Visiting Disney World Resorts During the Theme Park Shutdown
The following will be even more irrelevant and meandering than usual as we take a look at the resort experience with the Walt Disney World theme parks closed to the public. Above is the current state of Roaring Fork at Disney’s Wilderness Lodge during peak dinner hours on June 30, 2020, at 7:32pm. The resort quick service is open, but your only interaction will likely be with the cashier. And even then, Disney would prefer that you use mobile order, to the point where the sole cast member inside the venue informed us that several items were only available when ordering via the My Disney Experience app.
Personally, I’ve struggled a bit over the past few weeks, and the preceding months, with just how much I’m willing to go out, and what sorts of behaviors are socially responsible.
On one hand, “stay home, stay safe, don’t spread the virus” makes a tremendous amount of sense. There is no real reason for me to stay at or even visit Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, or any other resort, restaurant, hotel, etc. Staying home is the only way to put an end to what has become an epidemic in Florida.
This sort of sentiment is common on social media:
On the other hand, the restaurant is open. If nobody shows up, these servers will either be scheduled for one shift, make little to no money, or be laid off entirely, and then have to rely on Florida’s very broken unemployment system that is soon to pay $275/week for an insufficient amount of time.
According to the local news, and this WESH article in particular, restaurants at Disney Springs are already laying off hundreds of workers and reducing the hours of those who are still employed:
The economical impact of staying home and staying safe cost over 140 people their jobs just this week across just two Disney Springs restaurants. Universal Comcast laid off thousands late last month. Legoland also laid off hundreds because so few people have returned to the theme parks and spent money.
I actually dined at Paddlefish with some friends back on June 19th. I ordered this plate of Rock Shrimp Linguine for $24. Most venues are operating with limited menus, likely in part due to having some trouble sourcing certain ingredients, in addition to trying to keep things relatively straightforward in the kitchen, and more affordable for the diner.
Here’s part of Paddlefish’s current dinner menu:
You can pull up the whole thing here, but this is the bulk of it.
It’s a far cry from what I experienced during my last dinner. Back then, the menu consisted of the following:
Back when times were good, there were more than 25 entrees that cost over $25, with the average around $35. Currently, only five of the 17 available entrees cost more than $20. That obviously means a lot less revenue for the restaurant, particularly with fewer people dining. It also likely means lower tips, particularly with servers assigned to fewer tables.
Even the Filet pictured above has seen a price decrease. I would also say that just about everything we tried at Paddlefish disappointed on our most recent visit. With the restaurant closed for 3+ months, it’s impossible to say who stuck around. Quality has probably suffered because of that. Also, with lower prices and reduced staff, the amount of care has probably dropped alongside the price difference between a $49 Steak and $14 Chicken Sandwich.
Back to the resorts, I spent some time talking to the single cast member stationed outside Disney’s Wilderness Lodge. There wasn’t much else to do. He confirmed that he had seen perhaps one Magical Express drop-off and one pick-up that day. It was after 8pm. That made for a total of six guests coming in and out via the usual bus to and from the airport. There is no valet service at the moment. Cast will apparently still help you with your bags and greet you at the front door.
It’s worth noting that most of Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is not actually open. Only the Disney Vacation Club wings/resorts opened back on June 22nd. That’s with limited dining, lounge, and recreation options opening at the same time.
A number of resorts will not reopen with the theme parks and some do not have reopening dates whatsoever. This is what’s currently expected:
- All Star Movies, Music, and Sports Resorts – No current opening date
- Art of Animation Resort – August 12, 2020
- Pop Century Resort – July 10, 2020
Only one Value Resort will open in time for Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom to open the following morning. Disney is keeping the entire All-Star complex closed with no published reopening date. Art of Animation will open over a month after Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.
- Caribbean Beach Resort – July 29, 2020
- Coronado Springs Resort & Gran Destino Tower – October 14, 2020
- Port Orleans Resort – French Quarter – No current opening date
- Port Orleans Resort – Riverside – No current opening date
You won’t be able to stay in a Moderate Resort until July 29th, when Caribbean Beach opens. The NBA has taken over Coronado, and will be there through the end of their “season” on October 13th. Go Sonics. The Port Orleans complex has no reopening date.
- Animal Kingdom Lodge: Jambo House – No current opening date
- Beach Club Resort – August 24, 2020
- Boardwalk Inn – October 1, 2020
- Contemporary Resort – July 10, 2020
- Grand Floridian Resort & Spa – September 21, 2020
- Polynesian Village Resort – August 12, 2020
- Wilderness Lodge – No current opening date
- Yacht Club Resort – August 24, 2020
Part of the strangeness with this list is the number of resorts with DVC wings, where the attached “regular” rooms will not be available. Wilderness Lodge is one of them.
