Yesterday, I had the opportunity to experience the first day back at Universal Orlando for their Annual Passholder preview before the resort opens to the general public. This is my honest opinion of that experience. Please note, the opinions expressed in this OpEd article do not reflect the opinions of Inside the Magic overall.
Universal Orlando had already reopened CityWalk with all the new health and safety protocols in place and it seems they were having good success implementing these with visiting guests.
Knowing the resort had been preparing in advance, I was excited and ready to go back to the fun at Universal!
Universal AP Email Invitation and Reservations
Let’s start with the reservation process to get into the preview. Universal sent Annual Passholders an email with a link to choose a day and a time to enter. Even though my email came a day late, there was plenty of availability left for me to reserve either AP preview day. I choose the first day with a time to enter of 9:45 A.M. I personally did not encounter any issues with this reservation process and received my confirmation email immediately. So far, so good!
I felt it was a good sign of potential low crowds because there was so much availability left for me to choose a time and day. However, upon arrival at the resort, I started wondering if I had assumed wrong.
Universal Annual Passholder Preview Health Screening and Entrance Process
Going through the parking toll was fairly easy. My AP was scanned, and I drove right up to the garage without too much fuss. The parking garage was distancing cars with yellow cones skipping a parking spot per vehicle. The process moved quickly, and I was parked and on my way in a jiffy.
I arrived around 9:00 A.M. and there were some crowds waiting to get their temperature screening. However, those moved quickly and efficiently. Likewise with bag check. Social distancing was enforced, but the lines moved quickly.
Team members were guiding guests, encouraging social distance, and making sure all guests were wearing the mandatory face coverings. Guests age 2 and up must wear masks at all times.
Once I got scanned and bag checked, I was power walking through CityWalk and heading towards Islands of Adventure, where I had reserved to enter.
Universal AP preview App Hiccups
This is when the challenges began. The QR code I was sent did not work, so I had to get in a different line to get that sorted out before being allowed inside. Thankfully, there was a team member ready to assist guests with these types of issues, and I was able to get a paper ticket and be on my way fairly quickly.
Once inside, there were signs for the Virtual Line set up along the entrance letting guests know how to access these attractions. Currently, 5-rides have virtual line availability. I attempted to reserve a time for all of them, with no luck! This was an issue that many guests were experiencing and you could hear the frustrations from guests throughout the park.
Some of these experiences only had a virtual line option; no standby. Therefore, if you were unable to reserve a spot for you and your party, you were basically unable to experience that ride.
The Virtual Line availability for Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure was long gone by the time I arrived since resort hotel guests have priority access. Many guests, including me, had issues with the app throughout the day. I was never able to reserve a spot, even for the rides that showed availability. From the feedback I heard from other park guests and later saw online, it appears I was not alone.
Universal Orlando Reopening Dining Experience
The app issues bled into dining Mobile Ordering. A little before noon, my party and I decided to try to beat the lunch crowds and get some food. We stopped at Burger Digs at the Jurrasic Park side of Islands of Adventure. There was a line waiting to get in. Outside of the restaurant, signs encouraged guests to use mobile order. However, a team member was coming through the line asking guests to wait until they were seated before ordering.
Once we finally entered the restaurant, we waited for a table to become available. This process was very slow.
With more app issues, we had to ask for help from a Team Member who instructed us to go one by one to the cash register to order. Something to note, any discounts are only offered at the cash register. If you used the app, you had to go to the cash register to get a refund for any applicable discounts you qualified for. Not a very streamlined process.
We waited, ordered, eventually got our meals, then headed out again. This whole process took close to two hours. Plan accordingly.
Universal Orlando AP Preview – Attraction Locker lines
Probably the slowest moving line I experienced was the line for the attraction lockers. If you have visited Universal in the past, you are probably familiar with the complimentary lockers offered for the rides that restrict what you take onto them. Because of social distancing being enforced, only one person per locker unit is allowed at a time. This process is slow and tedious.
Not only do guests have to wait in the locker line prior to experiencing the attraction, but also upon exiting. As guest capacity increases, this is possibly going to become a very challenging problem Universal will have to deal with. Guests were frustrated and unfortunately, frontline team members were getting the brunt of it.
Universal Orlando Reopening – Social Distancing
I’m going to go ahead and state the obvious: social distancing at a theme park is HARD. Universal is clearly making a solid attempt. There are markings on the floor throughout the resort and theme parks. There are team members encouraging guests to keep 6’ apart at all times. However, even in what was supposed to be a reservation only preview, it was near impossible to stay 6’ away from other guests.
Attractions have distancing labels on the floor and handrails. However, because of the way the queues rope around, you might be separated 6’ from the guests in front and behind you. However, when the line ropes around, you are bound to have someone standing right next to you. Universal needs to do a better job at blocking some of their queue lines to prevent this from happening in order to truly succeed at social distancing guests inside a ride queue.
Universal Orlando AP Preview- Team Member Training
This new normal is new territory for everyone. However, training is essential for workers in this new environment and clear instruction is fundamental.
My heart went out to all Universal Team Members yesterday and for the rest of this reopening process. Things were changing so fast they were trying their best to adjust on the fly. But it was evident they lacked the amount of training to truly handle this influx of change well.
I received conflicting information any time I asked a team member a question. And that makes for a frustrating guest experience. I don’t blame them. I was sure to be kind and courteous because I imagine they were equally frustrated with the challenges. However, not all guests were as considerate.
Will Disney be more prepared than Universal for their reopening?
I’ve been visiting Universal since I was a kid. It holds a special place in my heart. However, I am a Disney fan through and through. So, with that bias out in the open, I will share the following notes.
Universal gave it a solid effort. But they truly fell short in a lot of ways. I’m confident they will make all the necessary adjustments as they continue venturing into this new post-pandemic normal. But they have a ways to go. And I am very curious to see how it will go once the gates are open to the general public.
Disney is, in my personal opinion, doing the right thing. Waiting to make sure they are ready to reopen, watching closely what other theme parks, including their own in Shanghai, to learn from their challenges, so they can make any necessary adjustments before re-opening the park. Cue Queen Anna and Elsa duet! This should ensure a smoother reopening experience in general.
My hope is that they are noting the social distancing issues I observed at Universal yesterday; the app issues, because let’s be honest, Disney’s My Disney Experience is far from flawless, and the virtual queue and mobile ordering efforts are tested and tested again before July 11th rolls around. I have faith, trust, and a whole lotta pixie dust Disney will see a much more magical reopening than Universal.
What are your thoughts on how Disney is and will handle their reopening in comparison to what we’ve seen Universal do? After learning of all these potential challenges, will you still venture a risky visit to a crowded theme park in the hot Florida summer? Or wait it out until the pixie dust settles? Let us know in the comments! We’d love to hEAR your thoughts!