Our family has been planning a trip to Universal for almost a year now. We originally were going to go the first week of June but cancelled when it looked like the parks wouldn't be open. They we planned on the middle of July. We cancelled as Florida was hitting their peak. I realize that this past week wasn't an ideal time either but we really needed to get away for a few days.
Our travel group included my wife and two kids, sister and brother-in-law, and parents. Based on everything I have read about Universal's approach to the pandemic I felt that we would be reasonably safe there. The airport and airplane were the wild cards. Luckily on our flight out we breezed through TSA and encountered very few people in the airport. Our flight only had 88 people on it, instead of the 180 it could hold.
We stayed at Kidani Village as we had some DVC points that were going to expire if we didn't use them by December 1st. They were earmarked for Aluani this past March...but we all know how that goes.
Saturday - 11/21
We arrived right at opening time and had hardly any wait at the parking booth. We walked right through the temperature check stations and had minimal waits going through security.
We began the day at IOA. While walking to the park we were able to reserve two rides on Hagrid's (one at 8:30, and one at 10:00). We could have reserved more rides if we wanted to but my wife and I were the only ones in our party who bothered to figure out virtual line reservations on the app. After making our way through the turnstiles we headed straight to Hagrid's.
The queue looked extremely long for our first ride. The line started out near the Sinbad theater. It turned out this was mostly due to social distancing. Markings on the ground were clear and the vast majority of guests were adhering to spacing and wearing masks properly. I felt completely safe in the queue with the exception of the locker area, which was part of the queue because of the crowds. The attendants did their best to keep the locker area clear but the mass of people made that difficult.
The queue moved very quickly. I estimate we waited less than 45 minutes for both of our rides on the first day. The kids absolutely loved the ride. My daughter, 10, said it is her favorite ride. My son, 11, ranks it second, behind Banshee. I found the sidecar to be a more comfortable ride experience than the bike. Overall it's a great ride. It's in my top 10 but still not as great as Millennium or Mystic Timbers.
After our first ride on Hagrid's we grabbed a butterbeer, polishing it off before our second ride. We were able to get one with no wait. Delicious! Hogsmeade developed quite the crowd so we decided to head on over to Diagon Alley. The posted time for the Hogwart's Express was 70 minutes but we only waited 30 minutes. Our plan was to catch a ride on Gringot's. The spacing in the locker area is worse than on Hagrid's. The posted wait time was 60 minutes but the queue looked shorter than that. This is where things started going downhill for the day.
After about 30 minutes in the queue an announcement was made that Gringott's was currently down. We gave it a few more minutes before leaving the line, which turned out to be a good call. As this was around lunchtime we made our first foray into ordering food on the app. Ordering the food was quick and easy. Getting the food was the complete opposite.
We ordered from "Fast Food Boulevard" in Springfield. This is apparently the food court in the Simpsons area. There is no restaurant with that name, so finding where to go was a bit of a frustrating endeavor. None of my party was comfortable eating inside so we grabbed a table outside the food court while a few of us hopped in line...for something. According to the host at the front, the line was for people waiting for a table and those who were ordering the food to go. But you can't hit prepare order on the app until you have a table. 10 minutes later someone came through and told us there was a separate area for people taking the food to go. 45 minutes after getting in line we finally had our food.
After lunch we headed to MIB as the rain started. I'm a sucker for the dark ride shooters, including cheesy ones like Boo Blasters at KI and Den of Lost Thieves at Indiana Beach. MIB had a 40 minute wait time posted but it was more like 25 minutes. On our way out we caught a virtual line pass for Mummy. We waited longer in the queue outside than inside the building. In all it was less than a 10 minute wait.
Sunday - 11/22
The crowds were a bit heavier today. The line to pay for parking was a bit longer today but we still breezed through the temperature check and security stations.
We started the day at Universal. We went straight to Diagon Alley to catch the ride on Gringott's that we missed from the day before. On our way over we booked virtual line passes for the Fast and the Furious and Jimmy Fallon. Gringott's had a 20 minute wait posted but it was actually a walk on. We rode a second time since the line was so short.
After our two rides on Gringott's we stopped at Olivander's to buy wands for the kids. I was expecting them to run in the neighborhood of $40. I was not expecting the $55 price tag. Yikes! Luckily we did not have to wait long to get into the shop and my son, who is notoriously indecisive, didn't take long to pick out his wand. We spent a bit of time in Diagon Alley while the crowds were light walking around and letting the kids play with their wands.
