This past week, Universal Orlando Resort became one of the first major theme park complexes in the U.S. to reopen. I was lucky enough to spend time during both the Annual Pass Preview as well as the actual first day open to the public and I have to say I thought it was handled very well. To be perfectly clear, I booked and stayed at the Aventura Hotel on my own — nothing was paid for or sponsored by Universal Orlando — so this is all my unbiased opinion. But, that being, said I did have a different experience than many because, staying at a Universal hotel, I had the ability to enter either park with no reservations. Additionally, I was able to have my temperature check being done at the hotel (you can read about here). Lastly, I didn’t have to use the parking structure, which seemed to be the biggest concern the first day.
Entering the parks, the queue normally used for the ticket booths were being utilized for guests heading to the turnstile area. While in the queue, Team Members were very welcoming and happy to see guests back. There was also a Team Member on a microphone going over the safety precautions now in place throughout the park.
After walking the queue and being directed to a turnstile, we saw the first change: no more biometric finger scanning. For now, Team Members will scan your admission and ask for an ID that matched. Each time I entered one of the parks, it was a seamless process, with many Team Members out directing and helping to encourage social distancing.
Of course, it isn’t a visit to a theme park without seeing some of the iconic characters or entertainment and, once again, Universal handled this perfectly! In the three days I visited the parks, I think I have more pictures with characters than in the past 20+ of visiting. Having the characters in areas where guests could still see them and having them ready for their “not so closeups” worked wonderfully.
As of this reopening, shows like the Horror Make-Up and Fear Factor are not running, but other shows have either relocated to newly built stages like “Marylin and the Diamond Bellas” or stanchions have been put up to keep guests a safe distance from the cast while social distancing markers have been placed in guest viewing areas to ensure they’re maintain six-foot distance from others.
Universal’s Superstar Parade is not running in full but, throughout the day, one float at a time would travel half the route with all the characters staying on the floats but waving and greeting guests. This was a smart way to handle this as not only did it keep guests flowing (since the floats didn’t stop) but it also brought a lot of life and energy to the park with the bright floats and fun music.
Universal Orlando Parks have had an app for many years, but they have not been very dependent on it other than for wait times and show schedules. That has all changed now. With concerns about multiple people coming in contact with our food, Universal has moved to mobile ordering for its quick service locations. Guests queue up to be seated and order their food via the Universal App. After ordering, guests give their name and order number to one of the Team Members who bring the food to your table and also they bus the table when done. As my visit fell during the first days of this service, there were a few minor hiccups they were working out such as condiments and utensils that are brought with your meal, but I will say that, with each passing day, the process got better and better. Most of the quick service windows that were open functioned just like normal with social distancing markers set up for a queue and, of course, Team Members wearing face coverings.
One of the main questions I had going into the park was “how are they going to handle the Coke Freestyle machines?” At other locations that had recently reopened, when it came to refills, you would receive a new cup handled by an employee that would fill it and hand it to you. For Universal, they either had Team Members or disposable wipes at each of the machines and you would select your drink refill on your own.
The new process was very impressive and, each time I sat down to eat, the wait for food to be delivered was very minimal. However, if there is one challenge to this process, it is the same challenge there has always been in theme parks: guests all wanting to eat at the same time, causing the lines to be seated to extend out of the building. Of course, this is no fault of Universal’s.
The other categories could all fall into just about anything else that has opened to this point, but the attractions are what set Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure apart from the smaller tourist attractions that have opened to this point — and again they set the bar high! One of my friends joked that the company that makes the social distancing markers is going to be more powerful than any other company when this is all said and done. That fact is backed up by Universal where every queue has been set up perfectly for the six-foot spacing and with those spaces even the longest line never felt like you were waiting for more than a few minutes because of the constant flow.
Attractions like E.T. Adventure and Men In Black: Alien Attack have turned off the preshows to keep guests flowing. As a theme park nerd, this stung a little bit because you lose part of the story and theme but, if this is the only way for me to experience these rides again, I have no problem with that.
For unique attractions such as Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, the waiting area had to be reconfigured to accommodate guests and have them ready to sit in the pods in the attraction. Tape boxes were created to keep guests a safe distance from others but also ready for the load from preshow to preshow to ride.
Loading of the vehicles was also a new experience. As guests approached the area, a Team Member was there to provide each guest a pump of hand sanitizer as well as group them together in the traveling party or properly spaced out for larger vehicles. On attractions like The Simpsons that hold eight per vehicle and have a small holding room, they would load only parties traveling together but, for larger capacity attractions such as Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure or The Mummy’s Revenge, guests would be spaced by rows.
Again the Universal App is a must-have before heading to the parks in these unprecedented times as some attractions in both parks have changed over to the Virtual Line option only. Guests have the ability to book select attractions on the Universal Orlando Resort App once the park opens, giving the option of guests in party as well as return time. Once booked, guests just check-in at the attraction entrance and join the queue. This is not an alternate queue, just the main one — but instead of guests joining the line at an endless rate, only guests who have Virtual Line Reservations are able to join which keeps the queue manageable.
This option worked perfectly each time I did it. While I can see it turning into a bit of a problem as seen at another studio park, having the option to choose your return time helps give guests more options.
Universal Orlando Resort has set the standard for how theme parks should handle reopening. With amazing Team Members always cleaning and maintaining the guests safety first to having a well laid plan in place and anticipating the worst by having extra staff ready, I came out feeling like it was just another day enjoying the parks.
To address one of the main questions I received, yes, all the Team Members and guests were wearing face coverings. Universal even went a step above and beyond by creating U Rest spots in both the parks as well as CityWalk. These open areas give guests a spot to social distance from others and remove temporarily their face coverings. Each area was watched over by Team Members and only a limited number of guests would be let in to afford plenty of space to feel comfortable.
So while this may not be enough to bring all guests back immediately, hopefully those who do want to visit as soon as possible will feel comfortable doing so.
Our main correspondent for Walt Disney World and the Orlando area and a heck of a paleontologist if he does say so himself.