Light Turn Out for Universal Orlando's Return

June 5, 2020, 6:59 PM · Looks like Universal Orlando didn't need an advance reservation system after all. Two of America's most popular theme parks returned today... but not that many people showed up when they reopened.

Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure opened to all comers at Universal Orlando this morning, along with the resort's water park, Volcano Bay. Like at Legoland Florida, which reopened to guests on Monday, crowd levels were down sharply from what they would have been at rope drop at this time of year without the pandemic. Today's crowd sizes also appeared to be down from the past two days of reservation-only previews for annual passholders and resort hotel guests.

Visitors found long lines, but quick waits, as social distancing requirements pushed guests waiting for attractions beyond the queue's normal limits.

Waiting for Hogwarts
Photos courtesy Theme Park Insider readers

Load capacities also are down sharply throughout the parks, as team members put empty seats and rows between parties of guests.

Social distancing on Kong

But small crowd sizes kept wait times minimal — typically less than 15 minutes. Even some Virtual Line attractions were just letting people walk on. So out on the street, maintaining proper social distancing didn't seem to be a problem.

Small crowd at Universal Studios Florida

All other major theme park chains in the United States - including Disney, Six Flags, Cedar Fair, and SeaWorld - have announced that they will be requiring guests to reserve a specific date and time to visit in advance of coming to the park. But Universal has not included advanced reservations among its toolkit for managing capacity to promote social distancing. Today's experience suggests that they might not be necessary... at least not until interstate picks up and international travel resumes.

As we noted earlier this week, the Orlando theme parks depend upon out-of-market visitors for the vast majority of their business. But industry surveys suggest that out-of-market travel will not return to pre-pandemic levels for several years. That might mean that today's relatively low crowd levels at Orlando-area parks might be part of the so-called new normal that also includes mandatory masks, temperature checks, and social distancing.

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If you want to go for it anyway, our travel partner has discounted tickets to Universal Orlando's theme parks on its Universal Orlando tickets page.

Replies (40)

June 5, 2020 at 11:12 PM

Giving a lot of consideration to slinking down that way next week from Jacksonville. Should that happen, I’ll have a proper report for you

June 5, 2020 at 11:43 PM

Robert (or anyone who knows), do Universal and Disney lose money when their parks are this empty? Or do they break-even or perhaps make a profit? I'd love to know about the financial aspects of the decisions they're making.

June 5, 2020 at 11:48 PM

Can see issues given the current unrest and the word of infection spikes in Florida. Was just the first day, see how it unfolds over the weekend.

June 6, 2020 at 12:03 AM

I think this surprised Universal as well. They had even increased their weekend hours to close at 7 instead of 6 based upon the previews from a few days ago. I think it will pick up a bit more as the summer goes on and people start to plan their trips to get out more. It should see an uptick of visitors in July when Disney World will attract even more people to Central Florida. Nevertheless, I see this as a success as it seems people are allowed to spread out more and maintain social distancing plus it seems no one was denied entry to the parks.

June 6, 2020 at 2:50 AM

I'm sooo not surprised. It's going to take a long time to return to normal and most locals took advantage of pass-holder previews and most likely wanted to avoid the reopening day, today. Reading a lot of other sites accounts of the opening seems to report a huge desire to attend.
I'm sure a lot of people didn't want to venture out and deal with the protests either. Stay home and be safe seems even more appropriate with so much lack of social distancing! Amazing how elected officials think a haircut is dangerous but a riot is not a big deal?

June 6, 2020 at 3:24 AM

Judging from what my Florida friends had to say, it sounds like a few things came together to dissuade people from going:

-Both preview days sold out, resulting in the highest capacity Universal will allow right now. However, this also meant that a majority of the passholders who wanted to rush right back to the parks have done so.
-Reception of the new protocols has been mixed. A friend who went during a preview day said virtual queues were typically around two hours, then once you joined the physical queue it was sometimes up to 45 more minutes. This, combined with the reduced capacity on attractions, meant wait times were 2-3 times what they would have been ordinarily. The app was also very glitchy, making it difficult to reserve attractions. Based on this, I have other friends who are holding off for a bit despite being locals so that glitches get worked out and the park is a more enjoyable experience. I imagine they're not alone.
-MANY people visiting from out of area are deferring their trip until WDW reopens. As much as Universal wants to say they can be a reason for guests to visit Orlando, those who typically include Disney in their plans aren't interested in a trip that doesn't include some time hanging out with the mouse.
-Florida is seeing a surge in COVID cases right now, spooking some who may have gone otherwise. Even though the chance of catching it at a theme park is very low, because the media and many officials lump them in with other mass gatherings it has made people wary.

