5 things Walt Disney World can learn from Universal Orlando reopening

Jun 11, 2020

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Last week I ventured down to Orlando to attend the soft opening of Universal Orlando. I stayed one night in the new Endless Summer Resorts: Surfside Inn & Suites to gain access to the theme parks on the first day they were reopened after being closed for 80 days.

While I ended up having plenty of fun during my day in the parks (the new Hagrid roller coaster at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is an absolute must-ride), the experience was significantly different from the park experience pre-coronavirus.

The next big reopening date on the summer calendar is July 11: the planned reopening date of Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom. While we know Disney is one of the most capable companies in the world when it comes to logistics and doing things the right way (and it has Shanghai Disneyland as a reopened test case), there are still some lessons Disney can probably glean from the newly reopened Universal theme park experience just down the street.

Beyond some learnings from Universal, what else can Disney do even better to give guests (paying for full price tickets) a much-needed dose of summer magic?

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Mask fatigue

Florida in July can be a miserable heat experience even in the best of circumstances.

This complicates almost every aspect of coronavirus safety procedures likely to be put in place. I wore a mask for more than eight hours on a fairly mild and overcast early-June Orlando day. If it had been 95 degrees and sunny, I would likely have been incredibly uncomfortable. If my 3- and 5-year-olds were trying to wear masks in such heat, we probably wouldn’t last very long at all.

Related: The best times to visit Walt Disney World

Image courtesy author.
(Image by Richard Kerr/The Points Guy)

Universal has U-Rest areas where you could sit socially distanced and take your mask off for a bit of respite, but I only saw a couple of them. They were not advertised as existing anywhere except for a sign placed outside of the physical area. While requiring masks at all times is a good public health policy, I foresee it making the guest experience miserable on a hot, sticky day in Central Florida.

Related: Florida’s top 10 vacation regions for different types of travelers

Disney needs to put its brightest minds to the task of figuring out how guests — young and old — can avoid mask fatigue on the hottest of days since masks are required for all guests ages 2 and up.

This could include creating a guide that recommends the most effective and most comfortable masks in heat. Disney could also sell those masks at the resort hotels and around the theme parks. (Also, remember that it rains a lot in the afternoons in Orlando in the summer, so masks may get wet.)

It could build a push notification into the Disney app reminding people to hydrate and take a socially distanced seat to gain some mask reprieve. Capacity would need to be capped to the point that many different U-Rest-type areas can be designated for people to be able to socially distance and rest with their masks off.

I don’t have a perfect solution at the ready, but I bet some of the top Imagineers can come up with clever ideas to help guests avoid mask fatigue and cool down while outdoors in the summer heat.

Related: Do kids need to wear masks on planes?

Communicate the virtual queuing plan in advance

The largest source of confusion and frustration for Universal Orlando guests on opening day was a lack of awareness around the Universal Virtual Line Pass system. I saw many guests trying to get in a physical line for attractions that were only operating with a virtual line.

This was not adequately communicated ahead of time and left many guests in an ongoing lottery of sorts to get a chance to ride the park’s most popular attractions. If you didn’t get lucky by snagging a virtual pass in a poorly described system, you didn’t ride the most fun and popular rides. And remember, theme park tickets were not reduced in price. So, you paid full price to potentially ride very little if you didn’t know how to use the new system.

Disney already used virtual queuing for the new Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ride and slots for the ride were always filled for the day within a few minutes of park opening.

Related: All about Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Walt Disney World

The Disney theme park needs to communicate the new process as soon as possible and make it clear which rides and attractions will operate only via virtual queuing technology. They then need to sufficiently limit park capacity during the first few days to ensure all guests have a chance to get a pass and learn what ride throughput will be with crowds testing the system. (Keep in mind that FastPass+ will not be available when the theme park reopens.)

Questions to answer in advance will be: How many virtual queue passes can guests hold at one time? Will they be available 24 hours in advance or only in the morning once the park opens and your phone identifies you as in the park? What if someone doesn’t have a smartphone or experiences technical issues?

