Central Florida’s theme parks first closed in March in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. That closure reportedly cost Disney more than $5 billion, and led to more than 28,000 layoffs in the domestic parks. Orlando’s theme parks, like the 4 at Walt Disney World, have been back open with strict social distancing and sterilization procedures in place since July.
Then last Friday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis announced that the state was rolling back it’s COVID-19 restrictions — entering phase 3 effective immediately.
I visited Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World in the days following the Governor’s announcement to see for myself what visiting a Florida park looks like during a pandemic — now that Florida’s state government has decided it’s over.
“IT’S LEGAL NOW, SORRY.”
The death of a family member found me planning a last-minute trip to Central Florida a few weeks back. Florida at the time — like California where I live — was still under various mandates governing things like social distancing, restaurant capacity and masking to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Southwest Airlines gate agents loaded passengers 10 at a time onto my flight Thursday morning at Oakland International Airport. One of many social distancing measures I would see on my 6-day trip that seems to allow for safe social distancing while having the added effect of streamlining the process it’s being applied to.
Masks are required on-board and middle seats are being left open to allow a little space to distance, a move Southwest Airlines has extended through the end of November (at least). Some other carriers are returning to regular seating — and in the case of United Airlines — the company’s Chief Communications Officer Josh Earnest — told USA Today (which has a full list of airlines with middle-seat policies), “Blocking middle seats is a PR strategy, not a safety strategy.”
Scientifically — leaving the middle seat open may not actually make me safer, but it definitely made me feel better, and substantially influenced my decision to book with Southwest Airlines. Free checked bags, and no middle seats sounds pretty good to me. Can we keep this? How about an end table instead of a middle seat?
Friday night, my Mother and I drove from her home in Deltona to New Smyrna Beach. We stopped at this place called The Breakers. The crowded bar and grill sits a few hundred feet from the Atlantic Ocean with large windows at the back looking across the white sand at the surf beyond.
The man who seated us had his mask down under his nose, but the rest of the staff were correctly wearing them. Mom and I sat down around dusk, and quickly ordered dinner.
While waiting for our drinks, a family caught my attention coming through the front door. The parents, who were in their late 20s or early 30s, were wearing t-shirts, flip flops, board shorts and other beach friendly attire. They were not — however — wearing masks.
My eyes followed their journey across the noisy bar and I realized that Mom and I were the only two customers in the building wearing masks.
A child at the front of the aforementioned group stumbled toward us, wiping their nose down the entire length of their forearm. You know that really gross nose-wipe that only children think is okay?
As the alarm on my face failed to register to anyone but me — thanks mask, the matriarch of the family pulled out the stool directly next to Mom, and sat down.
I freaked out….vocally this time! Getting the server’s attention before anyone else in the party was seated I said, “They’re seated way too close to us!” I’m talking inches, shoulder-to-shoulder.
Our server replied — walking away, “It’s legal now, sorry.”
A quick search on my phone confirmed it, Florida Governor Ron Desantis had declared— that Florida was moving into phase 3 — beginning immediately. Effectively ending most mandatory guidelines at the state level.
We were hungry — but still considering leaving for our own safety. Thankfully, our server, who’s name I sadly did not catch, returned and quietly offered to move us to a corner of that same bar where we could eat our dinner at a safe social distance. We thanked her, and accepted.
After dropping the check, our server apologized again for the situation. I feel bad that she has to work in that environment.
For some perspective — on the way out I did a quick count and found almost 30 unmasked patrons in the building. The shrimp was great — the overall experience was scary.
Mom and I spent the rest of the evening social distancing barefoot on New Smyrna Beach as a thunderstorm flashed lightning down the eastern coast of Florida.
It was my favorite single moment of the trip.
VISITING UNIVERSAL ORLANDO
After the weekend funeral and related activities Mom and I made plans to visit Universal Orlando on Monday. My first time crossing theme park turnstiles in 2020 and my first visit to Universal Orlando in a couple of years. Mom’s first in decades. As I exited Interstate 4, I was hopeful that Orlando’s theme parks weren’t giving up on pandemic precautions just yet.
When we arrived in the Jaws section of the parking garage my ‘Florida fears’ were alleviated immediately when our temperature was checked near our section of the garage, and then we quickly (which is not unusual) proceeded through Universal Orlando security.
Social distancing and sanitizing measures were visible virtually everywhere you looked. Like Disneyland’s trash cans, there was a touch-free hand sanitizer station every 30 paces or so, sometimes less. If you wanted to keep your hands clean — Universal made it easy. On a few occasions I heard Team Members politely remind guests to pull their masks up, with little noticeable pushback.
Branded, quality fabric masks were (of course) available from every imaginable franchise inside the Universal Studios Store — including one memorializing the ill fated Halloween Horror Nights 2020 featuring a jacked up Beetlejuice. I opted for a rainbow number that says “Love is Universal” — it’s breathable and the large size fits my big head perfectly.
We started our day with the new Bourne Stuntacular at Universal Studios Florida and were not only completely blown away by the show itself — but impressed with the social distancing protocols. Guests were distanced in the pre-show by party, then seated in every other row in the main theatre, with 4 seats separating every party. Immersive live theatre with strangers at-least 6 feet away? Can we please keep this forever?
“I quickly discovered that face masks and 3D glasses are not a great mix.” — Christopher J. Beale
Next up was Transformers: The Ride-3D, where I quickly discovered that face masks and 3D glasses are not a great mix. I enjoyed the time in the air conditioning, but I had trouble seeing the screens.
