The large drop of Universal's Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit rollercoaster at Universal Studios Florida
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Credit: Universal Orlando Resort

Here’s what visiting a theme park during a pandemic looks like

Contributed by
Jun 4, 2020

Theme parks are reopening, marking a start to what would typically be a busy summer season in Orlando, Anaheim, and other park locations across the country. Only summer vacation doesn't hit the same when the past few months of school have taken place in the midst of a pandemic; just because school is over doesn't mean quarantine is, and home learning will undoubtedly continue in some form under the guidance of multitasking parents.

With the start of summer, though, comes legitimate Theme Park News as parks around the world open while enacting social distancing protocols — so let's strap in and take off.

WELCOME BACK

Universal Orlando Resort is on its way to opening day. The resort and its three gates — Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure theme parks, as well as Volcano Bay water park — will open to the public come Friday, but that doesn't mean they're sitting empty until then.

As early as Monday morning, employee guests were back in the parks to experience the Butterbeer-slathered magic. Annual Passholders made their return to the parks Wednesday, with ticket holders returning Friday, and while COVID-19 precautions may feel like a distant past before the events of this week, they are still very, very much in place.

We outlined many of Universal's swift changes to keep the park in line with CDC recommendations and socially distanced protocols last week, but now, we can finally see them put into place. The true test will come when the park is populated with vacationers and not Universal's employees or a small number of Passholders, but these changes so far feel organized and clear, without diminishing much of the experience thus far. (We'll share more next week, once paying guests are regularly onsite and virtual queues are in wide use.)

As Universal soft-opened its parks and welcomed back most of its hotels Tuesday, LEGOLAND Florida opened its gates in full Monday morning, as well, making it, according to the Orlando Sentinel, the first Floridian theme park to open.

Now that parkgoers are living these new safety procedures out in real-time, we can finally answer that question we've explored and asked for many months: What does visiting a theme park during a pandemic look like?

Reduced capacity measures reverberate throughout both resorts in ways that affect how you'll shop, dine, and ride. (Universal Orlando will operate at 35 percent capacity, and LEGOLAND Florida will allow less than 6,000 people in its expansive, wide-reaching outdoor park.)

In terms of rides, don't expect to move in to fill all available space anytime soon. Attraction pre-shows are seemingly all but done evidenced both in Universal's Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts and LEGOLAND Florida's THE LEGO Movie Masters of Flight.

On ET Adventure, the pre-show and name card experience is temporarily removed as well; the beloved alien won't personally croak your name when the ride concludes for the time being. Virtual queues, available on select attractions, allows guests to hold their place in line simply by scanning a QR code; Universal started honoring Express Pass Wednesday for applicable annual pass holders and hotel guests and began selling the upgrade on Monday for ticketholders.

Whether you load up on hand sanitizer at Universal or have seats wiped twice per hour at LEGOLAND, don't expect to sit — or stand — near a stranger. Early coverage of Universal by attendees @maddie_odair and @megadis13 showed socially distanced queues 6 feet apart in all directions, while rides at both resorts were boarding parties with empty seats between them. (Universal's single-rider lines, meant to increase hourly ride capacity, are kaput for the time being.)

As expected, characters abound but are at a distance from guests, as splash zones and play areas remain out of operation. Given the nature of its famed toys, LEGOLAND has left select play areas open, but according to Attractions Magazine, are sanitizing the toy bricks twice each minute.

Over at Hogwarts — perhaps the only school currently in session? — a similar protocol is in place, but social distancing procedures are a unique challenge at Wizarding World of Harry Potter, where spaces throughout Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade Village are intentionally and artistically built to create bottlenecks.

During Tuesday's preview, attendee @megadis13 explored a near-empty Ollivanders — an absolute shock to anyone who's elbowed their way in to look at the wands — which now seems to take three groups at a time with appointments required for the wand experience. Still, there are newly enacted shop queue lines intended to make the stylistically small spaces in Diagon Alley easier to visit amid these modern challenges.

No-contact drink options are offered at both resorts — both with sodas at LEGOLAND and at Universal's Starbucks — but ordering within some of Universal's most popular quick-service eateries has changed too. Attractions Magazine reports that instead of waiting in line to order at a kiosk, guests at Three Broomsticks in Wizarding World of Harry Potter are seated upon arrival. From there, they can mobile order, and food is brought to their table.

