When we initially hopped back to Universal Orlando Resort on June 5 for its reopening, the Gringotts dragon welcoming us with open wings (OK, OK, and a little bit of fire), we weren't quite sure what to expect. We knew we'd have our temperature screened, and we knew we'd need to wear our masks and keep our distance. We were thrilled to report back that the same enchantment, thrills and fun that we knew and loved about Universal pre-closure were still very much present (oh how we missed you, Butterbeer!).
While crowds were low for a bit after Universal Orlando reopened, more and more guests headed back to the theme parks, especially for Halloween and the holidays. The parks even reached full capacity during their busiest times. Now that we're a few weeks into 2021, the crowds have significantly decreased (particularly on weekdays!), as the parks are hitting their typical slower season.
Likewise, as more time has gone on, more and more experiences have opened or been modified to make the most of the guest experience at Universal Orlando. We have many more trips under our belts (or should we say, house robes), and it's safe to say that we have our froggy footing. Whether you're planning a trip in early 2021 or beyond, we're here to share all that we know about heading to Universal Orlando so that you're ready to hop back into the fun, too, when you're ready. We're starting with the need-to-know health and safety information, but if you just want to learn about expected crowds, virtual lines and what's hoppening in the parks, hop straight to that section! And don't froget to hop back to this post, as we update this guide often with fresh "deets!" Ready? Let's hit it!
Universal Orlando Health and Safety Procedures
Before we get to the fun stuff, let's talk about the health and safety measures. There are procedures in place to limit capacity and to appropriately space guests. Universal Orlando, in accordance with the state of Florida and local governing bodies, has put into practice the following general safety procedures to make things as safe as possible for guests.
Universal Orlando Resort Health Measures
- Prepare for temperature checks upon arrival. Employees will wave a contactless forehead thermometer in front of you. Hats or anything blocking your forehead should be removed. Guests with temperatures above 100.4 will not be admitted. The rest of the party will not be affected, as long as they stay under the 100.4-degree temperature limit. Hotel guests will be given a wristband after their first temperature screening of each day during the length of their stay to indicate that they have been screened for ease of getting around at the resort.
- Maintain social distancing of at least 6 feet (or 2 meters).
- Where present, guests should stand on floor markings until the group in front of you moves forward.
- Parking will be staggered in garages to maintain distance upon arrival and spots will be filled in later. Valet parking is not currently available.
Universal Orlando Resort Face Covering Policies
At Universal Orlando Resort, face coverings are required at all times, except for children under the age of 3, when actively eating or drinking while stationary, or when at a designated U-Rest face covering removal area. Universal has masks available for purchase online and at merchandise locations in CityWalk and the theme parks. If you have a disability that prevents you from wearing a face covering, you must visit Guest Services upon arrival to see about an alternate accommodation, which is to wear a face shield during your visit. A team member will give you a wristband and approve of the alternate accommodation. Know that face shields may not be permitted on certain attractions, and guests will have to switch to a face covering for those experiences.
An appropriate face covering must fit the following criteria:
- Cover your nose and mouth and be secured under your chin
- Fit snugly against the sides of your face and be secured with ear loops or secured around your head
It is recommended that face coverings be at least two-ply (consist of at least two layers). A gaiter is considered an appropriate face covering as long as it covers your nose and mouth.
The following are not permitted at Universal Orlando:
- Face coverings with exhalation valves
- Face coverings that are not secured with ear loops or secured around your head
- Face coverings that include mesh material or holes of any kind
- Face coverings that are unable to be secured under your chin (such as bandanas)
- Costume masks or veils, per usual costume guidelines
Guests not wearing face coverings properly will be required to leave.
Universal Orlando Resort Safety Measures
- All team members are also undergoing temperature checks and are required to wear masks.
- Capacity is limited to maintain social distancing.
- Tables, chairs and all high-touch areas are being continuously cleaned and disinfected.
- Cashless payments are available in all areas (guests can use mobile ordering at select locations).
- Hand sanitizer locations are available throughout Universal and individual bottles are also available for purchase.
Team members have recently been directing guests to use the finger scan when entering the theme parks or traveling between parks on the Hogwarts Express, and it's cleaned after every person. We see team members frequently cleaning high-touch areas, and there is plenty of signage to show where restrooms are available for handwashing, along with hand sanitizer dispensers.