We then headed over to Fast and the Furious. Even with the virtual line pass we waited around a half hour. That was a half hour of my life that I will never get back. The ride felt like you either had to be a fan of the series or overlook the terrible story line and acting to enjoy it. I must be in the minority as the ride was consistently posting over 100 minutes for the wait time the rest of our trip.
Jimmy Fallon was up next. The line was virtual line only, which was out of the building. The lower queue inside was maybe half full. Overall Universal did a great job encouraging social distancing in their queues but the lounge area in Jimmy Fallon was definitely the exception. They had three different color groups up there at one time. Seating was every other row and three seats between parties. The ride overall was decent but not something I would jump at the chance to ride again.
We decided to try our hand again at ordering food via the app again. This time we tried "Richter's Burger Co.". We went at 11:30 trying to beat the lunch rush. Like the day before we grabbed a table outside and had a few wait in line for the food. Going through the line was quicker than the day before but we still ended up waiting 40 minutes for a burger.
We had a 12:40-1:10 virtual line reservation for Hagrid's. As it was 12:35 and King's Cross Station was posting a 60 minute wait we decided to walk over to IOA. We probably would have made it in time but we weren't taking any chances. Hagrid's had about the same wait as the day before.
After our ride on Hagrid's we hoofed it back over to Universal Studios to catch our Mummy reservation at 2:40. We decided to give Transformers a chance. The wait time was posted as 70 minutes but it looked far less than that. It turned out to only be about 25 minutes. It felt like we were flying through the queue. Some of the rooms only allowed for 3-5 groups at a time with social distancing restrictions. After a ride on the Mummy we wrapped up for the day. On the way to the car we made a stop at "Toothsome Chocolate Emporium" and grabbed some chocolate bars.
Monday - 11/23
Holy crowds, Batman! Like the other two days we arrived at opening. Our wait through parking was a bit longer but didn't prepare us for what was ahead. We ended up in a mass of humanity waiting to get our temperature checked. From this point until we got into IOA I felt unsafe.
Since we hadn't scored a ride on Forbidden Journey yet we headed straight there. The posted time was 45 minutes but I don't think we waited longer than 20 minutes. As great a ride as Hagrid's is, I'd have to say that Forbidden Journey is slightly better. We had some time to kill before our reservation for Hagrid's so we hung out in the gift shop and had the kids spend some of their souvenir money from my mom. And we still had time so we caught a ride on the Flight of the Hippogriff. The posted wait time was 40 minutes. We didn't wait more than 15. The line for our fourth and final ride on Hagrid's was much shorter in spite of the larger crowds. This time it started at the Hogsmeade station.
Our next stop was Jurassic Park for the boat ride and some views of the Velocicoaster. The posted wait time was 75 minutes. We ended up waiting about 50 minutes and ended up with a front row seat. Good for the views, bad for the wetness factor. It was nice to experience a ride with practical effects instead of screens but the ride definitely felt dated...but not as bad as ET. More on that later.
Lunch was less of an ordeal today. We found a counter service pizza place in the Jurassic Park area. We waited less than 10 minutes to get our food. Much better than ordering in the app.
After lunch we made our way around the back of the park. Kong had an 80 minute wait posted. No thanks. Spiderman was our next stop. My daughter was freaking out about riding it after her bad experience on the Mummy. I took one for the team and sat out even though I love that ride. The posted wait time was 100 minutes but took only 60.
We then hopped back over to the Studios to catch a ride on E.T. The posted time was 95 minutes. Again our wait time was much shorter, only 45 minutes. This was my first time riding it. The first half of the ride reminded me of Peter Pan. The second half of the ride felt like Steven Spielberg's acid induced fantasy. It was just so odd.
At that point we were ready to head back to the hotel. For dinner we ordered from Sanaa at Kidani Village. The salmon and rice was fantastic!
Tuesday - 11/24
We spent the morning checking out the animals at Kidani Village. Based on discussions with one of the keepers the other night 8 am was one of the best times to check out the animals. They are released from veterinary care at that time.
