The post-quarantine recovery of Central Florida’s tourist attractions has begun, and Universal Orlando is taking the lead by reopening its theme parks with new safety protocols and social distancing policies. Islands of Adventure, Universal Studios Florida, and Volcano Bay began their soft-reopening with employee previews on June 1 and 2, and they welcomed annual passholders and hotels guests back to the theme parks on June 3. Yesterday, we were among the first guests to return to the parks—ahead of the public reopening on June 5—and we have returned with full report on the “new normal” at Universal Orlando’s theme parks.
Before we dive into the details, start by taking a walk around Islands of Adventure with Unofficial Guide co-author Seth Kubersky, as originally broadcast live via Facebook on the first day Universal Orlando theme parks reopened to annual passholders:
Next, check out this compilation of highlights from both Islands of Adventure and Universal Studios Florida during the re-opening preview, featuring some of the modifications that have been made to rides and shows, along with a look around both Wizarding Worlds of Harry Potter:
Now that you’ve had a look around Universal Orlando’s theme parks, let’s dive into everything you need to know about visiting them in the age of COVID-19.
Traffic was steady when I arrived at the Universal Orlando Resort about 30 minutes prior to park opening, but I experienced no delays entering the parking garage. The tollbooths were staffed, but all parking fees are being waived at this time; valet parking is still closed.
Parking attendants directed cars into alternating rows, in order to promote social distancing. I appreciated not having another vehicle right up against mine while trying to exit my car, so I hope this policy remains in place.
Prior to approaching the security checkpoint in the central hub, all guests must pass a temperature check to ensure they don’t have a fever of 100.4F or higher. This check is conducted using a touch-free forehead thermometer, and it only takes a second or two per guest.
The queue for the temperature check appeared very long as I approached, stretching back to the second section of the parking garage. However, it moved extremely quickly, and I was through it in about 4 minutes.
Face masks are mandatory at all times for all guests over age 2—and all employees. The only exceptions are while eating or drinking, and while on water rides and slides or in pools.
Universal has also provided “U-Rest” areas around the resort where guests are permitted to remove their masks, provided they maintain social distancing from other parties.
If you didn’t bring your own mask, you will be offered a complimentary disposable mask, or you can purchase a reusable one. These Universal Orlando Annual Passholder masks cost $6 each (3 for $15), and the money goes to charity.
During the preview day, the vast majority of guests were observing the mask policy, and I didn’t witness any altercations related to face coverings.
Annual Passholders were required to reserve a timed entry ticket for the preview days, but as of June 5 no advance reservations are necessary to visit Universal Orlando’s theme parks.
During the pre-opening hour an enormous line formed for entry into the park, stretching far beyond the designated queue markers. Luckily, the line moved extremely quickly, thanks to team members efficiently directing guests to open turnstiles, and the disabling of the finger-scanning system.
As I entered the park, I was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm of employees welcoming us back. I also noticed that paper park maps are no longer stocked in the racks near the entrance, as guests are encouraged to use the Universal app instead.
Throughout the Universal Orlando theme parks, you’ll find signage and blue markers on the pavement reminding all guests to remain 6 feet (2 meters) apart.
With preview day attendance capped at approximately one-third of the park’s normal capacity, for the most part there wasn’t much difficulty remaining at arm’s length from others inside the parks.
There were exceptions, however, such as the congested center of Hogsmeade, where some additional “one way only” walking paths could be useful.
Rides and Virtual Lines
Nearly all of Universal Orlando’s attractions were operating during previews, and most posted wait times well under an hour, despite reduced capacity.
At certain times during the day, Universal is employing the free Virtual Line system (originally introduced for Race Through New York and Fast & Furious Supercharged) on a number of popular rides, including Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the other Harry Potter headliners.
To get a Virtual Line reservation for an attraction, open the official Universal Orlando smartphone app and select “Virtual Line Experience” from the main menu. You’ll see a list of attractions currently using Virtual Line, and you can select one to see what return times (if any) are available.
Virtual Line passes are not available in advance and are only released a few minutes before park opening. If all Virtual Line windows for a particular ride have been claimed, keep checking back, as additional reservations may be released throughout the day.
Guests can pick a half-hour window in which to return and may have up to 8 members in their party. Each user can hold up to two Virtual Line reservations at once, but each member of your party can make his or her own reservations for the group to share.
Virtual Line passes are not directly tied to your admission ticket (unlike Disney’s FastPass), so you do not have to be inside the park in order to claim one. However, you must be close enough to the parks for your smartphone’s GPS to activate the app’s geofence. I was able to secure my first Virtual Line passes exactly at park opening while still waiting to enter IOA.