As you can see, Mercantile, the resort’s main store, is open. The front desk is fully masked and staffed. You may also note that there are at least six warning signs in this photo.
Most stores, restaurants, and other outlets are “one way only,” meaning there are separate entrances and exits. You’re not supposed to exit the store on this side. You’ll also pass yet another common warning sign on your way inside. Another warning sits on the table just inside the store.
Your brain will likely begin to filter out these sorts of warnings quickly:
That may be why there are so many.
I don’t think anybody is really following these guidelines. It’s hard to imagine not coming back from a day at Magic Kingdom, even with the operating hours of just 9am to 7pm, and not have a headache, fatigue, body aches, and potentially a runny nose from forgetting your morning allergy medication. With the amount of dust in the air at the moment, it’s likely that at some point during the day, you’ll probably also cough. The last two bullet points are also hard to avoid if you’re dining somewhere like Tony’s Town Square Restaurant. Obviously, several of the other symptoms are more severe, like shortness of breath and fever. This is probably more of a liability thing than anything. If anybody with body aches or a headache were truly not allowed back where they were staying, I’m not sure where anyone would go.
It’s sort of hard to make out, but there’s some sort of acrylic plastic guard situation going on in front of all of the guest services desk stations. We’ll see the same at restaurant check-ins. It’s not a big deal, but it’s strange talking to someone through a plastic shield, and reinforces the idea that things are not quite right.
Every table has a “For Your Safety” warning on it. The pin kiosk to the rear is closed.
Disney’s Wilderness Lodge recently repurposed about half of its main building into the Copper Creek Disney Vacation Club Villas. There are warnings on both trash receptacles as you head into the main building. I also just passed two A-frame warning signs and there will be two more just inside the doors.
For a review/look at the 1-Bedroom Copper Creek Villas, along with much better photos around the resort, see this post.
I also have a walk around the resort under “normal” conditions in this post from “literally” the exact same date a few years ago. You’ll note how busy the new pool complex is with just about every lounge chair and cabana taken. There are a few dozen people in the pool and another dozen people in the hot tub off-screen. Everyone is enjoying their stay.
This is not the case at the moment; just two people stand against the side of the same pool in the distance and no other lounge chairs are occupied.
Likewise, the cabanas were completely empty during my visit. These pictures are from more than a week after opening, and during the week leading up to the July 4th holiday, during what would ordinarily be a popular time to be in the pool.
The main pool is also open. There’s nobody in it. The hot tubs also sit empty.
On one hand, this is just about as relaxing as things could possibly be. You’ll (probably/hopefully(?)) never have an opportunity to visit with so little going on around you.
On the other hand, a big part of what makes Walt Disney World so special is the people, the energy, and the fun.
With empty hallways.
Desolate quick services.
Back when Roaring Fork re-opened, the same table looked like this.
There aren’t even any cupcakes to review or red wine to buy underneath the “fresh today” refrigerator.
Here’s what the same cases looked like earlier this year. Full of goodies. As it should be.
Here at 5:48pm, there is nobody in sight – cast or guest.
Empty dining areas.
And cast members leading dance parties to nobody. There are no camera tricks here. The photo of the Roaring Fork outdoor seating section is from 7:30pm. This pool picture is from a couple of minutes later, when there are actually two people in the pool. The whole thing came off as being a little depressing.
The highlight of the stay may have been this delightful bunny.
Who was really going to town on some greenery.
Both Territory Lounge and Artist Point remain closed to all guests with ropes blocking access there on the left.
As some of you may know, I originate from the Pacific Northwest. Disney’s Wilderness Lodge is my favorite resort.
Seeing it so empty was strange.
We’re expecting boat service to resume on July 11th with the opening of Magic Kingdom Park. One wonders how cost effective that will be given the lack of people. It may simply equate to long waits with one boat operating at a time.
Cast have socially-distanced the rocking chairs in the lobby. There is no fire and nobody around to sit there anyway.
Where you come down on the emptiness of the resort, and overall lack of amenities, potentially comes down to the eye of the beholder.
Going to Walt Disney World to get away from the people and not go to the theme parks are foreign ideas to me. It’s not something that I’ve ever considered possible.
On one hand, it’s incredibly tranquil.
Even if the spas are all closed. There’s one inside the old pool bar on the right there.
But I’m not sure what people have been doing for the last couple of weeks other than potentially using their resort as a home base to visit other area attractions. Based on a couple visits to Universal, they aren’t there.
Things may pick up after the Parks reopen, but remember that regular rooms at Wilderness Lodge still do not have a reopening date. Disney removed the cushions from these chairs near Geyser Point so you can’t really sit on them and enjoy looking out at the water. At least if I sat down that low, it would be some time until I would be able to get back up.