After a good half hour watching the animals we headed over to Universal Studios for our last day. We didn't have much on our agenda. We snagged a ride on Simpsons (40 minute posted wait vs. 20 minute actual wait) and another lap on MIB (35 minutes posted wait vs. 15 minute actual wait). Our next stop was the Hopping Pot for some drinks. I tried the Fishy Green Ale. I was not a fan. You win some, you lose some.
After a few hours we were done with the parks and we had some time to kill. We drove over to Disney Springs to kill some time and grab some lunch before heading to the airport.
Overall it was a great trip. It's tough to make 8 people happy but I think we made it work. Other than a few spots I felt safe with the protocols in place at Universal. The vast majority of guests (99%+) complied with social distancing and wearing their masks. Now we quarantine for two weeks.
Sounds like a good trip given the circumstances. I weighed trying to snag one of the Black Friday specials they were offering yesterday, it was 4 nights at Cabana Bay and four 4-day park-to-park tickets for $1200. Great deal, and I have a bunch of credits for flights and rental cars, but still decided that I didn't want to risk it just yet.
Another consideration for us was Southwest not selling the middle seat through December 1st. Had they been selling the middle seat during our travel time we would not have taken the vacation. As it is we were able to snag round trip airfare from Chicago for $130.
The spacing worked out very well. On the way to Orlando we had two empty rows in front of our travel party and behind. The flight back was more crowded but I still only had one person outside our travel party within a 6 foot radius. Wearing an N95, a surgical mask, and a face shield I feel confident that I didn't catch anything on the flight or in the airport.
I was at Animal Kingdom this past Monday morning for a few hours. Although the crowds were heavier than I had seen since the parks reopened I still never felt "unsafe" in terms of distancing. I had my own row on Kilimanjaro Safaris with dividers, the other rides were spacing in lines and on vehicles, and the animal trails have designated spots to stand and watch.
It seems like Universal weekends are best to be avoided as the "first come first in" vs reservations fills the park up quickly and fills it a bit too much for a good experience. I did renew my UO AP the other day after deciding to take some time off simply because I've been there done that. But $259 for 15 months instead of 12 + Velocicoaster = passholder thru March 2022 now.
Surprisingly Monday and Tuesday were busier than the weekend. The park didn't hit capacity on Saturday or Sunday but did on Monday and Tuesday (and the rest of the week from what I understand). Even though it was at capacity on those days it didn't feel crowded except for a few trouble spots (Hogsmeade, Diagon Alley, and security).
Yeah, Thanksgiving definitely changed the crowd pattern, as it did in the before times as well. I switched my work schedule around and have a reservation for Magic Kingdom coming up on Tuesday for the first genuinely cool/cold Florida winter weather day we're supposed to have. I'll be curious if the holiday rush is gone and it's quiet again.
During my October trip, Monday morning was the busiest getting into the park. There were two huge lines going into IOA but once we were inside it was generally ok. I can’t put my finger on why.
I’ve heard the same thing about mobile ordering from the Universal crowd and I had a similar experience at Red Oven Pizza in City Walk, I don’t know why they haven’t fixed it by now.
My wife and I leave on Tuesday morning for Royal Pacific. I bought us KN95 masks for the plane and we plan on wearing a cloth mask on top of that which seems to be the thing to do at the moment.
Pack your gore tex coat and long johns. Highs will only be in the 60s next week.
That’s good mask wearing weather.
I haven't been paying attention. How is Universal handling their park reservations? Also, is the virtual queue reservation thing in place of the ExpressPass or something different?
Hobbes: "What's the point of attaching a number to everything you do?"
Calvin: "If your numbers go up, it means you're having more fun."
They don't have reservations. They fill up and close the gates but it's only happened a few times. Virtual queues are in addition to the Express Pass to keep people out of long queues and only operate when the attendance warrants it.
I think it’s happened more than a few times. This past week they were at capacity on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. They had hit capacity several times in October during the weekends.
When we were there Hagrid’s and Jimmy Fallon were virtual line the whole time. Fast and Furious switched between a mix of virtual line and standby and virtual line only. Mummy switched over to virtual line in the afternoons. Everything else was standby the whole time...but again with exaggerated wait times.
The system worked smoothly but there is a major flaw. Of the eight people in our group, six of us had phones. If four of the people weren’t technophobic we could have easily booked six rides for Hagrid’s for eight people. As it was, you weren’t getting a ride if you got there after 8:30. There were rumors of drops later in the day but we didn’t catch any in the app.
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