Florida in 2020...Should You Go?

Edited: October 25, 2020, 7:31 PM

A few months back, I posted a thread asking which parks to prioritize on my trip this year. A couple weeks ago, the trip happened, and I safely returned to So Cal completely COVID free. For those curious, here's what the trip consisted of:

-Two days at Walt Disney World, one each at Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom.
-Two and a half days at Universal Orlando.
-One day at SeaWorld Orlando, split into two separate half days.
-One day at Busch Gardens Tampa.

Because all these parks have been covered extensively on Theme Park Insider, I'm not going to take the time to do an in depth trip report. Instead, I'm going to answer a question that is probably on the mind of many theme park fans as we head into this off-season: "Is Florida safe enough to visit right now, and is it even worth visiting?"

We'll look at each group of parks separately, as there are pros and cons to each.

SeaWorld/Busch Gardens: Of the three major chains in Florida, SeaWorld is typically the last choice among theme park tourists. However, as a coaster junkie and a Platinum Passholder, including these parks was a no brainer for the trip. Unfortunately, the experience of them was mixed.

SeaWorld Orlando was by the far the weakest effort on COVID protocols of the places I visited. While they do ensure you have a mask when entering the park and when on rides, there was no enforcement whatsoever for guests who were simply walking the park or while guests were waiting in lines. Rides are one party per car, but all rows are used (despite signage saying otherwise), and sanitizer is completely optional. Personally, none of this bothered me, though I wish the park would do a better job with enforcement of masks if they're going to require them. The part that did bother me, however, was the lack of distancing in queues. Most guests took this as a suggestion, and with nobody patrolling to enforce it there were lots of individuals that were a little close for comfort (sometimes without masks). Because most queues were all outdoors and no switchbacks are in use I was able to tolerate it, but if you're the sort that gets uncomfortable I'd probably recommend avoiding this park.

Note that while some lines were short, that was not uniformly the case. Mako and Infinity Falls in particular drew substantial lines both days I visited, and particularly on Infinity Falls it was frustrating watching rafts with one or two people constantly drift by while the line inched forward. Also note that operations at this park are a bit wonky right now. About a third of the park's attractions only operate on weekends, and about half the remainder run shorter hours than the rest of the park, opening a couple hours after opening and/or closing a couple hours before park closing.

Busch Gardens Tampa utilizes the same set of policies as SeaWorld Orlando, but enforcement at this park is significantly better. Regular announcements were made for guests to keep their masks on and maintain distance in line, and staff would remind guests who weren't following the protocol. The park was also far less busy, so pathways were wide open and queues were mostly short (only Cheetah Hunt had a line over 20 minutes). This made for a far more enjoyable experience.

As for operations, all major attractions were operating, but not everything was open for the entire day. About a third of the park didn't open until an hour or two after park opening, and some attractions closed several hours before closing. Because this park is large and circular, it is important to plan your day based on operating schedules or rides may be accidentally missed. My recommendation is to start with Cheetah Hunt, Cobra's Curse, and Montu, then go counter-clockwise from there. Kumba, SheiKra, Tigris, and other attractions nearby tend to open the latest.

Walt Disney World: As the biggest name in the industry, Disney has drawn tons of media attention over their response to the pandemic. Their procedures are top notch, covering every base one can think of. Masks and distancing are present throughout the entire park, and cast members constantly patrol the whole thing, quick to intercept any guest not following current protocols. Unlike other parks, they've mostly been able to maintain the efficiency of their operation as well, though some attractions take more of a hit than others.

Unfortunately, of all the parks I visited in Florida, I enjoyed my two days at Disney the least. While at no point did I feel the slightest risk from the virus, at no point was I able to forget it either. Most cast members donned not just a mask but also a face shield, which sticks out like a sore thumb on the costumes of Disney employees and is a regular reminder things are not okay right now. They also ruin the effect Disney is going for on certain attractions that rely on cast member interaction (having a masked and shielded First Order officer attempt to act intimidating is among the silliest things I've witnessed). With queues overflowing the permanent space due to distancing, lines sprawled all over the parks, making most waits occur outdoors with little shade in the Florida sun. These waits weren't short either...at Magic Kingdom on a Tuesday, you were looking at 40-50 minutes for most major attractions, and every E-Ticket at Hollywood Studios was an hour or more (granted, that visit was a Sunday). Once you got inside, switchback queues became Disney's wonderful world of plexiglass, and the lack of preshows interrupted the flow of carefully designed attraction experiences.

I don't want to sound too negative on Disney, because the rides are still fun, it was great hanging out with friends at the parks, and even a bad day at Disney World is better than any day in California right now. However, the time between rides did not feel like the experience Disney is known for, and I left feeling glad I opted not to do more than two Disney days this trip. At $120 a day, it's a premium for a subpar experience, and were I visiting for the parks rather than visiting for friends, I would absolutely feel I didn't get my money's worth.

