Longtime observers of Orlando's attractions have noticed that a familiar playbook is usually followed when the theme parks have a big premiere. First, Disney announces an ambitious plan long before its proposed opening date, teasing impressive ideas but providing minimal specifics. Meanwhile, Universal works full-steam building new things in full view of guests but refuses to acknowledge their existence; then unexpectedly dumps all the details days before the big debut. We've seen this dynamic time and again, during the dueling arrival of the Pandora and Potter lands, as well as in the current construction of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Jurassic Park roller coasters. So it was no surprise to see that pattern emerge again when Walt Disney World announced on May 8 that their Disney Springs shopping and dining complex would resume limited operations on May 20, followed days later by word from Universal Orlando that they were beating the Mouse to the punch and reopening CityWalk on May 14.
I attended the reopening days at both resorts, and in many way the experiences were similar. Both Disney Springs and CityWalk re-emerged from their coronavirus closures with only a limited number of third-party venues open, although the number of operating offerings continues to grow. Both complexes are attempting to enforce social distancing measures, and are using screening procedures to help guests feel safer during their visit. But when you look into the details of how the two resorts are wrangling with our new abnormal normal, you'll find their responses flip the standard script in unexpected ways.
Whether you go to CityWalk or Disney Springs, your visit will start inside a parking garage, since the surface lots around Disney Springs are still closed. Universal has waived its usual parking fees and trained the staff directing cars to help guests stay socially distant by leaving empty spaces. Disney, which normally has vastly superior parking procedures, provided inadequate directions to the Lime garage entrance when I arrived to find the Orange one closed, and once I was inside, parking was an unguided free-for-all.
Prior to entering either complex, guests enjoy a complimentary touch-free thermometer check to ensure their temperature is under 100.4 degrees. At both places, this bit of pandemic performance art was conducted efficiently and courteously; curiously, Universal uses their own employees, while at Disney Springs, staff from AdventHealth operate the screening.
Guests at both resorts are also required to wear face masks, which has proved to be a partisan flashpoint on social media. At Universal, guests without masks are invited to purchase a reusable one ($6 for one, $15 for three) or offered a free disposable one. I didn't see similar accommodations at Disney, but virtually every guest I saw had brought their own, and were using them for the most part.
The major exception to mask-wearing was among guests who were eating and drinking. At Universal, that was largely confined to widely spaced tables outside the handful of operating restaurants, like Margaritaville – which posted a two-hour wait within minutes of reopening. The walk-up windows that serve alcohol were all closed. But at Disney Springs, a larger number of takeaway locations were operating – including a Starbucks and the Polite Pig – leading to a substantial number of guests strolling around unmasked while slowly sipping (or Instagramming) their beverages.
As far as social distancing goes, new markers promoting proper spacing have grown out of the ground like mushrooms across both complexes. Disney ordinarily does a better job at consistent signage, but curiously, here again Universal seems a step ahead; while Universal generally uses its floor markings to indicate where guests should stand, Disney has deployed a mix of "stand here" and "don't stand here" signs. The conflicting messages feature confusingly identical fonts and color schemes, so don't be surprised when you spot people politely standing exactly where they're not supposed to.
Perhaps the biggest difference I noticed between the reopenings of CityWalk and Disney Springs was in the entertainment department. Obviously, the cinemas at both complexes remain closed, and neither Blue Man Group nor Cirque du Soleil (which was on the verge of debuting its new Drawn to Life show) have announced plans to resume performances. Universal, however, has reopened half of its Hollywood Drive-In Golf putt-putt course, and scheduled live performers like stilt-walkers and musicians to enliven the atmosphere. Disney Springs, on the other hand, offered only pre-recorded background music, periodically interrupted by canned announcements promoting social distancing.
Ultimately, the families I saw at CityWalk and Disney Springs didn't seem to mind the limited offerings or safety restrictions; instead, they just seemed happy to be outside in beautiful weather, enjoying the sight of other people for perhaps the first time in months, and dreaming of the day when the theme parks will reopen.
Scientists remain skeptical about how soon that should happen (despite what Gov. DeSantis insists), but to be completely honest, I felt far more comfortable as a guest at Disney and Universal than I do buying essentials at my local grocery store. Personally, I'm not yet ready to resume my near-daily visits to the resorts, but for right now I'd say the taste of my first post-quarantine Voodoo Doughnut was worth the risk.