Even with the parks being temporarily closed for about three months, there's plenty of new to take in, like a Jurassic Park Raptor Encounter, large banners promoting the future Bourne stunt show, and, well, Universal's new-and-not-yet-formally-confirmed-but-obviously-something coaster that is only vaguely under wraps.

Though, as insiders know, there's one huge shift in theme park protocol that rises high above: Pteranodon Flyers — every childless millennial's foe for its never-faltering "you must have a child co-ride with you" rules — has transitioned in this time of pandemic to allow for single riders of all ages.

If you don't know how big of a shift this is, know that I've been writing about theme parks for five years and have never been able to tuck my tush into one of those high-flying seats. Not once. It's a theme park white whale, and yet, now it's here.

High-flying dinos aside, these parks seem so far, so good. We won't know how these measures scale until the park is busier in the coming days — and we see them firsthand next month — but we'll bring you the lowdown next week regardless.

Disney's Contemporary Resort at Walt Disney World (Credit: Walt Disney World Resorts)

THE DISNEY DILEMMA

If you have a Disney World vacation planned and haven't opened your email lately, well, you may be in for a surprise. News broke last week that Walt Disney World would begin opening its theme parks in July, but the news that followed was even more significant.

While Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom open July 11 and Epcot and Disney's Hollywood Studios are slated for July 15, the conversation quickly got overshadowed by another announcement: that Disney was, essentially, nixing its entire online reservations system. All Fastpass+ reservations would be canceled, dining reservations removed, and Disney Dining Plans suspended.

This is major news because Disney World is, intrinsically, a difficult place to visit. Unlike heading to a new city in America or abroad, you cannot simply show up here and check Instagram for a cool bar or good restaurant. Planning for Disney World often requires months of research, understanding a new language, and the occasional 4 a.m. wakeup to book FastPasses. Now, a new booking system will be launched requiring guests (and annual Passholders) to obtain theme park reservations to enter the park due to COVID-19 safety standards and capacity restrictions.

A similar system has been put in place at Shanghai Disneyland, but Walt Disney World operates in a very, very different way from that park. And, with all hotel bookings, dining reservations, and ticket sales currently frozen until all ticketholders and annual Passholders are accounted for, the temporary suspensions brought with it a wake of dilemmas for guests with vacations — both this year and into next — who had not yet finished planning their trip.

Guests with dining reservations will have priority access to rebook once it's possible, but plenty of guests with hotel room reservations and no admission, even for a single guest in their party, won't be able to purchase them until they're back on sale to the general public — at which point theme park reservations during their vacation have the potential to be all booked up.

There are other unanswered questions, too, like if military tickets count, how reservation bookings will function, and even a general confirmation that all Disney hotels will open by July 11. (Currently, only Disney Vacation Club resorts are confirmed to open on June 22, but reading between the lines worries some that their bookings at other Disney hotels this summer may be rendered invalid.)

With all of these procedures knocked out to accommodate for the necessary decreased park capacity and social distancing measures, Disney vacations aren't going to look the same for a long time.

Stay tuned for more details as they emerge in the coming weeks.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

There's been much discussion surrounding the mask requirements for guests visiting Walt Disney World and Universal — and at LEGOLAND Florida, where they are optional — so take it from Orlando Sentinel's Gabrielle Russon, who makes the irrefutable point that summer in Orlando is going to be unbearable with or without a mask. May as well err on the side of caution as you melt into a puddle!

(Note, also: Masks are now required for ages 2 and up at Walt Disney World. It was previously 3 and up.)

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Universal Studios Hollywood could open next month, according to a union email.

- Even though the parks are reopening, thousands in Florida are still waiting for their unemployment benefits to come through.

- Quite possibly one of the most noteworthy lede sentences ever written about LEGOLAND.

- Busch Gardens Tampa is on track to reopen on June 11.

- Tokyo Disney Resort's Ikspiari shopping center has now reopened, marking the first step toward the resort's return, while Universal Studios Japan will begin a phased reopening over the next few weeks. Both openings are restricted to residents of specific prefectures, or neighborhood districts, within Japan.

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