What a difference a week makes.
Eight days ago, from the time of writing this, I had just arrived at my Walt Disney World hotel after a red-eye flight from Los Angeles, ready for a week of both work and fun.
By the end of that week, it felt like I was living in a dystopian sci-fi movie.
I was at Walt Disney World during their closure for COVID-19, aka coronavirus. To say it was an intense experience would be putting it mildly. I was traveling alone and experienced all of the emotions – shock, denial, sadness, anger, acceptance, but most of all, fear. The only comfort I felt was knowing literally everyone around me was in shock and scared, too. We were all experiencing uncharted territory, which made me feel less lonely, but still incredibly anxious.
Now that I’m comfortably at home with my husband and cats, I can look back on the week and analyze the decisions I made. As the days go on, I realize I made some bad choices during the escalating COVID-19 crisis. I already have a lot of regrets which I will discuss below. Ultimately I am making peace with myself that I can’t change the past and can only try my best moving forward.
Graph showing total COVID-19 cases in the USA during my Walt Disney World visit. Source: Worldometers
Walt Disney World During the COVID-19 Outbreak
March 10, 2020 (Tuesday) – The date of my late night flight. News reports about coronavirus rising rapidly in other countries was dominating television and social media. The US case count had just started to noticeably rise at the beginning of March, but was still low compared to other countries, with just under 1000 cases reported and 30 deaths. Cruises were being quarantined, and I was glad I was only going to Walt Disney World and not going on a cruise. In the back of my mind I thought it could get much worse during my trip and the Parks could close or my flights could be canceled, but I dismissed it as my anxiety getting the best of me.
At this point there was no talk of being able to get a refund on airplane tickets, Disney Park tickets, hotels, etc. The US travel industry seemed alert but still calm. Toilet paper and bottled water was just starting to sell out. I managed to grab a package of Lysol wipes and big bottle of hand sanitizer to take with me. Using these things made me feel overly prepared and cautious.
The flight out of Los Angeles was normal. The flight was almost completely full. The airport seemed as busy as ever; same with Orlando airport when I arrived. Everything seemed like business as usual.
March 11, 2020 (Wednesday) – I had the most normal day at Walt Disney World ever. I checked into Disney’s Pop Century after my red-eye flight and took a nap. I woke up to an announcement that Avengers Campus at Disney California Adventure will open on July 18. I took the Skyliner over to Epcot. My biggest fear at the time was getting stuck in a gondola. I shared my terror on Instagram Stories and we all had a good laugh about it. I had a FastPass for Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that evening. Then I headed to Disney Springs for dinner and shopping. I was going to meet up with a friend for dinner but she had to cancel due to bad traffic.
All things considered, everything was normal. No one around me seemed concerned. At all. Until the evening. A lot happened this evening:
First, the President announced a travel ban from Europe. Next, we learned Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson tested positive while in Australia. Then, the California Governor issued guidelines asking for gatherings of more than 250 people be postponed. However, it was also said theme parks were not meant to be included under these guidelines. Finally, the NBA suspended their season. US case count was now at 1300 (that’s a 30% increase in one day).
So basically, things started to escalate during my first night at Walt Disney World. But during the address to the nation, the President said the risk was still very, very low, and generally healthy people should not be concerned. The greatest risk was still to the elderly population and facilities such as nursing homes. Things were certainly escalating, and some of my friends and social media pals were starting to speak about self quarantines and what would become known as “social distancing.” I understood their panic, but felt it was an over-reaction at this point. I did not feel worried.
March 12, 2020 (Thursday) – I went to Magic Kingdom with a media ticket and spent the day doing sponsored Instagram Stories. One of my Stories was about walking to my favorite lounge, The Wave located at Disney’s Contemporary Resort. I love The Wave for its calming blue light and comfy sofas. I got myself a drink and ordered food and settled in to check my phone for news. This is when I learned The Disneyland Resort would be closing effective Saturday, and Disneyland Resort hotels effective Monday.
I guess I wasn’t surprised by the closures, but was shocked they were happening so quickly. I felt like Disney was doing the right thing by getting out ahead of the virus spread. My first thought was about all the March couples getting married at The Disneyland Resort. I felt so bad for them. I did some Facebook posts with announcements and said I would try to get more information about March weddings.
