Walt Disney World is opening this weekend to regular guests after hosting Cast Members and Annual Passholders for special previews this week. Universal Orlando reopened to guests earlier last month. I ventured out from the safety of my home office to visit these two locations for the first time in over four months this week. The following is based solely on my own personal experience.
I want to preface this piece by saying that this will in no way be a complete rundown of all the new measures that the Orlando theme parks have put into place to help keep guests safe. I would suggest visiting their respective official websites for detailed information before your next visit.
Today, I wanted to talk about how I, Alicia Stella, felt visiting these parks myself for the first time since they reopened. What made me feel safe? What didn’t? How do the different parks approach safety different, and what was mostly the same. Hopefully some of my experience may help you decide whether visiting the parks in the near future is something you feel comfortable doing. Maybe not. Let’s start with the basics.
Both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World are following a few of the same straight-forward procedures. All guests 2 years of age and older are required to wear a face covering. All guests must have a temperature of less than 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit to enter the theme parks. And social distancing is encouraged throughout your stay.
These few rules may be straightforward, but a couple of them are really the most important ways that we as guests can do our part to keep each other safe. Other safety precautions that have been implemented—like lowering capacities for parks, attractions, and dining—are also important, (and in many cases required by local and state governments). And of course, “enhanced cleaning” is a term you’ll see come up time and again around Orlando.
One term I have not seen too often however, is “personal responsibility.” The parks have gone through a tremendous amount of trouble to help prepare for guests to return, but, without our cooperation, most of it just amounts to extra signage and some stickers on the ground.
A lot of what I found to be the most apparently perilous parts of my park visits this week were misunderstandings of how we’re meant to even follow some of the rules, (in addition to some guests just flat-out disregarding them altogether). Now, that isn’t to say that this was the norm. Far from it. Most of the time, every person I came across while navigating Universal Studios Florida and the Magic Kingdom were following every single safety measure there was… Most of the time.
While the parks have implemented a lot of new safety measures, not all of them seem to be succeeding. In some cases, the intent of a new precaution isn’t being conveyed to the guests in an effective way.
It sometimes felt like the employees expected guests to just know how everything was going to work already, but that’s an awful lot of homework for the average person to do before arriving. Plus, there’s only so many signs our eyes can be bombarded with before our brain stops processing them.
BOTH PARKS: PROS AND CONS
To make things simple, I’m going to list the things I found to be the pros and cons during my visit. Your experience may vary, but these are things I think the parks are doing right, and the things I think could use improvement at this time.
CON: Ice Cream Parlors and Snack Stands
Right out the gate I have to call attention to this one. It’s probably my biggest complaint. I can’t even begin to tell you how terrible I think the situation is here. Fact of the matter is, once most guests purchase an ice cream cone, or a turkey leg, or a cafe latte from a cart or food service window they are immediately dumped into a walkway and start to consume it. That is the intention of having these types of eateries along a walkway in the first place, is it not?
We need designated areas for guests to enjoy these types of indulgences. Grabbing your Dole Whip in Adventureland and then proceeding to consume it without a mask while walking by the guests waiting in line for Aladdin’s Flying Carpets doesn’t feel safe for anyone. Now, I was able to find some nice quiet seating areas off the pathways and tucked away to eat my ice cream purchases during my visit. (Tortuga Tavern across from Pirates of the Caribbean is usually closed on most days, but has plenty of open air seating available that’s perfect for a socially distanced snack break for example.)
Even finding a bench to sit and devour your highly anticipated first theme park churro or Mickey pretzel in months can pose a health risk to other guests walking by along the path. And benches are where most park employees will direct guests with a snack or drink. Unfortunately, after a hundred years of arranging park benches facing the pathways we find ourselves in a unique situation during a global pandemic where that is less than ideal.
Before this entire article becomes a rant about ice cream stands, I do want to call attention to the absolute WORST offender of all: Florean Fortescue’s in Diagon Alley at Universal Studios Florida. The Wizarding World of Harry Potter areas are already the most congested in their respective parks, and I found it difficult to maintain a six-feet distance between myself and others while passing through. Add in an ice cream parlor with absolutely zero seating areas devoted to it and you get a perfect storm of unmasked guests standing around blocking the entrance to a popular ride that sits under a popular photo spot featuring a fire-breathing dragon. In my recent video (shameless plug) you can see that I had to venture all the way up some stairs at the very back of the land just to feel safe enough to remove my mask to eat an ice cream cone. Most people just stood outside of the parlor doors to eat theirs.
PRO: Socially Distanced Ride Queues
Both theme park companies seem to have done a great job of preparing their ride queues for social distancing. Easy-to-understand signs and floor markings help guests move through the queues while keeping a (usually) safe-feeling distance. Guests become accustomed to the procedure early on in the day, so even when floor markings aren’t available or visible, everyone still seems to carry on with the 6+ foot distances.
It appears that Walt Disney World has taken this a step further by installing plexiglass wall dividers between queue areas that are side by side. For the most part none of the queues I experienced in the Universal parks needed such dividers. Instead, they left switchbacks empty between each section of queue to prevent you from walking alongside another person, (for the most part anyway).
In a strange twist that I honestly never could’ve predicted, I usually felt (a lot) safer while in a ride queue than I did walking around outside on the pathways. I understand intellectually that being outside seems to be safer in general than being indoors when it comes to the spread of the coronavirus, but, with it being so difficult to navigate the paths without coming close to others it always felt a bit more stressful to me.
CON: Gift Shops
This one is pretty self explanatory. I would suggest getting your gift shopping done early if you plan to make purchases from one of the larger shops near the entrances. You can send your items to package pickup, get a locker, or just carry it around. On your way out at the end of the day you may find a madhouse that is impossible to navigate while feeling safe.
Disney is limiting the number of guests in the main shops, which is a great practice. But without designated travel directions the gift shops are some of the hardest spaces to navigate without physically bumping into other guests.
Whenever possible I bypassed ride exit gift shops. Although, after decades of knowing what makes the parks the most money, they’ve built the gift shops right into the exits of many rides, which makes it quite difficult.
PRO: Reinvented Character Interactions
The theme parks easily could’ve cancelled all character interactions, but I was pleased with how both parks were able to keep the fun alive while also feeling safe. Universal Orlando has added raised platforms in several areas of their parks where performers and costumed characters can safely interact with guests. You can even pose in front of them to get a socially distanced selfie.
At the Magic Kingdom they’ve taken the concept a step further. Throughout the day I would encounter roaming parade floats filled with a variety of fun characters. This “cavalcade,” as they call it, offered a little extra bit of magic and fun. I’ve even seen photos of characters on horses riding through the Magic Kingdom for photos, (although it is a little disappointing that the face characters are not wearing a mask or facial covering for safety).
UNIVERSAL VS DISNEY: BESTS AND WORSTS
Since the parks seem to be doing some things differently, here are what I found to be working and not working when it comes to some of the new safety measures around the parks and their implementations.
Dining at Quick Service Locations – Universal Vs Disney
I was only at the parks for a couple days and I did not have any meals at a table service restaurant, so I will only speak to dining from quick service locations. It has been suggested that dining indoors leaves you at a higher risk of infection so I took my meals outside in all cases. Both Universal and Disney offer many options with outdoor seating so this point is essentially the same between the two resorts.
Now, how I ordered my food is a different story. Both resorts are offering Mobile Ordering, where you order and pay for your food using an app on your mobile device. It alerts you when your food is ready and you pick it up from a window without (theoretically) waiting in line.
Mobile Order is a nice option at Universal. I say “option” at Universal, because when I went to grab lunch from Cosmic Ray’s Starlight Cafe in the Magic Kingdom yesterday, I soon discovered that Mobile Order was REQUIRED. Okay, fine. But to learn this, I, along with a dozen others while I was there, first walk up to the restaurant’s entrance to enter only to be asked to show proof that we have a mobile order that’s ready. We say, “no, I haven’t ordered yet.” The Cast Member then informs us that we must make a mobile order first. We then walk back down the stairs and sit on a bench or stand out front and proceed to order.
This process continues and repeats. There was a sign out front, but it was low to the ground and blocked by the large crowd of guests. They may do a better job of educating guests in the coming days when the parks officially reopen to all guests, or at least help to better disperse the crowd. I was only attending an Annual Passholder preview after all, but what I experienced was mass confusion, some mild anger, and worst of all, groups of guests congregating in front of the entrance while waiting for their phones to alert them.
At Universal, since you have the option to wait in a queue to order your food, the crowds are distributed pretty well. At the Magic Kingdom, in my (admittedly brief) experience, everyone that would normally be in the multiple lines inside of Cosmic Rays were ALL standing outside the doors waiting in a barely social distanced clump. Again, this may change, but what I saw was a clogged up pathway in front of the Tomorrowland Speedway that didn’t feel very safe to me.
Mask Free Relaxation Zones – Universal Vs Disney
This one is weird, and I didn’t really actively visit the so-called “Relaxation Zones” while in the parks, but if you do, please please please try to be smart about it. The virus isn’t exempt from entering these areas through some magical spell or force field. I get that it’s hot and it’s Florida in the middle of the summer, but that doesn’t mean we should let our guard down in the name of cooling off.
Some of the mask-free zones I saw at Universal are massive. Large outdoor theaters, the entire waterfront area at Port of Entry in Islands of Adventure, and so on. A few of the ones I came across in the Magic Kingdom were tiny by comparison. Some are just seating areas for a closed snack stand, while others were what looked like old designated smoking areas that have been repurposed as mask-free zones.
The issue with the areas that have been selected by Disney, (again, based on my limited experience) is that they are often small, cramped, and worst of all, right along the main pathways. What you end up with is a lot of guests that aren’t well distanced all lined up along a pathway where other guests are walking by.
Personally, the one time I did utilize a mask-free zone I was sure to wait until I reached the far end of the area BEFORE removing my mask. This is just to be polite to other guests I may pass on my way to my desired rest spot. Also, and this is just me, but by picking a spot near the back, I don’t have to worry about other guests walking by me on their way in.
Keeping the Guests Informed – Universal Vs Disney
This one is a mixed bag. Disney had automated park announcements through a PA system that I found to be both eerily like a post apocalyptic totalitarian society movie, and incredibly helpful. They reminded guests to follow rules, and what we can do to help keep ourselves and others safe. Universal added safety reminder videos to the first sections of their ride queues. Unfortunately, you cannot hear what is being said over the noise in the area, and you usually walk right through too fast to absorb any of it anyway.
Disney has too many signs. Way too many. So many that you become numb to it and nothing seems to get into your brain. When nearly every garbage can becomes a notice board on Main Street, nothing gets noticed. Universal has at least half as much signage, maybe less. And it’s often less confusing and has less words or offers easier to understand iconography.
I felt like the Cast Members at Disney have more information to convey but less of a chance to convey it. Universal seemed to do a better job of walking me through the process. I knew what to expect when visiting and I was still more confused at Magic Kingdom than Universal Studios. If I’m confused, I’m sure general guests will be too.
Cleaning Procedures and More – Universal Vs Disney
I’m not sure if there is a clear winner here, because both resorts are doing what they can—but, Disney seems to be putting more responsibility on the guest. Universal, at least currently, is requiring every guest use hand sanitizer before boarding a ride vehicle. And it’s not at all confusing. A team member reaches out and squirts a little in your hands and you move on. Simple.
Disney is not requiring that. They do however have literally hundreds of hand sanitizer stations located everywhere you look, which is fantastic. Since they are not requiring that you sanitize your hands before riding, it appears that they’re having to clean the ride vehicles and lap bars more often. Multiple times throughout my day in the Magic Kingdom I would get into line only to hear an announcement with the words “hourly ride vehicle cleaning,” and would then proceed to stand in place in the queue for 10-15 minutes until they were ready to start accepting guests again.
That isn’t to say Universal isn’t also cleaning their ride vehicles regularly, but it feels more random, and I never saw them do all of them at once. Also, I have heard from Team Members that if they see someone remove their face covering during the ride on security monitors they will wipe down that vehicle and cycle it through the attraction empty once before loading it again.
Regardless of which methodology you might think is more efficient, I did feel like I was standing around waiting longer when it came to the way Disney was handling it. And despite the extra time, I still felt like it was my responsibility to use hand sanitizer after getting off the ride… At least a dispenser would always be conveniently placed there for me to find.
Universal will also hand you your 3D glasses, while at the one 3D attraction I visited at Disney they were available for guests to grab their own. They still had a Cast Member stationed in front of it, so I thought it was odd they weren’t distributing the glasses while positioned there. Also, park maps are self serve at Disney, while you must be handed one by a Team Member at Universal.
CONCLUSION: WHICH PARKS ARE SAFER?
Neither. The question of which parks are safer is probably not the best way to put it. A more accurate way of framing it might be, which parks did I “feel” safer in?
Personally, I felt safer at Universal. However, that statement comes with several caveats. I only attended a preview at Disney while Universal has had a month-long jump on things. I’m sure Disney will work out some of the kinks and streamline some of their more confusing procedures.
If this truly is just a matter of safety “theater” as I have heard it called before, then Universal is putting on a better show. The simple act of forcing me to use sanitizer, or handing me my 3D glasses went a long way into making me feel like they cared about my safety. Disney has provided their ride and show Cast Members with face shields, so it “feels” like they definitely care about their employees safety at least. But when it comes to my own safety, often times throughout my visit, it kind of felt like I was on my own.
What Can I Do to Feel Safer On My Visit to the Parks?
The safest thing you can do is to not visit the theme parks at all right now. I know that sounds crass, but that’s the only “safe” thing you can actually do. If you are planning to visit the parks, I would suggest that you do not take any of the implemented safety precautions for granted.
I personally wouldn’t complain about things like plexiglass dividers ruining the theming integrity when they were obviously installed to help protect us. I wouldn’t take my mask off in a mask-free zone just because I am allowed to. And I suggest staying outdoors as much as possible, as experts agree that is always going to be safer than being indoors with others for prolonged periods of time. Dining is likely going to be the most dangerous part of most guests’ visit to the parks.
Most of all, I think you need to stay vigilant and be aware of your surroundings. You can’t always rely on everyone else to keep you safe. You won’t always be able to rely on the company’s safety protocols to be 100% effective. Just like “defensive driving,” you should think of your visit as “vigilant awareness.”
Oh, and try to have fun too.
Disclaimer: This is an opinion piece and I am not a health professional. I am just a theme park enthusiast, and these are only my personal feelings expressed into words on a screen. None of this is intended to be professional advice. Please see the restrictions and safety information on the official websites for Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando before planning your visit. Photos: Alicia Stella