Given that I’d had a couple of great, ideal, magical experiences at Disney World during this pandemic, I thought (hoped, prayed, wished upon a star) that visiting Universal Orlando during the pandemic wouldn’t be all that different.
However, it was quite different.
Would I recommend visiting Universal Orlando during Covid? Ehh… not really. Obviously it’s not the worst place you can be, but it can definitely, definitely improve. Allow me now to tell you why so you can plan your trip accordingly.
What is open at Universal Orlando during the pandemic?
As of June 5, 2020 (yes, they reopened way ahead of Disney), all three of Universal Orlando’s parks are open. That includes:
- Universal Studios Florida
- Islands of Adventure
- Volcano Bay water park
As far as resorts go, the majority of Universal Orlando’s resorts are already open, with more opening soon as part of their phased reopening.
Also, the majority of venues at Universal’s CityWalk have already reopened. This includes restaurants and bars, shops, and, yes, even the tattoo shop is open. Even. The. Tattoo. Shop. if that gives any indication of the direction of this article.
What precautions are being taken by Universal Orlando during the pandemic?
According to their page of Safety FAQs, Universal Orlando is:
- Requiring face coverings
- Requiring temperature screenings
- Limiting capacity
- Frequently cleaning
- Following social distancing guidelines
As well as suggesting you:
- Wash hands often
- Practice social distancing
- Avoid contact with people who are sick
- Use hand sanitizer when required
Though I think it’s obvious by this point that pandemic-related suggestions are futile. And, spoiler alert, I saw almost none of the above happening during my visit.
What it’s like at Universal Orlando during the pandemic
Here is what I experienced at Universal Orlando during my recent visit, well enough into the pandemic that everyone knows what’s up.
Universal Orlando during the pandemic is, by their account, limiting their capacity. I’ve been unable to find any actual numbers or percentages to back this up, so we must take their word for it. Despite their “limited capacity,” the parks still seemed pretty dang crowded.
They do offer the Universal Orlando Resort Capacity Hotline (407-817-8317), but this only tells you if the parks are open or if the parks are closed because they’ve reached capacity. Literally no other information.
And the fact that Universal Orlando doesn’t require park reservations the same way Disney World does, you snooze, you lose.
Lines for rides and attractions at Universal Orlando during the pandemic seemed as long as ever, if not worse. Ride lines were averaging about an hour long with the more popular rides having lines over 3 hours long. I saw it with my own eyes. Limited capacity, my ass.
However, I will say that people did a great job of social distancing in the lines, as long as they were.
Social Distancing at Universal Orlando during the pandemic
Social distancing at Universal Orlando during the pandemic was almost nonexistent, with a few exceptions.
They do have 6-foot markers at various locations around the park including at the entrances and at the rides. For the most part, social distancing in these two respects was adequate and acceptable.
Everywhere else, fuggedaboutit. Other than the ground markers, there was zero effort on the part of Universal to enforce social distancing.
There was no effort to maintain safe crowd limits inside the gift shops—no one counting ins and outs. They also allow park-hopping so there’s almost no way for them to balance crowd limits between the two parks. (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, that is).
A crowd forms
Upon entering the park after it opened for the day (picture now thousands of people bursting through the gates and running towards the popular rides), Universal staff blocked off the main streets running through the park, creating a massive bottleneck at one intersection.
Why? You ask. To force us all to watch an absolutely pointless minion performance. I honestly don’t know what occurred here, other than park employees blocked the streets so thousands of people could push, shove, and create a giant mob while costumed characters sang and danced for us. DURING A PANDEMIC.
It was a living interpretation of the This is fine meme. Keep calm and carry on, folks.
The mask situation at Universal Orlando during the pandemic is… well, it’s not the worst part of the whole thing. For the most part, park visitors got it right. However, Universal Orlando still got it wrong.
Mask mandates at Universal Orlando
At this time, Universal Orlando does mandate that all visitors wear masks. Their online list of safety policies states what kinds of masks you can and can’t wear, though at the parks you’re just told to “wear a face covering.” Spoiler alert: you give a 2020-era average citizen an inch, they’re going to wear their masks below their noses for a mile.
