Home » I Was One of the First People Back at Universal Orlando Resort. Here’s What I Learned…

I Was One of the First People Back at Universal Orlando Resort. Here’s What I Learned…

Placard at the front of the park

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 

Placard at the front of the park
Image: Theme Park Tourist

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. 

Staggered parking at Universal
Image: Theme Park Tourist

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. 

The line for temperature checks
Image: Theme Park Tourist

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 

The CityWalk entrance area
Image: Theme Park Tourist

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.

Universal team member selling masks
Image: Theme Park Tourist

The Park Experience 

Entry area at Universal Studios
Image: Theme Park Tourist

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. 

The Ride Experience

Stickers to promote social distancing
Image: Theme Park Tourist

Though there are a multitude of reasons why I go to the parks—the smells, the sounds, the team members, the atmosphere—my first love is for the rides, and Universal Orlando Resort has some of my favorites. But if you’re like me you’re wondering, “How do you even begin to social distance on a roller coaster?” Somehow, Universal pulled it off.

The new procedures start not in line, but in the locker area. While these cramped areas usually get crowded on a busy day, team members now direct guests one at a time to locker stations in order to stow or retrieve their items. This method actually seems to work more effectively than the alternative.

Onto the queues, stickers were clearly placed on the ground ever six feet reading, Please Stand Here – Stay Healthy – Keep 6 FT (2M) Distance. While the line for temperature checks was a nightmare, all of the ride queues promoted social distancing and moved pretty well. Guests were considerate to keep their distance from other parties. While most attractions utilized their usual queues, rides such as Minion Mayhem and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure were strictly open to Virtual Queue. (That’s right; it looks like Hagrid’s finally got that Virtual Queue up and running, if only a year late.)

When approaching the ride vehicle, you will (as usual) tell the ride operator how many people are in your party. This is even more important than usual, as you will only be seated with members of your own party. That’s right—even if you’re a single rider, you will get a row to yourself. To add to the safety of riding, there is always a row of distance between you and another party. So, you can rest assured that you will have a row to yourself and an empty row behind and in front of you. Though these safety precautions are necessary, be aware that this did slow down operations. With fewer guests on trains, be ready to wait for your rides.

In addition to promoting social distance on ride vehicles, team members dispensed hand sanitizer to every rider prior to riding. For 3D rides, glasses could not be found in regular bins, but were handed out by ride attendants directly before riding.

Empty 3D glasses bin
Image: Theme Park Tourist

Currently, guests are required to keep their masks on during rides, which only seemed to be a challenge on roller coasters such as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, where my mask definitely wanted to fly off my face. (Also—be aware that the masks will fog up your 3D glasses.)

The ride experience was when I got the purest feeling of that Universal grandeur. No more Please Stand Here signs or hand sanitizer stations or temperature checks. All the changes can feel foreign and jarring, but on the rides it’s just like old times. Universal has prepped well on their end so you can be swept up into the story of the ride. This is what makes it worth it. This is what makes it Universal.

The Dining Experience

Starbucks line at Islands of Adventure
Image: Theme Park Tourist

Perhaps even longer than ride wait times, however, were wait times for dining. Both restaurants and kiosk-style eateries had long lines that spiraled into the midway. The Three Broomsticks in Hogsmeade, for example, had a massive line just to enter and be seated. This is because restaurants in the parks, much like other restaurants in Florida, have to operate at a reduced capacity. Universal is currently seating guests spread out with at least a table between any two parties. 

As for walk-up locations, lines looked longer than they were. With guests keeping the six-foot distance, these lines were intimidating—no one wants to wait twenty minutes for a churro—but in my experience these lines moved quickly and weren’t nearly as bad as they looked.

The only other oddity to note here is the Coca-Cola Freestyle machines. These are a crowd favorite at the park, spots where guests can fill up their Universal-brand cups for free throughout the day, but one could imagine the nightmare of germs they cause. Universal did still have many of these stations open, but with significant precautions taken. For one, there was only one Freestyle machine at every kiosk. So, all other machines in the area were shut off. In addition to this, every Freestyle machine was manned by a Universal team member who wiped off the machine’s touch screen after every single use. It seems like more trouble than it’s worth to keep these Freestyle machines open, but Universal has chosen to go the extra mile here.

So—Should You Go?

Freestyle machine
Image: Theme Park Tourist

In my experience at Universal’s opening day, I found myself pleasantly surprised by the amount of precautions the park was taking in order to keep their guests safe. In addition to prioritizing safety, the park executives and team members are working around the clock to be sure it still feels like Universal, from the thrills to the atmosphere. 

Though I was impressed by the new guidelines and standard of excellence, this was admittedly hectic experience. People were antsy to return back, and who could blame them? But this made for a bit of a jarring day at the park. The temperature check process was a nightmare, operation times were expectedly high, and with no reservation system, Universal will undoubtedly be turning guests away from their gates in the days to come. It might take a while for them to settle into a new normal, but I for one am excited to watch Universal continue to innovate as they’ve done in the past.

Islands of Adventure crowded walkway
Image: Theme Park Tourist

The most important thing to remember is that some of these guidelines will change. Having gone to a preview day, I’m aware that I was one of the guinea pigs for these new procedures. As Universal continues welcoming guests to their parks, they will adjust as needed in the constantly-shifting nature of this pandemic. With each passing day and smiling guest, Universal will find their footing. With each mistake they make, they will find a solution.

How do I know that? Because they always have.