My next thought was Walt Disney World. Closing Walt Disney World would be a much, much bigger operation than Disneyland. I was certain Walt Disney World couldn’t possibly close without at least a full week’s warning. In fact, I went back in to Magic Kingdom in the evening and was waiting in a PhotoPass line when the woman in front of me asked if I had heard that Walt Disney World would be closing that weekend. I said, “No, and that doesn’t seem possible to me.”
An hour after that, Walt Disney World made the announcement they were closing effective Monday, with resort hotels and Disney Springs staying open. Disney Cruise Line sailings were also being canceled and Disneyland Paris was closing as well. All Disney Parks across the world would be closed starting on Monday.
The closure annoucement
My friend was supposed to fly in and meet up with me on Saturday. We were texting about what she should do. I told her she it was up to her but I thought she should still come! (Side note – less than 24 hours later I realized this was horrible advice. Luckily she did not listen to me and canceled her trip.)
Other big news of the day: A Brazilian government official who had met with President Trump over the weekend had tested positive for coronavirus. Also, Starbucks announced they were closing the majority of their stores to in-person orders, and only accommodating drive thru and mobile orders. US case count was now 1697.
March 13, 2020 (Friday) – I didn’t sleep much Friday night; I was kept awake by anxiety and uncertainty.
Friday was supposed to be my second day with a media ticket, doing sponsored content at Epcot. I emailed my media contact and said that, in light of the recent events, I didn’t think it was appropriate to do social media sponsored content in real time. Instead, I would provide blog coverage at a later time.
However, I still went to Epcot. I still felt like I was low-risk for catching it or being a carrier for it. I stepped up my sanitizer and Lysol game, washing my hands whenever possible and wiping down my phone constantly. But I was still somewhere between full isolation panic, and “it’s all a hoax.” And in my mind I thought, well if we shouldn’t still be going out then Disney would have shut down immediately. (Hello, denial.)
There was also the weddings showcase. The whole reason for this trip was to attend the Disney Fairy Tale Wedding Showcase, happening Friday night and Saturday afternoon. When closure announcements were happening the day before, I was certain the showcase would be canceled, too. But I received an email Friday morning saying the showcase was still on.
After my day at Epcot I went back to the hotel to clean up, change clothes, and headed to Disney’s Grand Floridian for the showcase welcome party. I estimate around 150-200 were present at the outdoor event. I sat at a table with two nice women and we talked about the closures and how crazy everything has been. I took my photos and enjoyed the desserts and watched the Magic Kingdom fireworks from our viewing location. This evening was the first time I had the thought that I should keep my distance from others.
Other big news of the day: President Trump declares a national state of emergency. Universal Studios, Legoland, and Sea World announce their temporary closures. Major school districts start to announce closures. More and more people are talking about social distancing. US case count was now 2247. We are seeing a consistent 30% jump each say.
March 14, 2020 (Saturday) – Today is weddings showcase day, and the day I switch hotels. I took advantage of the weddings showcase group rate and booked one night at Disney’s Grand Floridian. I packed up my things and Disney transported my bags to my new hotel while I took the bus to Magic Kingdom, and the boat to Disney’s Grand Floridian. Luckily both were fairly empty, but this was my first time being concerned about being on public transportation.
The first part of the weddings showcase was a venue tour, which consisted of a self-guided walk between fully staged venues at Disney’s Grand Floridian and Disney’s Polynesian Resort. I took a break for lunch at the hotel’s cafe before heading to the showcase ballroom.
At one point during the venue tour, an older gentleman Cast Member offered me a ride back to the main hotel area, which I happily accepted. During the ride I expressed my condolences about the closure. He thanked me, but then told me the hysteria was overblown and it was “just a flu.”
Side note – I overheard a few other conversations with the same sentiment over the next few days. Both Cast Members and guests complaining about the overreaction, angry about the shut down and missing out on their spring break, and of course, the “hoax.” Again, I’ll admit I wasn’t taking the situation perhaps as seriously as I should have, but many people weren’t taking it seriously on any level.
Arriving to the showcase ballroom, it was packed with hundreds of people. I felt a little uncomfortable and did my best to maintain distance from others. Basically I took the photos I needed and left.
I went back to my hotel room to rest. After watching the news for a little bit, I decided to check to see if I could move my flight up. Delta was offering flight changes without a penalty fee. Flights for Sunday and Monday were full, but I was able to switch my flight from Wednesday to Tuesday, and even keep my same seat. I felt happy to be heading home a day early and saving some money on my hotel stay.