My guess is June is going to be very quiet in Florida, but once we get to July we'll probably see increasing visitation numbers, with late July/early August hitting the reduced capacity cap on a regular basis. It'll probably drop off a bit after that with school starting earlier this year, and then for the fall and beyond...who knows?

June 6, 2020 at 6:42 AM

"Even though the chance of catching it at a theme park is very low"

Universal can't and won't make any sort of declarative statement like that. Visit Universal Orlando's website and you'll be greeted by the following pop-up and bold typed banner at the top of their webpage ...

Exposure to COVID-19 is an inherent risk in any public location where people are present; we cannot guarantee you will not be exposed during your visit.

Oh, and see that picture of everyone queued outside Forbidden Journey. It has been cool, rainy, and overcast all week in Florida while a tropical disturbance moves through. That's ten levels of misery mid-day on a typical summer day to be standing out in the open roasting on the pavement.

One major factor in yesterday's opening that is not covered in this article was the weather. The forecast was miserable. I'm sure that postponed plans for all but the most diehard of fans.

June 6, 2020 at 7:11 AM

Most everyone I talk to believes that the rush to reopen coupled with the protests is going to cause a big second spike in infections, and will cause a second shutdown in the next month or two. Indeed, I know of at least two big companies this week here in California that announced they would not be reopening their offices until October, they're so sure the virus will surge again.

Hopefully they're wrong, hopefully magic is happening and the virus is going away. But I think I'll wait another few weeks to find out before I risk putting myself on a ventilator.

June 6, 2020 at 8:22 AM

@Beacher Universal kept most of it's workforce on their payroll so they are already paying them. They also kept upkeep and maintenance (including letting the rides function as that is part of maintaining them). Will they make profit? I guess not, maybe if more hotel guests or day guests will visit but I think most now are annual passholders. I think Universal is happy to see this slow start as now they have time to see where things could cause a problem and make changes before bigger crowds arrive.

Disney got rid of anyone they legally could. Kick them out to make them a burden on the tax payers. Whenever they start up they will need to rehire a lot of those wonderful people and that will cost them money. I think they will watch Universal closely and re evaluate if going open would make their investors and ceo's enough money.

June 6, 2020 at 9:48 AM

OT. I have a very different memory of the news that you do. I'm not doing a google search right now, but I remember both universal and disney laying off a majority of their hourly workers around april 15. I do not remember a big difference in their practices. The other theme parks did lay off earlier. Frankly as someone who owned disney stock at the time and was thinking of buying comcast stock, I thought that they went past april 1 was very generous. Since unemployment was set to pay about 1000 in calif and around 800 a week in florida In more than 50 percent of hourly workers more than they were making at the parks.

June 6, 2020 at 10:42 AM

"Hopefully magic is happening and the virus is going away"

Hope is not a strategy or a plan. There is zero precedence in modern history for a virus to just disappear. Of the last 10 pandemics occurring over the past 250 years, none magically went away. What there is precedence for is that there is a period of time where the virus can receed - often with little human intervention. But it has always returned.

June 6, 2020 at 11:23 AM

I have Robert reporting on April 2 that pretty much everyone Disney could Furlough would be getting letters taking effect from April 19.

As for Universal, I have Ropert reporting the following on March 24

>>A Universal spokesperson also said that the company remains committed to paying team members throughout the closure. Universal previously had announced that it would park employees for remaining scheduled shifts in March. According to the resort's team member webpage, hourly employees will be paid in April based on their average weekly hours for the four weeks prior to closure.

Following up on April 9:

>>As for Universal's team members, the company had announced that it would pay its employees through April 19. Effective April 20, team members will receive 80 percent of their pay, with hours adjusted accordingly. However, starting May 3, Universal will furlough its part-time, hourly team members. Benefits will continue to be provided to participating team members, with Universal paying their contributions on their behalf. This is according to a letter from Universal Parks Chairman Tom Williams posted on the Universal team website.

I think its therefore true to say that Universal have kept a larger proportion of park staff on the payroll than Disney did.

And to that I say good on them. Some might choose to take a short term view of this being costly. But medium to long term, Universal has proven to its full time staff that they can rely on it more than the mouse, and I would expect to see lower staff churn rates as a result of their choices. Keeping a skilled staff member is cheaper than recruiting a new staff member and getting them up to skill.

