I was at Universal Orlando's reopening day -- Here are 7 ways the theme park has changed
Editor’s note: As the travel industry reopens following COVID-19 shutdowns, TPG suggests that you talk to your doctor, follow health officials' guidance and research local travel restrictions before booking that next trip. We will be here to help you prepare, whether it is next month or next year.
After 80 days of closure due to coronavirus concerns, the Universal Orlando theme park complex reopened on June 3 to those with Univeral Orlando annual passes or travelers staying at Universal Orlando resort hotels.
When the reopening was announced, my curiosity level spiked. I wanted to see how the first major theme park in the U.S. to reopen would be able to operate in a new socially distanced world. Would the Wizarding World of Harry Potter still feel otherworldly when mandatory face masks were added to optional robes, cloaks and wands? Would normally impatient theme park goers follow all the new rules? Would my mask fly off on a roller coaster? And -- would a day at a theme park still be fun?
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I originally had purchased a $178 Universal theme park ticket, a flight from Atlanta to Orlando using Delta SkyMiles and a booked night at the new Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Surfside Inn to cover the official June 5 reopening date. But, when we got word on June 2 that those in Universal resort hotels could get into the June 3 soft opening for passholders, we quickly changed those plans and I was wheels up a few hours later on a brand-new Delta flight.
Spoiler alert: The theme park and resort hotel experience was just as different as you'd expect it to be, and both angst and excitement were in ample supply.
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HERE'S A SIMILAR LOOK INSIDE DISNEY WORLD'S REOPENING DAY.
Universal isn't playing around
Beginning with my check-in at Universal's Surfside Inn and Suites, to the Universal's CityWalk dining and shopping complex, and into the park entrance, it was obvious that Universal is taking the new park experience very seriously.
Signage with the new mask and social distancing guidelines is abundant, as are Universal team members repeating the new rules and keeping a watchful eye out for rule-breakers. There are visual social distancing markers on the ground at every ride, food stand, souvenir shop, restaurant and any other place you could queue.
Related: How the coronavirus will change travel
From resort hotel to park entrance
The process of social distancing began at the on-property hotel. Only one family is allowed in the elevator at a time, floor markings everywhere and the resort bus line stretched down the sidewalk with people keeping their distance. I was in line at 7:15 a.m. at Surfside Inn and Suites for the five-minute bus ride to the parks thinking it'd be in plenty of time for the 8 a.m. early park access given to Orlando resort hotel guests.
The buses did not arrive until 7:30 a.m. — when four buses arrived all at once, which turned out to be a good thing since only 18 people or so were allowed on each of the first few buses that I saw load.
Takeaway: Get in line early if you'll rely on the resort buses or stay in one of the closer-in Universal resorts, such as Universal Loews Royal Pacific, that is an easy walk to the parks.
Related: How to choose the right hotel for your Universal Orlando vacation
Upon arrival at Universal's main transportation hub where the parking garages meet the bus terminal, a temperature check was set up at the top of the escalator. Everyone at Orlando resort hotels had already completed temperature check (and wore a wristband to prove they were under 100.4 degrees), so this second check for people arriving from resorts, wearing wristbands, seemed unnecessary ... and problematic.
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The additional temperatures checks went from puzzling to dangerous as more busses were emptying and there was no more space at the top of the escalator for the arriving people. I was within a second of yelling for someone to hit the emergency stop button when the security guards recognized the situation and moved the barriers to allow for more space. While the immediate safety situation was narrowly diverted by the security guard, any social distancing that had occurred to this point was now pretty much negated -- a theme that would repeat itself periodically throughout the day.
After that, security was quick, employees were sanitizing the bins after they went through the machines and I was at the entrance to Universal Studios at 7:50 a.m. more than ready for some fun.
Early Park Access
Even though many things have changed at Univeral, Orlando resort hotel guests still get one hour of early access before the normal opening to either Islands of Adventure or Universal Studios. Which of the two parks will be opened early is announced a few days in advance.
I was imagining a small army of people ready to enter the second the theme park reopened after months of closure, but to my surprise at 7:50 a.m. with 10 minutes to go, I was easily in the first batch of people waiting to enter Universal Studios.
Excited team members welcomed everyone back, reminded us to maintain separation and, right on time, the theme park was again open.
After heading to our designated turnstiles to scan our tickets (and displaying ID to ensure the name matched the ticket and hotel room key), I followed TouringPlans' advice and headed straight to Diagon Alley and the Escape from Gringott's ride.
