Hogwarts Castle at Universal Orlando
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Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

Florida parks reopen as the NBA travels to Disney World

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Jun 9, 2020, 8:32 PM EDT (Updated)

Welcome to this week's roundup as theme parks forge on with openings amid uncertain times. In addition to the coronavirus, there's plenty going on in Florida — not only has Orlando been hit with tornados (plural), but many, many people have still not been paid unemployment from the state government, all while protestors take to the streets in support of Black Lives Matter.

But all parks in Orlando are opening imminently, so let's get right into it:

OPEN FOR BUSINESS

This week marks a major shift, as every Florida park has either opened or announced its return plans. As we mentioned last week, Universal Orlando Resort hosted employee guests and Annual Passholder previews before reopening to the public on Friday. The Orlando Sentinel attended both, and from its and other coverage across the web, it seems to have gone rather smoothly. With high sanitation standards, controlling the number of guests in tight areas like the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, and the addition of "U-rest zones" where, as the Sentinel reports, "visitors are allowed to remove their masks," the general consensus was positive. Well, save for a few social distancing mishaps, like too many Passholders arriving at the same time and the ride locker situation remaining a pain, as reported by MyNews13's Ashley Carter.

Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure proved to still be popular, even with the park's capacity limited at just above one-third, or 35 percent, of its standard maximum. There is still entertainment, but it's done at a distance — Harry Potter-themed performers wore masks while other characters met at a distance, sometimes on a grassy knoll — while masks are required on all attractions, which Brooke Geiger McDonald of Travel Pulse reported was trickier on rides with 3D goggles, due to the fogging.

Universal is offering Virtual Queue on a handful of rides — the maximum you can hold at a time is two, according to @RyanTheme Park — but opening day crowds were lighter than those of the Annual Passholder previews last Wednesday and Thursday, a good sign considering Universal Orlando Resort is one of the few parks proceeding without a reservation entry system.

SeaWorld Orlando and its Aquatica water park and Discovery Cove experience are opening on Thursday, June 11, with enhanced safety protocols, required face coverings, and temperature screenings, as is Busch Gardens Tampa Bay, which we'll dive into more next week. All locations will require an advance reservation.

TRAVELING AND TRAVELING

If you haven't been keeping up with Walt Disney World news, well, this update isn't going to be your typical Tuesday news download.

That's because the NBA — yep, home to the most famous basketball players on planet Earth — is heading to Walt Disney World before you do. No, not the parks, as players are seemingly banned from those, but to the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, where players from 22 teams will face off while purportedly living in a trio of Disney hotels.

I've placed my bets on where I think they'll land, but regardless of location, the thought of Disney World being swarmed by basketball superstars sustains me in the long stretches of my final pandemic self-quarantine days. Do these athletes know how hard it is to get a king-size bed at a Disney World hotel? Can someone remind the players to pack their own umbrellas and ponchos for the daily rain? Will they, too, eat the Ghirardelli chocolate on their pillowcase?

It's a lot to handle, so I'll jump back to the news geared toward us common folk, who have much more to be concerned about when it comes to travel plans than America's superstars. In two weeks, Disney World will open its DVC Deluxe Villa hotels and Fort Wilderness campground, and from the looks of a major update that dropped Saturday afternoon, it's not going to be the same Disney World trip many are used to.

When 11 hotels reopen on June 22, guests will only be able to visit a Disney World hotel with a room or dining reservation (inquiries about quick-service dining went unanswered). Club-level lounges, Minnie Vans, spas, salons, in-room dining, playgrounds, and arcades will be unavailable when the hotels first open up, and, yes, it's true: Electrical Water Pageant won't be running either. Guests of Beach and Yacht Club also won't be able to use the pirate ship slide and sand-bottom pool facilities at Stormalong Bay — but Disney clarified they'll have access to BoardWalk's pool.

Transportation to Disney Springs (and theme parks when they open) will be provided, as will Disney's Magical Express airport transportation, while hotel items like glassware and spare linens will be wrapped in single-use packaging, floors will be steam-cleaned between guests, and pillows will be double-cased. (Housekeeping will be every other day, which guests can choose to decline.) Disney World will emphasize online check-in, and My Disney Experience will add a virtual chat function that'll work as a digital front desk. Only select restaurants will open, and character dining is all but kaput, save for one amended experience at Topolino's Terrace, the top-floor restaurant at Disney's Riviera Resort. (Details on that are still to come.)

Even with the restrictions and guests understandably but literally receiving less than they would have previously, many are still planning to visit in the next eight weeks. Information from Disney has been released incrementally, though, leaving many who would be willing to visit with a series of unanswered questions.

Visitors from New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut still are unsure whether, according to a series of Florida Executive Orders, they'll have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their arrival. (I've looked into it and have yet to be given a firm answer, even from Florida Governor Ron DeSantis' office.)

People with reservations at Animal Kingdom Villas - Jambo House later this summer, which was not announced to open on June 22, don't yet know whether their vacations will be changed or invalidated. Same with other Walt Disney World hotels that haven't been publicly confirmed to be opening or guests who splurged for park-hopper tickets when park-hopping may no longer be allowed due to required park reservations.

Furthermore, it's unclear whether annual passes that haven't yet been used are valid, or whether military tickets count. But when will it be too late to cancel flights, trips, or plans because details of a forthcoming theme park reservation system are, well, forthcoming?

Many guests with hotel stays in July have received little to no communication and are left to the massive expanse of the internet to figure out what's going on, only to discover the people who should know — people like myself — don't have clear answers yet either.

In the meantime, I'll continue to post updates throughout the day on my Instagram and Twitter — and look forward to hopefully knowing more by this time next week.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

It is peak crossover season for Disney and the NBA, which means we're getting gems from mega-fan and Milwaukee Bucks player Robin Lopez, who sits in the direct center of that Venn diagram. It's just one connection after another.

LINKS LINKS LINKS

- Knott's Berry Farm has opened more of its California Marketplace at the Buena Park theme park this week.

- It looks like Hong Kong Disneyland may be opening soon.

- Same with Tokyo Disneyland.

- John Rivers, the owner of 4 Rivers BBQ (and 4 Rivers Cantina food truck at Disney Springs), is providing free meal distribution every Tuesday for theme park artists, performers, and other members of the Central Florida arts community.

- Basketball ain't the only game in town at WDW this year.

- I knew the new land coming to Tokyo DisneySea was big, but I didn't know it was THIS big.

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