Here is when I really started weighing my decisions and can say I made some mistakes.
That evening, I went to Epcot. I went because I had friends there and I had been feeling so lonely all week. I was desperate for some human interaction. I also wanted to watch the new Epcot evening show and had a FastPass for the reserved viewing area. I also had a couple Flower and Garden menu items I wanted to try before I left.
I really contemplated whether to go or not. Talk of social distancing was now very prevalent on the news and on my social media feeds. I ultimately was selfish and decided to go, telling myself I would avoid lines and crowds. To tell the truth, I had a great time. Maybe the best time of the trip. I drank and ate and laughed with friends. I watched Epcot Forever while maintaining six feet of distance from anyone else.
However, as I was leaving the park, I found myself stuck in a bottleneck of people heading to the exit. Epcot’s on-going construction in Future World created narrow paths. I started to feel panic and moved out of the crowd and waited until crowds were lighter. I decided to avoid the monorail and took ride share back to my hotel.
Other big news of the day: Disney announced they were temporarily ending the college program and all members had four days to leave their housing. US case count was now 2943.
March 15, 2020 (Sunday) – Today was the last day the Walt Disney World parks were open. I also was transferring hotels, to Disney’s Coronado Springs in their new Gran Destino tower.
I decided to be “smart” and stay away from the parks on this last day before the closure. My evening in Epcot freaked me out a bit and I anticipated heavy crowds as all the locals got their last chance at a Disney fix for a while. (I was right, Magic Kingdom ended up being packed, with Disney characters and even the president of Walt Disney World out mingling with guests … more thoughts on that later.)
I canceled all my FastPasses and dining reservations for the day and my character breakfast reservation for Monday morning.
The only reason I left my hotel was for meals, and I made sure to keep my distance from others as best I could. I watched fireworks from the hotel’s rooftop lounge. It was weird knowing it would be the last fireworks show for a while. Later I overheard a couple a few tables away from me talk about the “liberal virus agenda.”
I tried to schedule an Amazon Prime Now food delivery for the next day, but all the time slots were full.
Other big news of the day: Devin Nunes encouraged healthy people to go out to restaurants and pubs to support local businesses, and even *I* knew that was horrible advice. The President said they have the virus totally under control. Around the same time, the CDC recommends the cancellation of all events with 50 people or more for the next eight weeks. Massive conflicting information was still being presented to the public, depending on which news outlets you read/watched. US case count was now 3680.
March 16, 2020 (Monday) – Waking up knowing the parks were closed and empty was a surreal feeling.
After staying mostly isolated the day before, and still clearly in the denial stage, my curiosity got the best of me and I headed to Disney Springs. At this point it had been announced that Disney Springs would be closing the next day and I wanted to see what the crowds were like. I didn’t plan on going inside any stores or getting myself into a crowded situation. But I did end up getting lunch at an outdoor venue that wasn’t not heavily populated, and picking up some desserts to take back to my hotel room. In hindsight that was stupid. I shouldn’t have gone to Disney Springs at all.
I had an interesting encounter with a bartender at my hotel that evening while trying to get some dinner. He started to talk about the how the whole thing was being exaggerated. But I noticed he had gloves on, and I said, “You’re wearing gloves thought! That’s good!” and he responded, “I’m wearing them you all, not for me.” I decided to look for dinner somewhere else.
I ended up at a different bar/lounge where, again, I was the only one there. Two lovely female Cast Members were behind the bar, wondering how they were going to earn money after the resort closes. They mentioned applying for Amazon Prime Now and food delivery services. They also thanked me for coming in and not being angry about everything.
Other big news of the day: Government tone is remarkably different today, presumably due to yesterday’s CDC recommendations. President Trump holds a press conference and urges people to avoid gathering in groups of 10 or more. Some cities announce restaurant and bar closures, and/or shelter-in-place. US case count was now 4663. One thousand new cases in one day.
