It was back in March that the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic caused much of the United States and the world to shut down, as people sheltered in their homes and limited exposure to each other as much as they could. Almost everything closed, from stores and restaurants to movie theaters and theme parks.
Now, months later, most US states are in some stage of reopening and that means people are gathering in groups once again, even as the number of COVID-19 cases in the US has topped 2 million. As the world slowly comes back online, though, you might find yourself wondering what the experience of going places is going to be like now. I, myself, wondered that very same thing recently after realizing I likely won't feel comfortable in a movie theater or theme park for some time.
And yet, when the news came that Universal Studios Orlando would be opening its doors to guests once again beginning in early June, I felt drawn to it. I wanted to experience what visiting a theme park is like in a post- or mid-COVID-19 world. I wanted to see firsthand how these recreational activities we took largely for granted have changed, possibly indefinitely. How different is it? Does it dampen the experience? More importantly, does it actually feel safe? These are the questions I had when I set foot in Universal Studios Orlando to visit a theme park for the first time since a global pandemic introduced a new normal.
Entering the park
From the moment you arrive, it's apparent how different the experience will be. Parking attendants are masked and gloved, parking spaces are blocked off to create social distancing between cars, and it's been made clear that masks are required. There are announcements running on a constant loop over the public address system, explaining the proper way to wear them and noting that using them is necessary to enter the shopping complex and theme park.
Before entering, you have to pass through a security area and have your temperature taken. It's an easy and quick process, where a no-contact thermometer is used. If you're under 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, you're safe to enter the complex. The lines for the temperature check seemed long, but they were orderly and moved at a fast pace. What's more, at this point all guests had no issues being masked. I was actually surprised by how easy the process was.
Following the check-in, getting to the park was simple. I was informed along the way by a Universal employee that it was a busy day in the park, though they were still under the reduced capacity limit. However, the walkways of the CityWalk shopping complex were sparsely populated and walking up to the front gate, I was surprised to find it almost deserted. It put the nerves I did have about this whole experience at ease, at least for the time being.
Walking around the park
Once inside the park, it wasn't exactly business as usual, but it was close. There were social distancing markers everywhere, practically everyone was properly masked, and nothing felt too crowded initially. While the amount of people being allowed into the parks has not been disclosed, this was clearly far less than a typical summer crowd.
The odd circumstances did not hinder the atmosphere. While this is an unprecedented time, Universal Orlando has taken steps to attempt to distract guests as much as it can. There's plenty of upbeat music being played throughout the park, along with far more costumed characters in various places, greeting visitors.
Don't expect to get close to them, though. The Simpsons are relegated to their RV, taking photos with guests from a safe distance. What's more, any photos have to either be selfies or taken by someone in your group, rather than park employees. Other characters making distanced appearances include Scooby-Doo and his gang, the characters of Spongebob Squarepants (who perform in a show in one corner of the park), and Doc Brown from Back to the Future.
Doc Brown is the oddest of the character appearances, for a couple of reasons. For one, he's unmasked. Other face characters--those not wearing large costumes with false heads--are wearing masks that color-coordinate with their costumes, whether it's the Marvel superheroes or Popeye and Olive Oyl. Doc, however, stays perched atop the locomotive from Back to the Future III and doesn't wear one. He never gets close to guests, though.
What's concerning were his instructions when I stopped for a photo. I took a selfie with him in the background, when he said I could remove my mask to take another. This was the first time I'd heard that you're allowed to remove your mask outside of the designated area. I hesitated because the whole point of masks being mandatory in the park is that you don't take them off around other people and I wasn't the only one in the area. In fact, as I went to pull it off I realized there was another park-goer standing right next to me.
Universal has pretty thoroughly outlined its rules when it comes to visiting the park now. Nowhere in those rules does it say costumed characters might suggest mask removal. This deviation sets a troubling precedent. Why, in this instance, is not wearing a mask when others are around allowed?
Thankfully, for those that simply don't want to wear a mask all day in the Florida heat, there are options. There are designated mask-free areas. During my visit, I spent more than an hour in one next to a massive lake in the middle of the park and it was actually very pleasant. Universal employees monitor the number of people in the area to keep it from overcrowding, leading to a quiet and sparsely populated area that allows you to relax. It's a large area and while I was there, I never saw more than 10 people also partaking in the mask-free zone.
Just because attendance has been capped at Universal parks, and will be at Disney's parks when they reopen, doesn't mean there are no lines. In fact, for some attractions the lines might look even worse. Thankfully, they're actually much shorter than normal and guests can move through them fairly quickly. However, due to groups being spread out six feet apart, the lines can look unruly. In some instances, though, they can also become unruly.
While most of the lines at Universal were managed well, there were others that could have benefitted from having employees there to help guests out. Specifically, the line for the Horror Make-Up Show, which shows guests how filmmakers create scary movie monsters, blood, and gore, was a mess. In fact, it stretched out far beyond the queue that was constructed for it, leading people to essentially just stand together in one large group when I passed by.
