It’s official. The theme park capital of the world will begin to reopen its parks starting on June 1 with Legoland Florida. This will be followed by Universal Orlando on June 5. But what should visitors expect when the Orlando theme parks reopen?
Several smaller attractions in the area are already open, including Fun Spot on I-Drive and Gatorland. Most of the rest are setting dates to reopen over the next two to three weeks.
A SeaWorld executive said the company would likely need two to four weeks until their Orlando theme parks reopen (SeaWorld, Aquatica, Discovery Cove, Busch Gardens and Adventure Island) once given approval to do so.
(Editor’s note 28/5/20) : since writing, Walt Disney World Resort has announced plans for a phased reopening beginning on July 11.
What to expect when Orlando theme parks reopen?
By now, most of us have heard something about what will be required when the Orlando theme parks reopen. According to the information we have right now, guests who want to visit Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World will have to undergo a temperature screening before entering. They will also need to wear a face mask at all times. SeaWorld has also indicated that face masks will be mandatory. However, perhaps the most important thing that guests will need to have in abundance is patience.
All attractions are trying to figure out the best way to function in our current reality. The goal is to keep both guests and staff safe from possible infection while still operating as a business. It’s important that guests remain patient, as there is no one set of universal rules. While the big parks will require masks, others will not. Social distancing will be enforced just about everywhere, but visitors have to learn the landscape of each new environment.
Standing in (or on) line
One example of this is that some locations are marking lines for guests to stand behind, while others are providing marks for guests to stand on. However, Disney Springs visitors soon realised that the marks all over the ground are there to indicate where NOT to stand. This is also what we’ve seen Disney doing at Shanghai Disneyland in China. It may seem counterintuitive, especially as Disney guests are used to standing on numbered spots while waiting to board attraction vehicles. So like I said… patience.
Previously, I explored the expected and likely changes at reopening theme parks. Here, I’m going to dig a little deeper, looking at potentially unique challenges and guest frustration at the big parks.
On the surface, SeaWorld may have an easier time adapting to the ‘new normal’. Guests typically park their cars and walk to the front gate, and the park is primarily full of animal exhibits and shows, mostly held in covered outdoor stadiums.
Social distancing at these shows will likely be implemented by seating guests in every other row. Reduced overall park capacity will help deal with overcrowding in most stadiums. As many of the shows involve splashing water from the animals to the guests, wiping down the seats between audiences was already an existing procedure that can be modified for improved sterilisation.
While the park does have rides, especially a handful of impressive coasters, they are mostly high capacity models from B&M that allow for four across seating, which will hopefully allow them to spread rider groups out from each other.
Water rides and character interactions
The water rides (Infinity Falls, Journey To Atlantis) may be more problematic. This will depend on the park’s stance on face mask wearing. Guests are likely to get soaked on these rides. Breathing through a wet mask will be an issue. Riders may need to remove them for the ride and swap them out for a disposable temporary mask. Or the park could opt to just not run the water rides at all.
Character interactions in the Sesame Street area will also likely be kept at a distance. I also wonder what the policy will be in areas where guests would normally try to feed and ‘touch’ animals, such as the dolphins. Whatever policy SeaWorld puts in place on animal touching here will also have a dramatic effect on how things play out across the street at the Discovery Cove park. This was designed to be a very animal interactive experience that comes with a premium price tag.
Universal Orlando’s more compact resort structure seems to give them an advantage in many aspects over Walt Disney World. With two very large parking structures, guests should be able to arrive and park in a spaced out manner. All guests converge from the parking structures to a central point for temperature screenings. They are then allowed to enter into Citywalk.
Before the closures this was also where all the security bag checks were done. The more complicated and lengthy entry process could prove to be a bit of a mess during morning hours when a flood of guests all try to arrive within the same general window of time.
Once inside, guests will travel through the Citywalk area as before and select one of the two theme parks. On-site hotel guests are mostly transported directly into Citywalk from the hotels by boats. These will likely see their capacity cut in half. For those not wanting to wait for a boat, Universal also has walking paths from the hotels direct into Citywalk. Hotel guests pass through special security check stations just for the resort guests.
The one complication here that guests from some of the hotels without boat service (like Cabana Bay or the new Endless Summer Resorts) must take resort busses that will drop them off to pass through the same check-in point as the guests arriving by car.
Forgotten queue spaces
Once inside the Universal theme parks, I imagine that most of the attractions will remain open as normal. However, they will be running at limited capacity and space riders out with empty seats or rows. This will cause the wait times to be longer than expected. To aid this, expect to use virtual queue technology with Universal’s resort app. This will tell you when to arrive and get in line to keep the indoor crowding to a minimum.
See also: 24/04/20 Universal Orlando CEO outlines potential reopening plans
Fortunately Universal has built some extremely long queue lines for many of their major attractions. Some sections have sat mostly empty and forgotten after the initial buzz for a new attraction has worn off. For example, how many of you have actually waited in the hidden outdoor queue area built for the Harry Potter: Escape from Gringotts ride? Guests may be re-introduced to some of these forgotten queue spaces in the near future.
While nothing has been confirmed yet, I also would not be surprised to see certain indoor attractions closed for the time being, such as the Shrek 4D theater attraction, the Olivander’s Wand Shop experience, or Poseidon’s Fury which were known to pack in large groups into very cramped and crowded spaces.
Following along with my comments on SeaWorld, the water rides at Universal (Jurassic Park, Ripsaw Falls, Popeye & Bluto’s Bilge-Rat Barges) are known for potentially soaking guests. In addition to the dilemma of wet face masks, attempts to wipe down vehicles and could be difficult to manage.
