I've been visiting Disney Parks multiple times a year for nearly a decade. Yes, there are rides — Space Mountain is my favorite — but my main reason for visiting Disney has always been hugs from the characters. Yes, even at 22, meeting characters is my favorite part about visiting Disney.
In fact, I'd categorize myself as a "Disney adult," a term coined to describe grown-ups who visit the parks child-free and enjoy themselves as almost as much kids do (I'd argue, some even more). I feel no shame in enjoying the Disney parks without kids, but lately, something's been different.
In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything about going to Disney, I'd wait in line, approach Mickey Mouse, give him a hug and snap a photo. There was no hesitancy or awkwardness because snuggling up to characters was a normal part of a day in the parks. I wasn't anxious about hugging Daisy Duck or posing for a photo with my arm around Princess Tiana. One time I even rode the tea cups with Alice (in Wonderland) and hopped on the carousel with Anastasia and Drizella, Cinderella's step-sisters. But after a global pandemic, things changed at the happiest and most magical places on earth.
In March 2020, as coronavirus spread through the U.S., Walt Disney World's theme parks, located in Florida, closed for over a year following Disneyland's closure in California a few days before. That's right: no hugs, rides, Mickey Mouse ice cream bars or sparkly mouse ear headbands. Fortunately, July 2021 brought the re-opening of Disney World, albeit a new type of theme park. Gone were hugs, parades and evening fireworks displays and in their place were social distancing guidelines, the enforcement of face masks and lots of hand sanitizer.
The change was noticeable and perhaps most-affected were those beloved character meet-and-greets, which were completely wiped out until last month. From July 2021 to April 2022, the only way guests could interact with characters was by waving at them in brief cavalcades (parades) or from afar where they stood on a balcony or behind a rope. I got it, but as someone who up was used to running into Magic Kingdom Park for Mickey hugs, it did make things seem a little cold. Now I had to wave at Mickey and his pals from 20 feet away. Better than nothing, but definitely not the same.
And I wasn't alone in noticing the difference: Other Disney adults on social media openly grieved the sense of normalcy that was now lacking in the parks. "I was happy to see the characters, but it definitely felt pretty impersonal unless you totally got that character's attention," says Robin McGrath, a social media content creator with over 16,000 followers who lives in Orlando, Fla. "I missed having one-on-one meet-and-greets, but I'm happy they are back now."
Character meet-and-greets — hugs and all — officially returned to Walt Disney World and Disneyland on April 18. Characters at parks on both coasts returned to their pre-pandemic locations to give hugs, sign autographs and take photos with guests. And it feels like old times: While two years have gone by, the experience finally feels identical to how it did on my last pre-pandemic trip in January 2020.
Long-time Disney fan, Michael (AKA @MichelDoesDiz), who prefers not to divulge his last name to keep his park and private lives separate, planned a whirlwind trip from Chicago, Ill. to Walt Disney World for the sole purpose of hugging as many furry friends and characters as possible on one day.
"I ended up hugging and cheesing with 31 different characters that day and had the absolute best time of my life," he tells Yahoo Life. "Giving my favorite pal, Goofy, the biggest hug absolutely made me cry. It had been 785 days since my last one."
So why do Disney adults care so deeply about hugging these characters? McGrath believes, for many, it's about more than just a hug.
"I had a pretty rough childhood but always found a safe haven within Disney," she says. "Imagine someone took away the stuffed animal you had since you were little — wouldn't you notice it was gone? Wouldn't you miss it? That's what it felt like without character hugs over the past two years. My security blanket was gone."
While I haven't visited Walt Disney World yet, I did take a trip to Disneyland just three days after meet-and-greets returned. I hugged over 20 characters and it was one of the best weekends of my life.
I was happy to find meet-and-greets were just like they had been for the most part. About 98% of the time, Mickey was down for hugs, autographs and photo-taking, but I did encounter one time when he wasn't up for hugging. When someone would go in for a hug, Mickey would dodge it by sticking his hand out for a high five or slowly work them over to his side for a photo. If there's one thing the pandemic made us aware of, it's other people's ... or mice's ... boundaries.
When I met princesses like Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella and other characters like Wendy Darling from Peter Pan, I'd ask if it was OK to hug them before moving in. While my extended arms were a sure cue that I was interested, I felt more comfortable verbally asking on a character-by-character basis to make sure it was OK. Wendy even thanked me for inquiring.
"Thank you for asking my friend," she said before we hugged and snapped a photo. "You have very good manners."
I also didn't think much about the possibility of germs during my hugging sessions. I didn't see anyone spraying Winnie the Pooh down with Lysol between hugs and that was OK with me: If you're visiting a theme park at this point in the pandemic, it's likely you're taking your own safety precautions like hand sanitizer and vaccines.
Still some park goers have never been huggers. Like Morgan Perkinson, a Walt Disney World annual passholder who lives in Orlando. Perkinson says she never hugged characters at Disney pre-COVID, but after a long pandemic, she was ready for some love.
"Since I've never hugged characters in the past, I don't really have anything to compare it to," she shares. "But the hugs felt like a best friend that you haven't seen in years. It was the first hug in a long time that I could actually feel the love and comfort from."
As new meet-and-greet locations continue to open across Disney Parks, I'm more excited than ever to fly south to my favorite place on earth. The next time I visit Walt Disney World, I'll be lined up and waiting to give my furry friends on the East Coast the biggest hug.
Want lifestyle and wellness news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Life’s newsletter.