Again, the majority of people got it right. There were still those who thought they could get away without wearing a mask if they held a drink next to their face. And those who wore gaiters instead of actual masks. And those who pulled down their mask every time they felt the need to speak. Plus those who removed their masks for photos. And every girl in front of the mirrors in the bathroom where, apparently, viruses don’t exist. And there was no one around policing this.
I did see one employee (between two entire parks) holding a sign that said “Thanks for covering your nose and mouth” and I can’t even handle the passive aggressiveness of this. (The employee was also scrolling through his phone most of the time I was watching him, instead of scanning for violators. I’ve got some real pent-up hall monitor vibes going on right now.)
This sign reads more like a timid suggestion and less like a firm mandate for the sake of safety. If we’ve learned anything this year it’s that suggestions aren’t going to flatten the curve, my friend. It’s time for a firm hand. Autobots, roll out!
Masks and children
Additionally, Universal Orlando only mandates that visitors ages 3+ wear a mask. Even though the CDC recommends a mask for every human 2-years-old and up. (source) If this isn’t your little brother holding his finger in front of your face screaming “I’m not touching you!”, then I don’t know what is.
Hand sanitizer at Universal Orlando
The hand sanitizer issue at Universal Orlando during the pandemic may be my biggest issue because it’s such an easy solution where Universal failed the most drastically.
To start, there is almost no hand sanitizer publicly available at Universal Orlando.
Look, I know I’m spoiled from my trips to Disney World where there is a motion-sensing hand sanitizer dispenser seemingly every 50 feet. Throughout all the parks, the resorts, the shopping and restaurants areas, everywhere. Honestly, you can’t swing a churro.
At Universal Orlando, you can get hand sanitizer at the entrances and exits of most rides. If they work.
At some of the rides, instead of an automated dispenser, they utilize employees who pump hand sanitizer out of a bottle into your hands. Like you’re a toddler first learning about hygiene. It’s bizarre and uncomfortable.
But the worst part is that some of those squirts were so tiny I couldn’t even cover the entirety of my two tiny hands. The men I was with? Fuggedaboutit.
But what about everything you touch in between the rides? Am I only allowed to get free hand sanitizer if I ride a ride? Am I supposed to keep my hands in my pockets at all other times?
There weren’t any hand sanitizer dispensers (be them man or machine) near any of the high traffic, high touch areas. Nothing in or around the gift shops. Nowhere in sight.
This is such an easy, easy fix y’all.
Sanitation at Universal Orlando
They say they’re around, but I never saw anyone actively cleaning anything. At Disney World, cleaning staff is constantly visible, but not in a gross way—in an “oh thank GOD you care about my health and safety!” kinda way.
I rode many rides at Disney that were momentarily delayed for sanitizing. I saw nary a rag, spray bottle, or moistened wipe at Universal Orlando the whole day.
Maybe, just maybe, Universal Orlando is simply great at keeping their sanitation staff hidden? But, now bear with me, this may just be the one time in history visitors want to see your janitorial staff.
Dining at Universal Orlando during the pandemic
Even though this is Florida, land of year-round pleasantness, the majority of dining at Universal Orlando is still indoors. At the Three Broomsticks, tables do seem to be separated a wee more than usual, but that’s about it.
At Moe’s, there are plastic partitions between the booths, but the place is still packed. Plus, the tables in the middle aren’t surrounded by anything.
Universal Orlando does offer mobile ordering… which would be great if it worked properly. Ordering meals via the app worked for some of us, while others still had to get a server to order the old-fashioned way, rendering all successful mobile orders pointless.
Also, I feel like I should mention our lunch at the Three Broomsticks took well over an hour because of a supposed “mix-up in the kitchen.” Meaning we were trapped indoors with a bunch of maskless people for much longer than we’d anticipated.
Parking at Universal Orlando during the pandemic
One thing Universal Orlando does well during all this is the parking situation. Staff members guide you into parking spots that are separated by empty ones so that not everyone is getting out of their cars all at the same time in the same tiny area.
