Unprecedented: My August 2020 Trip to Universal Orlando
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
Agent Emily here, just back from a very different trip to Universal Orlando Resort that included lots of changes to the parks, my new mask wardrobe (themed, of course), and even some virtual schooling for my kids. I shared each day's adventures on our Instagram stories (check the "Universal 2020" highlight tab to see them), and I thought I'd also share all of the changes we experienced, what we enjoyed (and what we didn't), and what we'd change if and when we go back.
Why go to Universal Orlando right now?
A little background: our family has been fairly locked-down since March 12. School and work all take place in our house, which feels smaller by the day. No sleepovers, no summer camps, and the only socializing we’ve done has been outdoors and physically distanced. So why would we fly to Orlando during a pandemic?
OBSERVATIONS. I’m a planner. Not just a travel planner (Get a quote! Seriously, we have the BEST AGENTS who will plan the BEST trips for you!) but a meticulous, detail-oriented, Virgo, spreadsheeting PLANNER. And part of that planning is lots of research. I observed how strictly the parks--both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando--were enforcing safety protocols. I also saw hundreds of photos and live streams of half-empty parks, full of hand sanitizing stations, masked-up guests and distance markers. Combined with Southwest Airlines’ adherence to empty middle seats, masks and other safety precautions, and I felt like we could maintain a pretty tightly controlled, safe environment around our little family unit the entire time.
RULES. I like rules; I just don’t want to be the one to enforce them. I loved that, by going to one of these highly-regulated bubbles, I would be among other guests who had all entered into a sort of social contract. We all agreed to abide by these rules in order to have fun in the parks. And if we got out of line, there were plenty of team members standing along park walkways to politely remind guests to pull masks up over their mouths AND noses, or to stand on the distance markers on the ground. I think that’s what people mean when they say that the parks seem safer than their local grocery store: the rules and environment are just more rigidly enforced (and I loved that).
VALUE. We had annual passes, so the cost of tickets didn’t factor in to our decision. In December 2018 (which I think we can all agree seems like 47 years ago now), I had a four-day park ticket that I upgraded, on my last day, to an annual pass. With a preferred pass, I got six months free. I knew I would visit again over the next eighteen months, and upgrading to a pass cost me less than buying another multi-day ticket, so it was a no-brainer. What I didn’t know was that I’d actually visit FIVE more times on that pass, and that the park closure would extend that pass until September 2020! So my family had annual passes that were all about to expire, PLUS we had some Southwest credits from canceled flights. PLUS annual passholders get good rates on Universal Orlando hotels. (Did I mention that we can put passholder packages together for you? Because we can! ;) )
FLEXIBILITY. When we made our reservations, we knew our kids would be in virtual school through at least Labor Day (now, we know it will be well into October, at least). The one good thing about virtual school is that you can do it from anywhere, so we decided that “anywhere” might as well be Orlando.
So, that’s why we went. Now for an overview of how it went! This is our experience as a family of four during the last week of August, and I don’t claim that this will be everyone’s experience, but hopefully this will give you an idea of what you might expect if you’re considering a trip.
On many rides, your party will have a separate ride vehicle. You’ll have a car to yourself on the Hogwarts Express, your own “scoop” on Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man, and if you’re riding alone, your own row on Gringotts or The Mummy. On a coaster like Hagrid’s, they’ll leave an empty bike-sidecar unit between each party.
Team members pump sanitizer into each guest’s hands before they board every ride. They are diligent about this.
You’ll also see team members constantly sanitizing handrails, screens and other high-touch points.
Speaking of touch points, fingerprint scanners are not in use at the park entrance, so everyone over 18 should bring an ID that matches their park tickets and/or annual passes.
Many queues are shortened or altered to allow for distancing and air flow (more on this later). Virtual queues are employed (via the Universal app) on the weekends for the more popular attractions.
We all found the Universal masks to be even more comfortable than our cotton or disposable masks!
Everyone must wear masks at all times, including outside, inside, on-board rides, in shows, and in dining areas when not actively eating or drinking. Each of Universal’s two parks has two outdoor “U-Rest” areas where guests can sit, relax, and remove masks (with plenty of distance between parties).
There are distance markers everywhere: in all of the attraction queues, in dining locations, in the hotels.
Character meets are distanced (more on this later, too). You'll stand a safe distance in front of characters and take a photo with them in the background. (You'll probably do a better job than I did. And the characters are still super friendly and interactive!)
Most dining is mobile-order-only now. In many locations, you’ll be seated by a team member, place your mobile order, and have it delivered to your table. There is also plenty of outdoor dining available too, which we stuck to in hopes of limiting “sharing our air” while unmasked.
