Now that you know the basics about temperature checks and face masks, it’s time to have some fun in this third installment of our Unofficial Guide to a Socially Distanced Universal Orlando, as we step back inside Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure to learn all about entering the theme parks and enjoying their rides.
During times of social distancing, Universal will cap the maximum number of guests at a level far below its normal capacity and may halt ticket sales and/or stop admitting new day guests to prevent overcrowding. On-site hotel guests with valid tickets will be guaranteed park admission. Unlike at Walt Disney World, no advance reservations or time-specific tickets are required, and all existing tickets and annual passes will be honored (blackouts and standard limitations still apply).
On-site ticket booths and automated will-call kiosks will still be available, but visitors are strongly encouraged to buy tickets in advance, or use the mobile app to purchase admission.
On busy weekends, a line is likely to form outside the theme parks up to an hour prior to admission and may extend along the entire CityWalk waterfront. Much like the temperature check queue, it will look worse that it really is, as Universal’s staff directs guests to keep the line moving efficiently in the morning.
However, enter later in the morning or afternoon, especially on a weekday, and you’re likely to find little or no line to enter the parks.
The total number of operating turnstiles will be reduced, with spacing markers to indicate proper distancing as you wait your turn to enter. Universal’s often-unreliable finger scanning devices on the turnstiles will be disabled, making the line move even faster, but you’ll need to get your photo ID out for inspection along your with your admission media.
The main entrances to both parks will be open, and park-to-park transfers will be available using the Hogwarts Express, but the side entrance to Universal Studios Florida near the Blue Man Group theater may be closed.
Once through the gates, you’ll still spot racks of paper park maps, but an employee will be stationed nearby to offer you one by hand. If no team member is available to staff the map racks, a sign with a scanable QR code linking to the Universal app will be displayed here instead.
Unfortunately, some key information like operating hours and entertainment schedules may be missing from the printed maps, so you’ll still want to refer to the Universal app for the day’s details.
If you need to stash your bags, some of the rental locker banks will be disabled, and access to the locker banks may be controlled to prevent overcrowding. For example, at Universal Studios Florida, the large Family lockers closest to the Studio Audience Center may be off-limits, but others will be open near the park exit. Talk to a team member at the rental counter if you have trouble finding an available locker.
Paid hourly lockers are also still available in Islands of Adventure at select water rides like Jurassic Park River Adventure.
Wheelchairs, ECVs, and strollers will still be available for the usual fees. Rest assured that all rental items will be sanitized after every guest. VIP tours will still be available, but some behind-the-scenes experiences may be off-limits.
In order to reduce the number of people standing in each attraction queue at any one time, Universal Orlando has expanded the use of the Virtual Line system introduced with Race through New York. Free Virtual Line ride reservations will be available for popular attractions through the Universal Orlando app; the exact lineup will vary, but may include Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the other Harry Potter headliners, along with Revenge of the Mummy, Despicable Me, and Skull Island: Reign of Kong. Use of Virtual Line may be mandatory at certain attractions for all or part of the day, while others will also offer a standby option. During days of lower attendance only Race through New York, Fast & Furious, and/or Hagrid’s will use Virtual Line.
Virtual Line is completely free for all park guests, regardless of hotel or ticket type. Virtual Line works much like the same-day FastPass service still
found at Disneyland: Guests may claim time slots for certain rides on a
first-come, first-served basis, and can experience the attraction with a
minimal wait after returning during their assigned half-hour window.
To use Universal’s Virtual Line system, make sure that the Universal app is properly installed on your mobile device, and that you’ve given it permission to access your device’s location services.
You don’t actually need to be signed into your account or have valid admission attached to the app, and you don’t even need to be inside the park to pick up a virtual line pass. But your phone’s GPS must register that you are inside the “geofence” surrounding Universal’s property. That means you can access the Virtual Line system from the parking garage, CityWalk, or even your on-site hotel room, but not from off-site locations like your home.
Get started by tapping the main menu button in the top-left corner of the app, and select “Virtual Line Experience.” Tap “Virtual Line Venues” to see a list of rides currently using the system. If an attraction displays a wait time number, then Virtual Line is optional and is usually only useful if times are available immediately or the posted standby wait is over 20 minutes. If an attraction only says “Virtual Line,” then you’ll need a return time (or an Express Pass at participating rides) if you want to experience it.
Tap on the attraction you are interested in, and scroll down to “Virtual Line Pass.” When you tap there, if any return times are available, the system will present you with a slider to indicate your party size, followed by a series of bubbles representing available half-hour windows. Pick the number of people in your group (up to eight) and the time slot you wish to secure, then press the button at the bottom of the screen.
If everything works, you’ll receive a confirmation screen with a QR code, which you’ll need to have scanned when your time to ride arrives. You can retrieve this code again later (or modify or cancel it) through the Virtual Line menu by tapping again on the ride you reserved, but it doesn’t hurt to take a screenshot as well.
Unfortunately, many times the Virtual Line system may say there are return windows available to choose from.
Or worse yet, it will present you with times, only to say “sorry, an error has occurred” when you try to confirm your selection. When this happens, your best bet is to not merely back out to the previous menu, but to also close the Universal app and restart it entirely.
Virtual Line passes are first distributed starting approximately 20-30 minutes before the park’s scheduled opening time, with the first return windows beginning 5 minutes before the official opening. Not all of the day’s allocated Virtual Line passes are available at once; rather, small batches of additional time slots are released sporadically throughout the day. So if you don’t initially see available Virtual Line passes for a coveted attraction (like Hagrid’s coaster), keep trying periodically because persistence usually pays off. If you still can’t get a reservation, check back at the attraction during the last hour of operations, when a standby option will often be offered.