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On the way, I quickly noted that some sections of Universal Studios were roped off and you had to stay on the main street straight to Revenge of the Mummy. This may be a normal early park access procedure, but you could not access Hollywood, KidsZone, the Simpson's Springfield or the World Expo areas.
I'll cover the overall Universal ride experience below, but for the specifics of early park access, the bad news (for me) is that Escape from Gringott's ended up breaking, and even though I was one of the first in line, it took the majority of the hour of early park access to experience this one attraction.
Related: TPG's Guide to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter
Then, there are the masks.
Everyone aged 3 and up must wear a face mask. The only exceptions are while on a water ride, eating, drinking or due to a medical issue. While spending the full day out in the Orlando weather, I saw every fabric, make, color and design of mask imaginable.
By noon I learned that I had selected poorly in the face mask comfort department. My KN95 mask was great for filtering out pathogens, but by lunchtime, the elastic loops around my ears had sufficiently agitated my skin. As of the time of publishing, that skin is still rubbed raw.
If you think you're going to sneak a few minute breaks from the mask, you're pretty much wrong. At least on day one, team members were constantly watching for guests and giving kind, but stern reminders that masks need to cover both the mouth and nose at all times. Before any ride vehicle departed, another reminder to keep your mask on at all times during the ride was given.
This proved challenging for several of the rides that required glasses for the 3D and 4D effects as the glasses instantly fog up with the mask present. On my first ride of the day, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, this immediately became an issue. Before the ride even departed I knew this wasn't going to work; you have to choose bending the rules and pulling your mask down a bit or enjoying the ride with fogged glasses.
Related: Tips for making the most of one day at Universal Orlando
I put the mask to its paces on Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure (which is just a superb theme park ride that is well worth the effort). Even going at roller coaster speeds, the mask didn't make any noticeable difference to the experiences other than muffling a few excited screams and yelps from guests. Pro tip: Ensure the mask is snug before departure.
I looked hard and did not see one guest all day that seemed to intentionally not have their mask on. There are scattered reports across die-hard online theme park groups that people refusing to wear a mask were given a wrist band and had their own ride vehicle on every ride, but I did not witness a single mask incident.
As to how hard it was to wear a mask all day in the Orlando heat -- I lucked out. June 3 was a mild, mostly cloudy Orlando day. After a few hours, the mask began to become almost unnoticeable, save for the irritated skin from the elastic loops. However, I imagine on a hot midsummer Florida afternoon, that experience could be dramatically different, especially for little kids.
Related: What Disney will be like when it reopens
In order to control the number of people in line for many rides, Universal has greatly expanded its virtual line system that is available in the Univeral app. This functionality isn't new, but it is greatly expanded from pre-coronavirus.
The concept is great, but the execution was at times confusing and frustrating. Here's how it went on day one of reopening:
- You may have a maximum of two virtual line passes at any time. After you use one, you can select another. One can select the virtual passes for their whole party. This appears to mean each person in your party could have two different virtual line passes that included everyone else, making for an effective family strategy.
- Rides may use standby line only, standby line and virtual line passes or only virtual line passes.
- Rides can be turned on and off for the virtual line system. On day one, Revenge of the Mummy was using the virtual passes and by lunchtime, it had a standby line only for the rest of the day. A few other rides switched back and forth throughout the day.
- The passes are good for specific 30-minute windows and your two passes cannot overlap time periods.
- Virtual line passes were not available in the app until just before the official park opening time at 9 a.m. I was refreshing the app just before 9 a.m. when I got a virtual pass for Hagrid's Motorbike from 9:30-10:00 a.m. -- a major score.
- The app appears to geofence anyone not in the park from selecting virtual line passes.
- Virtual line passes are released throughout the day, at seemingly random times.
Overall, this process was not communicated to guests effectively and many did not understand that you couldn't necessarily just go to a ride and get in line.
By about 10:30 a.m., it seemed the majority of virtual passes for Hagrid's Motorbike were gobbled up and there was a constant mass of park guests at the entrance to Hagrid's anytime I walked by with team members attempting to explain the system to frustrated guests. I witnessed this scene of confused guests attempting to get in line at Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey, Escape from Gringotts and Skull Island: Reign of Kong.
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By roughly 12:30 p.m., I had a hard time finding any additional virtual passes available for the rest of the afternoon.
When times did display, I'd end up with an error message that something went wrong.
I was lucky that I snagged a pass in the morning for everything I wanted to ride except for Kong, which never became available the rest of the day. I probably checked once every 10 to 15 minutes and had to use my portable battery charger to keep my phone going.
What you will -- and won't -- get to ride right now feels like a crapshoot since you can't plan ahead or know for sure which rides will require a virtual pass or permit a traditional line.