When your Virtual Line return time arrives, you’ll still likely have to wait in a line for the lockers. And at certain attractions (like Forbidden Journey) the line to retrieve belongings was longer than the wait for the ride itself. Since only one person at a time is allowed to the locker banks, you can save yourself a lot of time at some attractions by not needing a locker.
Guests who have Universal Express access—including hotel guests and Premiere Passholders after 4 p.m.—can bypass the Virtual Line system and enter a queue at any time, except at Hagrid’s, which still does not offer Express.
Once you finally enter the queue, you’ll probably find it to be mostly empty except for team members, who during previews were seen constantly cleaning handrails and other touchable surfaces. The actual wait times once inside the queue should be very short—I waited less than 15 minutes for all the Wizarding World rides, including Hagrid’s.
In order to maintain crowd flow, several attractions have had their normal preshows disabled. This includes Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, and MEN IN BLACK: Alien Attack.
For example, at the E.T. Adventure, guests skip both the pre-show and the passport naming station, so E.T. calls everyone “friend” at the finale.
Some preshows, such as The Simpsons Ride safety video, are still currently in use.
At all rides, guests are given a squirt of hand sanitizer immediately before boarding, and masks must be worn throughout (except on water-based rides).
Guests are now loaded onto ride vehicles using staggered seating, with parties seated in alternating empty rows. Unrelated groups are not seated together, and all single rider queues are currently unavailable.
My only major issue I had with the attractions at Universal Orlando was my face mask causing my 3-D glasses to instantly fog up, turning Kong, Gringotts, and Spider-Man into little more than a dark blur. Hopefully, Universal will add an anti-fogging solution to the cleaning system they already run their 3-D glasses through; otherwise, I’m going to have to miss out on some of my favorite rides for the time being.
Universal had also announced that some water-based effects on attractions would be disabled. I noticed that the dragon in Forbidden Journey was not breathing fog, and some minor fog effects were absent in other attractions. However, all of the water-spritz effects in Spider-Man, Reign of Kong, Forbidden Journey, and Gringotts appeared operational.
In addition, behind-the-scenes “secret tours” such as the MIB Immigration Tour are currently suspended.
The new safety policies had their biggest impact on playgrounds and interactive areas, which have been closed off entirely. This includes Camp Jurassic, Me Ship The Olive, Jurassic Park Discovery Center, and If I Ran The Zoo in IOA, as well as the Fievel, Barney’s Backyard, and Curious George sections of USF’s KidZone.
Although understandable under the circumstances, this change makes Universal’s parks decidedly less attractive to families with preschoolers who are too short for most of the rides.
Social distancing has forced Universal to temporarily reimagine the traditional meet-and-greet encounter. No longer can guests line up for a hug and photo with their favorite characters; instead, performers make appearances on elevated stages or rolling floats, waving to visitors from a safe distance.
Although it isn’t as intimate as the usual meet-and-greet, this method allows guests to easily glimpse a wide range of characters while wandering around the parks. It’s also amusing (in a somewhat dystopian way) to see how face masks have been adapted to fit each character’s aesthetic.
One meet-and-greet that is still operating is the Jurassic Park Raptor Encounter, which reopened in a new paddock across the pathway from its original location. Universal also debuted Sierra, an adorable new baby raptor that greets guests when its bigger siblings are taking a break.
Universal’s theme parks are still presenting many of their live performances, albeit some have been modified. For example, the Triwizard Spirit Rally is still held in Hogsmeade, but it is now a photo op instead of a physical demonstration.
Seated shows like Animal Actors have blocked off rows and employed staggered seating to maintain distance between viewers, and they have also canceled post-show meet-and-greets.
At the Poseidon’s Fury special effects walk-through, guests are directed to stand in specific spots on the floor and are only allowed to pass through the water vortex one party at a time.
All nighttime spectaculars and parades are also on pause for the time being.
Most of theme park restaurants were also open for business when Universal Orlando theme parks reopened in previews, and many have added a mobile ordering option through the smartphone app.
I used Zomato to book a table at Mythos, and I was seated about 45 minutes after my reservation due to a backlog. I enjoyed a refreshing lunch in the air-conditioning, and my server was kind enough to provide a plastic bag to hold my mask while I ate.
Of course, I had to get a frozen Butterbeer later for dessert. Trying to sip around my face mask was a bit of a struggle, but it was well worthwhile!
On my way out of the resort, I picked up a box of Voodoo Doughnuts using the mobile order app, and I had far more success than when I tried using the system on CityWalk’s reopening day. Unfortunately, the app is still unable to apply annual passholder discounts to mobile orders, but I hear that they are working on a solution.
For all there is to see and do at Universal Orlando, check out The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando. If you enjoyed this post, please subscribe to our YouTube channel and sign up for our newsletter here. Be sure to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube.