Earlier this month, I shared my experiences visiting the newly reopened Universal theme parks, and then signed off for a short but sorely needed sabbatical. I'd naively hoped that some semblance of sanity (or at least stability) might have reasserted itself by the time I returned, if not in the world at large, then at least among Central Florida's attractions. Well, no such luck. Instead, fans found themselves losing their damn minds over one thing after another all throughout June. Just last week, the DisTwitter online community went crazy twice within 24 hours, first over Disney's planned conversion of their racially problematic Splash Mountain log flume into a Princess and the Frog ride (which might not actually occur for years, but has already enraged self-proclaimed purists), and then over the release of coveted park pass reservations to Walt Disney World annual passholders, which will be required once the Magic Kingdom and its siblings start receiving guests again next weekend.
I was among the guests who got up before dawn to use Disney's new reservation system, which is scheduled to be in use into September 2021, on its debut day. After hours spent staring at looping animations of Space Mountain, waiting endlessly for my opportunity to log in only to be left with blank screens or error messages, and attempts using multiple devices (pro tip: Use Chrome on a computer, not a mobile device), I finally managed to secure reservations for three of the four theme parks. As of this writing, while there is still plenty of room for on-site hotel guests and standard ticket-buyers, the Disney parks are already almost completely "sold out" to annual passholders for most of July and much of August, with Disney's Hollywood Studios in particular being booked solid until Aug. 13.
Those guests who did grab golden tickets back into DHS will discover a very different experience compared to the pre-pandemic park. Sure, they'll finally be able to enjoy Rise of the Resistance and Slinky Dog Dash without needing a virtual boarding pass or FastPass, since only socially distanced standby queues will be used. But after they've blown through the park's brief list of blockbuster rides, they won't have its underappreciated lineup of live entertainment to fill out the day. The stages featuring Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast Live, the Frozen Sing-along and Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular will all remain empty, and the "streetmosphere" improvisers will be absent, leaving occasional motorcades of costumed characters as the park's sole performers.
Since park hopping will be prohibited when Disney's parks reopen, you won't be able to exit DHS and spend the afternoon drinking around the world at Epcot, whose Food & Wine Festival will return sans concerts. Similar slashes to live entertainment are planned across the other parks; at the same time, the Actors Equity union has called for the resort's reopening to be delayed in light of Florida's rising coronavirus rate.
While Disney's performers continue to cool their heels, Universal has reopened most of its live entertainment with adjustments for social distancing, some for the better; the Horror Make-up Show is now funnier than ever with over-the-top PPE precautions. Unfortunately, although weekends with good weather have seen crowds approach Universal's newly limited maximum capacity, weekdays have been largely deserted, leading to drastic staffing cutbacks across the company that landed particularly hard on creative employees. Entire teams, such as the props department that fabricated models for upcoming attractions, have been decimated, and many talented artists with decades of experience are now unemployed.
Universal's layoffs were mostly limited to behind-the-scenes positions, whose losses might not immediately be felt by today's visitors, but could echo for years to come. After 10 years of aggressive expansion, Comcast is firmly pumping the brakes, and we can expect any additions after the under-construction Jurassic Park coaster to be delayed indefinitely, with the planned Epic Universal park pushed back at least a year. More worryingly, the cutbacks will have consequences for our local arts community – already battered by canceled seasons and the recent closure of Winter Park's Breakthrough Theatre – whose directors and designers often relied on theme park paychecks.
Ironically, all this happened only days before June 30's official opening of The Bourne Stuntacular, the latest live-action triumph from Universal Orlando. As a former technician on the Terminator 2: 3-D show, I was skeptical that its theater's new occupant could possibly live up to T23D's groundbreaking legacy. But after previewing a recent technical rehearsal, I'm happy to declare it the best stunt show in Orlando, operating or otherwise.
You don't need to be even vaguely familiar with the Matt Damon film franchise to follow the MacGuffin-filled plot of this 20-minute thrill ride, which stages bare-knuckle fisticuffs and high-flying stunts against an immersive 130-foot-wide floor-to-ceiling video backdrop. The border between screen and reality blurs as full-sized cars swerve down digital streets with actors clinging to the hood; Arnold's time-traveling Harley was never this impressive. The talented cast from Action Horizons even does it all while wearing face masks, with socially distanced audience seating setting an example other theaters could follow. Be sure to chase down Bourne's showtimes (and arrive 15-20 minutes early) if you're returning to Universal Studios Florida, because this may be the last great theme park spectacular we'll see for a long time.