I went to Disney World with my family of 6. Here's what we got right and wrong, according to a COVID-19 expert.

  • Daryl Austin and his wife traveled to Disney World from Utah in March with their four kids.
  • An infectious disease specialist critiqued his itinerary, from hotel protocols to bus ride crowds.
  • The expert said Austin’s trip was thoughtful, and showed it’s possible to travel relatively safely.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

My wife and I recently took our four kids – ages 2, 5, 7, and 9 – to Walt Disney World.

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Before booking the trip, I read a New York Times article that praised the safety protocols the park had taken to “keep the coronavirus at bay.” That information – combined with the declining number of COVID-19 cases nationwide, the fact that the most vulnerable members of my family had already received the mRNA vaccine, and some tempting promotional offers from Disney – made my family feel comfortable visiting the Florida theme park.

We began our vacation by flying from Salt Lake City to Orlando, and, after seven days at Disney, returned unscathed by COVID-19. I’d like to think that our careful planning and calculated decisions while there helped keep us safe, but I wondered what a health expert might say about our family’s choices.

So I asked Insider’s Senior Health Reporter Anna Medaris Miller, who’s written a column on pandemic-era decision-making, to evaluate my itinerary. She recruited Dr. Preeti Malani, an infectious disease specialist at the University of Michigan and mom of two, to help.

Here’s how it all broke down.

Hotel guests stayed distanced and masked, but other measures were unnecessary

Daryl: We were told our room had been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized before we arrived, and that there was at least one empty room between ours and any other occupied room. We had our room “lightly serviced” every other day.

Masks were required around the hotel, but I never saw anyone else indoors. When passing a few families in the outdoor corridors, everyone was masked.

Anna: Malani said she doesn’t worry much about room service contributing to the spread of the coronavirus. If guests are offered more frequent service while they’re out of the room, she said they shouldn’t feel pressured to decline. What matters more is that the rooms are well-ventilated.

That’s because the coronavirus spreads most readily via respiratory droplets, and can also be transmitted via tiny particles that hang in the air. Hence why most documented incidents of transmission have occurred in tight, poorly ventilated spaces indoors.

Guest compliance with mask-wearing is also key, as masks have been shown to be a truly powerful tool in fighting the pandemic. Cleaning surfaces, however, while important for general sanitation, isn’t believed to be central way to prevent COVID-19 transmission.

Swimming outdoors is pretty low-risk

Daryl: I only saw two or three other families in the water at the time we went swimming, and we never got closer than 10 or 15 feet from other groups. There were a couple sunbathers around the pool as well, but they were wearing face coverings.

After swimming, we showered and changed back in the room.

Anna: Swimming outdoors is pretty low-risk too, as chlorine inactivates the coronavirus and any water helps disperse it.

If the pool were more crowded, you might have a problem. “The bigger risk from [water] activities would be from interacting with others who are talking, coughing, or sneezing nearby,” Krista Wigginton, an associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Michigan’s College of Engineering, previously told me.

Going back to your room to change afterwards was smart too, Malani said. “It’s the kind of stuff athletes are having to do,” she said, “where they’re not getting dressed in locker rooms.”

The duration of bus rides is a little concerning

Daryl: To get to the Magic Kingdom, we took a 15- to 20-minute bus ride with about 20 total people onboard. The driver told each family unit where to enter and sit, and each group sat at least two seats away from other parties, with about a 20-inch-wide plastic divider between groups. The divider extended from the base of each seat to the ceiling of the bus, and everyone wore masks.

Anna: The one aspect of the bus ride that stuck out to Malani as higher-risk was its duration. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says 15 minutes within six feet of someone with COVID-19 constitutes “close contact” and puts you at high risk of catching the disease, even if both parties are masked.

Those guidelines aren’t hard-and-fast cutoffs, though. It’s possible to contract COVID-19 from 20 feet away in just minutes, one case study showed.

Temperature checks don’t ensure safety, but it’s good guests are closely monitored

Daryl: When we arrived at the Magic Kingdom, we went through a security check area where a medical team was checking the temperature of each guest and verifying that everyone – even our 2-year-old – was properly wearing a face covering.

Anna: My colleague, Senior Health Reporter Hilary Brueck, calls temperature checks “security theater” that are potentially dangerous.

“Thermometer screenings for COVID-19 aren’t just inaccurate and unhelpful, they’re lulling people into a false sense of security during the pandemic,” she writes. “A person’s temperature, even when taken accurately, isn’t always an indication of early coronavirus infection and often won’t tell you that someone is ill when they’re at their most contagious stage.”

That said, Malani appreciated that the security checks at least meant employees were “putting eyes on everyone” and ensuring their masks were appropriately worn.

The crowds along Main Street and impromptu parades present some risk

Daryl: Guests needed to make a reservation for each day they wanted to enter the park, a system intended to limit crowds. Despite this, certain areas were far more crowded than I expected.

