Editor’s Note: Julie Tremaine is visiting Epcot today for CNN Travel. You can read updates of her visit throughout the day here. Tremaine was one of the first visitors to the Magic Kingdom on Saturday. She’s an award-winning travel and food writer. Read her work at Travel-Sip-Repeat.com.
Despite concerns over Florida’s alarmingly high coronavirus numbers, the next stage of Walt Disney World’s phased reopening is here.
Today, Disney’s Epcot park and Hollywood Studios opened their doors to guests for the first time since they closed on March 15. (Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom opened on July 11.)
The reopening of Epcot and Hollywood Studios also comes at a busy time for the global entertainment giant: Disneyland Paris in France opened earlier today while Disneyland Hong Kong closed just shy of a month after reopening because of a surge of Covid-19 cases there.
Back in the US, the Florida Department of Health reported another 10,181 cases of coronavirus on Tuesday, bringing the total of cases reported throughout the pandemic to at least 301,810, according to new numbers released by the Florida Department of Health.
A total of 19,334 people are hospitalized across the state, and an additional 132 deaths – the most deaths in one day in the state – were reported on Tuesday,
Despite the worrisome numbers, Disney maintains that its newly enhanced safety protocols – such as hand sanitizer, mandatory masks and social distancing – are sufficient protection to keep cast members (its term for employees) and guests safe in the resort’s hotels and theme parks.
“The world is a different place, but we feel really prepared to operate in this new environment that we’re in,” Disney chairman of Parks, Experiences and Products Josh D’Amaro told CNN Business on July 11.
At the opening of the Magic Kingdom on July 11, images of long lines at Guest Services – where park attendees sort out any ticket issues before entering the park – circulated on social media as proof that Disney was not enforcing social distancing protocols.
A tweet from theme park journalist Carlye Wisel read:
“haven’t even made it in the gate yet and my heart is pounding out of my chest. just had to squeeze past a lane of opposite traffic while there’s this densely packed line for guest services. this is unacceptable — and I haven’t even made it into the park yet.”
That lesson is one Disney learned the hard way.
What’s happening at Epcot
Today, at the international entrance to Epcot at the back of the park, there was a cast member managing social distancing in the temperature check line.
The line stretched nearly all the way back to the closest hotel, Disney’s Beach Club Resort, but it moved quickly and there were no discernible issues with elevated temperatures from waiting in the sun to get checked when CNN Travel was in line.
“This will be the longest line of the day, I promise,” said the cast member monitoring social distancing.
At the gates to Epcot, long lines for temperature checks were the only delay.
Touchless bag screening and tickets decreased interpersonal contact and had no wait at all around the 11 a.m. opening, at least at the international gate.
Inside the gate, cast members holding flags from the international showcase were waving and greeting guests. “Welcome back!” one said. “Drink lots of water. Eat all the foods.”
Besides modified entry and and an unusually enthusiastic welcome, the scene looks largely the same as it did before Epcot closed in March.
The main difference: all of the photos in front of the park’s iconic dome are of people wearing masks. (Disney said its photographers won’t shoot anyone not wearing a mask.)
At the dome
The park is under major construction, as part of the renovation Disney announced at its 2019 D23 Conference. Almost all of Future World is blocked off by construction barriers.
The central plaza just after Epcot’s iconic dome is completely blocked off from foot traffic. To get into Mouse Gear, Epcot’s main gift shop, there was a line of about 15 socially distanced groups at 12:30 p.m.
One thing that’s not under construction: the Epcot dome itself.
That dome houses Spaceship Earth, one of the original rides that opened in 1982 at the debut of Epcot. A refresh of that ride was scheduled for this year – it was supposed to shut down in May – but those plans are on indefinite hold because of the pandemic.
The original ride is still operational, but because of new safety protocols, the interactive touch screen displays people use after the ride is over aren’t available now.
Food and the World Showcase
Not everything in Epcot is open yet.
In the World Showcase, many of the restaurants are still closed. The Italy Pavilion and the Mexico Pavilion have operational restaurants, but in the France Pavilion, all of the restaurants and bakeries are closed.
Knowing not all of the epicurean offerings would be in place, Disney accelerated the start of the Epcot International Food & Wine Festival, one of the resort’s signature events.
Normally, the festival happens in the fall, but this year, it launched on the park’s opening day as well. Twenty different pop-up food kiosks are scattered throughout the World Showcase, from locations as far ranging as Hawaii, China, Morocco and Brazil.
One major difference to the reopened Epcot: The international program is currently suspended.
Normally, the people working in each of the international pavilions in the World Showcase are from that country (or in the case of Africa, continent). With the pandemic travel restrictions, Disney had to suspend the program. Most of the people working in the pavilions are American.
However, there are a few exceptions. Some of the cast members in France are French; they chose to stay in Florida rather than return home.
“Why would we want to leave?” one said. “The weather is beautiful in Orlando. We have nothing to complain about here.”
The mask situation
Before Epcot opened, some critics speculated that mask wearing would be a problem in the park. In the World Showcase, people are encouraged to stroll with a beverage in hand and to graze between different walk-up food areas.
But in CNN Travel’s observation, people have been largely adhering to Disney’s mask policy. Tables and benches are set at socially distant spots, and people are using them to eat, then put their masks back on to walk to the next area.
In times of higher attendance, unmasked people walking and eating would likely be more of an issue, but on opening day with its low attendance, it’s been easy to stay safely away from others while you have your mask off to eat or drink.
A park in transition
Even before the pandemic forced the closure of Epcot, this was a park in transition.
The changes Disney announced at the D23 conference promised a park that honored its retro futuristic heritage but also updated the experience with more exciting rides from Disney hits such as “Ratatouille” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.”
Most of the construction was shut down during the pandemic. Currently, there are no updates on when the rides will open.
Originally, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure was slated to open this summer. As Florida’s coronavirus numbers continue to fluctuate and people continue to visit (or choose not to visit) the parks, we will see what the rest of this year holds for Epcot and the rest of the Disney empire.