Part 1 - Deciding to Travel
My husband is the supervising system administrator for a large hospital network. We have taken the Covid-19 pandemic very seriously. My husband has been privileged to be able to do most of his work from home during this unprecedented time. My family has been home, with my husband tucked away in the office for 12 hours per day, since March 16th. When I make my once every two-week venture for groceries, I wear a mask and try to keep my distance. We've always been diligent hand washers. My active kids are not happy with the distancing situation, but we were fortunate to acquire a desk and PC for both of them. They have been able to learn and socialize online. For the most part, they take the distancing in stride. They are compassionate and understanding. Kids are amazing like that.
I broke first. I am happy with limited social interaction, but I am not a homebody. My son's school trip to Spain & Italy was canceled. Our DCL Wedding was canceled. Then our WDW trip was canceled. After two months of pacing like a caged tiger, I cried...a lot. Then I felt selfish for crying over my first world problems whilst other Americans and people all around the world were facing genuine hardships. Then I cried some more because I was ashamed of my selfish behavior. My husband appealed to my charitable side and reminded me that we are distancing to help others, like my mom who has an autoimmune disease and his father who is diabetic and doing chemo treatments. He also reminded me that it was okay to feel frustrated and sad because the situation is just frustrating and sad.
We continued staying home as Georgia opened up first. We live in a densely populated suburb with consistently high numbers of Covid-19 cases and disproportionately high death percentages. The majority of people do not wear a mask here and many people are being more social than they were before Covid-19 just out of spite. Meanwhile, my husband continued working 12 hour days trying to keep things up and running for the hospital. Political tensions were rising in our area. And my overworked husband was becoming more irritable by the day. His boss took notice and said, "you need a vacation." And that was it. After three months of diligent distancing, he broke too. He asked me to research vacation locations that we could travel to by car.
I'm a Disney Parks and Experiences gal. I trust Disney to put our health and safety first but WDW wasn't open yet. I researched our favorite remote barrier island. Shockingly, it was packed with people. No safety measures were being enforced on the island. And the staff at our favorite restaurant had already fallen ill. Nix that idea. Then I learned from DisUnplugged that Universal was re-opening. I had been there once many moons ago, but I didn't have the same affinity for or knowledge in Univeral as I do Disney. Could I trust Universal?
I watched some vlogs and I compared Orange County Florida's Covid-19 data with my home county. Universal was requiring masks and temperature checks. By most accounts, Universal seemed to be genuinely trying to enforce distancing. Vacationing in Orlando seemed safer than buying groceries at home, so I sent an email to my Dreams Unlimited Travel Agent. One week later, our masks were packed and we were on I-75 South heading for the Cabana Bay Resort at Universal Orlando.
Part 2 - Arrival at Cabana Bay Beach ResortOn Monday, June 15th we pulled up in front of the lobby at Cabana Bay. It was late afternoon and there were no other vehicles around. We weren't sure where to park, so I put on a mask and checked in while my family waited in our car. There was an employee stationed at the door. She greeted me, took my temperature, and issued a wrist band showing that I passed my temperature screening for the day. I was then directed to the front desk.
The front desk queue was lined with 6 ft distancing markers, but there was no one else in line. An employee motioned me to the counter and we began our awkward yet friendly exchange. We were both wearing masks and there was a plexiglass divider between us making it a little difficult to understand each other, but we managed. He gave me a map of the resort explaining that the Thunderbird section and the pool with a slide would be closed during our stay. He marked our room 071103 and wrote the hours for the diner, pool & buses on the map. I was given personalized key cards for everyone in my party and instructed to check my phone for a text from the hotel. There would be no housekeeping or room phone service during our stay. If we needed something, we should reply to the text. I did not receive a text that day and was concerned about how I would ask for fresh towels, toilet paper, etc. (We would later discover that there was a nationwide cellular outage on that particular day and the text was there when I awoke the next morning.) I went back out to the car and sent my family in to get a temperature check wristband.
