Universal Orlando is the biggest theme park complex to reopen in the United States after being forced to close two and a half months ago. As an annual passholder, I got a chance to visit the park before their official June 5 reopening date. Today was an indicator for how operations may look for the next several months as we adjust to some pretty drastic changes in visiting a theme park.
As a disclaimer, these are unchartered waters for any theme park operator. Aside from Team Member previews, this was essentially day 1 of rolling out many new procedures. It was (and will continue to be) a learning curve for guests as well as Team Members. Any criticism here is meant to be taken constructively and not meant as a complaint of any kind. I didn’t walk in expecting a perfect experience. That said, I have no problem being critical of theme park policies and the way they handle certain events.
Overall, I was fairly pleased with how Universal Orlando handled the reopening of their parks. There was a ton of signage, floor markings and audio cues (live and pre-recorded) remind you to social distance, wash your hands, etc. Was everyone doing it perfectly? Of course not. However, about 95% of the guests I saw were either making an effort or successfully following the new guidelines. Even though sometimes, that wasn’t easy.
Let’s take for example, the queue for Cat in The Hat over at Islands of Adventure. Markers are placed throughout the line for groups to stand behind in order to social distance. The problem was, because you didn’t know where the next blue marker was (such as behind a fiberglass “bush”), it became difficult to know where to stop. Sometimes guests, including myself, just stopped between markers because it became difficult to know when to stop or continue moving in the queue.
This is where things get interesting. In order to maintain social distancing, at Cat In The Hat, each group gets their own ride vehicle. In a lot of ways, this is theme park euphoria. If you’re a small party, you get to stretch out and enjoy a ride to yourself which is often a rarity.
On the other hand, guesstimating wait times becomes extremely difficult. Usually you can make a solid guesstimate based on how many people are in the queue divided by the amount of available seats in a ride vehicle. Now you have to throw nearly all capacity logic out the window you’ve known before about theme park attractions.
If you’ve got all parties of 6 (the maximum amount you can fit on a “couch” at Cat In The Hat), then that line is gonna move very fast considering how much space there is for social distancing in the queue. If they are parties of 1 or 2, then the line moves much slower. Generally speaking, I found that most ride vehicles were filled to about 30% capacity in order to properly social distance across Universal property.
As an example, when I rode the Seuss Sky Trolley, there were exactly 6 guests on the entire train. A party of 4, and two parties of 1. That is taking up 20 available seats. The line posted was 20 minutes and that was fairly accurate. However, once more guests with Universal Express start coming (and hotels start filling up) this will make queue times very very difficult to predict.
Near empty ride vehicles was the case over and over across both parks. Wait times didn’t seem to be too terrible. This was mostly due to the amount of Annual Passholders Universal Orlando allowed into the event combined with scattered showers throughout the afternoon that may have kept guests away or sent them home early.
Rain makes social distancing nearly impossible. As people take cover in gift shops and restaurants, the entrances get jammed with people. You can’t expect guests to stand in the rain (masks or not) because there is no room under cover to social distance. The park wasn’t terribly crowded, so I can only imagine how bad this could get with heavier storms and more guests.
There were several “U-rest Area”s throughout both parks and CityWalk. At these designated mask-free zones, guests could spread out and social distance and breathe a little easier.
One of these areas was the old Sindbad theater at Islands of Adventure. During my visit, there were exactly eight guests amongst all the bleachers in the covered outdoor venue. As you can see, the set was left untouched and you could even walk right up to it. I actually thought this was a great idea and thought it was nice to get away from theme park noise for a bit. You could practically hear a pin drop.
A huge frustration was the Virtual Queue via the Universal smartphone app. By the time I got there (11 am), most virtual queues were already gone for more popular rides like Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure. Or were they? A friend of mine said that they were releasing more slots throughout the day for various attractions, but I never saw any open up.
It’s also not easy to figure out how to properly use Virtual Line via the app without some trial and error. For example, signs scattered throughout the park encouraged guests to scan a QR code to enter the virtual queue, despite the fact that they were long gone even when these signs were still out. Plus, there was no visible signage about how many Virtual Queues you could be in at one time.
Speaking of lines, the worst lines in the park were for food. With dining rooms at 50% capacity maximum, the queues for restaurants for Mel’s snakes around the corner and down the block. Without question, Universal wasn’t ready for queues to be this long as there were no social distancing markers beyond the front doors.
Without markers, guests do not adhere to social distancing for the most part. That’s just a fact. Thus, once inside Mel’s, you saw some spreading out. However, if the line getting in wasn’t spread out, what’s the point?
Next let’s talk about my $4.60 bottle of lemonade. As one does in a theme park in June, I got dehydrated. So I purchase this bottle of pink deliciousness and walk through the park with it. I was under the impression that if you were drinking, even while walking, you could pull your mask down to do so.
As I’m walking through the San Francisco area at Universal Studios Florida, I am drinking the lemonade as I’m passing by a Team Membe. They run up to me (maybe a foot away) and tell me that (and I am not making this up), the container needs to be pressed against my lips if I am to pull my mask down. Now drinking requires oxygen. Thus, if I take a sip, then swallow, I need to take a breath of air in order to keep drinking (not a fan of chugging).
This seemed a bit intense of an approach. It would be one thing if I was walking around using a beverage as a prop to not have to wear a mask. However, I assure you that I drank this $4.60 bottle of lemonade in under 5 minutes. Are walking and drinking frowned upon? Maybe. More likely, it was an overzealous Team Member who kept stopping nearly all guests on the street and saying the same spiel about having the bottle pressed against your lips in order to pull your mask down. Extreme to say the least.
As we reported earlier, characters that are not “fur” or have a face covering (such as Spider-Man) all wear a mask if they are within six feet of guests. In this instance, the storyteller of the Seuss show wore a mask and we saw that in several instances throughout the park.
Theater shows were not open for the most part, but Shrek certainly was. Here is a great example of how they are doing social distancing in theaters at Universal Orlando. Out of the 30 seats depicted in this diagram, only 7 of them are filled in this scenario. Notice that the first and third rows remain empty to allow space in front of and behind the guests seated in their chairs. Again, the capacity could be more if larger groups come into the theater. Plus, it could be less if you get a lot of groups of 1 and 2. Judging capacity and wait times truly is a crap shoot.
Also notice in the diagram, in the second row, there is only one seat between the first and second party on the left. Then two seats beyond that. So, is the proper social distancing method between seats on a theater row one or two seats?
At Race Through New York, the answer was three seats. The first and third row remained empty and we were told within each row, we needed to space out three seats apart. Which begs the question: why can you sit one seat apart at Shrek and it needs to be three seats apart at Jimmy Fallon? It’s inconsistencies like these that could be ironed out for better capacity (or worse as the case may be).
Overall, my experience was pretty decent at Universal Orlando after the reopening. Crowds didn’t seem to be too terrible. The company did a decent job with signage and asking people to do the right thing. For the most part, it seemed most guests were trying to do their part.
I also want to remind you that as you go into a theme park again for the first time after they reopen, keep your expectations realistic. If you think all guests are going to be perfect, that all employees are going to be top-notch, that all new policies will exist without some hiccups: check yourself.
This isn’t easy for anyone involved. No theme park coming out of the gate is going to handle this perfectly. As new data comes in, hopefully, parks can adjust to the demands and make it a smoother experience for all involved. If anything, it felt good to walk through a theme park again in a town where I’ve grown accustomed to going my entire adult life. Plus, I’m sure my experience will differ from the thousands of other guests at Universal Orlando today. Mileage will always vary: but perception is reality. Your thoughts?
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