After closing down due to COVID-19 on March 12, 2020, Universal Orlando was one of the first major theme parks in the U.S. to reopen.
As you might imagine, the resort has changed significantly to accommodate pandemic precautions. You owe it to yourself to take stock of what you can expect at Universal’s parks in advance of a visit. That way, you won't be disappointed by unanticipated changes, and you’ll be able to plan accordingly.
Before we delve into the details, you should know upfront that nearly all of Universal Orlando's rides and attractions are open and operating (with the exception of the water park rides at Volcano Bay; more on that later). Maybe you’ve been longing to take a ride aboard Hagrid’s motorbike to catch a peek at the Wizarding World’s magical creatures. Or maybe you've been hoping to soar alongside Spider-Man. Those kinds of experiences take us away from the real world in the best of circumstances, but perhaps they are just what we need during this especially strange and difficult time.
What is Open at Universal Orlando?
The theme park resort reopened in phases. CityWalk—the dining, retail, and entertainment complex that connects the two theme parks—reopened a handful of venues on May 14, 2020. Universal then opened some of its hotels on June 2, and on June 5, it reopened the gates to all three parks: Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Universal’s Volcano Bay water park.
Note that although the water park opened in the spring, Universal closed Volcano Bay “for the season” on November 2, 2020. It is planning to reopen the park on February 27, 2021. Note also that prior to the pandemic, the water park remained open all year long. The resort is saying that it plans to conduct “annual maintenance” on attractions during the closure. It will continue to sell tickets for Volcano Bay for visits scheduled for February 27 and beyond.
Virtually everything else is open now, but you should note the following:
- Most venues are now open at CityWalk, including the Cinemark movie theater, which had remain closed when the complex first reopened. The nightclubs at CityWalk, including The Groove and the Red Coconut Club, remain shuttered. The Blue Man Group theater is temporarily closed.
- Select Universal Orlando hotels are open: Loews Royal Pacific Resort, Loews Portofino Bay Hotel, Hard Rock Hotel, Cabana Bay Beach Resort, and Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Dockside Inn and Suites.
- Loews Sapphire Falls Resort, Universal’s Endless Summer Resort – Surfside Inn and Suites, and Universal’s Aventura Hotel reopened but have since temporarily closed.
- The parks are operating with reduced hours and typically close at 5 p.m. or 6 p.m.
Things to Consider as You Plan a Universal Orlando Visit
Here are some general things you should know before you get to the resort:
- Attendance is limited: As part of the resort’s reopening guidelines, it is required to operate with reduced capacity at all three parks. However, since the resort opened, it generally hits its limited capacity threshold only on weekends. To check whether the parks have maxed out on a given day, you can go to the resort's official site, UniversalOrlando.com, or call its Resort Capacity Hotline at 407-817-8317.
- Reservations are not required to visit the parks: Unlike most other theme parks (including the ones at Disney World and SeaWorld Orlando), Universal is not requiring guests to make advance reservations for the day they wish to visit the parks during the pandemic.
- No kennels: Sorry, Fido. The resort’s kennels are temporarily unavailable.
- Download the app to stay informed: Universal recommends that visitors download the latest version of its Universal Orlando Resort app to stay current with any updates or changes. It will also allow you to use some powerful features, including mobile food and drink ordering, contactless purchasing, and the Virtual Line system for reserving a ride.
Rules for Visiting the Parks
To help ensure a safe experience for its guests, Universal Orlando has introduced a number of new policies and procedures. Be prepared to follow the rules.
- Face coverings at Universal Studios Florida & Islands of Adventure: All guests must wear masks that cover their noses and mouths. Face shields are acceptable, though they cannot be worn on attractions. You may remove your mask while eating or swimming at the hotels’ pools, or while on water rides such as Jurassic Park River Adventure. The two theme parks also have “U-Rest” areas, where guests are permitted to remove their coverings (but still maintain social distancing). Universal is requiring all of its employees to wear masks as well, and has branded masks available for purchase.
- Face coverings at Universal’s Volcano Bay: The resort is requiring guests to wear face coverings in the restaurants (but not while eating), the shops, and while entering and exiting the water park. While visitors are encouraged to wear face masks in other areas of the park, it is not required. Face coverings are not allowed in the pools or on the slides.
- Temperature screenings: Before entering the main concourse where CityWalk and the theme parks are located, guests are required to have their temperatures checked with touchless thermometers. If they exhibit a temperature above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, they are not allowed to enter. (As a precaution. you might want to check your temperature before heading to the resort.)
- Social distancing: By limiting daily attendance at the parks, Universal makes it possible for parties to stay apart from other visitors. Ground decals and signs direct guests to keep at least six feet away from others in attraction queues and other high-traffic areas. Operators are staggering the loading of ride vehicles and theater seats to separate parties and maintain social distancing.