We drove to building 07, a tall tower at the end of the resort. Based on the number of cars, there were maybe a dozen families in the entire Bayside section of the resort. Our room was on the top floor near an elevator. There was a hand sanitizer station next to the elevator doors and a sign asking people to limit themselves to one family per elevator. We didn't run into any other humans on our way to the room. Lots of adorable Florida lizards, but no people.
Thankfully, the standard room was more spacious than I expected from the pictures I had seen. The beds were clean and comfortable. The linens were a little cheap and thin, but they met our needs. There was a coffee maker in the room which my husband used every day. The remote was wrapped in plastic. My only complaint about the bed area was a large stain on the curtains. Our room overlooked the parking deck, Aventura pool, and the tallest buildings at City Walk & Islands of Adventure. That also meant our room was flooded with bright lights at night and we had to interact with the stained curtain quite a bit. The bathroom had been wiped down, but housekeeping had not done a great job. There was baby powder on the bathroom door, thick dust on the back of the towel shelf, and a little bit of mildew between the shower tiles. I broke out a couple of my Lysol wipes and started cleaning the areas that had been missed. The water pressure was fine and the tap water tasted much better than the swampy water at WDW. My boys enjoyed the colorful room and thought it was Nickelodeon themed because of the colors.
After we settled in, we walked the length of the pool to the Starlight Diner. 3 out of 4 food bays were open during the length of our visit. One was hamburgers, hotdogs, fries, etc. One was Italian food: pizza, spaghetti, alfredo. One was a grill with meats and vegetable sides. There were vegan burger & salad options available too. There was sanitizer at the entrance and distancing markers in the queues. I selected a half citrus chicken with mashed potatoes and steamed vegetables. It was delicious, but too much food. Unless you're a big eater, I recommend ordering a kid's meal or splitting a meal. Freestyle machines were not available yet, so we selected bottled drinks from the refrigerator. The checkout line was business as usual and the staff was very friendly. This was our first time eating in a public area since we began isolating in March. 3/4 of the dining room had been blocked off and there was only one other family in the open section. Every other table had a sign not to sit there. The staff was handing out single-serve condiment packets upon request rather than using a self serve pump container. Utensils were disposable and dispensed from a machine that keeps you from touching more than one utensil or the machine itself. We felt comfortable taking off our masks to eat for this particular mealtime. Food was served on actual plates and we bussed our own table. Then a staff member immediately came over to sanitize the table and seat. I was pleased that food was available from 7:00 am to 10:00 pm at the resort as food availability was one of my main concerns.
The thing my boys enjoy most about traveling is unique hotel swimming pool features. They were excited for some pool time after a long drive, so we walked over to check it out. Unfortunately, it seemed like every family in the hotel had packed into the pool, so we decided to try again later. We checked out the Universal Studios Store and realized there was a ticket counter in the lobby. I'm not sure how I missed it the first time. I showed the ticket staff my ID and they were able to print our reserved tickets there, so we wouldn't need to do it at the park in the morning. They explained the Univeral app and virtual queues. Then, we went back to the room, cleaned up a bit, and got ready for the pool.
The pool area did not require masks and was still a bit more crowded than we were comfortable with. I don't think anyone was counting how many people entered the pool gates. The gates used guest card access, but the main gate was broken so everyone just reached over to open it. No one ever verified that people entering the gates were guests and many people did not have their temperature check wrist bands. Chairs were distanced, but they were all full and there were a lot of people just walking around. The pool was always the busiest area of the resort and the only place I felt like we were unsafe. The lifeguards were counting how many people entered the lazy river, so we spent a good bit of time drifting our cares away under the palm trees. We ventured over to the pool for a moment and noticed that there was music under the water. My youngest thought that was a super fun feature. Unfortunately, one family was causing a lot of trouble in the pool and not distancing at all. Their youngest was pretending to drown and coughing and spitting in other guest's faces every time he surfaced. Their other children brought super soakers and were spraying other guests in the face. The lifeguards were blowing their whistles at the family every 1-2 minutes and threatening to kick them out. The dad would scream at the children and they would go right back to it. The lifeguards never actually made them leave, so we decided it was time for us to leave for the evening. There were plenty of clean towels at the pool and the area was kept very clean. We went back to the room, had a nice shower, tucked in, and read a chapter of Harry Potter.
