Thoughts on returning to Disneyland after more than a year

As an L.A.-based journalist who covers theme parks, I visited Disneyland once a month on average, so when I walked out of the park on Feb. 27, 2020, I never imagined it would be more than 14 months before I returned.

Sleeping Beauty Castle
Photos by Samantha Davis-Friedman

For the last year, I saw posts by my Florida-based friends and colleagues who reported on all the ways Walt Disney World was making sure guests could visit the Orlando parks safely, and yet, the gates to the happiest place on earth remained locked. So, I was very excited — and, yes, a bit apprehensive — when I was finally able to return to Disneyland yesterday, only a few days after the park reopened to California residents.

Like everywhere in the world, Disneyland has implemented strict health and safety requirements, and just in case someone didn’t already know that protecting guests is Disney’s top concern, the abundance of reminder signs will surely do the job. There are signs about mask requirements, floor markers for social distancing in queues, and posted designated dining areas (where guests can remove their masks while eating or drinking). There are signs in Town Square, in the hub, and on the attractions.

I admit it was jarring to see so many “real-world” signposts interrupting the park’s idealized fantasy world, but after a few minutes, I not only got used to it, but was thankful that Disney is going out of their way to make sure everyone can have an experience that’s just as safe as it is magical. Of course, some of the signs may disappear in time, but I hope reminding guests to be considerate of each other will never go away.

The other noticeable difference is the characters, which are undoubtedly key components to any Disney park experience. One of my favorite things about Walt’s original park is that it’s always been known for “free-range characters.” Unlike at Walt Disney World, where specific characters show up in specific places at specific times, Disneyland guests have been known to spot characters at random times and places, like Mary Poppins and Burt hanging out at the Jolly Holiday Café or the Seven Dwarves parading past Snow White’s Wishing Well.

Post-COVID, the park has combined the best of both worlds. There are characters everywhere — and all the time. At any point during the day, members of the Fab Five (plus Chip and Dale) can be seen greeting guests from the steps of the Disneyland Railroad Main Street Station as well as from their front porches in Toon Town, the Disney princesses are literally holding court in the Royal Theatre, and Pooh and pals are happily waving at passersby near “It’s a Small World.”

Goofy at main street station

While the photo ops are socially-distanced, that didn’t seem to dampen the enthusiasm of any of the kids I saw, including one boy who shouted, “I missed you, Goofy!” to which Goofy responded by blowing a kiss. Was it the same as before? Obviously not. But it was still just as “Disney-tastic” as ever — maybe even more.

The thing that struck me more than anything else is how much more colorful everything is than I remembered. Were the facades on Main Street U.S.A. always so vibrant? Were the castle rooftops always so blue? Was the carousel always so bright?

King Arthur's Carrousel

In the case of King Arthur’s Carrousel, it has been recently refurbished. Still, I realized that I’d clearly taken some of the Disney magic for granted as I hurried past on my way to wherever I was hurrying. But after being away for so long (and having no media event or Imagineer panel to rush to), I was able to notice how truly beautiful Disneyland is.

They say absence makes the heart grow fonder, and in this case, it’s absolutely true. I missed you, Disneyland.


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