There are no bar stools at the bar, nor is there anyone at Geyser Point, despite it being open. One cast member looked to be running the operation by themselves. You’ll note that the cups left by the previous occupants of the table remain sitting there. That will be a theme as we move inside the restaurants.
At 8:11pm, or as people would ordinarily be streaming into the resort from the theme parks, the only people we see are Disney cast members. Disney is “literally” paying them to do little more than stand around. Once or twice every hour there might be a question to answer or a surface to wipe down. The same gentleman that we saw three hours prior is pacing in the opposite direction in front of the guest services counter. There is nothing for him to do.
As a “Florida local” – I’ve lived within 15 minutes of the theme parks for more than ten years, I will occasionally rock the “staycation.”
Some of that is at least semi-work-related, as I’ll usually select a resort that Disney recently refurbished in some way.
But at least half the time, any plans to lug my camera around and document the experience go out the window shortly after the first margarita arrives.
But this was a completely different experience. A big part of the fun of Walt Disney World is seeing so many other people having fun along with you.
And that’s simply not the case at the moment. We can’t even play “count the smiles” because nobody is in the pictures. The few people that I did see appeared to look rather dour.
How do you spend your day when your options are to stand in the pool, go to the empty quick service, try to get waited on by the one server at the one (outdoor in July) bar, or simply stay in your room.
Certainly, if photography is your main aim, there’s no better time to take photos with nobody in them. These are all iPhone pictures because I didn’t want to be followed around by security all day as I walked my big creepy camera around.
I guess what it comes down to is that the visit was not the “escape from reality” that I was hoping it would be. Instead, it cemented just how bad things currently are down here. If I want to be by myself, I can just stay home. If I were to sit down in the lobby, the five or six cast members around would have little else to do but occasionally eyeball me. Then when I got up, they’d wipe the whole area down.
Above is the sort of atmosphere that we usually take in at Wilderness Lodge. People are enjoying themselves in the lobby, but there are still plenty of chairs if we’d like to take a seat. Whispering Canyon is almost completely full. It’s a lively scene. Considering more than half of the resort is either closed or unoccupied, it makes sense that we’re not currently seeing that. One wonders what the point is of operating and staffing dining, pools, shops, the front desk, etc. for so few people. Obviously, Disney Vacation Club needed to get some DVC points off the books, and potentially this is some sort of major write-off for Disney, but it doesn’t seem like the soundest decision. Why have a pool open, staffed by three lifeguards and four entertainment cast members, for a total of two guests?
Whispering Canyon was basically offering its full menu:
That’s most of what’s regularly available, which is part of why we chose it. It was also the only sit-down restaurant option at the resort, which helped narrow things down.
Check out my formal review for a look at all of the skillets, along with more about Disney’s Wilderness Lodge, and the restaurant.
Whispering Canyon usually looks like this in the evening.
Instead, on my most recent visit, it looked like this. The adjacent tables all have signs that read that the table is to be left unoccupied. There was basically a moat of tables around ours in the corner. What our distant neighbors left behind sat there long after they went wherever it is that DVC members go when the theme parks aren’t open.
We took the opportunity to try a couple of items that we had previously skipped over in favor of the all-you-care-to-enjoy skillets. First up, we have the $12 Burnt Ends’ Nachos Topped with Beef Brisket, Barbecued Pulled Pork, Cheese Sauce, and Fresh Salsa. These had obviously been sitting around for some time with the congealed cheese sticking to just the top layer of basic tortilla chips. I’m of the mind that even terrible nachos are pretty good, but we stopped picking at the chips about two-thirds of the way through. That’s never a good sign.
The $26 Cedar Plank Salmon – House-smoked Salmon, Ancient Grains, Roquette, Fennel, Parmesan, Lemon Crème Fraîche was considerably better, though the fish was a bit oily. The Ancient Grains were overwhelmed by butter and incredibly rich, to the point where it would weigh you down for some time after the meal. The Lemon Crème Fraîche was likely supposed to be there to help cut some of that richness, but any citrus elements were entirely absent. The Fennel did a nice job of adding some texture and a bit of crunch. It “felt” like the Salmon was better than what we previously received in the Skillet.
That’s the Skillet Salmon – even more fatty and oily. I’d put the salmon itself on par with the old Artist Point days. That’s high praise. If the risotto-esque substance wasn’t completely doused in butter, it would have been a great overall dish.