Universal Orlando: Universal was the first major park to open, and according to many they're doing the best job in a post-COVID world. Policies are much the same as those seen at Disney, though a lot of them are more tastefully implemented. No face shields are required on team members, and masks are usually chosen to match the costume and not stick out. Queues have been rerouted to best take advantage of available space, preventing them from sprawling all along the walkways (Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure being the main exception to the rule there). When lines exceed the space available, Universal swaps to a virtual queue system, which can be tricky to enter but works great once in. Unlike other parks, Universal mandates the use of hand sanitizer before boarding any attraction, something I understand but am not personally a fan of.

Universal's flaws primarily come from their virtual offerings, namely the virtual queues and mobile ordering. On a quieter day (like a weekday), virtual queues are often left off as crowds don't necessitate their use. On busier days, however (like a Saturday), many attractions will switch to virtual queues at some point, and those queues only allow a limited number of guests in at a time. Since there is no restriction on joining more than one virtual queue at a time, they all tend to fill up, leaving those unable to get in with a limited number of attraction choices (mostly second or third tier rides that still have lengthy lines). As for mobile ordering, while Disney's system works flawlessly, Universal's is terrible. Not only is the app glitchy, but the entire process is poorly designed. At any restaurant, you must wait in a line to be seated, and you must make your mobile order while in that line. Two out of three days, I had difficulty getting the app to accept my order, usually due to the location settings not working right. Once seated, a team member will come to your table to collect order numbers, then you wait for the food to be brought to you. Two out of three days, it was over an hour between when the order was placed (while in line) and when food actually arrived at the table. For quick service dining, that is unacceptable, especially when I've never waited more than ten minutes for an order at Disney.

As for crowds at Universal, weekdays weren't too bad. Most attractions had queues in the 20-30 minute range, with the occasional attraction (usually the Potter rides) getting up over an hour. The half day on Saturday, however, was a whole different story. While the first hour or so was pretty quiet, by noon most headliners were virtual queue only, and other attractions started at 45 minutes even for small rides (like Woody Woodpecker). The saving grace was the two haunt mazes, which never saw a line over 20 minutes any of the time I spent at the park, but those will soon be gone.

Universal was definitely a more enjoyable experience than Disney, but it still felt a bit subpar compared to my previous visit. However, I think most of that came from the crowds of Saturday (Universal doesn't require reservations and has a higher guest cap percentage-wise), as well as frustrations with the virtual elements. When talking about just the physical park itself, the experience at Universal is far closer to pre-pandemic than Disney.

The Bottom Line:

I went to Florida for a week, didn't catch COVID, and had an overall good time. I did not expect the experience to be what it had been in the past, and though some aspects were a bit more annoying than I thought they would be, it was still far more enjoyable than California is right now. So, let's answer the question posed here..."Should you visit Florida right now?"

From a safety standpoint, I see no reason to recommend against visiting provided you're willing to travel there. The state's COVID numbers are lower than roughly two-thirds of the country right now (though admittedly they aren't trending in a favorable direction), and at no point did I feel at any higher risk than I do anywhere at home. The tourist areas know what will happen if there's an outbreak, and all of them were doing a great job at mitigating the risk. Granted, not everyone was in perfect compliance at all times, but a vast majority of people followed a vast majority of policies a vast majority of the time.

One thing I will say from a comfort standpoint, however...masks in Florida weather suck. I visited Texas back in July, and found mask wearing there notably more tolerable than while in Florida in October. Heat is one factor, but I suspect the humidity and long periods standing in direct sunlight to contribute far more. You will get worn out, so it is essential to pace yourself, stay hydrated, and take breaks as needed. If you think you'd have a hard time spending 8+ hours outdoors in a mask while performing moderate activity, you might want to hold off on a visit.

Assuming none of the above has turned you off, it then becomes a question of value. Make no mistake...you will not get the same value out of your tickets right now that you would at a different time. However, depending on your circumstance, it may still be worth it to go. Here is what I would say:

It is worth it to visit Florida now if...

-You already have tickets to at least some of the parks you plan to visit, especially if they expire soon
-You live close enough to drive or would not need to pay for accommodations in Florida, as those will reduce the overall trip cost
-You're a regular visitor (aka you visit at least once a year) and don't mind having a diminished experience
-You're going specifically for a new attraction
-You find a great deal on travel that will make the trip significantly cheaper than normal

It is not worth it to visit Florida now if...

-You're a first time visitor and/or once every few years visitor...hold off until the experience is more normal
-You'd be paying full price for every part of the trip...hold off until there's better value in visiting
-You'd be unable to ignore the pandemic and constantly be thinking about risk or danger...hold off until these are not a concern, as it will wreck the experience
-You're unwilling to comply with the rules and regulations in place right now...hold off until these aren't a thing

Overall, the question is highly situational, so it's a call you'll need to make on your own. As for me, I would not visit Disney again in the current state of operations, but will likely be going back for a Busch Gardens/Universal trip once Iron Gwazi and VelociCoaster are both operational (I actually upgraded my Universal ticket to an AP for this reason). That said, I've had better experiences this year at regional theme parks like Six Flags than I have at the destination parks of Florida (at least in terms of enjoyment vs. value), so if you live locally to an open park and need a fix, I'd suggest opting for that instead.