Each user of the Universal app can hold Virtual Line passes for two different attractions at the same time, but you can’t reserve the same ride a second time until you’ve used or canceled your first return time. You may find that Virtual Line passes don’t automatically disappear from your app after being scanned at the queue entrance, thereby preventing you from making a new reservation. If this happens, just tap the garbage can icon in the top-right corner of the QR code screen to manually delete the used pass.
Since every Universal app user can reserve two rides for themselves and up to 7 others, the Virtual Line system gives larger parties a distinct advantage over solo travelers. A family of five could hold five different five-person reservations for Hagrid’s Motobike Adventure at once, plus appointments at five other attractions, for a total of 50 rides!
Once your Virtual Line return time arrives, proceed to the attraction with your QR code in hand. Unfortunately, Virtual Line does nothing to alleviate queuing for the mandatory lockers found at many of Universal’s thrill rides. To promote distancing in the often-claustrophobic locker banks, employees enforce a “one person in/one person out” rule that can make the lines to stow and retrieve your baggage far longer than your wait for the rides themselves.
If you don’t have anything to stow, bypass the locker line and look for a scanning checkpoint closer to the actual entrance. By only bringing what you can securely fit in your pockets or a hip pack, or by having a non-rider play designated bag carrier for your party, you can avoid wasting significant time waiting for the lockers.
Finally, if something goes wrong and your ride is unavailable when your return time arrives—due to technical difficulties, weather delays, or the like —your Virtual Line pass should automatically convert into a free one-time-use Express Pass, valid any time until the end of that operating day at the original attraction (assuming it starts running again) or select other rides.
Universal Express access will still be available, including paid Express passes, the free Express benefit included at select on-site hotels, and Premier Annual Passholder access after 4 p.m.. In most cases, Universal Express will function as normal using its dedicated queue. At some attractions using Virtual Lines, Express will permit instant access to the Virtual Line entrance. At other attractions, Express may be rerouted through the single rider queue or another alternate entrance.
Attraction queues will be reconfigured with spacing markers to ensure that all parties remain 8 to 10 feet apart.
That reconfiguration also requires some preshow elements to be disabled or bypassed. For example:
Guests at Gringotts Bank will not experience the holographic encounter with Bill Weasley nor the simulated elevator plunge.
Future Men In Black agents will skip the “secret” entryway’s faux introduction.
The Green Planet will abandon its passports, leaving E.T. to call everyone “friend.”
The stage where Jimmy Fallon’s Ragtime Gals usually sing will be dark and silent, as will the waiting area’s interactive coffee tables.
However, all preshow videos imparting important safety information, such as The Simpson Ride’s Itchy & Scratchy cartoon, will still be played in full.
Upon arriving at the ride’s loading station, you’ll notice that each ride vehicle’s capacity has been significantly reduced in order to maintain distance between unrelated groups. A three-row car capable of holding twelve guests (such as Spider-Man’s SCOOP or Transformer’s EVAC) will now only hold groups of four or fewer guests in the front and back rows, leaving the middle row unused; any party larger than four would get a whole vehicle to themselves.
Similar reductions in carrying capacity apply across all the resort’s attractions, causing queues to move at between one-half and one-quarter of their usual pace. This restriction of guests throughput is balanced by a corresponding reduction in park attendance, and somewhat mitigated by use of Virtual Lines, but be prepared to exercise your patience during the boarding process.
Social distancing will also mean a suspension of Single Rider access, since pairing lone travelers with unrelated parties is the exact opposite of what the safety policies are trying to achieve. Parties of one may still use the other queues and will likely get a row (or even an entire ride vehicle) all to themselves.
When your turn to ride arrives, you’ll be given a mandatory squirt of hand sanitizer immediately before stepping on board; this in in lieu of employees wiping down the cars after every guest. Additional hand sanitation stations are also located at the exit of nearly every ride, usually hiding discreetly in a corner along the hallway leading to the gift shop.
On the attractions themselves, some mist and fog effects will be disabled, such as the blast of dragon’s breath in Forbidden Journey, and the sprays of water used to simulate breaking glass in Revenge of the Mummy and Fast & Furious: Supercharged. Curiously, these changes aren’t consistent; you may still see blasts of fog in Transformers, and get splattered with bug goo on Skull Island.
Water-based rides using bromine or chlorine filtering—such as Bilge Rat Barges, Ripsaw Falls, and Jurassic Park River Adventure—will still be allowed to operate. You’ll be allowed to remove your face mask on these rides before getting splashed.
3-D and 4-D attractions pose perhaps the biggest problem for pandemic-era park goers. The 3-D glasses are cleaned after each guest, as always, and will be handed out individually by an attendant rather than being set on a self-service rack. However, mask-wearing guests may find their 3-D goggles fogging up almost immediately. It helps to have a face mask that fits firmly along your nose and cheeks, preferably using a flexible wire. If the gap beside your nose is still allowing warm air to travel up behind the lenses, try exhaling downward through your mouth by pulling your lower lip back into an overbite; it feels funny, but will help keep your ride from becoming a blur.
As inconvenient as they can feel, remember that face masks are required at all times while riding, even on high-speed roller coasters (hey, at least you won’t swallow a bug.) The only exception is while on water-based flume or raft rides where you’re liable to be soaked. Keep in mind that if your mask “accidentally” slips off mid-ride, the staff will have to remove that vehicle from circulation until it can be disinfected, lengthening the wait for everyone behind you.
Finally, the free “secret” tours offered at select attractions (like the Skull Island Temple Tour) may not be available.
To see many of the above policies in action, check out this video of highlights from the Universal Orlando theme parks’ reopening, and come back soon for the next installment in this series.
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.