Theme park fans knew that visiting theme parks would never look the same after closing down in March due to concerns over the spread of COVID-19, but you might actually be surprised at how it’s not very different at all. Universal Orlando Resort reopened their theme parks to team members for previews on June 1 and 2, but their first big test was the Universal Orlando Annual Passholder and on-site hotel guest previews on June 3 and 4. I was lucky enough to visit Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure on June 3 and Volcano Bay on June 4 and the experience was interesting, to say the least.
Before we get going, let’s start with some housekeeping. Universal Orlando Resort is requiring all guests to wear masks when visiting the parks. Mandatory temperature checks are held in the parking garages before you enter Universal CityWalk and hotel guests are being cleared at their resort. Those with a temperature of 100.4 degrees or greater are being turned away. Inside the parks, it’s being recommended that you maintain at least 6 feet of distance between your party and other guests. Guests are told to wash their hands for 20 seconds often.
Beyond those measures, Universal theme parks are limiting capacity all over. The parks will close for capacity if necessary, and most of the attractions are limiting the capacity to maintain social distancing protocol as well as gift shops and restaurants.
The only asterisk here is Volcano Bay. Since Volcano Bay is a water park, it’s operating under different rules. Masks are not allowed in the water or on slides and it’s stated that masks are recommended when you can’t social distance. In other words, no one is wearing masks except for team members and those who are there and not going in the water.
Now that the housekeeping is over, let’s go over the experience from the beginning.
The first hurdle is parking and the temperature checks. Universal leaves a space in between cars and then fills in the gaps later to allow for proper social distancing and there’s nothing to complain about when it comes to their methods. However, the temperature checks happen in the parking garages just before you hit security and Universal is not prepared for large crowds. During the preview, six team members were checking temperatures causing a twenty-minute line just to make it to the security checkpoint. During the waiting period, very few people were maintaining six feet of distance until they got within twenty yards of the temperature checks. Security was also a nightmare with no distancing.
As for the theme parks, Universal Studios Florida was far more comfortable to be at compared to Islands of Adventure. Everywhere I went in Islands of Adventure felt like there were bottlenecks of people making it impossible to maintain any social distancing. This will be a problem at any theme park with tighter walking paths, but it was very apparent at Islands of Adventure. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter has always been praised for its true-to-life scale that keeps the area compact and real and it was an absolute mess during previews with very little distancing happening. It couldn’t even be contained inside the land, so the line for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure ended up spilling deep into The Lost Continent.
I was concerned that Diagon Alley inside Universal Studios Florida would have the same issue as Hogsmeade, but that wasn’t the case at all. The land isn’t that much wider when it comes to the walking paths, but guests were doing a much better job of spreading out. That was the trend throughout the entire park with the exception of a few tighter areas like Springfield, USA.
One thing both of the parks got right was the character meet and greets and entertainment. The characters have their own platform or fenced off area where they can still interact with guests without getting close. Markers are on the ground showing where you can stand to still get your picture or the perfect selfie and it was actually a very smooth and entertaining system. Sure, you miss out on the embrace and autograph, but I actually preferred this method. Some characters even had masks that were themed to their costumes, which makes the photo ops very unique during this time.
As for the entertainment, there were plenty of markers on the ground in front of stages letting you know where you and your party could stand and watch the shows. Overcrowding wasn’t a problem during the preview, but it could definitely become an issue as the parks get busier. It was nice to see attendants near the stages that would help show parties where to stand and watch if all of the marked off areas were taken. It was also interesting to see how the different performers adapted to the procedures. The Frog Choir in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter all performed with masks, while Celestina Warbeck and the Banshees just distanced from each other. The Blues Brothers rolled up to their stage wearing masks, but then took them off for the performance.
It was fun to walk around the parks and take in the atmosphere, but you come to theme parks for the attractions. Unfortunately, that was a difficult part of the day. Popular attractions like Hagrid’s, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey/Escape from Gringotts, and Revenge of the Mummy all had Virtual Line as an option where you reserve a time for your party in the Universal app and then you can ride with a minimal wait. I was able to use Virtual Line for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and it was very simple once I had the pass, but acquiring it was a nightmare filled with errors and glitches.
From different conversations, it was apparent that many people who got in the parks early took advantage of the Virtual Line system and reserved a ton of the slots for the biggest attractions. They were able to do so due to a loophole in Universal’s application. Unlike My Disney Experience, the Universal app doesn’t require you to connect with all members of your party, so when you go to select your ride time, you just say how many people are in your group and it’s as easy as pie. However, that also means every person in your group of eight can get a time for Hagrid’s for eight people and letting your giant group in eight times throughout the day. I don’t know how Universal could fix it without designing a new system, but it’s going to be VERY IMPORTANT to get to the park very early for the popular rides that have Virtual Line.