Hope this helps those who may be considering a trip in the next six months, and if you've got questions about anything specific then ask away!

Replies (7)

October 26, 2020, 2:21 AM

Good, nice reasoned response and can see good outline of pros and cons. Still doubtful in trying for a while but good talk here.

Edited: October 27, 2020, 9:58 AM

This is a well reasoned report with some solid empirical evidence. I do think it comes down to an individual's comfort level, and that traveling to the Central Florida area is probably the biggest barrier right now. In fact, that barrier is probably the best thing going for the parks right now because it acts as an artificial firebreak that parks themselves would have difficulty managing without upsetting guests or turning people away at the gate.

The key here is that these businesses are being given the opportunity to do what they do best in a manner that is as safe as possible given current conditions. All of the major theme park companies have long histories of observing and adapting to ever-changing conditions, and the current pandemic is no different. It's a shame that certain jurisdictions are not giving these companies the benefit of the doubt while in the same breath giving other less-experienced businesses the chance to fill the void left by theme park closures.

October 28, 2020, 9:20 PM

Hogsmede was the only place I really felt uneasy between the Universal parks, Epcot and Animal Kingdom. Mainly I thought it was too crowded with people eating and drinking. Universal must know this is an issue since they would change up Hagrid’s locker line even in the middle of the day.

A big issue at Universal was the slow food service whether it was sit down, counter or mobile. I’d guess it’s because of distancing or staffing but carving an hour plus to eat is tough when the hours are so tight even on a weekday.

I would recommend bringing a second mask so you can change if it gets too sweaty.

Edited: November 8, 2020, 5:25 PM

My apologies for posting late to this discussion.

AJ, thanks again for such well-researched and relevant info on Florida parks this year. FWIW, my wife and I have decided on a pre-christmas trip to Universal Orlando. 4 yrs since last visit from ATL (driving distance) so we are long overdue. We got lucky and found a "decent" rate at Royal Pacific onsite hotel that will provide Express passes. It is my understanding that your hotel room key also doubles as your express pass.

Question for anyone out there who has used the "Hotel Room key" express passes at Universal..

How closely do the line attendants "check" these passes ? i.e. is your name, age and gender tied to the room key pass ? Do they "scan" them ?

Here's the tricky part... my 80 year old parents are also visiting Universal 2 of the days we are there. They are staying in offsite hotel, but will meet us at the parks. The room key express pass is good for "# of guests staying in the room". We will have our 11 y.o. grandson with us (total of 3 in the room). So... I am wondering (in theory) if my parents would be able to occasionally hop on a ride with our grandson (while wife and I take a break) using the room key express pass ?

November 11, 2020, 2:26 PM

@Ed... I've used the RPR express pass a LOT and I have a couple thoughts. First, yes, at most rides they do scan the room keys. But all that's on the key is your name and the dates of your stay -- so I think you could easily give your and your wife's keys to your parents and the ride staff wouldn't know the difference.

The other thing you might try, in the "it can't hurt to ask" category, is tell the front desk staff when you check in that your parents will be joining you for part of your visit and see if they will print keys for them. There's no guarantee they'll do it, but I did it once when my mom visited for a day and they were happy to do it.

Either way, enjoy! I've always had great experiences staying at RPR.

Edited: November 12, 2020, 10:06 PM

Thanks Melanie !! Really appreciate the time you took to answer my question. I certainly don't want to "abuse" the room key/Express pass privilege. Just trying to use a loophole that works to our advantage. We just look at it as my parents occasionally "taking our place" in the line instead of us. At their ages (81 & 82), we don't want them waiting too long in the regular lines.

Good suggestion on getting 2nd key printed. We were planning to do that when checking in. Since my wife might go back to the room for mid-day breaks while 11 y.o. grandson and I stay in the park.

Glad to hear they accommodated you when your mom visited for a day. I noticed many good comments about RPR customer service in the reviews I read. I really want my parents to enjoy themselves during their 2 days at Universal. They will be staying at a nearby hotel offsite.

Looking forward to our visit to RPR. Been to Universal 5 or 6 times in the past 12 years, but have never stayed on site. I never saw the need, as we usually visited during quieter periods of the year. But on this occasion, the expense seems justifiable. Especially when considering the slower lines due to reduced ride capacities. We also lucked into a pretty decent rate during the "pre-Christmas" period. It helped our decision become one of those "YOLO moments" which my wife feels will be a good ending to a crappy 2020.

November 13, 2020, 7:30 AM

Once you experience the convenience of staying onsite and the express pass, you'll be hooked :-). Hope you have a great trip!

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