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The New Normal At Orlando’s Theme Parks

Artist impression of new character interactions using the parade route in Magic Kingdom

Written by Ryan

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23rd June 2020


After an unprecedented more than 12 week shut down of all Orlando’s attractions, we are starting to see the attractions industry’s tentative first steps to getting places back open. These first steps to full operations are anything but ‘normal’ but some of what we see may have to be classed as a ‘new normal’ for the time being. Guessing what the ‘new normal’ will be is like trying to score a goal with moving goalposts. This week we try to explain what the ‘new normal’ is at Orlando’s theme parks.

Should You Visit In 2020?

We realise that many of you have been planning your dream Orlando trip for months or years before Coronavirus dealt the world a cruel blow. Our answer may not be a popular choice with many who see enforced caps on visitors as a way to do more rides with fewer queues.

The reality is, though, that life inside Orlando’s theme parks will be very different from what many people will recall or hope. Getting to Orlando from the UK isn’t exactly cheap or quick so, in the short term, we would advise against travelling probably for the rest of this year. There are too many variables in play for us to say with confidence that you would receive value for money.

Getting There Is Just The First Headache

While flights from the UK to Orlando are due to resume next month in limited form, 9 hours may feel an awful lot longer than usual. No concrete guidelines have really been issued by the government but you can bet that social distancing, temperature checks and probably face masks will all be mandatory.

Short-haul flights have had snack services suspended and there is currently no word on how long haul services will operate the traditional dinner service. The act of a simple stroll around the cabin will likely be banned for the foreseeable future and you will have to wait in a virtual line for the toilet by way of ringing for assistance.

There is no word on luggage restrictions or entertainment offerings for long haul flights just yet. Could you potentially survive 9 hours with nothing to do over the Atlantic Ocean? Not even able to enjoy a game or a movie on your usually dependable seat back tv. It could be a reality if hand luggage is banned.

Analysts are predicting it could be three years for air passenger levels to return to 2019 levels. The short term could mean higher prices for the limited flights that are available on popular routes such as Orlando. 3 years may seem like a lifetime away. If you choose to visit now you will be missing out on what most people regard as quintessential experiences of an Orlando holiday. But can you wait for however long it will take for all traditional experiences to return?

Quarantine Rules

Again, nothing specific has been mentioned in regards to quarantine. Assume until you hear otherwise that you will be required to quarantine at both ends of your trip which will be a deal-breaker for many. Indeed, with Orlando recording record rates of infection and the UK having the highest mortality rate in Europe it could be hard to justify travelling between the two destinations without quarantining. Check very carefully before you book your trip because a 2-week trip could turn into a 6-week marathon when factoring in quarantine restrictions.

Reduced Crowds, Yes, But Reduced Choice Too

Crowds may be reduced but local health and safety guidelines may stop some attractions from opening at all. Park operating budgets will be under pressure to make up the millions that have been lost. Some attractions may be shuttered to keep staffing costs at an appropriate level for the reduced crowds.

Then there are the staples that won’t be coming back when the parks open once again. Yes, i’m talking about fireworks. Hong Kong Disney and Shanghai Disney parks are now open at up to 30% capacity but social distancing has killed off any hope of fireworks for now. The same bad news for another of Disney’s flagship photo moments, the afternoon parades, which won’t be running for the time being.

Artist impression of new character interactions using the parade route in Magic Kingdom
While You may not be able to get too close to your favourite characters, Disney has annonced that there will still be an opportunity to see them when the parks reopen. Image Credit: Disney Parks

Disney is putting a positive spin on things announcing that characters will still be roaming with new pop up selfie spots for you to capture the magic. You can still get that elusive selfie with your favourite character but close interactions and hugs are strictly off-limits for now.

Our characters will appear in new and different ways that bring a smile to your face while also being mindful of physical distancing.