The line for Revenge of the Mummy was too long for us at more than 45 minutes, so we headed for Hollywood Rip-Ride-Rockit (pictured above).An intense and innovative outdoor roller coaster that allows you to pick the soundtrack, HRRR was Mom’s personal favorite ride of the day. Floor markers in the queue helped with social distancing — but the line was so short that we didn’t have a chance to encounter anyone else too closely. Save for one guy that said he liked my super-gay facemask. Thanks guy.
We found those same floor markers as well as precautions like not running the pre-show, and team members giving every guest hand sanitizer in the queue for the E.T. Adventure Ride — admittedly the attraction broke down and we left without riding. Bummer.
It was Mobile Order only at Moe’s Tavern for lunch. Once we ordered — we were seated and our food was brought to us by a Team Member. I prefer this to visiting the counter — another thing I hope will stick around in post-COVID theme parks. The food was fine.
By this point in the day (around 3pm) rain was moving through Central Florida. This is common most afternoons this time of year — but nevertheless a buzzkill on a park day, so we walked to Islands of Adventure to round out the afternoon.
There was plenty of room inside Hogwarts Castle to social distance while queuing for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, as well as inside the Skull Island: Reign of Kong and The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman queues. But, by this point — the outdoor attractions weren’t going to reopen, so we left.
During our short visit we never felt unsafe on Universal property — I don’t anticipate that you will either. Universal Orlando has this together.
VISITING WALT DISNEY WORLD
I made my Walt Disney World reservation through Park Pass to visit the property the next day, solo. Park-hopping is prohibited at Walt Disney World during COVID-19, so I had to choose a single park and I chose the OG (original gate?) — Magic Kingdom.
The Magic Kingdom is on the north end of Walt Disney World’s sprawling 47 sq. mile property. Located just south of the park is the Seven Seas Lagoon, a man-made lake added in the late 1960s during construction of the Magic Kingdom resort area. The parking lot itself is just south of that and is, I am told, larger than the entire Disneyland Resort in California.
I paid $25 (the current base rate) to park near the front of the Magic Kingdom parking lot, and after a short walk — my temperature was scanned in an Advent Health tent. Then the friendly cast member ushered me to the security checkpoint. This was an off-peak Tuesday, but even with that lens, the crowds seemed light at security.
A noticeable change at Walt Disney World security — the only bags that are hand-checked now are the ones that set the metal detector off…my audio recorder and batteries did not set it off. I’ve never moved through Magic Kingdom security this fast, including the temperature check.
Next, I was assigned my own partitioned-half of a monorail car headed to the front entrance of the Magic Kingdom. Upon arriving the first thing I noticed was the socially-distanced floor markings that now cover the entrance plaza like stickers on a tween’s notebook. The plaza was mostly empty but the park itself was a little busier than the front gate crowds suggested. Some attraction wait times reached an hour.
My mobile-order experience at Pinocchio’s Village Haus was efficient and quick, social distancing was easy with spread out tables, and my chicken tenders (yes I am 7 years old) were delicious!
The lines for Space Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight and Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress all moved faster than their posted wait times despite “looking" longer than usual with social distancing forcing almost every queue outside into switchbacks. Cast members caught social distancing and masking infractions quickly and politely reminded people to mask. I saw no confrontations, only a few huffs, puffs, and dramatic eye rolls. There was even a PA announcement every few minutes reminding guests of the rules during COVID-19.
In Frontierland the ‘line’ to enter one of the retail locations wasn’t clearly marked, and a rude cast member chirped at me to get in line as I tried to walk in. I did not notice the lone person that comprised the entire line she was defending with her life (and tude) and opted not to shop there.
When I did shop, I went to the Emporium and found the experience to be worry-free and un-crowded. Whatever Disney is doing with their crowd numbers — I would pay twice the rate of a normal park ticket to have every day be this easy. Of course, I’d like to not have to sweat behind a mask in the process — they pay Mickey for that.
Shortly after that exchange with the rude cast member, I smelled rain — it’s a weird thing born-Floridians can do — and decided to cut my day short. No sooner did I arrive back in my rental car — the skies opened up and Florida reminded me why it’s best to keep your plans flexible here.
Despite the heat hovering near 90º and the slightly-larger than I expected crowds, I was able to comfortably distance during my short afternoon inside the Disney bubble and feel confident that — like Universal a few miles away — Disney has COVID-19 preparedness under control.
“We received the Governor’s executive order and are evaluating it to determine what it may mean for our business. We are not making any immediate changes. As a reminder, face coverings are still required at Walt Disney World Resort.” — The Walt Disney Company (Inside The Magic)
I spent 6 days in Central Florida on the heels of Governor DeSantis’ announcement, and in my experience — the further you get from the safe and strict ‘bubble’ that is the attractions area — the more maskless faces you’ll see.
Are you thinking of a trip to Orlando? I recommend you pick an airline, like Southwest Airlines, that is doing social distancing correctly, book a hotel on or near one of the major attractions — and go! Just remember, certain local jurisdictions have their own rules, Orlando for example — so be sure to know ahead of time where you are staying and what to prepare for.
Florida, which is officially in phase 3 now, has always been a politically-charged state, and somehow in 2020, masks have become a political issue. People are choosing sides. Florida’s government chose one side, and the Central Florida theme parks are making it clear that they’re choosing the other…for now.
Special thanks to my friend Jimmy Sarun for helping me with park admission on this trip, and I would like to dedicate this piece to my Mother Alesia as she mourns the death of her dearest. I love you Mom, and Rest In Peace Ed Garcia.