- Use hand sanitizer: You’ll have to apply hand sanitizer before boarding ride vehicles. Universal provides the sanitizer, so you won’t have to tote your own stash. There are additional hand sanitizer stations throughout the park; some are located near the exits of attractions.
- Use Virtual Line when required: Pre-COVID-19, Universal had implemented its (free) Virtual Line ride reservation program for select attractions, including the hugely popular Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Coaster and all of the slides at Universal’s Volcano Bay. It has since added additional attractions, such as Revenge of the Mummy and Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringtotts, to the program. To help control capacity and maintain social distancing on certain attractions, Universal may require guests to use Virtual Line. Check the Universal Orlando Resort app on the day that you visit to see the status of Virtual Line and the wait times for attractions.
- No groups bigger than 10: You can go to the park with as many people as you wish; however, Universal says that it is limiting parties to no more than 10 people aboard rides.
- Staggered parking: If you will be driving to Universal Orlando, attendants in the resort’s huge garage will direct you to a parking spot that maintains distance from other vehicles.
- No valet parking: Valet service is not available at Universal’s main transportation center, located at CityWalk.
Changes to Rides, Experiences, and Events
Most rides and attractions may be open at Universal’s parks, but that doesn’t mean that everything has remained the same. Some experiences and events have been suspended. Here's what you can expect.
- No parade: Universal’s Superstar Parade, which is normally presented daily at Universal Studios Florida, is temporarily suspended during the pandemic. The procession typically draws large crowds, something the park is trying to prevent.
- No nighttime presentations: As with parades, Universal is not presenting nighttime shows that attract large crowds, including Universal’s Cinematic Celebration (at the Studios park) or The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle (at Islands of Adventure).
- No single-rider lines: Forget about saving time in line and sitting next to strangers on attractions. Universal has temporarily eliminated the single-rider line option.
- Modified character meet-and-greets: The characters are at the parks, but guests are not able to get close and personal with them for photos, autographs, or other interactions. Photos taken from a distance of at least six feet are allowed; guests can quickly remove face coverings for photos with the characters.
- Some shows may not be available: While most attractions are open, the theater-style presentation, Fear Factor Live, is not up and running. Note that the new attraction, The Bourne Stuntacular, is open.
- Some attractions are closed: Fast & Furious: Supercharged and Kang & Kodos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl are shuttered at Universal Studios Florida. Poseidon’s Fury and Storm Force Accelatron are closed at Islands of Adventure.
- No children’s playgrounds: Hands-on play structures and areas, such as Camp Jurassic, are closed.
- Special 2021 events: Instead of its typical Mardi Gras event, Universal Orlando is presenting Mardi Gras 2021: International Flavors of Carnaval from February 6 to March 28. Taking a page from Epcot, the food-centric festival will feature booths dishing out items from popular Carnaval locales such as New Orleans, Trinidad and Tobago, and Spain. Instead of a parade, Mardi Gras floats will be on display to explore. And instead of the celebrity concert series, the resort is presenting street entertainment and local musicians.
- Universal canceled its Halloween Horror Nights event for 2020 and modified its holiday events. Perhaps both will return to “normal” for 2021.
What to Expect at Restaurants
Virtually all of Universal’s restaurants are open, but the COVID-era experience is a bit different. Here are some things to know before you go.
- No character dining: Dining with the characters, including the Despicable Me character breakfast and Marvel character dinner, has temporarily been halted.
- Longer wait times: By restricting the number of tables that can be filled at dining establishments, parties are able to maintain at least six feet away from other diners. But that may mean longer waits at some of the more popular dining spots.
- Mobile food and beverage ordering: Instead of placing orders onsite, Universal is encouraging (but not requiring) guests to use its mobile ordering option at counter-service restaurants. This precludes the need to wait in lines to order food and make contact with employees.
What to Expect at Universal’s Hotels
Universal Orlando hotels, which are operated in partnership with Loews Hotels, are quite nice. Some things you should know about staying on property during the pandemic:
- Screening protocols: As at the parks and CityWalk, staff members are checking guests' temperatures. They are also asking guests a series of questions to check for virus symptoms. Hotel guests that clear the screening procedure are issued a wristband that allows them to bypass additional temperature checks for the remainder of the day at the parks or elsewhere in the resort.
- Contactless transactions: Instead of seeking assistance from an employee in the lobby or using one of the hotel’s phones, you can use your own mobile device to reach an employee via text messaging. Note that Universal does not have a remote check-in option, so you will need to physically go to the registration desk when you arrive. However, contactless express checkout is available.
- No in-room food delivery: Room service is still available, but the food is left outside of guests' doors.
- No in-room housekeeping: Staff are deep-cleaning rooms after guests check out, but Universal’s hotels are not offering in-room housekeeping during stays. Guests can request clean towels, linens, and toiletries, which are left outside of rooms.
- No valet service: Valet parking is not available at the hotels.