June 6, 2020 at 1:13 PM

In regards to the employment situation, Universal worked directly with the State of Florida to get their furloughed / laid off employees into the unemployment system ASAP. Disney DID NOT, and there are any number of reports in the Orlando news sources detailing Disney employees still waiting to collect unemployment, which isn't surprising given all the problems Florida experienced with its unemployment system.

For that, a huge kudos to Comcast!

June 6, 2020 at 1:14 PM

A separate note here as a Premier passholder, which I just sent along to Universal Orlando...

"I was happy to hear about the reopening of Universal Orlando, and look forward to visiting again soon.

One note I wanted to pass along, however, is that as a Premier passholder, it feels like the value of my pass has been greatly diminished with Universal Orlando's reopening. I knew VIP parking was going to disappear for the time being, but I wasn't expecting to see Prime parking being extended to Preferred passholders. Yes, it makes sense to get people back into the park, but I feel that some of it is being done at Premier passholder expense.

I am sure I am not the only one that feels this way, but wanted to make sure I voice my unhappiness with this development."

June 6, 2020 at 1:40 PM

Oh man. Do NOT mess with Karen's parking!

June 6, 2020 at 1:58 PM

AndrewL - Very funny, but I am sure you wouldn't be laughing as much if you ponied up an extra $150 per year and had benefits that differentiated the pass vanish.

June 6, 2020 at 2:36 PM

It should be mentioned that it is wet, stormy weather associated with TS Cristobal in the Gulf which certainly would make many choose to not rush back to a theme park.

June 6, 2020 at 2:10 PM

How did this Karen thing on social media get to be such a widespead thing? And why did the people who spread the insult call it karen? Is karen considered to be a white only name or something?

June 6, 2020 at 2:30 PM

To me things like preferred parking are something that companies do because it's easy money, but I never understood how it's actually a benefit. I always park in the back of the lot of everywhere I go because it's more steps, and while I don't really expect most people to do that, purposely walking the least amount possible (and paying for the privilege to do so) totally bewilders me. It's like the epitome of laziness. Same goes for paying extra to board the airplane first, companies will offer it because its easy money and people buy it, but why on earth would anyone want to sit in a tiny airline seat when they could be sitting in a much more open and comfortable gate area? I want to be sitting on the plane for as little time as possible so I am always one of the last ones to board.

Now of course there are some places where parking far away is a huge inconvenience and valet/preferred takes away a lot of stress but Universal is not one of those places, all parking spots are easily accessible to everything.

June 6, 2020 at 3:22 PM

For me, it isn't about the walking, as I have a dozen marathons under my belt. Rather, it is about waiting in line to enter the garages, and then waiting in line for the general security screening. The valet lot avoided both of those things, with a separate security check that seldom had a line. And besides, I was able to get into a cool car when the valet brought it around the drive.

As for my complaint, I understand the need for shutting down valet parking at the moment, but there was no need to further "enhance" Premier pass benefits by extending Prime parking to Preferred passes.

June 6, 2020 at 3:48 PM

I'm a preferred pass holder. I went yesterday and thought I'd share for those thinking about going.

Parking—I was offered premier, but for an up-charge. Otherwise, just the regular. Maybe that's the confusion?

COVID—I surprisingly felt safer at UO than my local grocery store. Chalk it up to light attendance, or theme parks being largely outdoor experiences. I might feel differently if UO was busier. Distancing was effective, but hand sanitization at attractions was most impressive. I wasn't expecting staff to ensure my hands were clean before every single ride.

Virtual queues—Are a truly mixed bag. I got two tickets. When I used them, walked right onto both attractions. Precisely zero wait. So, what purpose do they serve? It's difficult to imagine UO working out the kinks in this system if they don't have reservations by which to predict crowd levels. As it is, it's a nice surprise when you can walk right aboard with your reservation. But not being able to access signature attractions (ie Hagrid's) even if you're willing to line up, is beyond annoying when they may very well not have the lengthy queue you're lead to believe.

UO APP—Is in need of a real overhaul. The UX is passable at best, far from intuitive with the virtual queues. Way too many menus and far too much navigation. And even once you've figured it out, it might not be responsive.

3-D—No surprise to anyone with glasses, but it's lackluster with a mask. Foggy lenses are bad in the dark.

Most disappointing—A VW commercial that pretty much locked down a good chunk of Studios near Mummy and forced guests to walk a quarter mile in another direction just to be more or less on the other side of a road. Pretty sloppy for opening day, especially considering all the effort that's gone into social distancing and controlling guest flow.

