I Went to Universal Orlando on Opening Day — Here's What It Was Really Like
Adjusting to life's “new normal” of face masks, social distancing, and many, many restrictions hasn’t been easy on any of us. So you can probably understand why I had mixed feelings about attending the June 5 reopening of Universal Orlando Resort, on the first day that the park welcomed the public since it closed on March 15 because of coronavirus.
Aside from flying to Florida, and spending time around a large crowd of strangers for the first time in three months, I was concerned that the safety protocols and restrictions would take the joy out of a place designed specifically for entertainment. What would a theme park experience be like with social distancing? What would wait times be like when rides were only running at half-capacity? What would it feel like to ride a roller coaster with a mask on?
The answers, thankfully, are: the park experience was still fun, if a little different; there was barely any wait time at all; and hurtling on a tiny track at 60 MPH is just as scary as it was before our pre-mask days.
But make no mistake, Universal Studios is living in the new normal just as much as the rest of us are. Temperature checks are required for admission. There are markings on the ground every six feet outside restaurants, gift shops, and performance stages. Signs in walkways point to the nearest restroom, suggesting people make extra trips just to wash their hands. Purell stations are everywhere. There’s messaging over the park’s audio system reminding us of their new safety protocols, and dedicated “U-Rest” areas where you’re allowed to remove your mask when you need a break. Otherwise, they’re required unless you’re eating or drinking.
Every staff member I spoke to throughout the day thanked me for being there, not just because they knew it took a lot to walk back into a theme park in the midst of a global pandemic, but because, it seemed, they were as happy to be back at work as I was to be able to spend a day of leisure doing something I love to do. “I couldn’t spend another day at home,” one said to me at my hotel. In Three Broomsticks, the tavern in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, the server brought my lunch but asked me to remove it from the tray myself so there was less contamination risk. I told her it seemed like the staff was doing a good job upholding the new safety protocols, like leaving every other table reserved for social distancing. “Thank you,” she said, sounding genuinely grateful and also a little bit relieved. “We’re trying really hard.”
Universal intentionally kept attendance low on the first day. At a Los Angeles County Economic Resiliency Task Force meeting last week, NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell said the park would open at a max capacity of 35 percent, though he explained the number wasn't exact, Theme Park Insider reported: "...the 35 percent is a little bit of a fake number because some attractions where you have individual cars and you can put parties apart safely, you can get to 50 percent capacity, and some on attractions, like a theater show indoors, you really can't open it all. So what you have to do is, you have to go ride by ride by ride. Then add it all up, and the number in Orlando happens to add up to 35 percent. Right now we're not allowing anybody to come in the park after it gets to 35 percent."
The empty seating areas and wide-open walkways had me feeling like the park was probably at about 25 percent capacity. While a smaller crowd did dampen the energy a little bit — there really is something to be said for the ambient noise of thrilled and sometimes terrified roller coaster riders — the open space made it a lot easier to understand how things were different and to adjust my behavior accordingly. Staffers were at the ready to control traffic flow when going in stores and accessing lockers. They were there to dispense the required hand sanitizer into guests’ hands as they stepped onto each ride, and to clean nearly every surface after a person touched it. Even though they made it seem easy and normal, it most definitely was not either of those things.
Right now, there are no indoor stage shows at all (though the park is working on adding those soon, since Florida entered stage 2 of reopening on the day the park reopened, which allows for theatre at 50 percent capacity). There are no parades so as to avoid large group gatherings. Many of the stores are closed, probably because of the amount of extra staff needed to ensure there aren’t too many people inside at once. Rides are being filled only halfway, leaving an empty row between each party, for social distance. Many of them are now on a virtual line system through the Universal Orlando app, where you can pick a return time and wait only minutes to board. The first day, many times were available — but that will inevitably change, and become more complicated, as attendance ramps up. And the pre-shows that kept people entertained while they were waiting to board rides, like the rickety elevator that makes you feel as though you are descending into the depths of the goblin bank on Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, are on hold indefinitely.
It may have sapped some of the magic from the ride, but honestly, I’ll take it. A little bit less magic is still a lot more than any of us have been experiencing lately. Universal is (almost totally) back. Here's hoping the rest of the world is soon able to follow.