Note that there are no single rider lines for any ride. All in all, I had generally good success riding attractions in the morning hours but saw more than one confused and unhappy guest.
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The ride experience
The ride experience at Universal often starts with the locker experience. Unlike at Disney World, Universal has a strict no-bag policy for most of its thrill rides. Locker banks are located near to the ride entrances. Social distancing introduces a new element to this as multiple team members control the entrances to each locker bank.
I quickly regretted bringing my small backpack that was packed with sunscreen, a water bottle and battery brick. The new chains and ropes created locker queues right next to the new virtual pass and standby lines. It was very difficult to decipher where you were supposed to walk at times.
Once in the actual ride line, social distancing was constantly enforced and queues with relatively few people in them looked much larger than they really were. Today was a very light crowd day as a bit of a soft open, so I see simply having enough space to queue people up as becoming a problem unless park capacity is severely limited.
Many rides allowed riders in every other row or only allowed people in the same party in a vehicle. On Men In Black Alien Attack, Escape from Gringott's, Hagrid's Motorbike, Harry Potter's Forbidden Journey, Transformers 3D and the Simpson's rides, I was the only one allowed in the ride vehicle, made in some cases for up to eight people.
In addition to spacing out riders, when boarding a ride vehicle, a team member pumped hand sanitizer directly onto my hands before getting in the vehicle.
Even with that limited capacity, I never waited more than 15 minutes for a ride with a virtual pass. And even then, you'd go through huge, empty waiting areas normally filled with people. Express Pass lines were still operational from what I could tell, though I didn't have an Express Pass for this trip.
But, Univeral had a tough time accurately estimating waits today. Jurassic Park had a 35 minutes posted wait and I waited for 17 minutes; Men in Black had a 20 minute posted wait time and I waited for 8; Simpsons posted time was 20 and I waited for 25 and, finally, Transformers had posted wait was 25 minutes and I practically walked right on.
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Masks were not required on the water rides, such as Jurassic Park. There was mention that some special effects would be turned off, but in my experience, all the rides had their usual fog and water effects.
All rides were open today except for high-touch kids play areas including Curious George Goes to Town and Camp Jurassic. Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges were down for maintenance for a portion of the day. Characters did make appearances, but they were kept on stage or behind barriers where you couldn't get close to them for encounters. Most of the normal parades and shows were not running.
Related: When will Disney World reopen?
Mobile food ordering
An additional step Universal has taken to decrease person-to-person contact is to expand their mobile food and beverage orders. Unfortunately, it wasn't a smooth rollout today.
You can easily see which restaurants in either park or CityWalk are participating in mobile order in the Universal app and select your food and pay.
As soon as I got off Hagrid's Motorbike, I celebrated by finally ordering a renowned butterbeer via mobile ordering from the popular Three Broomsticks restaurant in Hogsmeade.
The process to order and pay was simple enough, but when I got to the restaurant, I had to wait for a table as if I hadn't already ordered.
After 30 minutes in the restaurant waiting, I gave up and was ready to leave when the server caught me, made the butterbeer herself and refunded the $8. She explained they'd never used mobile ordering and were having a hard time.
Lines into the restaurants with mobile ordering were often out the door as every other table in each restaurant has been designated as an empty table, so it takes a while even to get a limited number of people in and served.
There were not designated mobile order pick up lines, except at a few of the quick-service food stands. While it may improve with time, mobile ordering felt pointless for the table service restaurants as servers still had to come to your table, write down your order number and have contact with you.
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Universal Orlando has officially reopened, rides are running and people are having fun. But, there's still work to do to make the new normal a bit more functional.
The virtual line process needs to be much more transparent and clarified to all guests. It's hard to spend $178 per person on tickets (plus all other travel and lodging expenses) to have no idea if you'll get on Hagrid's Motorbike or other popular rides. While some kinks will undoubtedly be worked out, I'm sure that park attendance will only increase, placing greater strain on all the processes.
The social distancing measures are extreme and well-defined in ride lines, around lockers and in restaurants. However, during transit around the park, people don't maintain six-foot distancing, making it a curious exercise to have such stringent requirements only in the queues.
Going into my eight hours at Universal Orlando, I knew the theme park was facing an almost impossible task. Within a major theme park environment, can you follow CDC guidelines, keep guests as safe as possible and also give guests the feeling of safety so that demand returns? My overall impression was that Universal did as well as can be expected and will likely quickly iron out a few wrinkles in the coming days and weeks.
I had the perception of safety during my day in the park and some doses of fun along the way.
Images by author except where indicated