Food and beverage—I'm local so don't generally indulge. But it seemed that this was the biggest bottleneck.

Overall—Unless crowds drastically increase soon (unlikely) I really don't believe safety should be a concern. And I say that as someone who is in support of the lockdown and widespread safety measures. On the other hand, logistical hiccups on account of COVID might keep me away for a while if I weren't a local with an AP and nothing to lo$e.

June 6, 2020 at 6:00 PM

I64Trekker writes: "In regards to the employment situation, Universal worked directly with the State of Florida to get their furloughed / laid off employees into the unemployment system ASAP. Disney DID NOT ..."

I Respond: That is absolutely false. Not only did Disney enroll CMs on their behalf, Disney HR has made itself available to answer CM questions regarding assistance.

Spectrum News 13 (April 30) Headline: Disney World to Enroll Thousands of Workers into Florida's Unemployment System

From that article: "Over the weekend, Disney confirmed it had reached an agreement with the state to be able to “auto-enroll” its employees into Florida’s unemployment system to help reduce the strain on the already overwhelmed system."

June 6, 2020 at 6:32 PM

The situation at Universal this weekend reminds me a bit of the opening of Disney California Adventure. The preview days were packed, but when the park opened officially to all... crickets. The park just didn't have the appeal it needed outside the AP and dedicated fan community.

With out-of-market travel non-existent, it's going to be tough for Orlando-area parks to draw beyond their local base, which is pretty much APs. The preview days took care of most of them, so the question is... how often will they want to come back for repeat visits while the out of towners are gone, given that the parks are not doing any substantial special programming such as food and music festivals, to attract them?

UO is offering some AP appreciation programming and SeaWorld will have a festival by mid-August. But I don't know that those will move the needle significantly. And with social unrest and Covid-19 cases increasing, if anyone has a crystal ball to see the future at this point, it's likely slathered in mud.

June 6, 2020 at 6:54 PM

I find it hilarious (hypocritical but funny) all of the people here who wanted parks to open later than this. Yet report they went now or will go very soon. People very often behave differently in real life than they do when they answer survey questions. Seems like there is a degree of I can do it because i'm more careful than you, but the gen public must have stricter rules imposed on them than is imposed on me. Currently, we are more and more hearing more and more benefits being advocated to be given to only certain races (or discounts same thing) and not other races. That is called the dictionary definition of racism my friends. And. I am 100 percent against it. That is a also a prominent feature of countries that are not democratic. Either special benefits by political party, or race. or for many such totalitarian gov'ts both.

June 6, 2020 at 6:58 PM

regarding the unemployment I read all the major theme park companies in florida had arrangements to pre enroll employees in unemployment. Like is very typical of gov't (however) they made a percentage of mistakes even with that pre enroll system being hastily put together. I am still waiting on pandemic independent contractor employment assistance. Still no response just in progress. applied on april 27 and that was only because the gov't did not do their reprogramming since then. Different blue state

June 6, 2020 at 8:35 PM

Checking weather reports and sounds like Orlando in for a few days of rain so that is likely to affect crowds as well. Even if Universal is mostly indoor rides, it can be long distances walking so that's always a factor as more than a few folks thinking it's not worth it on a rainy day.

June 6, 2020 at 8:37 PM

@WS Thanks for the report, interesting getting a first-hand look. Wow, they picked their grand opening for an old-style commercial shoot? That's just lousy timing but good insight.

June 6, 2020 at 8:53 PM

I'll admit and will eat crow when i'm wrong, and I was wrong, it looks like out of towners are not flocking to Orlando like I thought they would. In the past decade it's been so rare for Orlando parks to be empty, I will definitely be taking advantage of the situation when the weather clears up.

June 6, 2020 at 11:50 PM

@the_man: Well, there are factors from the current unrest to rainy weather in Orlando that affect besides just worries about the disease. See how it looks in the next week but I do think many (both at Universal and forums) did overestimate an eagerness by people to have a theme park visit be a priority. Something Disney is no doubt paying attention to.

June 7, 2020 at 2:44 AM

It might be relevant to note that Covid cases are increasing in Florida with over 4,000 new cases reported in just the last 3 days.

June 7, 2020 at 7:56 AM

>>I find it hilarious (hypocritical but funny) all of the people here who wanted parks to open later than this. Yet report they went now or will go very soon.


