By Scott Murray
My wife and I try to go to Orlando at least once a year. We love the parks, and we have some family who live there as well. The prospects of going in 2020 seemed to drop dramatically when the pandemic hit. However, we stayed optimistic and kept an eye on things as places started to re-open over the summer.
A few weeks after Disney World and Universal re-opened, I started to consume content from park bloggers and news about the safety precautions. Things looked pretty good, especially after talking with Tessa Smith about her nine-day trip to Disney World, and seeing that there were no outbreaks tied to the theme parks.
We knew things would be different, but we were more than ready to get away. So, we planned a nine-day trip of our own. It included Disney World, Universal, Discovery Cove and Sea World. Here are some of the highlights, pros and cons of our pandemic vacation.
CON: They are not running trams from the parking lot to the park/transportation center. During this trip, it felt unseasonably humid and hot (more like August than October). The humidity was heavy, sweat down your back brutal on most days. This was true on some cloudy days as well.
Even getting there early, it was a loooooooong walk to the transportation center from the parking lot.
In prior trips, we would park hop at least twice during the day. With park hopping suspended, we were looking forward to slowing down and indulging more in the day.
The brutal humidity made that impossible. We were able to fit in Haunted Mansion, Space Mountain, and Thunder Mountain before running back to the hotel to cool off and clean up.
Jenn knew about Discovery Cove before I did. During some of our previous Orlando trips, we heard people talking about how much they loved their experience and were ready to go back. We had our first experience there in 2018, and were pleased we could include it on this trip.
PROS: We felt safe. Protocols were in place that focused on distancing and masks. They also allow you to pull your mask down when taking photos.
CONS: However, at times, you did have to work to keep your own distance. You obviously didn't have to wear masks when snorkeling in the reef, and people weren't always being vigilant about keeping their distance. I loved swimming with all of the sea life in the reef (especially stingrays), but it sucked to have to keep an eye out for obliviots who didn't watch where they were going. I got kicked in the head and even had a guy bump into me while recording video underwater.
Nonetheless, we want to go back when we visit Orlando again.
I'm always excited to go to Hollywood Studios - the park with two of my favorite fandoms (Star Wars and The Muppets). Since you have to wear masks while taking photos, I was glad I got to go to Galaxy's Edge in Disneyland before the pandemic hit. I was anxious to return to Batuu and build another lightsaber.
PROS: They have the distancing worked out really well. They can snake lines for things like the Millennium Falcon ride and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Train. However, I do NOT think the runaway train ride is worth a 60+ minute wait. It's a cute little trackless ride, but not much more.
CONS: The Rise of the Resistance virtual queue is not the way. We tried FIVE times to log into the app and compete with everyone else to get a boarding pass to ride Rise of the Resistance. Each time, it filled up in seconds. To increase our chances, we were advised to have Jenn also login to the app and try to get into a group.
For a moment - it looked like she got through. However, when she attempted to confirm, it said every member of her party was not in the park. That was obviously an error...and another failed attempt.
For a company that is dedicated to the customer experience - there has to be a better way. I was disappointed to miss this. In fact, we CANCELLED our last day plans to Animal Kingdom to go back to Hollywood Studios a THIRD time to try this, only to fail again.
However, it was good that we did that because when I brought my lightsaber back to the hotel (after our second trip), it was malfunctioning. I was easily able to come back and get it fixed without issue.
We LOVE the Food and Wine Festival, and we were so pleased that it didn't get cancelled this year. We went to Epcot on Wednesday, and the crowds weren't that bad. It felt like the least crowded day of the trip, and it was easy to walk on to Journey Into the Imagination, Soarin' and The Seas.
PROS: The food was awesome (as always). Also, I was so pleased to see more Figment merchandise this year. My birthday was a week away, so Jenn got these as birthday presents for me.
Sleepy Figment now sleeps on top of my CPU. However, he uses his imagination and turns it into a cloud.
CONS: The lack of merchandise at The American Experience. It's incredible the amount of stuff you can buy at other countries...but not the home country. The old store is now an art store and the kiosk outside of the attraction was shut down. We were told it's been shut down since the re-opening.
Some of the coolest Disney merch is the USA-themed stuff. However, that's not the most disappointing thing. When they converted the restaurant into a Sam the Eagle-themed barbeque place, I was stoked. I was especially excited to see the t-shirts and glasses that came with it. I was REALLY looking forward to getting my hands on those, but I couldn't.
Not only because the kiosk was closed, but they didn't bother to sell them anywhere else. The Muppet store at Hollywood Studios was closed, and with the park's insane history of not having much Muppet merchandise, this was really disappointing.
It's also really, really confusing.
We're not always able to incorporate Universal Studios into our trip, but we did this time. I was interested to see how they were handling things during the pandemic.
PROS: We felt safe. Like Disney, there were distancing and mobile food ordering processes. Also, they had employees sanitize everyone's hands before getting on a ride. You get your own cabin when riding the Hogwarts Express, and they tell you you're being watched via a small camera. That way, they can see if you pull your mask down. If you do, the train won't move and/or they will call you out.
I will say there didn't seem to be as many staff members monitoring lax mask wearing like they have at Disney.
We were also pleased to find out there was no virtual queue competition. So, I was able to get on the new Hagrid-themed ride, and it was crazy-fun! Also, while Disney hasn't reinstalled its Fast Pass system, you can get Universal's Express added to your ticket. This allows you to get into an Express line for every ride (except Hagrid).
CONS: The merchandise in the warehouse. When I returned from my trip, I added several new fandom-themed masks to my inventory. However, a Ravenclaw mask was not one of them. I saw people wearing them, but I only saw them in one store (and they were the wrong size). I was told they're in the warehouse and they didn't know when they'd get them in the stores.
This was disappointing, especially when you consider that Universal doesn't add a lot new Harry Potter merchandise anyway. I see the same stuff almost every trip.
The rest of the trip
There were limitations and disappointments, but there was also a lot of fun, and it was good to get away. Lines weren't all that bad, and distancing makes the waits shorter than expected at times. However, the heat made us skip some that were listed at 70+ minutes.
I think we'll continue to keep an eye on things before planning another Orlando trip. That includes considering the humidity factor.
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