The $19 Pan-fired Red Quinoa Cakes – Pickled Corn, Oven-roasted Peppers, and Avocado Spread remains a winner. This is a bad iPhone picture, but the Quinoa Cakes retain a nice crispy texture and the peppers add a little heat, while the pickled corn brings a little acid to help offset the butter. The avocado spread further adds a creamy, earthy element. It’s a no-brainer for vegetarians and I’d recommend it over the Vegan Skillet. I’m far from a vegetarian, but I’d be perfectly happy eating this as my entree. That’s relatively rare.
It is worth noting that a basket of corn bread will set you back $9. That means my salmon entree and cornbread would cost more than unlimited salmon and unlimited cornbread, plus the other items in the skillet. That either doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense, or my salmon really was considerably higher quality. I’m going with the latter.
The $34 Char-crusted New York Strip – Honey-roasted Carrots, Crispy-fried Red Potatoes, and Whiskey-Onion Butter was seasoned well and cooked to a nice medium, with plenty of pink throughout the strip. It’s worth noting that Disney no longer brings menus by default for sanitation reasons. Your seater will instruct you to scan a QR code that they leave at the table, which simply brings up the menu for the restaurant on DisneyWorld.com. The prices and offerings online are typically different than what’s available on the physical menu, so it’s worth asking to look one over. You’ll also be able to take the menu with you because they don’t want it back. Free souvenirs. Here, we paid a dollar extra for the steak compared to the online price.
I’ve visited other resorts with the same story. There’s “literally” nobody here at the Beach/Yacht Club Resorts or anyone walking around the BoardWalk. Only the Disney Vacation Club wings at the Beach Club and BoardWalk are open. The main portions of both the Beach and Yacht Club resorts remain closed to the public until the end of August. Stormalong Bay also remains closed. Your swimming options would be the quiet pool at the Beach Club or walking over to the BoardWalk’s main pool, which is typically on the crowded side of things.
I’m not sure if the Martha’s Vineyard lounge lived through Florida’s bar closure or not. It doesn’t really matter as nobody had ordered a drink all day back on June 23rd. I’m probably one of the biggest proponents of this lounge. The bar menu and draft options are actually really good. It’s far enough out of the way that you’ll be able to enjoy some privacy. I have reviews here and here.
Here in the Beach Club lobby, the only two people in the frame are cast members inside the store in the distance. Warning placards sit on each table.
Still, Disney has staffed the front desk with several cast members. Each of them is making less money than they would on unemployment/pandemic relief at home.
In both an effort to keep staffing down, and decrease interaction, you’ll see these signs throughout the resort. There’s one outside too.
Here we are at Beaches & Cream, again with notices on tables that can’t be used and dirty dishes on all the ones that were. Maybe a third of the staff is in the kitchen, at most. The to-go window for sundaes, ice cream, and treats, is not open.
It took a little over a half hour for our dessert to arrive. I don’t mean to sound particularly whiny. I’m just trying to pass along our experience.
My French Dip was actually really good, and a bargain for $17. I’ll have a formal review of Beaches & Cream when things return to something that approaches normal. With the reopening, we’ll likely focus on venues with major changes, like Biergarten, which cast will serve family-style. Buffets are out.
Things will likely pick up a bit in the coming weeks, with Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom Park opening in a week, followed by Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios on the 15th. Still, with most of the resorts closed, things will undoubtedly remain slow in here. The BoardWalk Inn portion of the BoardWalk doesn’t open for almost four months, while the DVC wing is already up and running. Disney doesn’t have Jambo House at Animal Kingdom Lodge opening this year.
I can’t tell you whether or not my opinion is the prevailing feeling or not. I don’t visit Walt Disney World to sit in empty restaurants that are serving limited menus, walk along deserted pathways, wade in empty pools, and be heavily restricted in my amenity choices. It’s hard to imagine paying Beach Club DVC prices to have no access to Stormalong Bay, see almost everything on the BoardWalk closed, and sit in an empty lobby. Walking over to Epcot is out for just about anyone who was staying at the resort when I was there, unless they were staying for 2+ weeks.
Of course, much of this is out of Disney’s control. Either a lack of demand or theme park capacity is keeping many resorts closed. The Disney Vacation Club Empire is footing the bill for whatever it costs to operate the resorts at what must currently be 10% of their overall capacity. And the theme parks open in just over a week. I was expecting crowds to be light, but I didn’t expect to see masked cast members outnumber guests.
I suppose it would be sort of like going to see the Rolling Stones at Wembley Stadium. Would you rather see your favorite act in a packed house with the fun and energy that comes with it? Or would you rather watch from the nosebleeds with just a pocket of people here and there who are largely uninterested in what’s happening around them? The current situation “felt” a lot like the latter. I’ll see you in the mosh pit, throwing elbows.
Certainly, if peace and quiet are what you’re looking for, the available Disney Vacation Club Resorts are the place for you.
At least for another week. And in some cases, a few months.