June 7, 2020 at 10:57 AM

@Chad H: I was wondering the same thing. I am operating under the assumption that D-Squared's sitter left the door to the computer room unlocked again.

June 7, 2020 at 7:48 PM

@ Robert: "With out-of-market travel non-existent, it's going to be tough for Orlando-area parks to draw beyond their local base, which is pretty much APs."

Low sure, perhaps, but definitely not nonexistent. Case in point: ME. I'm flying in from out of state in a week or two. Booked a hotel nearby and bought my park tickets. Actually bought an annual pass, because it was cheaper than buying a 5-day park to park ticket. It's good for 15 months. I hope I don't get considered a "local" just because I'll be using an AP.

I've been cooped up for 3 months and am in desperate need of a vacation. I can't be the only one. And while I typically prefer Disney, that's not an option currently... and who knows when it will be to anyone who didn't already have a ticket.

Hotel prices trending upward -- so I think people are definitely booking more travel there. Will see how crowded it is in the coming weeks!

June 7, 2020 at 10:56 PM

all referred to several of the people on here who wanted the parks closed to at least august and possibly later. Kudos to both of you to nitpick one word. Of the very active posters (however) the "several" is approx 50 percent since we have maybe ten people who have been posting at least once a week. If some of you would like to spend an immense amount of hours counting past articles to be critical of my estimate. feel free to do that.

June 7, 2020 at 11:16 PM

Someone explain burden of proof to DD.

June 8, 2020 at 12:07 PM

Meanwhile, the first documented report of a reopened theme park dealing with aftermath of being visited by an infected guest occurred. Seoul's Lotte World closed yesterday for deep cleaning after learning from health authorities that a high school student that had visited Friday was diagnosed with COVID19 Sunday morning. Lotte World has been following new operating procedures and safety protocols seen industry wide. They will reopen Tuesday. Note so far no reports of their staff or other guests being infected.

June 8, 2020 at 12:36 PM

i am planning to hit UO tomorrow. weather has really been awful here and there were even tornadoes saturday evening, which was pretty scary. so that, coupled with no out of towners, people still leary of being out in large groups AND the protests are all doing their part to keep people from going, i would think. i, however, am curious and have no issue wearing a mask if that means short wait time for hagrid's and i want to check on construction of JP coaster

June 8, 2020 at 2:55 PM

My son and daughter went today. They arrived around 9am and decided to do Universal Studios. They are pass holders so they are going back to do Islands tomorrow. By 2pm they were completely done with the park. They had gone on every single ride except for Minions (just because they didn't feel like going on it). They had no complaints. She face timed me while there and it was fairly empty. They loved every minute of it. She said the safety measures in place were great. She even mentioned that she felt cleaner at Universal than at Walmart or the local grocery store LOL All rides were less than 15 minute waits. They stopped in yesterday at Islands just to ride the HULK and were in and out in 10 minutes. Both kids said wearing the mask all day was not as bad as they thought it would be. There are rest areas throughout the park that are crowd controlled where you can remove the mask for a while. They all wore light masks made from tshirt material rather than surgical masks. I think that makes a difference if you are going to be out there all day

June 8, 2020 at 3:27 PM

@channy1110: Thanks for the update, nice to get more first-hand accounts of things and sounds good so far. Again, risks with more folks coming in but good to hear folks adhering to the rules.

June 10, 2020 at 11:03 AM

went yesterday and concur with everything channy said...very impressed with the attention to safety and cleanliness. team members adamant about face coverings over nose and mouth and hand sanitizer everywhere. was announced several times while waiting for hagrid first time. speaking of which, even with virtual queue, we waited about 40 minutes but second time at 5:20 we waited about 10 minutes and managed to snag front row which was amazing and great way to end the day. i thought the social distancing signs along the entire queue worked well, although we did have one party behind us who didn't seem to pay much attention but once another announcement was made, they got the message.

only challenge of the day was at hogwart's express as they were only loading one car and only one party per cabin so a party of 2 had a cabin all to themselves. that made the wait much longer but totally understand the reasoning.

went to get a beer at thunder falls and was very impressed with the staff stopping and seating our party. this is something i hope they keep up when this is all finally over.

3D glasses fogged up on gringott's but only in the station. once the ride got moving, it was fine. final thoughts on mask wearing...whereas i don't enjoy wearing it, not so bad in the long run and the short waits for rides made it worth it. although, if you need the show scenes to tell the story, you may want to wait as most were not even an option since they don't want people to cluster. all in all, great job by UO and hopefully setting an example for how it's done.

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