What Happens If a Park Reaches Capacity?
Because the parks have limited capacity and a reservation system is not currently in place, during peak times, the Universal Orlando theme parks can (and have) hit capacity. If a park reaches capacity, arriving guests will not be able to enter until the capacity is lowered. There is no guarantee, but the park can reopen after it has reached capacity due to guests leaving. During this past holiday season, the parks hit capacity quickly, as early as 10 minutes after opening. We don't expect to see this hoppening again for a while — at least until spring break season starts. To prepare you in advance, we've got some suggestions on how to avoid showing up at the parks when they're at capacity.
If you are a guest at a Universal Resort hotel or have purchased a date-specific ticket, you are considered a priority guest. Upon nearing capacity, priority guests will continue to be allowed in until the maximum limit has been reached, while other guests may be stopped. There may be a brief delay, but once capacity is lowered, priority guests will be the first to enter. Park hopping may not be available if either park reaches capacity.
For live updates, you can call the Universal Orlando capacity hotline at 407-817-8317, or check the park hours on the Universal Orlando app or website. If you call the hotline, you must first indicate which park you're going to (Universal Studios Florida and Universal's Islands of Adventure OR Universal's Volcano Bay) via the phone menu, and then you'll be asked if you're a Universal hotel guest (if not, choose the "other" option).
The parks are less busy on weekdays than on weekends, so we highly recommend visiting on weekdays. If you are a hotel guest with the benefit of Early Park Admission, we also recommend taking advantage of it to be some of the first in the parks. If neither of these applies to you, and you'll be visiting during a peak time, our best advice is to arrive early!
What to Expect When You Visit the Universal Orlando Theme Parks
So what should you expect on your visit to the Universal Orlando theme parks? Well, fun of course! Yes, even in this crazy time, there is still so much fun to be had. That is why we're going, right? We've had a hoppin' good time on each of our visits, even with the new social distancing and safety measures in place. And speaking of, one of the biggest changes to the parks is the expanded use of the virtual lines. It hasn't been in full use on all of our visits, but it helps to know a little bit more about it in case you go! It's more likely to be used over the weekends than during the week.
Virtual Line Experience and Wait Times
Some rides, such as Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon, already had existing virtual queues, but this virtual queue system has expanded to include some of the most hoppin' rides. To get the low-down on Universal Orlando's Virtual Line Experience, check out our separate post about how to reserve a Virtual Line pass, plus a few tips and tricks!
As far as wait times go, we've experienced lower crowds during weekdays. Initially, when the park reopened in June, popular rides had wait times as low as 15 minutes. Since time has gone on and there have been discounted ticket specials, crowds and wait times have increased, especially over the weekends and around holidays. To set realistic expectations, there are more people on the pathways when there are heavier crowds, but it is still manageable to navigate your way around the parks without getting too close to others. You may want to avoid watching the Frog Choir and Triwizard Spirit Rally shows in Hogsmeade, especially if Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey has a long line, as that narrow area can get easily congested.
When wait times may be high and appear to be very long, keep in mind that the queues need to maintain social distancing measures. Previously, even though the wait time for Hagrid's said 90 minutes, it actually took us 50 minutes until we reached the loading station. That said, there may be delays for cleaning, which likely contributes to the higher wait times.
There have been times that we've been left frustrated with the Virtual Line Experience. During a particularly busy day, many rides at Universal Studios Florida were Virtual Line only, including Despicable Me Minion Mayhem, Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts, Revenge of the Mummy and Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon. We had checked a few times in the afternoon, but there weren't any passes available when we looked. When an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in, other rides such as Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit, Transformers: The Ride 3D and The Simpsons Ride had weather delays, leaving our options extremely limited. If we were able to do things differently, we would've checked and obtained Virtual Line passes when we arrived earlier in the morning.
If the parks are busy enough to be utilizing the Virtual Line Experience, get your passes as early as possible. Keep checking around 11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. for new passes to be released throughout the day if you are unsuccessful first thing in the morning. We've successfully been able to snag a pass when the clock strikes the hour, but passes go quickly (they may only be available for a couple of minutes). We recommend setting an alarm for five minutes before each release time and start checking in case any time slots pop up early.
