One year ago, I decided to venture out into the world to see what it was like to visit a theme park in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Back, then, in June 2020, I opted to visit Dollywood, a park not far from my home.
At the time, Dollywood had just opted to reopen with new COVID-19 related safety rules in effect. The park was requiring face masks and limiting park capacity, as well as requiring body temperature scans and enforcing social distancing on pathways, in restaurants and on the rides.
The bottom line was, it seemed to work. Yes, it wasn’t fun to wear a mask all day. But that didn’t prevent us from having a fun day at the park.
One year later, in June 2021, just as pandemic numbers were in decline and COVID-safety restrictions were being rolled back, I opted to venture out to the global centre of the theme park universe, Orlando, Florida, to see first-hand how the past year had impacted it.
The trip included a visit to both Universal Orlando theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure). We also made a stop at SeaWorld Orlando, SeaWorld’s Aquatica Orlando waterpark, and a nighttime visit to the Disney Springs retail and restaurant area.
Visiting Orlando after COVID
At the time of our visit, both Universal and SeaWorld theme parks in Orlando had essentially rolled back all COVID restrictions. No more temperature screenings and social distancing was either cut back to nothing or reduced to 3 feet. Best of all, face masks were also no longer required at those parks for those who were fully vaccinated.
That last part is a bit of a grey area, however. This is because the parks are not checking for proof of vaccination. They do say that they expect guests who are not vaccinated to take the proper safety precautions and still wear a face mask. After all, if you are vaccinated, you technically should have nothing to fear from the virus. So, those who have opted to not get the vaccine and still choose to not wear a mask are only putting themselves at risk.
With that being said, 95% of the guests I saw in Orlando were not wearing masks. Not even the children who were clearly too young to have been given a vaccination.
No masks required
The only place I encountered COVID-related mask restrictions on our entire trip to Orlando was actually at Disney Springs. At the time of our visit, Walt Disney World had not dropped the face mask requirements in enclosed spaces. You could walk around Disney Springs without a mask. But you still had to wear one if you wanted to visit one of the gift shops, restaurants or see a movie.
I have to admit, after visiting four parks without mask requirements and starting to feel like things were “normal” again, encountering the mandatory mask requirement at Disney on our last evening was a bit of a shock. However, Walt Disney World finally rolled back their mask requirements a few days after our visit.
As I mentioned above, our visits to Universal and SeaWorld did feel like a much-needed return to ‘normal’ times. The rides were filling all the seats, and the parks had once again returned to running at full capacity. In fact, based on the crowd levels I saw in early June at Universal, the park attendance levels were stronger than I had ever seen them before at that time of year.
Immediately upon arrival at Universal Orlando after the lifting of COVID restrictions, it became clear that the general public had essentially ‘had enough’ of sheltering at home. They were out in force to have a good time and visit their favourite theme parks once again.
COVID causes staffing issues in Orlando
Unlike the post-COVID reports I’ve been seeing all summer from other locations, the Universal Orlando theme parks seemed well-staffed in general. Virtually all attractions were running at full capacity throughout both theme parks.
The one single weak spot however was in the food and beverage area. Throughout both days of our visit, we noticed that the lines for food stands and restaurants were long. Typically longer than the wait times to get on the rides. Even venturing out into CityWalk did not help. The restaurants out there also had very long wait times, unless you thought ahead and made a reservation.
My suspicions that Universal’s one weakness may be a lack of staffing in the Food & Beverage department was confirmed shortly after our visit. The resort announced that it was seeking to hire over 1,000 new positions in that department immediately. The pay was at $15 per hour or higher for some positions. There were part-time, full-time and even “professional career” level positions waiting to be filled.
During our visit to SeaWorld Orlando after COVID, we saw a similar situation. Food and beverage options were greatly reduced at the time. There also looked to be some short-staffed areas in the operations department as well. However, it was clear the park was doing its best to keep all entertainment and attraction options up and running. Fortunately, the crowd levels at SeaWorld were not as high as they were at Universal.
Popular with locals
I can’t say the same for our stop at SeaWorld’s Aquatica water park. This was very crowded during our visit towards the end of the day. Fortunately, the waterpark was well staffed. It had all attractions open and running at full capacity, so our time there was enjoyable.
One thing we did notice at Aquatica was that it seems to be the favourite waterpark for the local market. The waterpark seemed to be full of locals who had come to enjoy the sun and water on their days off, rather than as a primary destination park for out of town tourists.
As someone who once lived in Orlando for a number of years, I remember that, before it closed down, the Wet ‘n Wild waterpark on I-Drive used to be the same way. Especially back when they offered very cheap passes to Florida Residents. I suspect that SeaWorld’s Fun Card program, which provides access to SeaWorld and Aquatica has become a popular option.
Orlando and the new normal
As for the rest of the Orlando tourist corridor, things felt like they were in flux somewhat in the wake of COVID. The normally bad traffic on International Drive was not as bad as it used to be. I also noticed that the majority of restaurants and shops in the region were running with reduced hours.
This was especially true if you are a night owl. We discovered it was nearly impossible to find a good place to eat at night after 10 pm. Even finding a place to grab a late-night pizza proved to be nearly impossible. While the theme parks have done well in maintaining a functional labour force, the rest of the general businesses in the Orlando area were still obviously struggling in this regard.
I can’t say that all things are back to “normal”. However, this was as close to “normal” that I’ve seen anywhere to date. It was great to finally get back out and enjoy a visit to a theme park again.
More than that, it was great to see people in general out and enjoying themselves. And it was so nice to see all those smiling faces once again. After wearing a mask for so long, I almost forgot what it was like to smile at a stranger and have them smile back.