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Orlando’s Theme Parks Make A Welcome Return

By Susan & Simon Veness

When it comes to how much of Florida is driven by the appeal of its big theme parks, there can be little doubt that most eyes have been on Orlando in recent weeks, waiting for news about the re-opening of the parks and their many attractions.

This week, the wait is over as Universal Orlando has opened its gates once again and let (a limited number of) visitors back into its three parks, Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure and Volcano Bay.

It was the event that much of the Sunshine State’s tourist business was hoping to see, and, from the Wizarding World of Harry Potter to the kid-friendly fun of Seuss Landing, most of the Universal excitement is back on stream again.

For a state that is so dependent on tourism, and which has been in a kind of suspended animation since mid-March, it was hugely welcome news, and something that drew huge TV and media coverage for several days.

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Simon was among the many media outlets – as well as several thousand happy visitors – in the theme parks on its first day with paying guests once more (Universal also had two days of testing just with staff members in the parks), and this is what he saw and experienced:

“If this is the ‘new normal’ for our theme parks, it may just be an extremely pleasant experience. Of course, it was good just to be out and about again after several months of self-isolation in Veness Towers, but the bonus of the Universal experience was undeniable.

And here’s why – they are currently only open with a seriously reduced capacity. Admittedly, it was a wet and rather dreary day weather-wise (albeit, still around 28C), but the usual crowds of June were nowhere to be seen.

This is, of course, one of the predetermined stipulations for the return of our theme parks. They have to find a way to operate safely and securely in the age of COVID-19, and the only way to test all their new procedures and preparations is to open up with a much lower attendance to start with.

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Those procedures include a mandatory temperature check on arrival at the main entrance and face-masks for all guests as well as staff. No mask, no entry. And there are staff throughout the parks acting as face-mask ‘monitors’ to ensure people keep them on.

The temperature check is a very quick and easy hand-held scanner that displays each person’s current reading. Anything below 100.4F (38C) is fine; anything at that mark or above is cause for being turned away, with all of your group.

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Pretty much the first thing you see once in the parks is the many newly-installed distancing markers at every attraction, food outlet and shop. Universal is serious about guests maintaining that 6ft/2m social distance measurement at all times, and it is easy to follow the markers and obey the rules. Hopefully it is such a part of our daily lives these days that it’s second nature to take that mind-set on holiday with you.

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And, yes, while having to wear a face-mask for most of the day was a bit uncomfortable, it didn’t seriously detract from enjoying what was on offer around Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure. There are also several places where you can sit and take off your mask in both parks, while it’s also okay to remove it while eating and drinking.

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The benefit of having a much lower attendance than usual for this time of year – I would estimate it was barely 35 per cent of normal – more than made up for any of the minor inconveniences, I felt, and, if this continues into the summer and our international visitors are allowed back, it should be a welcome surprise for those who are used to standing in queues of one to two hours.

The longest I waited for any ride was 30 minutes, and most were less than 20, which meant I was able to cover a LOT of ground in just one day’s visit. Normally, both parks would require a full day each to experience to the max. This week, I covered most of them in around seven hours.

There were some attractions that weren’t working for various reasons, either for mechanical issues or, in the case of several water rides, because they still need to figure out how to make them work without soaking people and their face-masks. In the case of some rides, they may stay closed for the foreseeable future.

Universal’s impressive daily parade and evening finale show are also currently suspended. Basically, anything that draws extremely large crowds in one area is much harder to ensure social distancing, hence Universal (and Disney and SeaWorld) have decided to scrap the big set-pieces just now.

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But here comes some more Good News – the use of technology and the ability to provide a near-touchless experience are both well to the fore, and extremely thoughtful. True, visitors do need to have a mobile device of some kind (but, these days, is that even really a question?), and you have to download the Universal App to have the digital advantage at your fingertips.

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Once you have done that, though, a whole new world of high-tech opportunities opens up for you, from getting in a ‘virtual’ queue for key attractions to ordering food, and even paying for it, without having to visit a crowded food counter or kiosk, touch any kind of payment (cash or credit card) or have to get in line.

The virtual queueing system offers a variety of attractions on the App that you simply apply for on their respective webpage. Just click and wait to be given a time to return later in the day.

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It all adds up to a fiendishly clever use of technology at a time when we still need to keep our exposure to other people to a minimum. Yes, the masks help, but limiting our contact with others in the short term is the best policy of all.

Ultimately, it will come down to individual people’s own comfort zone with all these new procedures and strictures. Maintaining one’s level of hygiene is still a crucial part of the process, and there is hand sanitiser provided at many points around the parks, including before every ride.

If you had told me prior to this year that I would be riding the likes of Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey with a great dollop of Germ-X before sitting down, I would have thought you were crazy. But, in our pandemic-hit world, it makes perfect sense, and I welcomed every blob that the staff dished out!

The bottom line, of course, is that this is all good news, not just for our theme parks but for the whole of Central Florida. We obviously want to get tourism businesses up and running again, and the return of Universal, and SeaWorld (June 11), and Busch Gardens (June 11) and Walt Disney World (July 11 and 15) are essential to the cause.

Orlando holidays are creeping back on to the radar and, while we can’t yet jump on a flight back to Florida, we can look ahead and consider what things will be like when we do get the green light to travel again.

Yes, they are going to look different. And yes, there are going to be some compromises in ensuring the health and well-being of all concerned. But all the excitement of the Theme Park Capital of World is still here and still raring to go, and it’s going to be a novel experience when everyone rediscovers it.

Who knows, you might just decide the ‘new normal’ suits you just right – hand sanitiser and all!”

Susan & Simon Veness are the UK’s leading experts on Florida, having written about it for more than 25 years and sold more than half a million copies of their books about Orlando, Disney and the Sunshine State.

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