A little over two weeks ago, my family and I hopped on a flight and headed to Florida. This trip had changed so many times, it was enough to make your head spin. The final itinerary was set mere days prior: fly out from Richmond to Orlando, spend three nights at Universal Orlando resort, drive to Vero Beach and spend three nights there, drive back to Orlando and spend a night at Disney, fly home the next morning. This trip was meant to be one where we stayed in resorts we had never stayed at, enjoyed new experiences, and (the elephant in the room) visited theme parks during a pandemic.
At this point, I have a feeling that you are thinking one of two things: how were the parks different or what a moron I must be for traveling right now.
I’ve seen plenty of opinion pieces regarding travel in the last few months. How anyone that travels is inconsiderate, selfish, killing the elderly, you name it. How we go out without social distancing, not wearing masks, touching everything, spreading our germs to the world. What you should remember (and I struggle to) when reading those articles is that they are filled with the writer’s opinions.
Here is my opinion. When I leave the house, I wear a mask anytime I go into a store, get gas where others are around, etc. Hand sanitizer is frequently applied and I wash my hands every single time I come back home and while I’m out, as needed. I don’t go into stores very often and do online grocery order pickup once a week. As I mentioned in my last blog post about going to the beach in early June, I spent a great deal of time thinking about ways to minimize my contact with others before we ever left home. Gloves and hand sanitizer for pumping gas, masks for anytime we were in public, online grocery ordering so we could have contactless pickup for food to use for breakfast and lunch in our rental home, takeout from local restaurants for dinner to help their local economy and avoid contact with others, very minimal in-store shopping and always with masks and sanitizer. My stepdad, traveling with us with some health challenges, stayed in the vehicle on the rare occasion that we went to a store. On the beach when we were around others, we social distanced from others without issue. At no point did we feel unsafe or go out of our comfort zone as far as contact with others. There were people that were not wearing masks, as there was no mask order in North Carolina at the time, but we held firm on using ours. On the drive to and from the rental house, we had fast food lunches in our vehicles to avoid any contact concerns.
For the Florida trip, we traveled by plane. That meant masks from the moment we got to the airport garage in Richmond until we were in our rental van in Orlando. We each had hand sanitizer and used it regularly, in addition to actual hand washing when available. I packed a container of Clorox wipes and we spent the first few minutes onboard the plane wiping down everything we might touch in our seating area, despite the flight crew just having sanitized the plane too. JetBlue doesn’t have typical beverage and snack service right now but is offering a snack bag, a great alternative. Most of us kept our snack bag and ate it later that evening.
Once we arrived at Loews Royal Pacific resort at Universal Orlando, we had to enter the hotel and pass through a temperature screening. That was done every morning at the hotel (for guests, at the parks themselves if you weren’t staying onsite). Check in was contactless and very simple. Our rooms had been left empty for 24-48 hours prior to our arrival and thoroughly cleaned after the last guest. During our stay, housekeeping didn’t enter the room at all. Royal Pacific offered a fantastic ‘text the front desk’ service that had fresh towels, amenities, etc. delivered to the room in minutes and trash was picked up outside of the door daily. We upgraded to add the Club Level service during our stay and the staff there ensured that every table was wiped down between guests, guests wore masks, sanitizer was available, and food was handed to the guest instead of being self-serve.
With my stepdad’s health issues, he and my mom decided that this portion of the trip for them would be spent at the hotel enjoying the pool and relaxing. Myself and my husband, plus our daughter and two nieces, went to the two theme parks at Universal and the waterpark there, Volcano Bay.
Shuttle boats and buses were marked for social distancing as were the lines to wait to board. Universal marked the six foot distance everywhere you could think of and, in fact, it was more like nine feet in most places to allow for families that took up a little more room. That was fantastic. The parks in general are running well under capacity and everything felt very empty and a little eerie. Masks are required at the resorts (everywhere except the pool and if you are sitting down eating or drinking), on all transportation, and in the parks (unless you are sitting down eating or drinking). There are no exceptions. There are Universal employees in place to stop guests throughout the parks that are trying to walk and drink, pull their mask down so their nose is exposed, etc. and will stop the guest to correct the behavior. Surfaces and rides are being frequently cleaned and all staff wear masks. Attraction capacity is also reduced and you are not seated in a ride vehicle with someone that isn’t in your travel party. Upon entering an attraction, hand sanitizer is squirted into your hands to apply, no way around using it.
The only time I felt even slightly uncomfortable was later in the afternoon one day when waiting to ride Hagrid’s Magical Motorbike ride. There were so many guests returning to ride the ride for their virtual boarding time when we were that the line got very long, was in the sun, and social distancing went out the window for a bit. Everyone was still masked though and the line moved quickly, which then slid back into the social distancing spacing.
