When Orlando theme parks reopened last summer, they did so after implementing a host of changes to the way the parks operated in order to serve the health and safety concerns of guests, while also allowing those guests to still enjoy as much about the park itself as possible. Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort implemented policies regarding everything from mask wearing to temperature testing to social distancing, but not everything works exactly the same way at both resorts.
The core requirements are absolutely being met by both organizations, as social distancing is handled well and masks are required. In fact, both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort take things further, doing more than might be technically necessary. But what's interesting is that the places where each company has added precautions are slightly different. If you're planning a theme park vacation in the near term, or wondering if you should, it's good to know exactly what you're in for. Here are the biggest ways the two major Florida theme park resorts are different in the ways they're handing the same situation.
Social Distancing Queues
What's The Same: Lines are a fact of life at theme parks, and that's no less the case now, even when theme park capacity is limited. Both Universal Orlando and Disney World have lines well marked for social distancing, so everybody knows where they can, and can't, stand... not that everybody pays attention to that. Queues have been significantly rerouted to allow for social distancing in every direction, though that means lines snake out to places they never have before. This occasionally causes problems at both parks, with lines colliding as people are simply trying to move around.
What's Different: One big way the lines are quite different is when it comes to the theme park's respective line skipping options. Walt Disney World's FastPass+ has been suspended for the time being, and in most cases, the part of the queue that was dedicated for that is now part of the standard socially distanced line. Universal Orlando's Express Pass, however, is still available, and perhaps due to the current situation, is even more valuable. FastPass+ was free, but limited for guests, while Express Pass has an added cost attached, which may be the main reason one option is unavailable while the other still is.
What's The Same: Before all this started, perhaps the regular application of hand sanitizer wasn't part of your normal routine, but it probably is now. The world had trouble producing enough of the stuff we were using so much early on. Both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando Resort want to make sure that you use hand sanitizer as well, and stands offering it have been placed all over the park This includes attraction lines, public spaces and at the entrance and exit, to basically any place you can get food.
What's Different: Universal takes it all a step further by having a staff member with a bottle of the stuff at the end of every attraction queue, and guests are expected to take some before boarding any ride vehicle. Since this is a major point of contact for multiple people, it's understandable why this extra step was taken. It also should be said that on my recent trip to the parks, I frequently found the sanitizer stations at Disney World empty, though that may also be a function of the fact that those parks were just more crowded than Universal in general.
What's the Same: Theme parks are always looking for something new to make the experience of visiting feel fresh, and that doesn't only mean new attractions. New technology is also regularly implemented into the ways we buy tickets, merchandise and more. Both Universal and Disney have theme park specific apps that let you do all kinds of things, such as ordering food inside the parks. While not all dining locations at either park allow you to order food from your phone, many do, and both parks have been encouraging the use of the app more to prevent contact points between guests and staff.
What's Different: Here, Disney is the resort taking the extra step. While Universal Orlando encourages mobile ordering, Walt Disney World requires it. If the location accepts mobile ordering, that's the way you're required to order your food. Only after your food has been prepared and is ready for pickup are you allowed to actually enter the location to get it. This means you spend as little time as possible inside near other guests and cast members.
What's the Same: As stated at the outset, lines are just something you have to deal with at theme parks. However, that's not to say that theme parks haven't been working on that little problem. Especially in the era of social distancing, it would be nice to avoid lines entirely. While that isn't possible yet, both Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World already had virtual queues in operation before the pandemic happened. Disney World had one for Rise of the Resistance, and Universal Orlando had one for Hagrid's Magical Creatures Motor Bike Adventure. In both cases, you could add yourself to the queue on your smartphone, and then you would be sent an alert when it was time for you to actually get in a much shorter, line.
What's Different: While both resorts had virtual queues in place before the pandemic, and still do now, only Universal has increased their use since reopening. At Disney World, Rise of the Resistance is still the only attraction with a virtual queue. At Universal, you can virtually line up for Hagrid's, but also the Revenge of the Mummy roller coaster and even Race Through New York Starring Jimmy Fallon.
What's the Same: Temperature checks are one of the primary ways that both Universal Orlando and Walt Disney World attempt to prevent anybody who might be seriously ill from entering the parks. However, exactly when and where you get your temperature checked varies between the two resorts. While you will absolutely get your temperature checked at least once if you visit either theme park resort, the locations for the checks, and the potential frequency of them, are not the same.
What's Different: At Walt Disney World, you'll find temperature check stations at the entrance to all four theme parks, as well as at the door to any resort hotel dining locations. This means that if you park-hop or head off to your hotel for dinner, you might get your temperature checked multiple times during the day. Universal Orlando will check your temperature at the entrance to any of its resort hotels, and at the theme park gates, but after you've been checked once, you'll be given a wristband that shows you're clear, and you won't need to be checked again until the next day.
To be clear, both Universal Orlando Resort and Walt Disney World are doing very well when it comes to health and safety. During my recent trip, I saw staff at both parks making sure that masks were being worn, and being worn properly. While each park might approach different aspects of these rules in different ways, the ultimate goal is the same and both locations are working toward that goal. But now you know exactly what you're in for if you're planning a trip to Walt Disney World or Universal Orlando.