Getting around (and to) Walt Disney World
Across town at the very spread out Walt Disney World guests are likely to encounter a number of unique challenges. These will depend on if they are resort guests or visiting from elsewhere. The resort is also home to four separate theme parks, two waterparks, numerous resorts, some with special on-site restaurant experiences, and then the entire Disney Springs retail/dining complex.
We do not yet know if Disney is planning to reopen everything all at once. However, it has long been suspected that Disney may be forced to reopen their resort in phases. They could start with only two of the four theme parks and a handful of resorts.
Additional resorts and parks will be added as the capacity and demand grows. But for on-site guests getting from the resort to the theme parks may take longer than expected. The Walt Disney World resort has long relied on a fleet of buses to transport guests throughout their property. These buses have limited seating availability and a good deal of open space. This allows space for ‘standing room only’ guests in peak use times.
In current times where social distancing is key, this bus fleet may quickly become a point of frustration for resort guests. They will have to wait much longer than expected for transportation to the parks. (Tip: if you have a vehicle, you may want to use it instead.)
Select resorts do sometimes have other transportation options to specific destinations such as the new Disney Skyliner, Monorail service or even boat transportation. If you are staying at one of the various Epcot area resorts, they also offer a walking path that can take you to either Disney’s Hollywood Studios or the Epcot’s International Gateway.
Ferry or monorail?
The new Skyliner aerial gondolas will prove beneficial by allowing groups to be transported in their own individual cabin. However, Disney’s famous Monorail suffers from the same kind of internal design problems as their bus fleet. It features ample floor space for standing guests, wheelchairs and strollers, with only a limited number of seats.
I’d expect to see the lines to ride the Monorail anywhere on property to be a long and slow moving experience. This is where the biggest complication will come in terms of operations at Walt Disney World. They will need to decide how to best transport guests to The Magic Kingdom park from the parking lot. This is located on the opposite side of a lake from the actual theme park entrance.
During normal operations guests arrive and park far away in a very large parking lot. They are instructed to wait for a parking lot tram to take them to the “Transportation and Ticket Center” location at the front. Since packing a large number of guests into the parking lot trams won’t be allowed for quite some time, some guests may opt to try and walk the route on foot. Unfortunately the parking lot here was not designed to be the most pedestrian friendly experience. Expect some confusion and chaos here.
And the same in reverse
Once you arrive at the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC for short) and pass through the ticket booths into the plaza guests are given the choice to either ride the monorail around the lake to the Magic Kingdom or to wait and take a large ferry boat across the lake.
The ferry boats are a bit slow compared to the sleek monorail. But they will allow the largest number of people to be transported while still spacing everyone out. These may be your best bet. However, the plaza was designed to move people through it and to their form of transportation. It was not intended to be a place where they may have to form extended queues if too many people arrive at once.
Keep in mind that guests leaving The Magic Kingdom at the end of the day will also have to undergo this experience in reverse all over again. With this in mind it does make me wonder if Disney might opt to keep this park closed a little longer until they are allowed to increase capacity levels a little higher.
Disney’s Hollywood Studios
The easiest park for Disney when the Orlando theme parks reopen would be Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Size wise, it is the smallest of the four theme parks, so it would be the easiest to staff and reopen. The park also has the advantage of having opened all the latest new rides and attractions that will be in heavy demand (Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Toy Story Land, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway) as well as being home to some of the resorts most popular thrill rides (Twilight Zone: Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n Roller Coaster).
While all Disney theme parks offer parking lot trams, the design here allows for guests to easily walk to the front of the park instead. Disney’s Animal Kingdom would also be a likely park to reopen in the first wave. This is because the park features a large number of animals. They have to be cared for by staff, regardless if the park is open or closed. In addition to the animal attractions the park is also home to the very popular Avatar: World of Pandora land. This opened three years ago and is extremely popular and in demand with guests.
Wide walking paths and a park layout that is very spread out will also encourage social distancing. Much like at the Studios park, guests can also easily walk to the main gate from the parking lot if they don’t want to wait for a tram.
And at Epcot
How and when Disney will reopen Epcot will prove to be interesting. At the time of the shutdown, Epcot had begun to undergo a massive series of construction projects. These affected the park entry plaza. They also altered how guests flow through the front half of the park (Future World). This was because the core of that area was closed off and undergoing demolition and a complete rebuild.
Meanwhile Epcot was also in the middle of building two major new attractions. One, a major new indoor space themed restaurant experience was to open this summer. A brand new nighttime spectacular show on the World Showcase lagoon was to open later this year.
Many of these construction projects were put on hold when the park closed. They would now likely be 2-3 months behind schedule. Epcot has the largest guest space of all four of the WDW theme parks. This means it may have the biggest operational challenges in restaffing the park, as all of the “International” Cast Members who worked in the World Showcase pavilions were sent home. I could see Epcot being the last park to reopen. In fact, leaving the park closed a little longer could possibly help get some of their construction projects back on track.
For fans of Epcot, especially for those hoping to dine in one of the park’s popular international themed restaurants, the new operational and capacity limitations going forward may prove to be more than a little frustrating as well.
Patience and planning when Orlando theme parks reopen
So before you head back to Orlando, take some extra time to plan your trip. Arrive early and be ready for the unexpected. The major theme parks are expected to limit their daily attendance. So unless they are taking pre-arrival reservations, you could very well be turned away at the gate upon arrival.
Patience and planning will be your friend. And be sure to learn the rules and requirements of visiting each attraction ahead of time. I’d also recommend having a good backup plan in mind. Then, if your first choice becomes full you can go visit another park or attraction instead that day.