disney destinations. You can contact him by e-mail at email@example.com.