Welcome to Theme Park News! This week, we've got an exciting ride 65 million years in the making (or something like that) and a change in Disney Parks' mask policies that is, perhaps, concerning. Let's start with the fun news.
VELOCICOASTER IS HERE
Eleven months after reporting on Walt Disney World’s reopening, I finally returned to Orlando’s theme parks for one thing only: the brand-new double-launch air time-packed VelociCoaster, and boy, was it worth it. SYFY WIRE's own Mike Avila's story goes into extensive detail about the jaw-dropping raptor-infused thrill ride, which is set just prior to the catastrophic events in 2015’s Jurassic World but what stood out to me most is how perfectly this new coaster fits into its surroundings at Universal's Islands of Adventure.
Typically, when a ride opens, it debuts to barren surroundings with trees and plants that grow in over time. Many attractions are not afforded the lush, natural vegetation that VelociCoster has as a result of being placed within the Jurassic Park-themed land’s pre-existing plant life, and its ride designers put that to good use. Every twist, turn and roll occurs in definitive show scenes that have riders twisting past a space for curious passersby in the park’s Jurassic Park area, soaring high above the entirely of the park in a bird’s-eye view — literally, if you know the osprey lore — and flipping upside down over the park's waterfront.
Not that you should expect to notice any of that on your first or second ride, though. If you’re like me, who was filmed during my first go at it (as can be seen here), you’ll emerge joyfully discombobulated and wobbly in the knees, just trying to make your way downstairs to the newfangled double-door lockers that immediately alleviate a longstanding Universal Orlando Resort annoyance.
After five rides — leave me in the house for a year and I adjust to being jostled around at speeds of 70 miles per hour rather easily! — I can confirm this coaster is, simply put, exceptional. Not a moment of it felt like filler, resulting in a journey with two dynamic launches and unexpected moments that in total is beautiful and wildly fun. VelociCoaster is not by any means the only thrill ride at Universal’s Islands of Adventure, either. There already was The Incredible Hulk Coaster, which opened in 1999 but was souped-up as part of a 2016 refurbishment, and Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, a dynamic launch “storycoaster” which debuted 2019. (The use of that marketing-y term is well-earned, given how uniquely well it executes storytelling at top speeds.)
I had the pleasure of riding both the Jurassic World and Harry Potter-themed coasters on the same day and it’s clear Universal is churning out hits. These two jaw-droppers provide relentless joy, just footsteps from each other, resulting in such high-stakes thrills that I lost my voice for days. I had the time of my life, and both were worth the wait. Personally, I’d plan a trip around this coaster specifically — if you’re comfortable with the mask requirements currently at theme parks.
MASK RULES CHANGE
As I mentioned, this was my first trip back to Florida’s theme parks in 11 months, and even in the short time since my visit, mask guidelines have shifted significantly. Starting today, Walt Disney World will not require vaccinated guests to wear masks in most indoor and outdoor locations. (The exception is park transportation, where all guests over the age of 2 will be required to wear face coverings.) This puts Disney's Florida resort more closely in line with Universal Orlando Resort’s rules, which do not require vaccinated guests to wear masks anywhere on property.
While on paper, it sounds sensible and in line with CDC guidelines, in practice, it’s drastically different. My visit to Universal Orlando Resort would have been more eye-opening had I not spent my days wading through theme park discourse on Twitter like a cranberry blogger, but still, it was jarring to walk into a Florida theme park hotel lobby to see people FaceTiming, ordering Starbucks, and checking in sans masks. In total, throughout my three days at the resort and its theme parks, I estimated around 98 percent of guests skipped out on masks, oodles of young, vaccine-ineligible children among them.
With two shots in my system and no children to my name, I should be hot to trot when it comes to bopping around a theme park without a mask, discovering in real-time if lipsticks purchased in 2019 are, indeed, as expired as I presume them to be. Yet, self-proclaimed statuses have proven to be an obvious loophole, one that guests are readily taking advantage of and are likely to continue doing so. With that — and social distancing a distant memory — it led me, a happily vaccinated adult, to uncomfortably ask to board the following E.T. Adventure vehicle so I didn’t have to shove in on a bench with a maskless family, and skip Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringott’s entirely, as to not spend extensive time indoors with a gaggle of unmasked people with questionable vaccination statuses from around the country.