It's entirely possible this was the rare time an employee was not there to keep things orderly, but it definitely kept me from lining up to enjoy the show. Other attractions, like the ET Adventure, benefitted from having a lengthy queue already built that they could simply alter to make it work with social distancing. Even in situations like those, though, it's up to you and those around you to all make sure you keep your distance. For the most part, people seemed to be complying with those rules, but I did spy a few instances where strangers were standing too close to each other.
Universal has also instituted a virtual line for some rides. The virtual lines work a lot like Disney's Fast Pass system. You check into the virtual line for a given ride on an app and it tells you when to attempt to enter the attraction. It helps cut back on physical lines, which is a major help. It's not a perfect system, though. There have been multiple instances of the app saying ride lines were full for the day, only to open up for users hours later. So if you can't get a spot in a virtual line, just keep checking back.
Oddly, the rides are what feel safest. You are required to keep your mask on most of the rides--you're allowed to remove it on water rides like Jurassic Park River Adventure--while it also looked as though employees were wiping ride vehicles down after each use. Beyond that, before you board a ride an employee will apply sanitizer to your hands. Seating on rides is staggered, meaning essentially every other row of any given ride vehicle is filled--and even then, chances are the only people in your row will be those in your group.
None of these precautions hinder the rides in any way. In fact, with so few people in the ride vehicles, you don't feel crammed in at any point. It's rather refreshing. This is obviously temporary, as capacities will rise and more people will return to the parks. For now, though, this is the best part of the process. It's the escape you want when you go to a theme park.
What's for lunch?
Meals in theme parks are a bit strange right now. While you're allowed to remove your mask to eat and drink, it's an odd thing to do in crowds walking around, even if that's how most food is consumed in these establishments. Thankfully, there were food carts located near the mask-free areas, should people want to enjoy their food comfortably without having to worry about being around throngs of people.
However, sit-down eating was a bit more of an issue. First and foremost, the Universal Studios app was little help. Upon arriving at one only to find it closed, even though the app listed it as an option, I settled on one where mobile ordering--which was suggested as the best way to request food--was not working properly. After multiple failed attempts to order food from the app, I approached a server who led me to a closed cash register to order.
This is something that can be chalked up to the new park procedures. Clearly, the mobile ordering system wasn't meant to handle all of the park's food requests and adjusting to that is going to take some time. However, it's better to know going in that the system may be buggy and if you have the option to order directly from a server at the beginning, you might be better off.
The end of the day
Leaving the park was a very different experience than entering it. By the end of the day, what had earlier felt like a controlled and safe walk through the CityWalk shopping complex back to the parking garage became easily the most anxiety-inducing part of the trip. Instead of keeping distance, groups of people were crowding most areas, and many of them weren't wearing masks--even though the mask requirements include CityWalk.
What's worse, nobody in charge seemed to care. I witnessed countless employees and security guards merely walk by those not wearing masks without a word. Universal has been very upfront about covering one's face being a requirement to gain entry to the park. Given that, there should absolutely be more policing of it.
Yes, it's the end of a long, hot, humid day in Florida and the masks aren't the most comfortable thing to be wearing in those conditions. Even I, who have not left my house without a mask since March, was uncomfortable. But that's the social agreement you're making with everyone else when you visit these places. It's disrespectful of security guards and those charged to maintain status quo at Universal and CityWalk to not enforce these rules. Regardless of how uncomfortable people are, we are still in the middle of a global pandemic.
Thus, walking back to the car trying hard to avoid coming close to people took what was left of the calm I had for the day. Truth be told, nothing in the park was perfect. That would be impossible. But it was all good enough to at least keep guests largely placated as they attempted to do something normal.
That was all out the windows once you walked out the gates of the park and found yourself surrounded by people who didn't bother to adhere to guidelines.
Was it safe?
That's the ultimate question. Is visiting theme parks safe right now? For the most part, it feels safe. While you're within the confines of Universal Orlando, those in charge have done a lot to create the feeling of safety. From hand sanitizing stations everywhere to an abundance of social distancing markers and ways to avoid physical contact with people, you don't feel like you're in danger visiting the park. If the rules were enforced as well at CityWalk as they are within the confines of the parks, it would feel much safer. That said, the experience of visiting Universal certainly felt safe, while still managing to mentally exhaust me from constantly wondering how safe I actually am.
The truth of the matter is we don't know exactly how safe it is, regardless of how it feels. Currently, the Universal Orlando parks have been open a little under two weeks. Disney won't begin reopening its parks until July. Time will tell just how safe these precautions are, or if they need to be modified to be even more restrictive in the coming months.
It's going to be a long time before theme parks go back to their previous business as usual. In fact, it remains to be seen if that will ever happen. For now, while the illusion of safety is there, there are still moments where it feels like you're playing with fire. Hopefully, time will show that isn't the case and these precautions actually are keeping guests safe.