PROS. Different is not always a bad thing! Here are the changes that we loved about our most recent trip.
No (or low) wait times. Oh my goodness. Especially during the weekdays we were there (which were Wednesday and Thursday), everything was a walk-on. Even Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure. The posted wait times were 15-20 minutes, but that’s basically the amount of time it took to walk through the queue without stopping. We rode four times.
Related: very low crowds. Our two weekdays felt like we were at a private event. Saturday was busier, but still not pre-pandemic busy.
The low crowds and wait times meant we could ride things we never had before, or that we previously would have had to plan our entire trips around. I got to experience Pteranodon Flyers for the first time because there wasn’t the usual long line, and riding Hagrid’s didn’t take hours in line or random luck; we simply walked through the line on the weekdays and grabbed our virtual spots on the weekend. We almost never had to wait to cast spells in Hogsmeade or Diagon Alley. If you've been before, you know what a rare treat this is!
The aforementioned awesome team members enforcing masking and distancing rules meant that I could silence my inner Karen and just enjoy myself.
Staff seemed extra-attentive, maybe just because there were fewer guests there to deal with, but many team members thanked us for being there. So many who work in the theme parks and hotels are furloughed or laid off right now. It’s a tough time for anyone in the tourism business right now (for just about any business, really), so be kind.
I actually love the omnipresence of hand sanitizer and hope it is a trend (along with to-go cocktails and drive-by birthday parades) that sticks around long-term.
CONS. Here are a few things to consider that might have you waiting until 2021 or beyond for a theme park adventure.
Closures. Several attractions at Universal Orlando are closed. At Universal Studios Florida, Kang and Kodos' Twirl and Hurl, Fast and Furious Supercharged, A Day in the Park with Barney, and Fear Factor Live! are all shut down. Meanwhile, at Islands of Adventure, Storm Force Accelatron and Poseidon’s Fury are shuttered. Additionally, kids’ play areas and spraygrounds (Curious George, Fievel’s playground, If I Ran the Zoo) are blocked off, further limiting activities for very young children.
And the closures don't stop at attractions: just before we arrived, Universal announced that it was closing Sapphire Falls and Aventura hotels, and that Portofino Bay and Endless Summer Dockside would not be opening.
Limited park hours. Like Walt Disney World, Universal has pared down its hours. While we were there, the Studios were typically open from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. (with early park admission at 8:00 a.m. for on-site hotel guests, some annual passholders, and guests who book through a travel agent--that’s right, we can get you early park admission, even if you’re not staying on property!). Islands of Adventure’s hours were 10:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Each park stayed open an hour later on Saturday and Sunday, but not late into the evenings like they normally would in summertime.
Limited dining. Many restaurants in the parks and in Citywalk were closed or only open on weekends, and many open locations were offering limited menus. In hindsight, I would have upgraded our hotel room to a club level room to take advantage of the convenience of included food and beverage at the hotel, but we still managed to find PLENTY to eat and drink, including some special Halloween Horror Nights-themed treats, and our beloved Butterbeer.
Character meets are different now. Don’t get me wrong, they’re still great, just different. While my semi-introverted kids actually preferred the socially distanced selfies and low-pressure waving and chatting, some people really enjoy getting up close and personal with the characters.
It’s HOT, and the masks do not help with that. Then again, August in Orlando would be unbearably hot regardless of whether you’re wearing a mask, and either way, you need to plan to hydrate, take breaks, and watch out for signs of heat exhaustion. If you're heat-averse, consider planning your trip later in the fall or winter.
Many of the Universal queues are re-routed, and some pre-shows are eliminated, so you’ll miss a lot of the story elements of the attractions, like why you’re taking E.T. back to his home planet (and are you hallucinating?), what exactly is wrong with this motorbike of Hagrid’s, or why you are on a bench flying around the Hogwarts quidditch pitch. If that matters to you (if it’s your first visit, or if you are a sucker for theming and details), you may want to do a little research to familiarize yourself with the premise/story of each attraction or wait until things are “back to normal.”
That’s about the gist of it. I can’t tell you whether traveling right now is the right decision for you and your family. In fact, I might not consider it if this would be your first (or your only) trip to a theme park. What I can say is that I felt safer in that resort “bubble” than I’ve felt at some grocery stores because it’s so tightly and thoughtfully controlled. As before the pandemic, weekdays seem far less busy than weekends, probably even more so now because the crowds are largely local. If I were to go again (and I may!), I would concentrate my park time on weekdays, bump my room up to club level, and build lots of hydrating and rest time into my touring plans.
Thinking about planning your own trip? Let us know if there's any question we can answer for you! Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org; we're always happy to talk travel.