“Disney Enchantment” at Magic Kingdom Park, debuts Oct. 1, 2021, at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The new nighttime spectacular features stunning fireworks, powerful music, enhanced lighting and, for the first time, immersive projection effects that extend from Cinderella Castle down Main Street, U.S.A. (David Roark, photographer)

What to Expect at Walt Disney World in 2022

The “most magical place on earth” shut down briefly in 2020. Though it’s been open for much of the pandemic, a lot has changed at Walt Disney World in the past couple of years. If you’re planning to visit Orlando this year, here’s what you should know.

Things Are (Mostly) Open

When Disney World began phased reopening in June 2022, hotel and restaurant choices were limited. All four theme parks, both water parks, and all of the resort hotels are now open. Most restaurants are open or have announced a spring/summer reopening date.   

Health and Safety Protocols Are Still in Flux

Face coverings were optional for vaccinated guests when we published this article–though transportation is the one exception. Masks are required for guests 2 years and up on the Monorail, SkyLiner, and buses. Proof of vaccination isn’t required. Mask policies have changed several times over the course of the pandemic, so be sure to check the park’s protocols as you plan your visit.

Big Birthday = Big Crowds 

Disney World turned 50 on October 1, 2021, kicking off an 18-month-long “Most Magical Celebration.” In addition to a castle makeover at Magic Kingdom, all four parks have commemorative golden statues of beloved Disney characters to discover. There’s also 50th anniversary merchandise available for purchase. The birthday celebration seems to be drawing substantial  crowds. Disney has said it is enforcing capacity limits via the park reservation system, but they haven’t said what those limits are.

Reservations Are Still Required

When it reopened in 2020, WDW implemented a reservation system for all guests, which it still has in place. Guests can buy tickets and book their reservation at the same time, or purchase and reserve later. If you are limited to certain dates, be sure to check availability before you buy. You should also make reservations sooner rather than later. “Waiting may result in the park you want to visit being unavailable,” advises Jenn Greene, a 10-year veteran travel agent with MEI/MouseFan Travel. There’s no risk to reserving a slot–you can change it for free as many times as you like. 

There’s More Pay-to-Play 

Last year, Disney announced that it would replace its line-skipping programs, FastPass, FastPass+ and MaxPass, with the Disney Genie system. The free version of Disney Genie, which is available in the Disney app, helps you plan park days. Enter your interests and it will recommend an itinerary, as well as provide suggestions throughout the day. 

Disney Genie+ costs $15 per person, per day, and allows guests to select the next available time to arrive at an attraction and enter the Lightning Lane (the replacement for FastPass queues). For new and popular attractions, like Remy’s Ratatouille Express at EPCOT, you’ll need to buy an Individual Lightning Lane to skip the line. There’s a one-time, per-person, per-ride fee that Genie displays before you buy. 

Are these upcharges worth the spend? Yes and no, says travel writer and Disney World Annual Passholder Sarah Gilliland. “I wasn’t necessarily happy to pay extra to skip lines,” she said. “But with three children with varying interests, it made sense for our family to spend extra to make sure everyone left our visit happy.”

Gilliland reports seeing Individual Lightning Lanes priced between $8-$15, with (Star Wars) Rise of the Resistance the top-priced ride. 

Characters Are Look, Don’t Touch

Disney socially distanced its live characters during the Covid pandemic. Mickey hugs or linking arms with your favorite princess have been replaced by hands-off character sightings. Characters are still close enough to wave hello and pose for pictures.Character dining is only offered in a half-dozen locations: Chef Mickey’s, Garden Grill, Hollywood & Vine, Storybook Dining at Artist Point with Snow White, Topolino’s Terrace, and Tusker House. Characters make the rounds, but keep their distance. 

They also aren’t signing autographs, so leave your albums at home for now.

Parades Will Be Back

When the parks reopened in summer 2020, parades and nighttime spectaculars, including fireworks, were halted. Character cavalcades have replaced larger parades. These seemingly random, smaller, and more frequent character processions offer a parade-like experience without the massive crowds that gather in advance of parades. Disney that announced parades will return to Disney World in 2022, but hasn’t offered specific dates. 

Fireworks shows—Disney Enchantment at Magic Kingdom and Harmonious at EPCOT—are running nightly. The two nighttime shows at Hollywood Studios (Fantasmic and Star Wars) and Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom are still suspended.

Should you visit in 2022?

Trying to decide if 2022 is your year to visit Disney World will come down to how comfortable you are in a crowded theme park. I still feel a lump in my throat when I see my kids waving at Mickey from six feet away, even if they can’t go in for a hug. For us, the magic and wonder are still alive.  

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Jill Robbins is a San Antonio based adventurer who travels through Texas and beyond with her husband and sons.