(CNN) — I was one of the first guests in Disney World on Saturday after a nearly four month shutdown because of COVID-19.
I’ve visited Disney’s parks in California and Florida too many times to count.
The world’s changed since my last visit. Most recently, news of COVID-19 cases in Florida skyrocketing have been hard to ignore.
But I donned my mask and packed my sanitizer because I was ready to see what this new Disney had in store for its guests.
My goal: Find what’s changed at Disney, what remains the same and whether the magic of the experience was enough to offset the discomfort of wearing a face covering.
These are the top seven takeaways about what you need to know before your next trip:
- The new Disney is not the old Disney
As of now, only Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Animal Kingdom are open. Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios are scheduled to start hosting guests on Wednesday, July 15. CNN Travel is set be in Epcot on opening day and report from inside the park.
In the parks already opened, almost all the rides were operational, but many of the stores, restaurants and food kiosks where it’s easy to grab a cold water and a Mickey-shaped hot pretzel were closed.
- Entertainment is of the pop-up variety
Fireworks and parades are on indefinite hold to discourage crowds forming in the parks. Because of social distancing concerns, Disney has also suspended character meet-and-greets.
You’ll still see some of your favorites though.
On opening day, parade floats cruised through Magic Kingdom at unannounced times, and characters popped up for appearances at safe distances from the crowds, such as the evil stepsisters on the terrace of Cinderella’s Castle.
- No mask, no entry
At every location in the Disney resort, masks are required at all times.
The only exceptions: You don’t wear them in resort pools and while you’re actively eating or drinking. Bandanas and neck gaiters are not acceptable forms of face covering — for entry, masks must hook behind the ears.
- Hotel and restaurant choices are limited
Hotels such as Disney’s Wilderness Lodge are open, and some of the hotels are available for stays only in the Disney Vacation Club (DVC) portions.
Even without a DVC membership, I was able to book a stay at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort for opening weekend.
Captain Cook’s, the quick-service restaurant with grab-and-go food, is open for modified hours, and Kona Cafe is serving sit-down meals. Ohana and Trader Sam’s are currently closed.
Disney has a list of which hotels have reopening plans, such as Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort and Spa on September 21, but not all reopening announcements have been made yet.
- Sanitizing is a group activity
On opening day at Universal Orlando, an employee dispensed hand sanitizer to each person getting on a ride. Its use was mandatory. At Disney, there are thousands of dispensers of hand sanitizer, but no mandate that guests must use it.
One unique addition: sanitizing wipe dispensers, available throughout parks and hotels, to clean any personal surfaces or tables. The downside is that by putting the responsibility of cleanliness partly on the guest, it means tables and benches aren’t necessarily being cleaned by employees between each use.
This is especially apparent at the hotels.
At Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort, at least, staff cleaning was spotty. During an afternoon on Friday and entire day Sunday spent at the Polynesian’s two pools, I only saw one employee cleaning off chairs and tables, one time.
I only realized my table at Captain Cook’s wasn’t clean when I saw someone else’s spilled food underneath it.
At Disney’s Contemporary Resort, a friend reported that employees carefully monitor which beach chairs have been used — based on the guests’ practice of folding down their chairs upon leaving the pool area. Judging from a couple of these details, they haven’t quite worked through all the bugs.
- Some things have changed, others haven’t
At the 2019 D23 Convention, Disney announced a major renovation of Epcot, including new rides such as Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and a Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind roller coaster.
Spaceship Earth, an original ride from Epcot’s 1982 debut, was supposed to be closed for renovations this year, but because of COVID-19, that’s been indefinitely postponed.
Disney purists are likely to be delighted by this news, even as they look regrettably on some of the other changes afoot in Walt Disney World following its July 11 reopening.
- The experience is worth it if you want it to be
Many people have been questioning whether, with the modified experience, the expense of a Disney vacation is worth it this year — or, really, before there’s a vaccine for the coronavirus.
Indeed, hotel and ticket prices are the same as they were before the parks closed down, so don’t expect to find any savings there.
It’s possible to find the occasional deal on things like early 2020 merchandise in shops inside the park, which is a rarity at this time of year.
Short lines for rides, however, and a thin crowd may appeal to some.
Temperature checks and masks requirement, no matter how hot and humid the day of your visit, may be off-putting to others.
So, is it worth it? Yes — it if you want it to be.
If you’ve never been to Disney and you’ve been dreaming of visiting this year, it might be better to wait.
Disney veterans, on the other hand, may fare better. We’re more accustomed to being flexible by shifting plans to accommodate last-minute spots that have freed up in the Disney app, which we’re used to eyeing.
I snagged a same-day dinner reservation at California Grill, which overlooks the Seven Seas Lagoon and Magic Kingdom, on July 10, the first it reopened, on the same day.
Ultimately, there is no easy answer to deciding whether a trip to Disney at this time is worth it. How much Disney magic is needed to justify the cost — and abide by the enhanced health and safety protocols — is a matter of personal preference.
Ultimately, to me, it felt like an almost-normal Disney vacation.
There were a lot of things I wish I could have done. I missed not being able to have a tiki drink at Trader Sam’s Enchanted Tiki Bar, where the decorations come alive, but here’s what I found: When I was doing other cool things, it was easy to forget about what I was missing.
That’s Disney’s magic — making it feel like whatever you’re doing at that moment is the most magical thing on Earth.
By Julie Tremaine, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misreported the opening date of Epcot and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This has been amended.
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