If you'd asked me three months ago, back when Central Florida's attractions first announced their unprecedented closures due to COVID-19, how I'd feel when I finally got to visit a theme park again, I would have predicted that I'd be pretty enthusiastic. Instead, when that day finally arrived last week at Universal Orlando, my heart was as dark and heavy as the storm clouds that greeted guests during the parks' private previews and public reopening. Ordinarily I would have been ecstatic to celebrate Universal's re-emergence, as the place I started my career and the home to some of my all-time favorite examples of themed entertainment, especially since June 7 marked the Studios' 30th anniversary.
However, in light of the Black Lives Matter protests bringing long-overdue attention to racist violence in our city and across the nation, I found it impossible to immerse myself in magical fantasies: My frozen Butterbeer was just as sweet as I remembered, but it wasn't enough to wash the bitter taste out of my mouth. So if you don't give a shit about social distancing in the Wizarding World right now, skip the rest of this week's column – I seriously won't be offended. On the other hand, if you don't feel too guilty for taking a brief break from reality, read on to learn what a post-quarantine Quidditch match looks like.
After attending the reopenings of both CityWalk and Disney Springs, I felt Universal had the slight upper hand when it came to managing crowd flow in the age of coronavirus. Therefore, I was somewhat shocked to arrive before rope drop on the first day of reopening previews – which required a timed entry ticket or hotel reservation to restrict attendance – only to find a queue of guests stretching all the way from Islands of Adventure's entrance to the Universal globe. The sight triggered flashbacks to Harry Potter's premiere back in 2010, but once the gates opened I was miraculously through the turnstiles in just over 10 minutes, thanks in part to the disabling of Universal's finicky finger scans.
- Photo by Seth Kubersky
Deceptive queues turned out to be the theme of the day, because while social distancing separation made standby lines for some rides stretch to their entryways, actual wait times were shockingly low across both parks, despite attractions running at greatly reduced capacities. For example, at Skull Island: Reign of Kong, safari trucks built to seat 72 were instead being dispatched with a dozen-odd widely spaced guests; even so, I waited under 15 minutes to board it, and most of that was spent navigating the queue. Wait times were similarly short at most other headliner attractions during previews and dropped even lower once the general public was allowed back in on June 5. Bad weather undoubtedly depressed attendance, but the pent-up-demand that's resulted in overcrowded beaches and bars never materialized during Universal's reopening weekend.
Under other circumstances, those historically rock-bottom crowd levels would be an amazing incentive to visit the theme parks, and although the new safety protocols aren't exactly relaxing, they have inspired some creative problem-solving. Characters can't do meet-and-greets, so they pose on platforms or parade floats while guests snap socially distanced selfies. The Poseidon's Fury walk-though now pulses parties through the water vortex tunnel one at a time, making the impressive effect even more personal. There are even brand-new things to enjoy at Universal: An elaborate new Raptor Encounter has opened in Jurassic Park, directly across from the construction zone for 2021's intimidating – and still unacknowledged – Intamin launched coaster, while signs indicate the Bourne Stuntacular show may premiere next month.
Unfortunately, some of the distinguishing elements that ordinarily set Universal apart from its competition become severe pain points under the parks' new policies. Disney is dumping their FastPass+ ride reservations when they reopen, but Universal is relying on a free Virtual Line smartphone-based system that's very similar to the original same-day FastPass service. Virtual Line worked fairly well, when it wasn't giving me error messages; I got to ride Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure and the other two Harry Potter E-Tickets with virtually no standing in lines. The problem is that the lockers – which are unneeded at Disney but mandatory for most Universal thrill rides – garnered longer waits for storing and retrieving bags than the attractions themselves.
Disney also may have invented dark ride preshows with the Haunted Mansion's stretching room, but Universal perfected them with elaborate setups like the simulated elevators in Men in Black and Escape From Gringotts. Both of those are AWOL for now in the name of social distancing, along with the opportunity to hear E.T. garble your name. To add insult to injury, both godawful preshows in Fast & Furious: Supercharged are still intact.
Finally, my biggest takeaway from my two days back at Universal is that if audience apathy didn't already kill 3-D, face masks will. I've always been a fan of the format before, but in a mask the aforementioned Kong ride – as well as Spider-Man and Transformers – became nothing more than a foggy blur. Until Universal adds anti-fogging fluid to their goggle cleaning solution, it looks like I'll be sticking to Forbidden Journey – whose animatronic Dementors and fog-breathing dragon are all still in quarantine – where at least I can still see.
- Photo by Seth Kubersky