During our first visit in 2021, we visited on a weekday, and the crowds were the lowest we had seen since August. Hagrid's didn't even use a virtual queue and had a consistent wait time of 30 to 45 minutes nearly all day long. Since Mardi Gras is starting Feb. 6, 2021, the parks may see a slight uptick in crowds once it begins, but we likely won't see heavier crowds until the beginning of March. Universal Orlando is expecting the spring break season to span over a few weeks from March 13 to April 10, based on team member and passholder blockout dates. Spring break for the surrounding Orange County and Osceola County public schools will be March 15 to 19, 2021, so that particular week may see the busiest of crowds due to the local schools being on break.
New Ride Changes
Universal Orlando has shut down the following rides and attractions temporarily:
- A Day in the Park with Barney
- Kang & Kudos’ Twirl ‘n’ Hurl (open weekends only)
- Fear Factor Live (used as a U-Rest area upon reopening)
- Poseidon's Fury
- Storm Force Accelatron
Ride queues have physical distancing floor markers, and some ride vehicles have empty rows or spaces between parties (such as The Amazing Adventures of Spider-Man). Some of the rides, particularly the roller coasters, are loading every row to increase ride capacity, though each party still has its own row. For instance, two parties of two people won't be seated together in a four-person row. As for lockers, ride attendants may direct you to specific locker stations and only allow one member of each party to put everyone's belongings in a locker.
The floor markings are at least 6 feet apart — and sometimes even further apart, so you won't be close to other frogs on the other side of the queue's switchbacks. Pay close attention when you're in line. It can be hard to see where the next floor marker is, especially in the dark lighting of some queues, such as Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey, or around corners.
The pre-show and elevator simulator in Harry Potter and the Escape from Gringotts are suspended. A team member hands the 3-D glasses to you instead of picking a pair up yourself. (Tip: Place the glasses over the top of your mask to limit as much fogging as possible! For more mask tips, read our separate post.) Before the loading platform on each ride, a team member gives you a mandatory pump of hand sanitizer.
For water rides (notably Jurassic River Adventure, Dudley Do-Right's Ripsaw Falls and Popeye & Bluto's Bilge-Rat Barges), guests must wear masks while waiting in line. However, you can remove them while on the ride itself.
U-Rest Relaxation Zones
Walking around the parks on a hot day while wearing a face-covering can be challenging and uncomfortable at times. For this reason, Universal has set up U-Rest areas where guests can safely remove their masks. A team member keeps track of the capacity inside a U-Rest area so it doesn't overflow, but there is no time limit for how long you can stay. Parties can stick together, and there is seating available in each area.
Each park has multiple U-Rest areas. At Universal's Islands of Adventure, you can find them at Port of Entry, Seuss Landing and the former Sinbad Theater (we suggest this location because it's covered and a large section of the stadium is available so you can easily spread out). At Universal Studios Florida, the U-Rest areas are located at the Fear Factor Live stadium (the show is not available), Central Park (across from the Animal Actors show) and across from the Mummy.
As far as tips for wearing masks go, we highly suggest taking periodic breaks at these U-Rest areas. They gave us some relief throughout the day, and we felt toadally safe because the areas were large enough for parties to spread out.
Shows and Play Areas
While the majority of rides are open, some shows are not running, and most play areas are closed. In addition to Fear Factor Live, The Nighttime Lights at Hogwarts Castle is not available. Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration recently returned but is still only available on select nights. In theaters or stadiums, rows are blocked off entirely so guests are seated every other row. The team members guide you to your seats and leave three empty seats between parties. At the conclusion of a show, guests are asked to remain seated and are directed to leave the theater row by row. If the show is outdoors, pay attention to the social distancing markers on the ground. The following play areas are also closed:
- Camp Jurassic
- Jurassic Park Discovery Center
- If I Ran the Zoo
- Fievel's Playground
- Me Ship the Olive
- Curious George Goes to Town
Characters are still available for meet and greets ... from 6 feet apart or atop raised platforms. Many of the characters are also sporting masks to maintain health and safety measures. Some show performers, such as the Frog Choir, wear masks as well. The Universal Superstar Parade is not running. However, you can see Spongebob and friends come out to say "hi" on their float at the Superstar Character Party zone by Mel's Drive-In. "Secret Life of Pets" and "Despicable Me" characters and Dora and Diego alternate at the party zone throughout the day. Team members keep everyone at a safe distance.