Statement regarding characters in and around Disney on the official Disney Parks Blog

In addition to meet and greets, makevoers will also temporarily be unavailable and children’s play areas will be out of bounds

A trip to the Magic Kingdom from July 11th will be akin to a Disney Lite holiday. Yes, it will still feel magical strolling the streets, seeing your favourite characters from afar but at the same time you will notice that something is missing, The question you have to ask yourself is, is it value for money for you?

Park Hopping Off The Cards Too!

Park hopping has been a mainstay of not just Disney but Universal and Seaworld parks for years. Thanks to limits on people in the parks, Disney, Seaworld, Busch Gardens and Legoland are not allowing park-hopping for the short term.

There is no word on when park hopping will return beyond a mention in the Disney Parks blog that 2021 tickets will have the ability but for now 2020 tickets with park hopping has had the hopping option suspended.

A small ray of light in this particular story though is Universal are not currently limiting park hopping, even for people using Hogwarts Express to get from one magical world of Harry Potter to the other although this may change as the parks become more popular.

We hope to bring back the ability to visit more than one park per day soon and will continue to offer these add-ons for 2021 ticket purchases.

Avery Maehrer, Director Of Communications for Disney World Resort

Ticket AND Reservation Required At Disney World

Empty eats between family groups will be the new normal for the time being
Rides and shows will have empty seats between family groups to adhere to local social distancing rules. Image Credit: Disney Parks

To help manage expectant crowds, getting through the gates of a Disney theme park now requires more than just your ticket. The same blog post above goes into some detail about the new Disney Park Pass System that is being launched next week. It is different from Fastpass+ but still requires a valid ticket and an account with My Disney Experience, the online portal for all things Disney Parks related.

In order to be let in, you need to plan in advance the day of your visit to a specific park. Disney Park Pass will tell you if there is availability at your chosen park on your preferred date. If there is, book yourself in and you’re good to go. Turn up on the day without a valid ticket AND valid Park Pass reservation and you will be refused entry. You CANNOT currently decide on the morning which park you want to visit at Disney. If you have a reservation and change your mind you are free to change your reservation to another park, assuming there are still spaces available.

It’s been reported that multiple UK based agencies have been advised by Disney that the new Park Pass Reservations System is currently planned to be in use until June 2021. As the COVID situation is very dynamic and all parks are taking advice from their local governments this may change. Our best advice here is to assume that you will have to reserve your place in the park for at least the rest of this year and beyond.

Fastpass And Extra Magic Hours Out For The Count

Disney has suspended all Fastpass+ and in-park dining reservations for now. Fastpass queues are being repurposed to help spread out the queue lines. As Fastpass+ is a free perk of all UK tickets it’s unlikely you will be able to claim monetary compensation for not being able to use it.

If you stay on resort one more perk has been removed in Disney World (but strangely, not in Disneyland Paris when it re-opens). Extra magic hours are for hotel guests to get in a selected park 1 hour before the gates open to everyone else. This is currently also suspended, likely to give cast members time to properly clean their areas ahead of opening.

Be A Little More Spontaneous At Universal

Universal Orlando Resort is already open (all 3 parks opened 5th June, the hotels opened 2nd June) and only require a valid ticket to enter, no reservation required. Numbers are limited though so getting there early is recommended.

Universal President Bill Davis Shows Off His Face Mask In Front Of The Universal Globe
Universal Orlando President and COO Bill Davis shows off his face mask in front of the Universal Globe.

Already stringent security checks are coupled with mandatory temperature checks slowing the process of entering the resort once you manage to park up.

In line with local government advice, face masks are currently mandatory including all public areas in resort hotels. The only exceptions are water parks and select water-based attractions such as Jurassic Park River Adventure.

Reservations Also Required At Seaworld And Busch Gardens

Like Disney, Seaworld and Busch Gardens also require specific day reservations as well as a valid ticket to enter. There isn’t a separate app for you to download, reservations are easy to find on the Seaworld or Busch Gardens websites.

Park hopping is excluded currently. This isn’t as much of an issue with either park compared to Disney. While Disney has 4 main theme parks to choose from, Seaworld and Busch Gardens only have 1 main park and a water park each.

