Universal Orlando Resort, home of two major theme parks and a cutting-edge water park, was the first major park to open since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down parks across the nation in late March/early April 2020. Armed with new safety precautions such as mandatory facial coverings and decreased capacity, the park came forward in May with its plan to reopen. Though Universal’s website covers the park’s new safety procedures, guests are still left wondering: is it worth the trip?
So I grabbed my mask and annual pass and headed out to be one of the first people back in the parks, hoping to answer that very question.
Entering the Park
If there’s one moment that will make you want to turn around and drive straight home, it will be your first impression. Seeking entry into the CityWalk area of the park seemed easy enough, but it was undoubtedly the longest and most stressful part of the day.
I found from the moment I parked that even the cars were social distancing, with staggered parking that ensured as little contact as possible with other park-goers. New safety messaging was played through the garages and moving walkways, instructing guests to keep parties six feet apart and to regularly wash hands with soap and water, among other things.
What came next was a line longer than the one found on Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure—okay, maybe not that long. This line for mandatory temperature checks before entering the security rotunda was, to be blunt, a mess. With no attendants and no solidified queue formation, just masses of people walking toward three team members with thermometers, I was almost ready to call the day off. People were antsy and quick to ignore the six feet rule that has become common practice over this time. Plus, there were no employees to help with the influx of guests, leaving me to wonder if Universal knew what they were doing when they decided to open their doors.
Rest assured, though; this was not an accurate representation of the rest of the park experience.
As guests pushed closer to the team members checking temperatures, touch-free hand sanitizer stations were available for use. These were also found throughout the park. After getting my temperature checked by a no-contact thermometer, I progressed to security. The current cutoff temperature for entry is 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
The security and bag check area went off without a hitch, moving swiftly with every-other station open to promote social distancing. From parking to security, the environment was very sterile. The plus side is it was very focused on safety, but I was missing out on that Universal charm.
CityWalk and a Warm Welcome
My experience up until this point was bleak. With large crowds and minimal team member interaction, it didn’t feel like the Universal Orlando I remembered from March. But the mood shifted dramatically once I was past the metal detectors.
The monotone safety instructions were replaced with the words that Universal lovers like myself have dreamed of hearing again for months: “The moving walkway exit is approaching. Please watch your step.” Once into the CityWalk section of the park, a brigade of drummers and team members were stationed throughout the walkway to welcome guests back to the parks. There was a real sense of celebration once in the CityWalk area, though many of the shops and restaurants will not be fully operational for a while.
With CityWalk being such a large area, the crowds quickly dissipated in different directions and storefronts, giving guests even more than those six feet that you need to walk and breathe. Vendors stationed around the area even had Universal Orlando-branded face masks for purchase.
The Park Experience
The two parks differed slightly in experience once past the front gate. While Universal Studios felt empty, with crowds dispersed into numerous different areas and alleys of the park, Islands of Adventure felt cramped, with many of their walkways narrower. Islands of Adventure also features a circular layout with one way around the park while Universal Studios offers many roads to get to the same place, providing guests with more options for foot traffic. If you’re wanting to head to the parks but are hoping to expose yourself to as few people as possible, I’d recommend Universal Studios.
The most important thing to note of the park experience at Universal has to do with masks. As many already know, masks are hot and difficult to breathe through. I only visited the parks for about two hours and I walked four miles in total. Many guests walk even more, and in the heat of Florida summer it is imperative to stay hydrated as to not succumb to heat exhaustion. Rest assured, though, because Universal already thought that through. That is why they are implementing “U-Rest” areas. Currently there is one area in Universal Studios by Central Park, one area at Islands of Adventure at the Port of Entry, and one area in CityWalk by Hard Rock Cafe. A team member notified me that they are hoping to add more of these U-Rest areas throughout the park as time goes on. In addition, guests are able to remove their face coverings when they are eating or drinking. It is imperative that guests stay hydrated and take breaks throughout the day, keeping themselves healthy for their long day to come.
Walking through Universal with a mask on gave me an extra dose of sympathy for character actors like Shrek and Scooby-Doo who have to work in heavy suits and masks on a daily basis. Speaking of character actors, yes, they were still out. Though guests could not get up close and personal with characters such as Spider-Man and Captain America, or Doctor Doom and the Green Goblin (pictured), these actors were stationed on stages and props for guests to grab a photo op with.