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One year in: What's next for Disneyland and Universal Studios as the new normal begins?

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Mar 16, 2021, 2:15 PM EDT

Hello and welcome to this week's roundup of theme park news! It's been a full calendar year since Disney and Universal theme parks temporarily shuttered on both coasts, and now at long last, things are slowly starting to resemble a new normal.

Read on for an update on California park reopenings — and what you can expect from them — along with changes you'll see on your next visit and the latest from the West Coast's food festivals:

ONE YEAR LATER

This past week marked the one-year anniversary of theme parks' temporary closures, many of which are still in effect. It's been a long 12 months marred with catastrophic layoffs and delays to attraction schedules due to the coronavirus pandemic that shook the entire world — and is still very much doing so.

We are, however, on the precipice of normalcy. An abridged version of it, at least, for theme parks. When Thursday's A Touch of Disney event kicks off, it'll make Disneyland Resort the third and final California theme park resort to reopen for a limited-capacity dining event, allowing guests to get a taste of what's inside the gates.

Still, it's difficult to fathom that for many, even when all parks reopen after their longest-ever closure, they won't really be back to normal. Many former employees, who often tend to be some of theme parks' biggest fans, will not have a job to return to as California resorts will be limited to locals with extremely limited capacity. And, with Disneyland's previous annual passholder program suspended, it's anyone's guess what could replace it for future Disneyland trips.

As of Wednesday morning, though, per Variety, Disney CEO Bob Chapek told CNBC’s “Squawk Alley” that Disneyland is set to reopen on April 30. A blog post from the company later confirmed further details, including the unveiling of the reimagined Snow White’s Enchanted Wish.

 

The Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal Studios Hollywood. Credit: Tommaso Boddi/WireImage via Getty Images

As per California state guidelines, theme parks such as Knott's Berry Farm are now able to open as early as April 1, so long as their respective counties have hit "red tier" or better — which has happened as of this week.

Knott's Berry Farm is planning to reopen in May, with further details to come. The only theme park that hasn't announced a projected time frame is Universal Studios Hollywood. Now that Los Angeles County is officially in "red tier," allowing movie theaters to return and restaurants to open indoor dining, Universal Studios Hollywood has the green light to reopen — and given that they only extended their Taste of Universal event by just one week, a mid-to-late April reopening is looking more than likely.

Recently updated Disneyland Resort guidelines shed light on what we can expect from a pandemic-era park reopening. The parks will reopen without Fastpass and Maxpass services, as Magic Morning and Extra Magic Hours, typically offered with multi-day tickets and hotel stays, will remain suspended for the time being.

New Disneyland guidelines also confirm a park pass reservation system will be required for guests regardless of admission type (which is currently in place at Walt Disney World) while parades and nighttime entertainment will be temporarily canceled in order to meet social distancing guidelines. Above all, though, having these parks open up once again is a sign that California's caseloads are going down and things are looking up.

Credit: Disney Parks

MOVE ASIDE, MAGIC BANDS

Walt Disney World has revealed that, at long last, smartphones and smartwatches will be sharing some of that easy-scan magic of Disney's famed RFID-enabled Magic Bands.

The new integration, called Disney MagicMobile, will allow guests to add Magic Band functionality to their smartphone devices, including accessing park admission through their digital wallet or even an Apple Watch. No time frame for the new services have been given beyond the expanded compatibility launching in phases later this year, but Disney has confirmed services will roll out on Apple devices first.

If this all sounds pretty straightforward — or perhaps not particularly savvy for a tech announcement in 2021 — know that Disney's proprietary Magic Band has been king at the theme park resort for years. The plastic band, available in multiple colors and patterns, allows guests to charge purchases to their hotel room, scan their admission, access FastPass, claim on-board ride photos, and even sometimes integrates guest names in digital art within attractions.

It's a small powerhouse that's not going anywhere just yet, but is poised to be less ubiquitous than before. (Case in point: Another feature of Disney MagicMobile, automatic attraction photo linking, is already being tested at Disney's Hollywood Studios.)

Disney MagicMobile will have the ability to be used interchangeably with MagicBands, not making one better than the other, but merely providing more options than before, and for some of those features to conveniently work on devices guests already own. (MagicBands no longer come complimentary with a Disney hotel stay as of 2021, but remain for sale in flashier designs than ever.)

Credit: Knott's Berry Farm

CALIFORNIA FOOD FESTIVALS TAKE OFF

This past week saw the launch of Universal Studios Hollywood's Taste of Universal, marking the first time the California theme park had reopened its gates since the pandemic forced them closed last year.

All in all, the event was great — well-priced, and offered guests a look at the newly completed Minions Cafe and Pets Place, the impeccable street facade outside their forthcoming Secret Life of Pets-themed attraction — but bound to be shortlived by no fault of its own. New guidelines for theme park reopenings were announced the day after the event's announcement, so it likely won't need to tide Krusty Burger fans over for long.

The real highlight of Taste of Universal — besides seeing Hello Kitty or Donkey from Shrek — is stepping foot back in Hogsmeade for the first time in an eternity and exchanging pre-paid credits for ample portions of fish & chips or a round or five of Butterbeer, allowing parkgoers to cheers to being back. (There is limited availability remaining for dates in April.)

Knott's Berry Farm's A Taste of Boysenberry Festival, which debuted last weekend, was another worthwhile entry. As a veteran of pivoting to food festivals, the park's expertise shows in all aspects of the event. Cleanliness is top-notch, with ample tables routinely sprayed down and cleaned after each use, while the variety and value of each ticket is unparalleled. Each area of the park had bustling entertainment, too, making the rides sitting empty much easier to take. (This one lasts longer — through early May — and tickets remain on sale.)

If you're craving theme park eats, you might be partial to the Simpsons treats and Harry Potter eats of A Taste of Universal, but if you're into a full-blown food festival with coasters towering in the background, Knott's Berry Farm is your spot. (A Touch of Disney, the dining event at Disney California Adventure, debuts on Thursday and is already sold out.)

LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!

- Hong Kong Disneyland is offering its food for pick-up and delivery, which is, yes, my life dream.

- The first 50th anniversary embellishments have been added to Cinderella Castle.

- Universal Orlando revealed a walkway canopied by the VelociCoaster track and it's a sight to see.

- InPark Magazine's deep dive into the storied career of Walt Disney Imagineering's Bob Weis is a must-read.

- Enjoy this little sneak peek of what could be Super Nintendo World at Universal Studios Hollywood.

- Disneyland Paris will not reopen in April as originally intended.

- GOOFY GONE FISHING!

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