Restaurants and Mobile Ordering
Universal's mobile ordering system has expanded to include more restaurants inside the parks. You can use the app to see which restaurants have the system in place. During our visit, we used mobile ordering for Three Broomsticks, which is new for the restaurant. We recommend you download the latest version of the Universal Orlando app before you visit, because it has some new features. After you’ve ordered and paid for your food with the app, at some restaurants, you scan a QR code at your table that alerts team members to where you are seated, and they bring your food to you!
Frog tip: If you only want Butterbeer, try Hog's Head or the Butterbeer carts.
Inside, the tables are greatly spaced out and marked as "reserved" to block out tables. Utensils come in packaging, and condiments come in packets. While we noticed that a good majority of the restaurants were open and offered regular menu items, there were some locations that remained closed (Monsters Cafe) or only offered outdoor seating (Lombard's).
For table-service restaurants, such as Mythos Restaurant, you'll find a team member at the entrance who is taking reservations. They will take your name, the number of people in your party and your phone number (you'll get a text when your table is ready). They ask that you return within 10 to 15 minutes, but you can text the same number if you're running behind to let the staff know. Once seated, your hostess will give you a paper menu. A waiter will bring you the plates and silverware on a tray for you to pick up yourself.
While 2020 was anything but ordinary, Universal toadally delivered with some modified events, including frightful and family fun for Halloween, such as trick-or-treating and HHN-esque houses! And not even the Grinch could steal the holidays. Guests came face-to-face with the gigantic Macy's balloons via a walking path, and waved at their favorite characters decked out in their seasonal best. Santa visited too! Moving into 2021, fan-favorite events such as Mardi Gras will return in a modified format — they will just look a little different than past years to keep safety top of mind. (Say "hooray" for beignets!)
What to Expect at Universal's Volcano Bay
Note: Universal's Volcano Bay closed for the winter Nov. 2, 2020, and will reopen Feb. 27, 2021.
Things work a little differently at Universal's Volcano Bay compared to the theme parks. Because it's a water park, you do not have to (and shouldn't) wear masks in the pools, lazy rivers and water slides. However, face coverings are still required at the temperature screening and security checkpoint, restaurants and retail shops. You'll also need to wear it while riding the shuttle to and from the parking lot, as well as entering and leaving the park. It's encouraged to wear one while you hop around the park, but know that most frogs opt to stay mask free. If you do wear one around the park, we suggest having a plastic bag on hand. When you go on rides, you can leave it with your shoes at the cubbies provided.
Team members in "dry" roles (at restaurants, gift shops, Guest Services, etc.) wear face coverings, and lifeguards wear balaclavas when they cannot socially distance. We saw team members cleaning and sanitizing life vests, rafts and inner tubes after each use. For rides with multi-person rafts, only one party is allowed in each raft. Standard height and weight requirements are still applicable. (Leap and Tad couldn't ride the Maku Puihi Round Raft Rides together because their combined weight wasn't 300 pounds.) Slides have social distancing markers on the ground to keep you at least 6 feet apart from other guests.
Mobile ordering is available at Kohola Reef Restaurant & Social Club and Whakawaiwai Eats, as well as regular ordering with paper menus. Once you've ordered your food, a team member will hand you the drinks and direct you to the dining tables. Someone else will then seat you and ask for your order number. Voila, another team member will bring the food to your table! Utensils and condiments come separately packaged.
The majority of the rides are up and running at Volcano Bay. Some shops and restaurants remained closed, including Bambu, Kunuku Boat Bar and the Feasting Frog.
What to Expect at Universal Orlando Hotels
The phased reopening of hotels included Hard Rock Hotel, Loews Royal Pacific Resort and Universal's Cabana Bay Beach Resort. Universal's Aventura Hotel, Loews Sapphire Falls Resort and Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Surfside Inn and Suites opened initially, but all are currently closed. Aventura Hotel will remain closed through June 30, 2021, and Sapphire Falls Resort will remain closed through May 18, 2021. Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Surfside Inn and Suites will remain closed through May 3, 2021.