Why this attention to detail doesn’t make it past the garage is beyond me.
The post-visit survey
Something else I’d like to mention is that, after I returned from my trip, Universal Orlando sent me a survey containing questions on how I thought they handled many pandemic-related issues–how comfortable I felt wearing a mask all day, etc. My responses: a less-colorful version of this blog post.
However, there was one series of questions in particular I found particularly disturbing:
How would you compare the Universal Orlando Theme Park coronavirus safety measures to the Walt Disney World Theme Park coronavirus safety measures?
- Were more comfortable than at Disney?
- Felt about the same compared to Disney?
- Were less comfortable than at Disney?
Ding! Ding! Ding!
Okay, first of all, Disney kicks your ass here. But what bothers me about this is: stop worrying about what Disney is doing.
Shouldn’t Universal’s main concern be how they’re performing according to health, science, and fact? Shouldn’t keeping their visitors healthy and safe be their number 1 priority during this time? Not how they’re shaping up against the competition?
To me, these questions say “We’re going to do the bare minimum we can get away with compared to Disney World.” If Universal is taking all the measures they can possibly take to keep us safe, they wouldn’t need to worry about what anyone else is doing. This is the way.
How to safely visit Universal Orlando during the pandemic
Wait until a safer time
Sure, I made it out with a negative test result but it was a pretty stressful day. And with cases currently rising and the situation getting worse every minute, now is not the best time to visit Universal Orlando.
I’m lucky in that I have been to Universal Orlando and the Harry Potter parks multiple times before so I could skip the most crowded and uncomfortable parts. But if this will be your first time, I would definitely wait until you can fully enjoy it stress-free.
Bring your own hand sanitizer
And I cannot stress this enough.
There is hardly any available in the parks and certainly never when you need it. Bring your own and use it often. Thankfully I anticipated this and brought enough to disinfect a New York City borough.
I would even take this a step further and bring your own alcohol wipes. Since I didn’t see anyone cleaning anything, I would definitely recommend wiping down the places you sit, your tables, and just anything and everything your body comes into contact with.
Do your best to stay away from people
Arrive when the park opens to avoid the longest lines and biggest crowds in the most popular areas. But be aware that while everyone is lined up neatly on their 6-foot markers before the park opens, as soon as those gates are unlocked it’s every muggle for himself!
Also, be aware they’re going to make you watch some dumb performance before you can actually get further into the park. When you see the massive crowd forming, stay off to the side or way in the back.
When you need a break from people, head to Knockturn Alley. It was almost completely empty the entire day. (I am a Slytherin you know.)
Limit your time in the gift shops as their occupancies are not logged (from what I could tell). It still (omg still) gets crowded in those tiny, compact shops that only have one way in and out.
Avoid indoor dining by eating only snacks from the vendor carts (lol is this really where we’re at?) and taking your beers to go. (The Hogs Head Tavern has a patio in the back.)
Wear your mask the right way all day
Keep your mask on the whole time. Gasp! Yes. All day.
Bring an extra mask to change into if it gets wet, be it rain or sweat.
Keep your mask on for photos. Honestly, who cares. This is 2020—it’s time to normalize taking photos with masks on. So you’ll get a “better picture” if you can see your face. But really, instead of looking better you just look like more of an entitled asshole. Yeah, I said it. Needing to get a “good” photo doesn’t exempt you from the very important rules.
Plus, posting maskless photos on social media of your day at Universal Orlando sends the harmful message that it’s okay to take your mask off when it suits you, global pandemic be damned.
Manage your expectations
I knew Universal Orlando during the pandemic wouldn’t be anything like the Disney experience. I was prepared to bring my own hand sani and use it often, stay away from others as much as possible, leave any situation that made me feel unsafe and uncomfortable, and wear my mask all day.
You are only in control of your own actions—you can’t make others wear masks or social distance. But you can leave a situation that doesn’t suit you, and learn from it.
Do you have plans to visit Universal Orlando during the pandemic?
Let me know below!
But first, pin me ⇣⇣⇣