Part 3 - Early Entry at Universal Studios
Disney trained us well. We were up bright and early on a Tuesday. We had our temperatures taken and boarded a resort bus by 7:30 am. We were excited and nervous as epic movie music played over the speakers. The bus was mostly empty. We arrived at security and went straight through. Immediate relief set in when we realized there was plenty of room to social distance and everyone was properly wearing their masks. We took pictures as we made our way to the Universal Studios gate for the 8:00 am guest entry. They started letting guests in at 7:50 am. We were asked to show our tickets and picture IDs at the gate. We were first in line for Minion Mayhem. We were asked to show our room key to proceed. The staff did a great job distancing everyone in the queue and gave everyone a squirt of sanitizer. The pre-show had several cleanliness jokes. Upon ride entry, every family was seated in their own cart and they only filled every other cart. My 10-year old son loved it. We were off to a great start! We headed further into the park and took advantage of the opportunity to soak in the themed atmosphere of Universal Studios along the way.
We had a fun and humorous interaction with the Knight Bus. My 15-year old son showed us the way to Diagon Alley. I'm glad he did; we might have walked right past it. The air was nice and cool. The Gringotts dragon loomed ominously over us and the smell of butterbeer enchanted us. We approached Ollivanders fully expecting to be told they were booked for the day. A team member told us to visit the firework shop around the back. At the backstage door, they took my youngest's name and asked us for a return time. We selected 9:45 am.
We needed breakfast, so we decided to pass some time at The Leaky Cauldron. We walked right in and a host explained how to use the Universal Resort app to mobile order our food. We were seated immediately. We placed our order online and a team member came by to ask for our name and order number. They brought out all our food and drinks together. They held out a tray so we could pass our food down the table. It was delicious and timely. The spacing was great and the doors were open. We felt reasonably safe eating at the Leaky Cauldron and taking in the atmosphere. When we finished eating, we waited around for a few moments expecting further instruction. After watching other tables, we decided the protocol was to leave the table as it was. It appeared that someone would come around to bus and sanitize the table after the guests leave. There was no receipt to sign and no opportunity to leave a tip. Not tipping felt very odd. I assume and hope that Universal is paying their serving staff an increased hourly wage, but I don't know for sure.
My 15-year old son was happy; He had been dreaming of butterbeer since his last visit two years ago. With happy tummies, we walked back to Ollivanders. Two wizards were waiting for us. Our family was directed through the back door into a dimly lit room. We were the only family in the room and the wand selection proceeded. OH MY GOODNESS! Magic is alive at Universal! The gentleman actor who helped my son select a wand was second to none. The distance he kept between them only added to the idea that a wand in the wrong hands might have bad results. I almost cried as my son told me he was finally a real wizard. We purchased the wand and spent a good bit of time exploring the interactive elements around Diagon Alley and Knockturn Alley. I could have spent an entire day shopping in Diagon Alley and playing wizard with my son, but Gringotts was down and my husband and eldest son were seeking thrills.
Off to Men in Black. We put our items in a locker and walked right on. Like any true Disney Park fan, I love a good dark ride with animatronics and a mild thrill level. I was happy to find a ride like that at Universal. This was my favorite ride in the park! However, it is just kind of out there on its own. The area isn't themed which I find odd.
Then we went to Springfield and rode The Simpsons Ride. I haven't been to Universal since this ride was Back to the Future themed. I didn't think much of it then and I don't think much of it now. In my opinion, it's just okay. We were the only family in the queue and we were able to get right into a pre-show room. The ride made me very thirsty for some odd reason. I purchased a bottle of water at the Kwik E Mart while my youngest met with Krusty and Sideshow Bob.