Dining In The Parks

Local guidance has put a temporary stop to sit in dining within any of Orlando’s parks. If you have any dining reservations booked they will be automatically cancelled. Disney will be moving from a 180-day window for booking your dining reservations to 60 days once it is re-introduced.

High touchpoint areas such as the popular condiment stations will be closed off. Disneyland Paris has announced that when it reopens on July 15th, traditional buffet service restaurants will be transformed into a new all-you-can-eat table service option. Local guidelines currently prohibit Disney World parks from offering this service. Meals in the parks are more grab and go affairs.

Cast members will be getting training in enhanced cleaning techniques for high touch areas like here on hand rails on a tea cups ride
Enhanced cleaning regimes, on rides and in restaurants could lead to longer queues while ride vehicles and restaurant areas are cleaned more frequently. Image Credit: Disney Parks

Cutlery will come pre-packaged and single-use cups will be in use for those who purchase a refillable cup option to their day. Restaurant hours will likely be modified and certain establishments will remain closed while restrictions are in place. With reduced hours, frequent cleaning and a reduction in capacity in the restaurants that remain open, you should expect to queue longer for a meal.

To help you plan your day, here are the links to the parks restaurant options which are updated regularly.

Seasonal Celebrations

Seasonal celebrations add an extra layer of magic for limited durations throughout the year but will they still run? The short answer is probably not or not at least in a recognisable form. Disney has already announced that H20 Glow Nights at Typhoon Lagoon this summer and Mickeys Not So Scary Halloween Party events in September and October are both cancelled for 2020.

There is no word from Universal yet about their popular Halloween Horror Nights event. It’s hard to see an event of this magnitude and popularity going ahead. If it does, don’t expect the same level of immersion and perhaps even a reduction in the choice of mazes available. The official HHN Page is suspiciously lite on details currently. I can’t see how a socially distanced HHN would work given the scares are dependent on close interaction with scare actors. Maybe Universal will surprise us all or take Disney’s queue and cancel the event for this year.

Other events that don’t rely as heavily on parades and fireworks such as the Food And Wine Festival at EPCOT will be happening in a reduced form. There won’t be concerts but much of what people love about these gathering will be there.

Riders holding hands on a carousel ride while wearing face masks
Ride vehicles will be reserved for family groups. Where this isn’t practical empty rows will be left between family groups. Image Credit: Disney Parks

One thing is almost certain for much of what remains this year, parades and fireworks won’t be going ahead in any form. As a lot of seasonal celebrations rely heavily on experiences that cannot currently take place some may assume that it would be improper to hold these events. It will be down to park operators to see if they can justify running an event in a reduced form and still expect people to pay extra for the experience.

Contactless Technology In The Parks

All park operators are pushing their respective mobile apps. Before COVID you only really needed to use My Disney Experience but functionality has been greatly enhanced in all parks respective apps.

They are no longer just a post noticeboard of ride wait times. Disney will allow mobile hotel check-in options to speed up the process. Select menus in the parks will be available on your phone by scanning a QR code. There is a huge push by all operators to get you to pay contactless by using your phone or bank card instead of cash.

Universal has introduced an innovative Virtual Line Return Time feature to their app to save you standing in endless queues. This is a natural evolution of the virtual queue technology introduced 3 years ago with the opening of Volcano Bay. You will need to be in the resort to book your spot and the popular rides will soon fill up so get in early!

Conclusion

That is really what it comes down to. With park operators under pressure to make up lost earnings, ticket prices won’t be coming down.

Parks are doing everything in their power to make things appear as normal as possible when things are anything but that for the next few months at least.

It will be down to us as individuals to justify the cost of a reduced experience without a reduction in monetary value. The thought of waiting perhaps a year or more for things to return to what may be more recognised as normal could be too much for some.

Personally, I can’t imagine a trip to Disney without some fireworks and Universal is doing great work with their unannounced Jurassic Park roller coaster so I will hold off planning my next trip for a few more months yet.

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