What Omicron means for your theme park vacation

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What Omicron means for your theme park vacation

Here's what you can expect at Disney and Universal parks in 2022 and how to prepare for new policies and procedures.

Wizarding World of Harry Potter via Universal Parks

Hello and welcome back to a 2022-sized dose of theme park news!

We took the last two weeks off to do some internet-free things like see the Grand Canyon and flop around in the snow but now we're back and ready to usher you into a new theme park era with tech-savvy wristbands and the dire need for an Uber the moment you arrive to Orlando International Airport.

If you missed our 2022 preview and find yourself confused, don't fret — you can catch up right here — but here's everything else you need to know as the new year settles into a groove...

THE STATE OF THINGS IN THE STATES OF FLORIDA AND CALIFORNIA (AGAIN)

Well, well, well, another year, another lengthy pandemic update. I no longer make theme park predictions after the way 2020 went — Disneyland sitting closed for over a year was not on my bingo board — but dang, I did not expect to file columns across three different years centered around COVID-19 and America's theme parks.

It was a busy holiday season (more on that soon) and running parallel to that was a... whole helluva lot of cases. It's no longer a problem confined to cities in California or Florida like in previous seasons of The Virus That Will Never End, but the Omicron variant has spread like, well, the global pandemic we don't seem close to witnessing the end of, and it's bad out there.

Nationwide, cases are high — the United States is averaging more than 300,000 new cases per day for the first time since the pandemic began, according to The New York Times — but hospitalizations are growing at a much slower rate, a likely sign of vaccine efficacy. According to The Times, Orange County Florida is seeing an average of 3,013 new cases per day — or 216 per 100,000. Los Angeles Times reported LA County has seen an average of 11,872 new cases per day, while Orange County, California, cited 2,513 average new daily cases.

It's a strange thing, to start the new year with a fresh outlook and well-rested eyes only to gaze upon the same heavy statistics that have plagued our past few years, but to put it plainly: COVID cases are all over this country, and therefore, in these parks. And, since the virus is inextricable from themed coasters and water parks, we'll do our best to update you on both simultaneously.

We begin in Florida where, as a true sign of the times, Universal Orlando Resort — which went the past seven months without any mask enforcement, even throughout Delta variant's scourge — reintroduced an indoor mask mandate to begin on Christmas Eve. As of Dec. 24, guests are now required to wear facial coverings in indoor spaces like shops and hotel lobbies, as well as throughout the entirety of attractions and queues. (Disney World and California's Disneyland Resort, which require masks indoors and on enclosed transportation, have not amended their policies to require masks on outdoor attractions or in outdoor queues in the face of the new COVID-19 variant.)

The timing coincided with theme parks' busy season of winter break. From Hogsmeade to Disney's Hollywood Studios, the holidays were in full swing and the Orlando theme parks were popping. The same can be said of New Year's Eve, which draws extra attention for its elaborate fireworks shows and dance parties. (While, yes, said events are held outdoors, it's not yet proven if the highly transmissible Omicron variant of COVID-19 is more contagious outdoors than previous strains. Places like Paris, meanwhile, are taking action regardless, requiring masks outdoors city-wide.)

On the news end, Typhoon Lagoon at long last re-opened for the first time since the 2020 pandemic closures and then immediately closed the next day for weather-related issues. But hey! It's okay, because they're back and whether or not you're a waterpark person, there are plenty of new Dole Whip flavors and concoctions available to make even the most wavepool-averse Disney fan want to slide on by.

More good news: With the return of Disney's All-Star Sports Resort, all Disney World hotels have officially reopened.

This week also marks the bitter goodbye to Disney's Magical Express, the complimentary bus service offered to guests of those Disney World resort hotels. To be frank, not much has changed since when the news was announced around this time last year — I still see this move to devalue hotel perks as immensely short-sighted, particularly given Disney's target demographic of families with kids — but like it or not, it's happening, and you may need to get your transportation plans in order for your next theme park vacation.

Space Mountain at Disney World

Wondering how to get to the parks from the airport now that Disney's bus service is kaput? There are taxis and ride-share apps in place at Orlando International Airport (MCO) and beyond, but plan ahead, especially if you arrive late or need a car seat. (It goes without saying that this would be a great time for Disney to reintroduce its Minnie Van program, which has yet to return following the April 2020 closures, as those $155 airport runs don't seem as blasphemous any longer.)

Two shared transportation alternatives to Disney's Magical Express are also available. Mears, the transportation company who operated Magic Express' fleet — yes, they low-key ran Disney's bus operation — has launched their own product. Mears Connect offers two tiers of service, Standard and Express, for hotel shuttle transportation to and from the Orlando airport and Walt Disney World-area hotels. A new company, The Sunshine Flyer, also launched a shuttle bus transportation service for vacations starting in February.

Another thing of note for the Orlando area is COVID-19 testing. If you're planning to visit, be aware that it was not easy to get a test these past few weeks, with cars lining up as early as 3am at county-run testing sites which were reaching capacity in the afternoon. Make an appointment in advance, and stay tuned to local news for availability and additional sites to open.

Disneyland's Monorail passing by Matterhorn mountain

On the other side of the country, Southern California's theme parks endured a whole heck of a lot of rain, but there's not much to write home about otherwise. Similar to the Florida parks, Disneyland and Universal Studios Hollywood leaned into Christmas and New Year's Eve festivities, but the biggest news as of late remains the introduction of Disney Genie, which debuted at Disneyland in December. There isn't too much advanced planning required for the parks these days because of it, but be sure to arrive early to make the most out of paid options like Disney Genie+ and the a la carte Lightning Lane individual attraction selections, since both can only be booked once your admission is scanned into the park.

If you're heading to Universal Studios Hollywood, know they continue to require masks both outdoors and indoors — as well as proof of vaccination or negative tests on days with higher attendance, as per Los Angeles County health and safety guidelines. (Note: there is a testing site on property, but leave ample time for the queue.)

In other news, the most wonderful time of the year is soon to arrive at SoCal theme parks. No, not Christmastime — Lunar New Year, for which Universal and Disney go all out with food, entertainment and merchandise that makes for my personal favorite seasonal celebration of the year. Stay tuned for more! Disney's SoCal resident ticket deal kicks off this week too, so if you wanted to drop by on weekdays on the cheap, don't miss out.

Grad Nite will also be returning to Disneyland Resort for the first time since 2019, following two years of Covid-19 related cancellation.

Things might be bleak once again — not the way anyone hoped to start this year — but there's plenty to look forward to.

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

Disney Springs will be hosting special fitness classes on select dates this January.

Ever wondered how Universal Parks have the rights to Harry Potter? Consider your questions answered.

Prepare yourself for a lot more Winnie the Pooh.

Will never not enjoy learning how the sausage — erm, Minnie-themed desserts — are made.

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