Karen Fernandez entered the Magic Kingdom for the first time in 1974, at age 4, and for the past few years, has gone weekly to one of the four parks at “The Place Where Dreams Come True.”
Early Thursday, for the first time since COVID-19 shut down Walt Disney World parks and resorts March 15, she joined thousands of masked annual passholders for a special pre-opening preview at the place she and many others call “home” and their “happy place.”
The Thursday and Friday previews, at DIsney’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom (which reopen Saturday) run from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and reservations for them went faster than Space Mountain when they arrived in passholders’ inboxes recently. Epcot and Hollywood Studios are set to reopen July 15.
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Fernandez admits it: She got a little misty-eyed as she headed straight to Cinderella’s Castle, whose fancy new paint job sparkled in bright sunshine as a stream of people posed for photos in front of the refurbished castle.
“It was very emotional … it was really nice to see all the cast members saying, ‘Welcome home,'” Fernandez said. “It was very touching.”
Masks are mandatory at all the Florida parks now, except when eating. Hand-sanitizing stations are sprinkled throughout the park. Signage stressing safety, social distancing and mandatory mask-wearing are everywhere from walls to trashcans and on tables. The parks will also be limiting crowd capacity, though no specifics are yet available.
In many cases, park employees in many cases wear headgear with protective shields in front of their faces, while all wear masks and watch to make sure patrons observe social distancing protocols.
The most dramatic change – and the most welcome for many who feel claustrophobic enough even they’re not wearing masks in 93-degree weather: no more crowding up behind others as visitoirs inch their way toward Seven Dwarfs Mine Train or other popular rides.
“Please Wait Here” and other such directions are painted on the ground every few feet in lines for everything from photos to attractions. And as they wind their way through a queue, park goers walking in opposite directions are separated by tall Plexiglass-topped partitions.
Fernandez of Happy Trails, Florida, knew that she’d take a little or a lot of flak from those concerned about theme parks reopening even as the coronavirus surges in Central Florida.
So does she feel safe?
“I was a little skeptical at first; a little scared, but I knew that Disney would come through,” she said. “People are social distancing; there’s hand-sanitizing everywhere – when you get on the ride and when you get off it. I am really pleased with everything they’ve done.”
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In addition to all of those precautions, there’s no waiting in line inside eateries. Mobile ordering is the order of the day, and when the order’s ready, customers are welcomed inside. At Cosmic Ray’s, while the restaurant’s animatronic star Sonny Eclipse crooned, every other table was marked “For Your Health and Safety, This Table is Not Available.”
That’s all fine with Fernandez, who said Disney “has a very special place in my heart … I just feel happy here. The moment I step foot in any Disney park, I feel elated. So being away from it since the end of February was really hard.”
Passholder Keith Heinly of Palm Bay, Florida, was ready to rock when the Magic Kingdom opened its gates at 9 a.m.
By 11 a.m., the Brevard County native and his son, Stephen, had already ridden Space Mountain and taken the Jungle Cruise. Then, Heinly headed to Haunted Mansion and his son to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad.
Heinly, 63, said that he loves his frequent trips to the Disney parks for the exercise: “Disney’s a great place to walk,” he said.
And the changes he saw Thursday impressed Heinly, who first came to Magic Kingdom when it opened in 1971.
”Seeing all the dividers, the signs … I think they’ve done a great job,” he said.
Fernandez says she’ll continue to follow safety precautions, which she thinks will be good for everyone as the public slowly return to theme parks and other venues that attract big crowds.
After all, Walt Disney World is “home.”
“I was born in Miami but always felt at home in Central Florida,” she said. “When I got married in 1993, my hubby and I moved up here with no hesitation. Our daughter was born in 1994 and we took her to Epcot at 4 months old.”
And Fernandez plans to be back soon with her husband and their daughter – both of whom had to work Thursday.
“I know it’s going to be way different than what it was,” Fernandez said. “But I know it will still be magical.”