Being in throngs of unmasked people did get more normal over time, despite being so drastically different from California’s tight theme park procedures, but my mask rarely dipped from my face, both at Universal and at Walt Disney World’s Epcot and Magic Kingdom theme parks. The rules have steadily changed at both theme park resorts since they reopened in 2020, which makes it all the more strange that Disneyland now — yes, the California theme park resort that’s only been open for two months — announced plans to mirror Walt Disney World’s June 15 mask policies just one day prior to them taking effect.
To zoom out a bit, today marks the official date that California’s economy “reopens”. It’s also when, following the government-mandated restrictions in place since April 30, Disneyland will be put in charge of their own pandemic-era safety precautions for the first time. Disneyland didn’t choose to lower social distancing, remove outdoor mask requirements or allow unvaccinated guests to go maskless indoors slowly over time, like at the Florida parks — they did them all on the exact same day.
Yesterday’s announcement that masks will no longer be required outdoors and that vaccinated guests won't have to wear masks indoors took many by surprise, including those who will wake up to an entirely different theme park today, whether or not they planned to. (Keep in mind: Until this morning, you couldn't even remove your mask while outdoors for a single photograph.)
The paradox of vaccination self-identification means that anyone who doesn’t want to wear one will, effectively, be allowed to opt-out on the very first day that guests from other states — states with rising COVID-19 cases, lower vaccination rates, and an active variant spreading throughout the country — will be allowed through Disneyland’s gates. This means that families who followed the rules and waited until out-of-staters could return to Disneyland will never be able to visit the park with enforced mask requirements — a stressful point of contention for guests who had planned trips for when they'd be allowed to visit later this summer.
The Anaheim resort is, yes, afforded an advantage by being in a state with higher vaccination rates and low transmission, but even with a primarily regional audience, the rules weren’t shifted while the parks were restricted to residents. It remains strange that yesterday, guests couldn’t wait in lengthy indoor lines due to state-enforced limitations on time spent indoors, and today can potentially do just that, sans masks, as vaccination statuses go unchecked.
It's exhausting to reiterate, but the pandemic is not yet over, especially for the unvaccinated, and theme parks are a quintessential family destination, leaving vaccinated parents of children not yet eligible for a vaccine, immunocompromised (or both) out in the lurch. Families with young kids who have not yet been vaccinated were never given the opportunity to visit Disneyland and Disney California Adventure with enforced mask mandates, despite planning vacations under previously enforced safety standards. For Disneyland to, on the very first day the state no longer controls its safety-based operations, pull everything back feels both shortsighted and sudden. (At the time of press, Universal Studios Hollywood's website still required all guests to wear face coverings both indoors and outdoors. It's worth noting the theme park was allowing out-of-state guests to visit prior to today, if fully vaccinated.)
Indoor transmission has always been an issue, but with social distancing no longer at the same standard and a new variant that can spread among the unvaccinated even more easily than before, the mask guidance didn't need to shift immediately, all at once.
We all want to return to normal at theme parks. But, considering California's safety standards until now and the rapid pace at which they've been instantly repealed, it all feels like too much, too soon.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
- Dollywood announced a large-scale, half-billion-dollar expansion that'll start with Dolly's HeartSong Lodge & Resort, opening in 2023.
- Epic Universe, the entirely new theme park coming to Universal Orlando Resort, will open in "a couple of years", as the likelihood of attractions themed to Despicable Me, Minions and The Secret Life of Pets becomes more of a reality.
- Universal Hollywood CityWalk will host a COVID-19 vaccination clinic, with the first 100 participants each day receiving a Voodoo Doughnut voucher.
- At long last, the bombastic pre-show for Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway at Disney's Hollywood Studios has returned.
- If you missed Ohana noodlegate, it has since been solved and the noodles are back. And if you don't know what Ohana noodlegate is, well, consider yourself lucky.
- As we inch closer to a year at Walt Disney World without nighttime entertainment, fireworks were spotted being tested at Epcot!
- Universal Orlando CityWalk announced a new bao restaurant, Bend The Bao, opening today.