The full list of attractions from our preview day with Virtual Line included: Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, Skull Island: Reign of Kong, Pteranodon Flyers, Despicable Me: Minion Mayhem, Revenge of the Mummy, Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. Other attractions in the app did show that they may have Virtual Line available some of the time, so it could vary as to what will and won’t. Pretty much every attraction was open with the exception of playgrounds and the lines all had social distancing markers to keep parties separated and hand sanitizer was passed out before you got on the attractions.
Because Universal is spacing out the rows on attraction vehicles, waits are definitely going to increase. When you can only use half of a ride vehicle, that really cuts down on how many people you can get through and it’s only going to get worst once Universal Express is added back to the parks. Some attractions like Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey are forced to send one person in a car meant for four just to maintain social distancing and that just kills capacity. Some attractions aren’t affected at all like the spinning rides where the cars are already distanced out properly. For shows and 3D movies, team members are loading every other row as well as making sure there are seats left open between parties.
I didn’t feel unsafe at any point in time during my wait for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, but I can say that it was a tough attraction to see how you distance in a queue. Once you’re inside the interior portion of the line, there are many small rooms you pass through and plenty of instances where you might be behind a marker in one room and you can’t see into the next to see if the group in front of you moved. It’s slightly annoying, but it’s a problem that can’t really be fixed.
Some experiences have become more special because of distancing. For example, Ollivanders is only allowing one party in the room at a time for the wand experience, which means someone from your group is always going to be selected to have your wand choose you.
As for shopping, not many people were going into gift shops during the previews, so it didn’t appear to be a problem. The same can’t be said about restaurants. Every restaurant basically had a line out the door for most of our time in the parks. Inside seating is very limited because of distancing and in a few cases, it appears that it impacted guests having to actually wait to even order because there weren’t tables available. This will most definitely be an issue when the parks are more crowded.
Overall, the main problem with the theme parks right now are the other guests. The bottlenecks and congestion happen because of the design, but it becomes a bigger problem because guests aren’t paying attention to those around them. This was even a problem in wide-open spaces where there was plenty of room to move around people, but yet some guests chose to brush past you as close as they could possibly get. Unlike my time in CityWalk, I will say that people were much better about keeping their masks on, but there were plenty who tried to get away with not wearing their mask properly or at all, and no one really did much of anything to stop them. Universal does have experience teams out in the parks to help with this and also to answer guests’ questions, but there’s not enough.
One great addition to the parks are the U-Rest areas. There are two in each park: the lagoon area in Port of Entry and the Sinbad Theater in The Lost Continent at Islands of Adventure, and Fear Factor Live in World Expo and the Central Park lagoon area outside of Hollywood at Universal Studios Florida. These are areas that are large, complete with tables and chairs, and allow guests to take off their masks and breathe for a bit. Not many people were taking advantage of these areas, but they appeared to be safe and relaxing. Most people were taking mask breaks by carrying around drinks and snacks or sitting down for a meal where they could remove their masks.
Now onto Volcano Bay. You may remember what I said about Volcano Bay and no masks. That means I don’t have much to say about the water park. My time there was short, because of the weather, but it would’ve been anyways because I don’t personally feel comfortable being inside a park filled with people without masks right now. There were plenty of people there that didn’t care and that’s fine, but it’s not for me. The lifeguards and other team members having masks and face coverings just isn’t enough. The one positive takeaway I had was regarding the TapuTapu wearable you get for free when you enter the park that allows you to make your Virtual Line reservations, pay for food, plus so much more. A couple of times while I was at Volcano Bay, my TapuTapu vibrated and reminded me to wash my hands and maintain a distance between other parties. It was a nice little feature.
Wrapping up, I started this by saying that the parks aren’t much different than before and I stand by it. Yes, you have to wear masks and maintain distance, but other than that, nothing has really changed besides some of the entertainment and character meet and greets. Most guests appeared to treat it like an average day in the park, which will leave some feeling uncomfortable and won’t bother others at all.
Would I go back to the theme parks? Of course. Yes, part of my jobs means going to the parks, but I feel like I could go to the parks comfortably as an annual passholder and just choose slower times of the day to be there. If I was paying thousands of dollars to come in from out of town, I’d feel differently. The one exception would be hotel guests staying at a resort that offers free Universal Express. Right now that means Hard Rock Hotel or Royal Pacific Resort as Portofino Bay Hotel has not reopened yet. If you had Universal Express on top of early park admission, you could end up having a really comfortable day. Actually, any guest who adds on Universal Express will probably have a much better experience knowing that lines aren’t an issue.
I think I’ve spelled out my level of comfortability very clearly here, so if you’re like me then you might want to wait a little bit to come back unless you really need a theme park fix. If you have no issues with what I’ve discussed then Universal is now officially open for you to enjoy, assuming it doesn’t hit capacity.