There has been a ton of questions and speculation about what the post-COVID-19 travel world would look like, particularly in places where social distancing seems impossible.
Kristen Buckshire, the owner of Travel Ease agency, was one of the first few back at Universal Orlando Resort when it reopened its doors earlier this month to get a look at how theme parks would deal with a new socially distant world.
While Buckshire and her agency sell all destinations, they specialize in family travel, particularly theme parks, so getting into Universal, which opened earlier this month more than 30 days before Disney World plans to, was key to seeing first-hand the experience that they would be selling to their clients. So, she made the drive from her Fort Myers home to Orlando to get a sense of what the new theme park world would look like.
“Guest are most interested in seeing what exactly the theme park experience is like in a post-COVID world,” she said.
The first change Buckshire noticed was when she walked into the lobby of her hotel, Universal’s new Endless Summer resort.
“As soon as you check-in, there are two health care professionals there who are taking temperature checks” Buckshire told Travel Market Report. “If you are under 100.4 degrees, you get a wristband.”
That wristband will let you walk around the resort and gets you access into the parks without a second check (those staying off-site will go through temperature checks upon park entry). If you are over 100.4 degrees, you’ll be able to get a COVID-19 test done and self-quarantine until the results come back, or you’ll be able to leave the resort and get a refund.
Temperature checks at Universal's Endless Summer Resort. Photo: KBuckshire.
Everything in the hotel is positioned for social distancing, from spots on the floor to mark the line at check-in and plastic partisans in place in front of the check-counters to a one-party-at-a-time rule in the elevators. There’s also plastic on all food at the food court and the hotel’s staff is consistently cleaning all common touch points and public areas.
Housekeeping isn’t coming into the rooms each morning either anymore. Guests can request towels and tolietres, but "they are trying to send house keeping in to limit the contact."
Getting to the park via Universal transportation was also a different experience for Buckshire.
“The buses were limited in capacity. They asked that you socially distance from other parties. The boats were socially distanced as well, and had seats that were taped off and said you can sit here and not sit here. It was easy,” she said.
At the entrance to the parks there’s no more finger print scanners and a heavily reduced crowd capacity allows for pretty easy social distancing from other guests.
“There were a couple of times when you got closer to folks but we didn’t see any crowd bottlenecks,” she said “I’ve heard that even this week they are not even getting in the ballpark of the number they capped it to. So they are not coming close to what they could handle.”
All rides at Universal Orlando will be socially distanced for the time being. Photo: KBuckshire.
All queues are also either socially distant—blue markers on the floor tell parties where to stand without getting within six feet of another guest—or are virtual queues, which allows guests to reserve a spot online through the Universal app without physical waiting for it.
All preshow areas are also marked to let parties socially distance and crew provide hand sanitizer to all guest before they get on their ride vehicle and the social distance continues even onboard, “they are using every other ride vehicle on roller coasters or every other row.”
While not all ride vehicles are cleaned after each ride, if something happens like a mask falls off, crew members do clean the vehicle before the next party boards.
Restaurants, both in parks and at hotels, are also limiting capacity and socially distancing tables. To get rid of yet another touchpoint, the eateries at Universal have switched to virtual menus where guests hold their cameras up to a scan and get a virtual menu on their phone screen. Most menus, Buckshire said, were limited, but "the experience was good."
Masks are required everywhere, from the resort, to the park transportation, to inside the parks, to on attractions themselves. That has been the main question that Buckshire has been getting from her clients—what would a theme park experience in Orlando in the summer be like when you have to wear a facemask?
“It was doable, she said, “but it’s going to change the guest experience. When I talk to clients, I recommend them going into the parks for a couple hours in the morning, go spend some time by the pool, and then going back if they want.”
All Universal crew members are also required to wear a mask. Photo: KBuckshire.
Ultimately, it’s going to be a decision left to the guests as to whether or not to go.
There was no getting around the mask requirement (Universal sold masks for guests who didn't bring there own and Disney is expected to do the same) but there are some places that guests are allowed to take their masks off: the pool area, where once you get to your lounge chair (which is also spaced out from other chairs) you’re allowed to remove your mask; restaurants, where once you sit down you can unmask; and in rest areas, which Universal is calling U Rest Areas, located in unused amphitheaters or former smoking areas to allow guests to relax without masks on. Children under two are not required to wear masks.
“If you are getting too hot and need a break you can remove a mask in the designated areas. It’s nice that they are giving folks the option,” Buckshire added.
Guests at Volcano Bay have to wear masks through the entrance and in retail stores, but can otherwise enjoy the park without them.
Disney and theme park future
Buckshire told TMR that she expects a similar procedure for when Walt Disney World opens next months, but she thinks the differences between the two may ultimately change the percentage of guests who want to return.
“I think we are going to see the same procedures in place. People go to Universal for the rides but Disney has the parades, the fireworks, the character interactions, and dining – that is going to cause some folks to be a little more hesitant. For me, we are seeing more guests who are wanting to postpone Disney.”
Her first timers, “seem to want to wait” to get a full Disney experience, she said, but her repeat ones who go every year say that “this might be a great time because the wait times at rides might be different. Typically, first time guests are postponing to 2021 travel.”
Just like any vacation, traveling in the post-COVID-19 world is going to be a decision left to a client.
“We went through our client list and talked to them about their priority – knowing your client is going to be important and finding out what the priorities are for them is going to be crucial.”
Still, after she published her experience on Facebook and on her agency website, clients have been reaching out to her wanting to travel despite the changes.
“They said we are just coming out of quarantine and seeing that and saying we are willing to put on the mask and go for this.” It all depends on the client. Ultimately, the message she wanted to pass along to her clients was that she felt safe.
“I felt pretty safe on property, it’s everyone’s personal decision on whether they want to travel or not. I feel like it's our job as travel advisors to show the reality of what travel is like right now. We’re kind of the guinea pigs, we go first.”