March 17, 2020 (Tuesday) – Check out day. That morning, the Orlando mayor ordered all restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol, presumably as an attempt to get people to stop congregating. I had hoped it didn’t apply to the airport bars and restaurants, but, it did. My solution? I bought a bottle of wine from one restaurant, asked for a water cup from another restaurant, then sat in a secluded corner and poured myself a glass. Desperate times …
Anyway, I was able to get a late check out until 1pm, and my Magical Express pick up was 3:45pm. For breakfast I went to the hotel’s quick service and bought a breakfast sandwich to take back to my room. At 1pm I checked out, and was told I had to come to the front desk. I asked if I could check out over the phone due to the whole “social distancing” thing, but was told no. While at the front desk, I stood next to a family who was really angry about the closure, saying their vacation was ruined. The Cast Members, throughout this whole ordeal, were so nice. They were just as shocked and sad as we were, I’m sure, with the extra stress of not knowing when they would come back to work. But they were all so friendly, just like you would expect at any normal time.
Between 1pm and 3:45pm I tried to stay outside. I was able to get a snack at one of the hotel bars, where I was the only one there (me and two Cast Members). We all chatted but kept our distance.
I spent the day terrified there would be some kind of shelter-in-place announcement for the entire country before I could get on my flight. I checked my Delta app for flight status every 15 minutes or so.
The Orlando airport was still very busy, and my flight was nearly full. It was impossible to practice any kind of distancing but I did my best, and I offered Lysol wipes to everyone around me on the plane. The gal in the row in front of me was a member of the College Program; her dad was working in Chicago when his job stopped, so he flew to Orlando to pick her up and take her back home to Los Angeles.
View of an empty Epcot from my plane
Coming home was bittersweet. I knew I needed to self isolate starting immediately. But I was just so happy to be in the comfort of my home, with my husband and cats. The anxiety of wondering if I could be quarantined away from home was intense.
US case count was now 6411. The number of reported cases had more than doubled in 3 days, and had increased by 600% since the day I left.
Like I said earlier, now that I’m back home I am self-isolating for 14 days to see if I develop symptoms. I know a lot of Disney Parks visitors will end up with the virus, but the majority of us will not have severe symptoms. So now it’s a waiting game.
Hindsight is 20/20 and now I wish I had done a lot of things different, including not going at all. And while I have many regrets, I did what I could with my emotions while it was all happening, and the best I can do is learn from the experience and hopefully become wiser as time goes on.
What Did Disney do “Right” and “Wrong?”
One of my Instagram friends asked me if I could talk about what Disney did right and wrong during this whole situation.
Obviously we know now Disney made the right call by closing their parks, and perhaps in hindsight they should have closed them earlier. Many people are upset with Disney for not closing their parks “effective immediately” which instead gave guests a chance to rush the parks on their last operating day. While perhaps, on one hand, that would have been best, but that scenario would have created a crunch for Disney’s guest services that would have been incredibly overwhelming. I think Disney did their best with the information they had and that was changing rapidly.
What did Disney do wrong? I think they should have cancelled all fireworks and shows after they announced the closures. I think they should have encouraged guests not to visit, and not to congregate. Instead they had characters on Main Street to say “good bye” and filmed it, using the footage for PR. Even the president of Walt Disney World, Josh D’Amaro – who I absolutely adore – was out taking selfies with guests, which was a bad move. Keep in mind this was Sunday, after the CDC recommended cancelling events with groups over 50 people. After the notion of “social distancing” was prevalent. I hope Josh is in self-quarantine for 14 days.
I also think Disney should have closed Disney Springs and Downtown Disney at the same time they closed the parks. I think they kept them open for crowd control. In hindsight, Disney should have, again, closed them effective immediately and encouraged guests to stay inside.
How Did Cast Members React? Did They Seemed Panicked?
I think the question I received the most while I was at Walt Disney World was about how Cast Members were doing. It was honestly nice to hear so many people were concerned about the Cast Members! Obviously this must have been a huge shock to them, as much as it was to us guests. The entire time, Cast Members continued on like it was business as usual. I’m not sure if Cast Members were told to not bring up the pandemic and closures, but no one did unless I asked them about it. Cast Members always do an excellent job at making you feel like you’re in the Disney bubble while on vacation, and that didn’t stop. I’m very worried about how Cast Members will fare during this crises, and truly hope Disney continues to pay their salaries. However, I get the feeling that, if this goes on longer than expected, there could be layoffs.
So that’s my story. This is obviously a story I never wanted to be a part of, but it happened and time will tell how this experience affects my life from here on out. Thank you for reading.