Answer these questions now so guests can arrive informed and won’t walk away disappointed.

(Image courtesy Summer Hull/Disney World App)

Plan adequate transportation

The Universal resort buses look to be the same model that Disney uses to transport guests between parks, hotels and Disney Springs. On my visit, Universal allowed 18 people on a bus that likely held three times as many or more before the park closed in March.

This made our line of guests waiting for a bus from Surfside Inn & Suites to Universal Studios long.

Image courtesy author.
(Image by Richard Kerr/The Points Guy)

I imagine the capacity on Disney buses, boats and the monorail will likely be similar. This severely restricts the typical capacity to move guests from places like the Magic Kingdom parking lot across or around Seven Seas Lagoon to the main entrance.

At park closing, the massive crowds heading at once for the exits already take a while to move. They will now take significantly longer unless park capacity is very restricted. Keep in mind that the Minnie Van service also won’t be available upon park reopening.

Disney needs to have a plethora of buses to move crowds, notify guests to allow significantly more time to get around the resort or come up with ingenious new ways to transport guests around the entire Disney property.

Related: Guide to the Disney Skyliners

Disney will require reservations to enter the park, so perhaps a way to aid with spacing out the transportation burden is to require timed-entry so that not everyone is arriving at once. The flip side would need to be a set time when your access to the attractions ended, so not everyone ended the day at the same time. However, it would be hard to argue for paying full price for a timed access system that wouldn’t give you access to a full day in the parks.

Perfect mobile food ordering

Disney has had a mobile food ordering system in place for a while, but the system will need to expand in a hurry, potentially to include full-service restaurants instead of just quick-service restaurants. At Universal, this ordering system turned into a poor experience at restaurants that previously had not used mobile ordering. For example, it took 30 minutes for me to get a beer I test ordered on the Universal mobile app. The server and manager both said they hadn’t used mobile ordering before and were still working out the kinks.

Related: These are the best restaurants at Disney World

Quick service fun in Toy Story Land (Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
Quick service fun in Toy Story Land (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

The mobile ordering in Universal further appeared pointless when sit-down restaurants didn’t have designated mobile order pickup lines. This meant that guests still had to wait in line with other patrons to get into a reduced capacity restaurant with half of its tables blocked off for social-distancing. Like with the limited bus capacity, this led to long wait times to get a table. Then, a server still came to your table to ask for your mobile order number and then put it in the computer.

Related: How to maximize one day at Universal Studios

Allow adequate space

There were a few instances at Universal where enough space was not allocated to a certain new procedure.

This turned into a dangerous situation when a temperature check was set up at the top of an escalator. The allocated space quickly filled and people trying to exit the moving escalator had nowhere to go. The result was a very non-socially distanced mob of people stuck roughly six inches from each other.

Now, imagine the line to get on the monorail or ferry from the Magic Kingdom parking area to the main entrance. With everyone spaced six feet apart, that line will be tremendously long and require a vast amount of physical space.

(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)
(Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Ride, attraction and restaurant lines at Universal required six feet of space between them, quickly pushing queues far out into the middle of main walkways or beyond roped-off areas. This left pedestrians to figure out a place to cross large queues, which always cut far into the required six feet of separation, making the spacing exercise itself a bit futile.

Finally, there will likely be queues at Disney that make people stand in the sun for an extended period as socially distanced lines push far out of buildings and cover; additional umbrellas or shade-making props need to be set up in the additional space required to keep mask-wearing guests from overheating.

Bottom Line

As I said with Universal, Disney faces an almost impossible task of instituting public health best practices and CDC guidelines into a theme park environment. Hopefully, Disney has been and will be intently following guest feedback at Universal so it can take those experiences and build upon them. I am optimistic that the creativeness and genius at Disney will come up with some great ideas to make the guest experience as enjoyable and as safe as possible.

Featured image courtesy David Roark.

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