There are U-Rest Areas throughout the parks and Citywalk where you can socially distance yourself, remove your mask, and take a break from the action with your family. This was a great rest option. Masks are often hot and I would encourage you to find one that is lightweight but two-ply or more, breathable, and quick drying. If you find a mask you love (as much as you can love a mask), you really don’t think about it being on when you’re there. It is easy to wash them in hot water with soap each night and hang to dry.
Sit-down restaurants had tables socially distanced, masks required until seated, servers remained masked, some offered bags to put each guest’s mask in while they ate, fresh glasses were brought to the table with each refill, etc. This was the first time we had eaten at a sit-down restaurant since March 15th.
The waterpark, Volcano Bay, required masks for entry, shopping, and at all dining locations unless you were sitting and eating or drinking. No masks were required on the attractions or pools, for obvious reasons, but social distancing was required. Their chairs have been moved to allow for distancing between parties. Rafts are sanitized between guests as are life jackets.
After we left Universal Orlando, we drove to Vero Beach, less than two hours away on the Atlantic coast of Florida. There, we checked in at Disney’s Vero Beach resort. Groceries were delivered by Instacart, takeout for dinner. Masks required everywhere except the pool, on the beach while distanced, and while sitting down and eating or drinking. Pool chairs were distanced and you were seated by the pool staff with your family into the pre-arranged chair groupings. Social distancing in the pool was encouraged and chairs were sanitized between guests. No housekeeping but an employee did check daily to remove trash and ask if we needed anything.
Three nights at Vero were followed by a drive back to Orlando and a one-night stay at Disney’s Treehouse Villas at Saratoga Springs resort. The treehouse had been cleaned and sanitized prior to our arrival, just like Vero Beach’s villa, with device remotes in plastic bags, amenities wrapped, etc. Online check-in service was used here so we never went to the front desk at all. Our villa number was texted to us prior to arrival so we went straight there and unpacked. That night was spent at Disney Springs, where social distancing is encouraged, stores have been modified to allow for distance between guests, and restaurants are operating well under capacity. No paper menus, you’re shown a QR code to scan to pull the menu up on your smartphone. Servers wear masks, guests do too until they are seated and anytime they get up. Tables are spaced and capacity overall is limited.
The next morning, we packed up and drove to the Contemporary resort for breakfast at Chef Mickey’s — currently a family style meal with no characters. We were required to have a reservation to be able to park at the hotel, since we weren’t staying there, and check in for the reservation was done online. Once our table was ready, a masked and shielded server took care of our needs. The food was brought to us on serving platters, with refills as requested. Tables were distanced and guests were masked until/unless they were seated. Menu was via QR code here too. Even the check was in a paper folder instead of the typical padded plastic holder that restaurants typically use. After breakfast, we looked through the Contemporary stores, all masked and distanced, no pin trading right now, and grabbed a few last minute items. We spent a little while outside enjoying the view and checking out the new Cinderella Castle design before driving back to the airport to fly home. Orlando’s airport was the same as Richmond, masks everywhere, handwashing, hand sanitizer, etc. Some other travelers had shields on top of their masks, gloves, we even saw what looked like full Hazmat suits. Let’s just say that people were being careful.
Back in Virginia, we’ve generally returned to COVID life. My husband is working from home until we’ve officially been back for two weeks and we’re pretty much staying home or swimming at my mom’s pool. Masks stay on when we go out, which is rare, handwashing and sanitizer are used very frequently.
Would I go again? In a heartbeat. That’s not just because it is a great time to visit the theme parks with the incredibly low crowds but because I felt safer in those theme parks and resorts than I do in my local area. Masks are required and you’re reprimanded if you don’t follow the requirement. People generally keep to themselves and respect boundaries.
Don’t buy into the hype about traveling and how if you didn’t do it, those workers wouldn’t be at risk and wouldn’t have to go to work because you wouldn’t be there creating demand. Every single worker I talked to thanked us for being there, for visiting, and allowing them to be able to be back in their jobs. Hospitality and tourism is a huge industry and doesn’t just affect big cities and major tourist destinations. Think about your local restaurants and attractions. I live in a small town. Our downtown was a bustling place with restaurants, shops, a Shakespeare playhouse, art center, etc. Now with COVID, everyone is hurting. Not only are the locals not going out to these places but we’re also not getting tourists to come and fill that gap. Stores and restaurants here have already begun to close. I feel certain those workers and small business owners would generally be much happier to have guests coming in and enjoying what they have to offer than watching their businesses fall apart. I know this small business owner would.
Until Part II — where I talk about the fun stuff like club level perks, attractions in Universal Orlando, riding the fearless river at Volcano Bay, tracking sea turtles at Vero Beach, and spending the night in a treehouse — stay safe out there!