Clearly I’m bad at timing. In September I made arrangements to drive down to Orlando and visit the major theme parks there for the first time during the pandemic. I scheduled the trip for the last week of October, and of course, right on schedule, COVID cases absolutely blew up again in the six weeks between. When I pulled out of my driveway on the last Monday of October, I was headed into the heart of the pandemic, right when it was starting to surge more than it ever had before. And all so I could do that one E.T. ride for the 30th time.
I didn’t have to go to Universal Orlando in October. As much as I miss these places, I could easily have held out longer, potentially even until a vaccine is available. But I had read enough about the precautions Universal had put in place to feel just comfortable enough to try it out—and after seven months of being shut up at home I was more than ready to go anywhere and do anything. And between the time I scheduled this trip and actually went on it my wife and I made the semi-impromptu decision to drive from Atlanta to the Grand Canyon and back, and after braving the maskless throngs of Oklahoma and the Texas panhandle without catching anything (that I’m aware of), I felt even more emboldened when I set out for Orlando.
Universal Studios Florida isn’t the first theme park I’ve gone to during the pandemic. That would be Six Flags Over Georgia, which wasn’t doing a great job with COVID precautions back in June. That trip was during one of those lulls where even reasonable people seemed to let their guard down, though, and also Universal should be expected to have higher standards than Six Flags anyway, so I didn’t let that first, abbreviated theme park trip deter me. And I’m glad I didn’t: I had a good time at Universal, especially at the always fantastic Cabana Bay Beach Resort, and was able to stay vigilant and in control of my immediate situation without getting too stressed out.
Mask compliance was almost universal at, well, Universal. I went to both theme parks, Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure, on the same day, and although I did see the occasional person wearing a mask incorrectly, the vast majority were properly masked. That meant standing and walking outside was pretty much stress-free. It got a little hairy in the two Harry Potter lands—they were considerably more crowded than the rest of the parks, and with their intentionally cramped and twisting layouts it was difficult to stay distanced. For that reason I spent little time in either of them. If Harry Potter is why you want to come down (and there’s a good chance of that, given that they’re the most popular parts of these theme parks), and you’re worried about crowding, just take that as a warning. Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley are both likely to be noticeably more crowded than the rest of the parks.
There were only two moments during my stay at Universal where I felt overly anxious. The first was when I took the bus from the hotel to the park. There was a bit of a bottleneck at the bus stop, with not all guests staying distanced. They have limited capacity on the buses, with the different seating sections numbered off, and only one party allowed per section. There was more than six feet between me and others, and everybody was masked, but we were still in a small, enclosed space, breathing the same air that everybody else was exhaling into. Hopefully those masks did their job; it’s been two weeks now and I’ve shown no symptoms, so either we were all COVID-free or else the masks held up their end of the bargain.
The other time I saw something that I was uncomfortable with was when I tried to eat at the Simpsons Fast Food Boulevard in the Springfield section. My plan was to grab a Krusty Burger and eat it at one of the tables outside the food court. When I walked in, though, an employee laid out the rules to me: all ordering was mobile only (a smart choice), and I would have to eat my food in the food court, at a table assigned to me by the employee. Nobody could get the food to go and eat it one of the outdoor tables. She gave me the number of a table in the middle of a crowded room, with a half-dozen families sitting nearby, all obviously unmasked as they ate. The tables were six feet apart, but not much more than that. Honestly, I couldn’t get out of there fast enough. I went back outside, grabbed a couple of tacos from Bumblebee Man’s truck, and found a shaded table in the open air, with nobody else sitting within 10 feet of me.
Beyond those two moments, I never felt uncomfortable at Universal. This was especially true at the Cabana Bay Beach Resort. I never saw another human being on the floor of my hotel room, or in any of the elevators. One of the hotel’s two pool complexes was closed on the weekdays I stayed there, but the other pool was open for business. The day I got there the pool seemed a little too crowded to enjoy, but the next evening it was easy to take a swim and not get within 10 feet of anybody else. The highlight of my trip (other than visiting E.T.’s home planet once again) was sitting in a chair in the artificial beach near that pool, drinking rum drinks with nobody else getting within 30 feet of me. It’s not that the hotel or the pool area was abandoned; it’s so large that, even with dozens of people around the pool, or enjoying the lazy river, or sitting near the outdoor bar, I was able to sit far away from anybody else, as comfortably as if I was in my backyard.
I also never felt worried in any of the ride queues. Granted I had an Express pass, and that line was basically nonexistent for every ride. But even a ride like Escape From Gringotts, one of the more popular rides at the parks, had a standby line that wasn’t bunched up when I saw it. It felt great to ride the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster again, and wearing a mask on it (I actually had two on) didn’t complicate matters at all.
The key to enjoying myself at Universal was to be in control of my own situation as much as possible. I avoided other people on the walkways between attractions. I made liberal use of the free hand sanitizer stations spaced around the parks, getting a spritz of it immediately after every ride. Other than that failed attempt to eat some Simpsons food, and a quick trip through the Halloween tribute store (c’mon, I wanted to see the Beetlejuice stuff), I didn’t go inside stores or restaurants. I only took my masks off when I ate, alone, outdoors. If the other guests hadn’t taken the mask requirement seriously, and if Universal hadn’t effectively enforced that policy, I wouldn’t have felt safe at all, and probably would’ve left within an hour or two. I know masks aren’t a perfect solution or a total cure all, but they are a crucial part of preventing spread, and it was a relief to see people almost completely obey those rules at Universal.
There was still an element of risk in the parks, though, and I couldn’t fully get that out of my head. It was definitely a more stressful and anxious environment than I normally find theme parks to be, or than what I expect from a vacation. Given the seven months of near-total seclusion, though, getting out of the house, even in a way that wasn’t always comfortable, was in itself an extreme relief. The moments when I felt completely safe—basically, in my hotel room, or when I was sitting outside on that fake beach with the closest human several dozen feet away—were way more powerful than they otherwise would’ve been. It wasn’t quite the Grand Canyon, but it was still pretty blissful.
Theme parks, like the rest of the travel industry, are hurting badly because of the pandemic. Many companies will shut down permanently, and many people will be out of work. Like Disney, Universal has laid off a considerable amount of its workforce from the parks, cut operating hours, and temporarily closed certain attractions, reducing the amount of things for guests to do. And of course, they’ve done all of this without reducing ticket prices. Going to a theme park today isn’t just inherently risky; it’s also not the best value proposition, and if you spend any amount of time thinking about the people who depend on this business for their livelihood, it’s hard not to get depressed.
Still, if you’re like me, and have an almost irrational love for these places, and go to them not just for the rides or the food but also for the atmosphere, and that sense of disconnect from an increasingly stressful world, it is possible to enjoy Universal in a way that feels comfortable, and not too far removed from what a trip would be like during less unique circumstances. And trust me, the last thing you’ll be thinking about when you’re riding a flying bicycle through E.T.’s home planet, and watching a large choir of E.T.s sing and dance around you, is the mask on your face, or the election that thankfully just ended, or the pandemic that’s had such a crushing impact upon every aspect of our society. For the few minutes of The E.T. Adventure, the world seems mostly okay again. Just remember to keep your mask on.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, music, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s on Twitter @grmartin.