Disneyland is back: here’s what it was like to return to ‘the most magical place on earth’

By Lucia Thorne

After a little over a year, the wait was over. I woke up at five in the morning, left the house by six and got into line at seven, at 8 on the dot. Then, I had my temperature and bag checked and my ticket scanned. By 8:15 a.m., I was walking down Main Street, U.S.A. I was back in one of my favorite places in the whole world. I was finally back at Disneyland.

As a result of the pandemic, Disneyland and California Adventure shut down operations on Mar. 14, 2020—the longest closure since the parks’ grand openings, with Disneyland in 1955 and California Adventure in 2001. Seeing the spread of the virus slowing and the hospitalizations in Orange County and California as a whole decrease, the parks have been allowed to reopen for the first time in a year and two months. 

Across the state, each county is designated by a tier system to signify the risk of COVID-19 spread. The system consists of four tiers: purple (widespread), red (substantial), orange (moderate), and yellow (minimal). There are 35 counties in orange, eight are red, and 15 are yellow, one of which is Orange County, where Anaheim and the Disney Parks are located. No counties are currently in the purple tier.

While I was extremely excited to go back to one of my favorite places, I must admit, I was also a bit worried. When my family secured our tickets—which ended up being a nine and a half hour wait to purchase online the day reservations opened on Apr. 15—I hadn’t received a single vaccine dose. However, the rest of my family was fully vaccinated at that point. 

The parks officially reopened on April 30 at a limited 25 percent capacity, with only California residents allowed entrance. Since my visit, the parks have opened up to 35 percent capacity. These restrictions on guest allowance are still in effect as of publication, however, with Orange County having moved officially into the yellow tier (the least restrictive of the four in California) on May 19, this will change on June 15, when non-California residents may visit the park. 

I did end up getting my first dose of the vaccine a couple of days before going, but I was still apprehensive of anti-maskers, improper cleaning measures, and people not wanting to social distance. But wow, did my visit exceed my expectations by a long shot. 

To get into the park, everyone’s temperatures are checked at a gate set up a little further from the main entrance. Once you pass, there is the regular security checkpoint and the line to the entrance begins. Every single line to get into the park, as well as lines for restaurants, rides, and other attractions, have mandatory social distancing which the vast majority of guests follow, along with strict mask wearing enforced for all visitors and Disney cast members. 

The six-feet distance that was enforced in line was genuinely six feet apart, unlike the distance between desks in Emerson classrooms this past year. Every dining area was cleaned appropriately and hand sanitizer dispensers were a common sight in every walkway. 

It was nice to finally be somewhere in California where I felt this pandemic was actually being taken seriously, given the fact that when I was home over winter break, local restaurant Cronies Bar and Grill, became a “symbol of defiance” for Trump supporters and COVID deniers in my town. 

Once that initial nervousness of COVID safety had been eased, it gave me a sense of peace just being there. A small glimmer of hope that we’re almost there, to a generally COVID-free existence. 

With the limited capacity, we were able to get on 11 rides (a rarity at Disneyland during the summer pre-pandemic), including The Haunted Mansion, Pirates of the Carribean, and Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run. While we did end up stuck in the Pirates ride for about 25 minutes exposing the repetitive dialogue and movements of the animatronics, it was quite nice to be back on one of the most classic rides in the park. 

The gem of our experience was the highly-coveted Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. Pre-pandemic, this was the only ride in the park where you had to reserve a spot in line on the app. Now, Indiana Jones Adventure requires a virtual queue to avoid the long lines it had before the pandemic, but Rise of the Resistance is still the only ride that books up in about ten seconds. 

I would like to note, that as a result of the pandemic, some Disney hotels and attractions are still closed, including character meet-ups, most food carts, the Finding Nemo ride, and other activities that put guests in close contact or enclosed spaces for too long. Guests can still take photos with characters, but the characters are on a platform or distanced by more than six feet from those taking pictures. 

But regardless of the many changes made, most of my experience at Disneyland was relatively the same: go on as many rides as possible, snack throughout the day, and enjoy the park from open to close. 

While the feel of walking down Main Street, U.S.A. was definitely different, I could remember my 5-year-old self running with excitement towards the “big kid” rides when I was finally tall enough to reach the height requirement ruler. I could remember the exhilarating feeling of riding Space Mountain for the very first time, seeing Galaxy’s Edge for the first time and absolutely geeking out. 

I remembered all the times I went with friends and family, making new memories with each of them everytime. I spent some of my happiest days at Disneyland, and I finally was able to do so once again. That familiarity was what made it so comforting to be back. 

If you do plan on visiting the Disneyland or California Adventure parks this summer, continue to check the Disneyland website for updates on reservation changes and the park’s COVID guidelines.