Specifically, we saw a large number of people taking pictures, walking, and shopping on Main Street USA, which I came to learn was one of the busiest traffic areas of the park. It was impossible to stay six feet from others while walking all the way down it.

At one point, in a different area of the park, a surprise parade with one float and a few dancing characters began. Everyone quickly gathered to the side of the road, where most parties stood close to other groups and most empty spaces were quickly filled. The parade itself lasted no longer than five minutes.

Anna: Crowds, of course, aren’t good. But being outdoors and masked makes the situation better. Ideally, Disney would have staggered people’s arrivals. As a New York Times article assessing which sorts of businesses are highest risk points out, “the same number of customers spaced out evenly over the day poses less risk than if they all arrive in a few short windows of time.”

The safest thing for you, then, would have been to avoid Main Street USA altogether, or try to go during off-hours. But if that’s impossible or besides the point of a Disney trip, consider whether it’s a risk you’re willing to accept – ideally before booking your trip.

Shopping isn’t much different than doing it in your own community

Daryl: Once on Main Street and again in Disney’s shopping complex, Disney Springs, we stood in a short socially-distanced line to get inside a shop. Inside, it was just like going to any shop back home. It wasn’t overly crowded, but people frequently had to scoot by one another while browsing the merchandise.

Anna: Even if you stayed home, you’d likely have to go shopping – something we’ve more or less mastered over the past year. Malani said we’ve learned that “you can interact with the world in a way that’s safe, whether it’s grocery shopping or going to the doctor or going to school.”

That said, if transmission rates are lower in your community, and people there also comply with masking and distancing, shopping at home could be safer.

It’s good most lines for rides were outdoors

Daryl: In the past, Disney visitors usually stood indoors for much of a ride’s line queue, this time, however, the majority of the lines we stood in were outside.

One roller coaster ride, the “Barnstormer,” had empty rows between each party. Rather than touching the lap bars to ensure the safety of guests, employees watched as each visitor pushed up on their own.

In one line, we tried to eat a quick snack, but were told we could only do so while stationary and in designated areas of the park.

The teacup ride seemed the riskiest, since at points the flying saucers seemed to move closer than six feet. Everyone wore their masks, but it felt like guests were laughing and shouting into the same space the whole time.

Anna: Outdoors and masked is good. Not being able to eat in line also “reflects that Disney is taking [the coronavirus] seriously,” Malani said. The brevity of the contact and air flow while on rides work in your favor, too. Unlike, say, outdoor sports game, which would be riskier where groups may be seated closer together for longer periods of time.

Indoor dining can be risky, whether you’re sat at a distance or not

Daryl: When dining, we usually ate at quick-service restaurants that allowed you to order food from an app and then pick it up when it was ready. We ate those meals outdoors well-spaced from others.

Other times, we ate indoors. At Cinderella’s castle, for instance, we sat at least six feet from other tables and our server was always masked.

During the meal, Cinderella went to a nearby balcony, where she waved and blew kisses at each table from afar. She was not wearing a mask and we were not allowed to leave our table while she was waving – at least seven or eight feet away from the nearest table.

That “character experience” was a contrast to the last time we visited the restaurant, during which several princesses came to our table to take pictures, visit, sign autographs, and give our kids toy wands and swords. The cost remained the same.

Anna: If the appeal of the indoor experience was the character interaction, Malani said, “save your money and see them outside.”

That’s because indoor dining, even where capacity is reduced and tables are spread out, is considered “higher risk” by the CDC. Eating, drinking, and talking can produce the particles through which the virus spreads; the structure itself discourages those particles from dispersing as they would outdoors, and the length of time it takes to eat a sit-down meal gives the virus more time to reach and infect other diners.

Still, the experience could have been in the “highest risk” category if your tables weren’t spaced or servers weren’t masked.

You can plan a relatively safe Disney trip, but it’s key to manage expectations

Daryl: It’s hard not to come away from a Disney vacation without some measure of gratitude for the experience. Even on the worst day, there’s magic there, and my little kids adapted to a lot of the changes easier than I did. Their joy meant something to me.

I wish, however, that other families considering a Disney vacation had more accurate expectations of what they’re getting into. Despite Disney’s attempts to limit crowds, the park was anything but crowd-free and I heard several people throughout our trip that seemed surprised by how many people were there.

Plan on long lines, plan on no Fast Passes, plan on very short, miniature parades, plan on no character interactions, plan on crowded thruways all throughout the park. If those things don’t scare you away, then plan on a trip that could pleasantly surprise you.

Anna: Malani thought Disney’s protocols were commendable and your family’s precautions were “so thoughtful.” She said the trip goes to show it is possible to enjoy a relatively safe vacation with your family, but that people who are uncomfortable with risks should, of course, stay home.

Not all public health experts would have the same take. One even declined to talk to me, saying he didn’t think going to Disney was a good idea, period.

But Malani emphasized that this far into the pandemic, everyone has to make decisions that support their overall well-being. “The lowest-risk thing from a COVID standpoint is to stay home,” she said, “but that’s not the lowest risk thing overall.”

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