Up next, E.T. Why isn't Men in Black located near the Extra-Terrestrial ride? Oh well, I love a dark ride and a little nostalgia no matter where it's located. E.T. isn't saying names while we're social distancing. The sound on the ride is terribly off balance. But the visuals and the distinct smell take me back to spring break with my best friend in 1995. I loved it. Most of this area is for small children and the playgrounds were closed. My husband and oldest son rode Woody Woodpecker's Nuthouse Coaster twice in a matter of 10 minutes while I tried to convince my youngest it would be fun for all of us to do together. Nothing doing. We sat and watched Trolls do a distanced character meet. We began working our way around back to the front of the park.
I noticed a team member standing outside of The Bourne Stuntacular. I walked up to ask him about previews and before I could say anything, he opened the door and directed us in. I am so glad I watch theme park vlogs and knew what was happening! The distancing in the queue was heavily enforced. The distancing in the theatre was cautious. They asked each family to leave 3 seats between themselves and the group prior to them. They only seated every other row. During seating, team members came on stage several times and reminded everyone to continue wearing masks throughout the show. A team member took the stage and told us the show was still in technical rehearsal, they may need to stop at some point, and we would be seeing the full show minus pyro.
Good golly! The Bourne Stuntacular was amazing! The show was a blend of a 3D screen, set pieces, actors, and wind/water effects. 3D has come a long way. I couldn't tell where the screen ended and the real people began. The actors were synchronized exceptionally well with the screen. There were points where we thought we were moving, even though we were in a completely stationary theatre. I have 3 very small, very minor critiques. The queue is not as immersive as the Terminator queue. The gunshots are extremely loud. And the ending is a little abrupt. I think that might be due to being shut down for social distancing before the show was fully fleshed out. Maybe, they will improve the ending over time. Overall, this was a highlight of the visit for all four of us. If you go to Universal Studios, don't miss this show.
Afterward, we checked a few shops looking for Universal logo masks. Unfortunately, they sold out during the AP previews. We decided to hop on one last ride and my oldest said, Jimmy Fallon's Race Through New York was better than Transformers. I didn't have high hopes for such an oddly themed ride but we took his advice. This was the first pre-show that I felt people had been crammed a little too tightly into. Technically, each family had a marker to stand on, but team members were squeezing by people to get through doorways and across the room. Once we were in the theatre, everyone was distanced appropriately just because of the natural spacing of the theatre, but they didn't leave any carts empty to provide extra space like the other rides we had been on that day. The ride was fun though. It was better than I expected and I'm glad we tried it. The 3D was great.
After Jimmy Fallon, my husband and oldest son decided to go on one more ride. Lol. They decided to try The Mummy. My youngest and I decided to rest our feet and parked ourselves on a bench for a few minutes.
We noticed the park was getting a little busier and decided to catch the bus back to Cabana Bay for lunch. There was no signage for the resort bus on this particular day. But we figured it out quickly when a bus drove by the escalator and parked under the security bridge. We were the only family on the nice cool bus. Overall, it was a great day at Universal Studios. We chose to go early in the day, so the weather was warm but mostly pleasant. It was pretty hot when we left at 2:00 pm and I'm not sure we would have enjoyed being outside any longer than that. We stopped noticing our masks within an hour of being in the parks. Masks are not nearly as irritating as ill-fitting shoes or ladies' undergarments.
Some queues had posted wait times up to 45 minutes, but I don't know what they were based on. Everything was a walk-on for us. It was a joy to casually stroll around a park and enjoy an attraction as we came to it. We did not use Express Pass or virtual lines on this day.
We cleaned up a bit and ate a late lunch at the diner. Again, there were very few families dining so it felt reasonably safe to eat there. We decided to cool off with an evening at the pool. This time was better than the first evening at the pool. It was a little less crowded and people were behaving a lot better. It still felt a bit risky so after a couple of roundabouts in the lazy river, we grabbed some snacks at the diner and turned in early.
Part 4 - A Bad Start at Gringotts & Anxiety at Islands of Adventure
(I will edit with more information in the coming days. It is just a lot to type out in one go.)