Just yesterday we reported that Universal had submitted a proposal to reopen its Orlando theme parks, and today we have concrete information, from the company, about what that is going to look like. It’s a lot of information so we’ll break it down as best we can.
As for dates, a team-member-preview will be held on June 1 and June 2 so that the new procedures can be practiced and refined. On June 3 and June 4 a limited number of guests (most likely local annual pass holders) will be invited to visit as the park continues its preparation process. And for everybody, the public opening will be on June 5 (although Universal says it will be “continuing to manage daily attendance”). It should be noted that the parks that make up the Florida resort – Universal Studios Orlando, Islands of Adventure and the “themed water park” Volcano Bay – will be operating at what Universal calls “reduced and managed attendance.” How reduced and managed remains to be seen.
In terms of how your visit to the Orlando parks will differ from pre-coronavirus,
- Guests and team members are required to wear face coverings and observe social distancing guidelines
- Theme park guests as well as all Universal team members are required to have temperature checks before coming on-site; those with temperatures of 100.4 or greater will not be allowed to enter
In addition to face coverings and temperature checks, guests can expect the following when they visit Universal Orlando:
- Staggered parking
- Managed and reduced daily park attendance
- Managed and reduced attraction ridership, show attendance and restaurant seating. Some areas and events may remain closed for now.
- Increased cleaning and disinfection of food locations, ride vehicles, restrooms and other frequent “touch points” that go beyond Universal’s already aggressive cleaning procedures
- Social distancing practices at all locations through the parks, within attractions and queues and at restaurants
- Use of virtual lines at select attractions
- Cashless payments and “no touch” policies where possible
There’s a lot to unpack here but let us first acknowledge that Universal “will soon schedule team members for training on its new procedures,” which is pretty amazing considering the opening is two weeks away. I recently talked to one expert on Florida theme parks who guessed that it would take a month to prepare for a reopening of one of the Disney parks. So this is an incredibly condensed timeframe to essentially train or retrain team members on entirely new operational procedures that take on even more severity and weight considering they are keeping guests healthy and uninfected.
Other questions we had: With the temperature checks, are they going to be provided by licensed medical professionals (as is the case at Disney Springs) or will they just be a regular team member or security guard? And how reliable is a temperature reading in the subtropical climate of Orlando, Florida? If everybody is hot, won’t the readings be thrown?
The official press release also omits any reference to the resort’s collection of hotels, meaning that they will remain closed. So during the first part of this phased reopening, Universal is clearly targeting Orlando natives and those with an annual pass. It seems that keeping guests in the tight quarters of the hotels is still too much of a liability (there’s also an issue of the transportation guests have to take from the hotels to the theme parks, including the buses and boats, which could be problematic).
Clearly there will be an emphasis on mobile ordering (for food and beverage options) and “virtual queues” instead of traditional lines, a concept Universal introduced, to great effect, with the Race Through New York with Jimmy Fallon attraction that debuted in 2017. (Yes, there is a Jimmy Fallon-themed ride at Universal Orlando.) But with face masks being required … how are people supposed to eat and drink? Especially when you’re not supposed to touch your face mask once it’s on. Interestingly, the official press release notes: “We will convert all menus to single-use in our dining venues.” Universal also points guests to the official Universal Orlando app, which will allow you to order food, make purchases, look at menus or sign into your virtual queue. Prior to the outbreak, Universal hadn’t emphasized its app the same way, say, Disney makes it an absolute necessity (when visiting their Florida parks at least). COVID-19 has had the unexpected effect of pushing that technology to the forefront.
Also on the fact sheet are these interesting tidbits: “Guests will be required to use hand sanitizer before boarding ride vehicles. For any 3-D attraction, Universal Orlando team members will individually hand out 3-D glasses instead of guests having to pick them up themselves.” The hand sanitizer is interesting, because it will be required of all rides and not just the more “interactive” attractions like Men in Black Alien Attack (which requires you to operate a “laser gun” on the ride). Also, it’s surprising that they’re keeping the 3D elements of some of the rides and attractions. You’d think that they’d simply turn off the functionality so nobody would require the 3D glasses. But the handing out of 3D glasses at least prevents icky fingers from going over multiple pairs of glasses and makes sure they are all properly cleaned before returning to guests, and one imagines the footage for those rides exists only in 3D format.
The operating hours for the parks will be incredibly short, as well. Universal never leaves their parks open for that long, but these new hours are really short – the theme parks will only be open until 6 and the water park until 5. (The retail-and-dinning corridor CityWalk will be open until 10.) It might be because, with the park being closed before dinner, then that is one less meal that they have to figure out how to make. And the disinfecting/cleaning procedures following park closing must be incredibly extensive.
And last – but certainly not least – it is really wild that the water park, Volcano Bay, will be reopening. Given that there is water everywhere, how is hand sanitizer supposed to even stick to your hands and how are you supposed to wear a face mask if you’re constantly getting doused? Also there are some unknowable factors like several of the attractions, which feature guests in inflatable tubes that travel at varying speeds, often bumping into other guests (like in a lazy river scenario). Are those slides and attractions simply going to be shut down? And how will social distancing guidelines be maintained in, say, a giant wave pool?
It will be fascinating to see how Universal handles all of this – what unexpected problems pop up, how guests will react to all the new procedures, and if, even with all of the protocols in place, guests will continue to get sick. It certainly takes a lot of confidence and gumption to be the first theme park out of the gate. But Universal seems to be looking forward to be the canary, er, minion in the coal mine.