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Seeing smiling faces at the parks again is both heartwarming and alarming

No masks!

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If you want proof positive that Central Florida's theme parks are over pandemic-era spacing and sanitation standards, just look at photos from the June 10 grand opening of the Jurassic World VelociCoaster at Universal Orlando's Islands of Adventure. I was among the thousands of mostly maskless guests standing shoulder-to-shoulder along the CityWalk lagoon hours before it opened, in a scene not too dissimilar from the packed debuts of popular Harry Potter rides in pre-COVID times. This addictive new airtime machine still dazzles after nearly two dozen dives in the raptor paddock, but the only thing more disorienting than descending from VelociCoaster's signature 155-foot-tall top-hat might be the dizzying speed with which Orlando's major resorts have dropped their social distancing restrictions.

A year ago, I was telling out-of-state family (as well as USA Today) that I felt more comfortable inside a theme park than at my neighborhood grocery store, a statement that I would have stood by until just a few weeks ago. The combination of limited guest capacity, visible ongoing sanitation and vocal enforcement of social distancing made the Magic Kingdom and its kin feel like oases of safety during the days before vaccinations. It might have been mostly "hygiene theater," but some measures (like distanced car parking) genuinely made visiting more pleasant.

Since around Memorial Day, though, it seems that the floodgates have opened and most of the parks' pandemic-era strictures have been washed away in their rush to return to normal operations. Universal Orlando was the first to stop mandating that guests wear face masks, instead offering an unenforced recommendation for vaccinated guests to continue masking indoors, a suggestion heeded by less than 10% of the visitors I've observed. Disney and SeaWorld have since followed suit, although Mickey will still make you mask up on the Monorail. Seeing smiling faces along Main Street U.S.A. again is both heartwarming and alarming to my now-hardwired Pavlovian response to mask-free mouths.

In addition, capacity limits have been raised to 75% or lifted entirely, and the spacing markers that previously kept kids behind you from stomping on your heels every few steps have mostly been stripped away, so more people can be packed into the ever-growing queues. Going directly from last month's Orlando Fringe Festival — where patrons were turned away from "sold-out" shows with 30% of their seats left empty — to once again being instructed to "move all the way down to the end of the row, filling each and every available seat," certainly induced a kind of cognitive whiplash.

On the plus side, the lifting of pandemic precautions also means that ride vehicles can again be fully utilized, while Disney's FastPass+ remains suspended (though rumored to return as a paid service), which means that standby queues are moving more swiftly than ever. Universal has even reopened most of its time-saving single rider entrances, although pre-show presentations are still mostly paused across the parks. In addition, some Disney rides haven't yet adapted their calculations to the newly undistanced queues, so posted wait time signs may underestimate the line's actual length.

Orlando's parks are definitely in an upswing attractions-wise, as long as you don't mind being squeezed in next to strangers; Universal's operations team members should be especially commended for keeping VelociCoaster's opening-day wait well under four hours with consistent dispatches and swift downtime recovery. Unfortunately, the same can't be said about food and beverage service, which may prove to be the resorts' Achilles' heel this summer.

Walt Disney World has been slow to ramp back up its restaurant selection. Several popular venues remain closed, while others are sparking controversy with their reopening. The popular Cape May Café seafood buffet has converted to a family-style meal and cut the crab legs without reducing prices. And 'Ohana had to bring back its noodles after a social media outcry over their elimination, though the revolt didn't restore the 86'ed grilled shrimp, nor prevent reservations from being booked solid within hours of opening.

The situation is even more dire at Universal, where a combination of woeful short-staffing and a fakakta mobile ordering system made it quicker to get a free churro by riding VelociCoaster on opening day (a generous perk playing on Twitter jokes about the ride's secretive development) than it was to buy one from the overwhelmed outdoor vendors. The bottom line is that you may want to sneak a sandwich in with you during your next theme park visit, because whether you want a simple sugared dough stick or a sit-down meal, it's going to cost you more in either time or dough.

skubersky@orlandoweekly.com

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