But hoppy news! Loews Portofino Bay Hotel reopened Dec. 1, 2020. Originally scheduled to open its doors in March 2020, Universal's Endless Summer Resort - Dockside Inn and Suites officially opened Dec. 15, 2020.
If you'll be visiting on a weekend (or around a holiday) and are a hotel guest, be sure to take advantage of Early Park Admission. When a park reaches capacity, no guests will be allowed to enter. However, hotel guests have priority access if the park reopens after enough guests leave.
All hotels are offering contactless experiences, such as hotel texting services, express checkout, contactless room deliveries and housekeeping services. Upon request, the hotel will deliver fresh towels, linens and bathroom amenities to your door. Housekeeping will not enter your room during your stay.
Guests will have temperature checks upon arrival and return. If you register a temperature of less than 100.4 degrees, you will receive a wristband for that day and are not required to be rechecked if visiting the theme parks on that same day. If you plan to visit the theme parks outside of your arrival date, you will be screened at the parks at the arrival locations for water taxis, resort shuttles and walking paths. You'll then be given a wristband after completing the screening and are not required to be rechecked upon re-entering the hotels.
We noticed that the Universal water taxis and buses are operating from the CityWalk docks and bus lanes, respectively. Just like the queues in the theme parks, there were markers on the ground to indicate where to stand. Safety first!
What to Expect at Universal CityWalk
Universal CityWalk is currently open from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. on weekdays (and until 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday nights), with the majority of stores and restaurants in operation now. Some restaurants, such as VIVO Italian Kitchen, Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar and Bigfire, are closed Monday through Wednesday. Standard parking fees apply (with free parking after 6 p.m.), but valet parking is still not available at this time. The parking garages open at 7:30 a.m. daily, though it may depend on Early Park Admission hours. When Islands of Adventure had Early Park Admission starting at 7 a.m. on a recent weekend, we were able to access the garages around 6:45 a.m. Cars are spaced out by leaving an empty parking space in between.
As you make your way toward the security hub before you enter CityWalk, you'll see signs about the health and safety information for all guests. Then, you'll have your temperature checked via an infrared thermometer. After you pass through, you can head to the regular bag check screening stations. There are floor markings on the ground to enforce social distancing.
The following Universal CityWalk restaurants, shops and entertainment are now open:
- Antojitos Authentic Mexican Food
- Auntie Anne's Pretzels
- Bob Marley - A Tribute to Freedom
- Bread Box Handcrafted Sandwiches
- Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. Restaurant and Market
- Burger King Whopper Bar
- Cinnabon (mobile ordering available)
- Cold Stone Creamery
- Fat Tuesday
- Fusion Bistro Sushi & Sake Bar
- Hard Rock Cafe (requires a separate temperature screening)
- Hot Dog Hall of Fame (mobile ordering available)
- Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville (outside & Lone Palm)
- Moe's Southwest Grill
- NBC Sports Grill & Brew
- Panda Express
- Pat O'Brien's
- Red Oven Pizza Bakery (mobile ordering available)
- The Cowfish Sushi Burger Bar
- Toothsome Chocolate Emporium & Savory Feast Kitchen
- VIVO Italian Kitchen
- Voodoo Doughnut (mobile ordering available)
- Hair Wraps
- Hart & Huntington Tattoo Company (retail only)
- Universal Studios Store and select merchandise carts
- Hollywood Drive-In Golf
- Universal Cinemark
Each restaurant may have a limited menu and limited seating available. You can now make advance dining reservations for Bigfire, Antojitos, Bob Marley - A Tribute to Freedom, Cowfish, NBC Sports Grill & Brew, Pat O'Brien's, Toothsome, VIVO Italian Kitchen, Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville and Hard Rock Cafe Orlando. Some nightclubs remain temporarily closed, and more locations may be added over time.
We hope this gives you an idea of what to expect during the Universal Orlando reopening so you can best prepare your next trip. Keep in mind that health and safety procedures may differ from park to park (here are guides to visiting Walt Disney World, SeaWorld Orlando and LEGOLAND Florida) and are subject to change. While we frogs cannot wait to hop back to the parks, we understand it’s important to be safe in doing so — and that the comfort level is different for every family. Be sure to check back later, as we will update this post as new information becomes available.