We Went to Theme Parks & This is What Happened

First, as you read this it’s important to note we paid for every cent of these trips. Sometimes theme parks offer free tickets to internet influencers, but this wasn’t the case for us.  Also important to note: We don’t promote things we don’t love so if we are engaged with a brand you can trust us that it’s something we genuinely adore. 

Now that we have that out of the way… we went to Disney World and Universal Studios! I’m going to tell you our personal feelings on how they were both handling safety during this time. Then, I’ll answer some questions we fielded from Instagram. In a future post, the kids will share their favorite rides and experiences.

Going to Disney World

We visited Disney World two days before they made masks optional for vaccinated people. So while we were there, we were permitted to walk around outside with our masks lowered but had to be masked once we entered the covered part of the line and on the ride itself. It was hot, but let me tell you, I preferred it. Disney was still at 40% capacity while we were there, but when you’re in line you’re still in very close contact with people. They had installed tall plexiglass partitions in a lot of the waiting areas, but not everywhere.

Penn and I are vaccinated, Lola had one shot, but our son isn’t eligible. Even without the threat of COVID, we’re now VERY aware of the illnesses we could have come home with. A woman in line for breakfast at our hotel was complaining how tired she was because her son had been up puking all night. I made sure my mask was tight around my nose.  That being said, with masks, distancing, and reduced capacity, I can tell you we felt very safe at Disney World. 

Visiting Universal Studios

Blame it on my poor planning, but I didn’t realize Universal Studios had no capacity limits or mask requirements. We rolled in from Disney where workers were stationed at the front of gift shops to remind people to put on their masks and expected a similar scene. When we walked into Universal Studios, it was like we were in another world (and I’m not talking about The Wizarding World of Harry Potter.) They played a recording over the speakers a few times during the day announcing masks were optional for vaccinated guests.

We chose to keep “Disney rules” and mask indoors and in line. (Penn and I could have gone mask-free but we felt it was only fair if we were asking our kids to wear them, we would too.) For every one thousand people we saw, there were maybe 5 masks. Sure, you could assume they were all vaccinated but very, very few small children were wearing them so I’m going to go out on a limb and say not everyone was being 100% honest. Our kids knocked off their “must do” list at Universal (all things Harry Potter and the new roller coaster) and we went back to the hotel pool.  We love Universal Studios but we didn’t feel as comfortable this time around.  

Answering Your Questions

Now to the questions: I asked folks on Instagram if they had questions about our trip. Most of them asked about safety measures that I hope I covered above. One thing that really helped though, I bought these inexpensive clips on Amazon. It made it so we could easily pull our masks on and off without losing them or getting them dirty. 

The next most popular question: “Are your kids too old for Disney?” Nope. Our kids have always loved all things Disney. I grew up in Florida and went every couple of years. Now when we visit my family, we take the kids. They’ve been enough that they have distinct memories from “when they were little.” Here are other questions we got:

How young is too young for a trip to Disney parks?

My mother lives just outside of Orlando, so we took Lola when she was two while we were on a visit. We didn’t have to pay for a hotel and children under the age of 3 did not require a paid ticket (or at least that was the case back then) so it seemed worth it. She loved it and claims to have vivid memories from the trip. 

How hard was it to get on the queue for the Star Wars ride? 

The new Rise of the Resistance ride at Hollywood Studios requires signing on to the Disney app at 7am and entering a “virtual queue” so they don’t have people in a massive line for hours and hours. We tried twice and never got it. It was totally fine, though. Our kids loved walking around the new Star Wars themed area called “Galaxy’s Edge” and riding the Millennium Falcon ride.  

(If you made the entire trip just to ride the new ride, I can see how you’d be upset. We have loads of other favorites so it didn’t even register as disappointment.) 

Where did you even start planning the trip?

I’m not great with details (I think I wrote an entire blog one time about needing to visit my family in Florida but accidentally buying plane tickets to New York. Seriously. That happened.)  Even though I’ve been to Disney World many times in my life, I still find it overwhelming. So I called Shannon Minor. She helped us find hotels, make dining reservations (that’s a whole thing) and even mapped out a suggested itinerary for both Disney World and Universal Studios.

At the time I’m typing this, you had to buy Disney tickets ahead of time and I didn’t trust myself to get them for the exact dates I needed. Her costs are covered by the parks and she was so accommodating with all my questions. 

How crowded was it? 

Disney World was a lot less crowded than it is typically, but you’re still waiting in line for popular rides. Again, we went when they were still at 40% capacity but I assume they will lift that soon. Universal was packed like the typical summer surge. 

As a former Florida resident, the only times I’ve seen either park not really busy was the week following the New Year’s holiday (but before Martin Luther King Day) and in mid-September when most everyone is back in school. 

Best passes to buy? Is park hopper worth it? 

Theme parks are expensive. There’s no way around it. We had not taken a vacation in more than a year so we splurged and bought park hopper passes for Disney World and for Universal Studios/Islands of Adventure.  My very personal opinion: if you only have one day and you’ve never done anything at Disney, you could just buy tickets for Magic Kingdom and cover as much as you can. Magic Kingdom is huge and you’ll not get to absolutely everything in one trip. But if you know what you want to cover, I think it’s worth it to have the option to hop parks. 

The Harry Potter experience covers bits of both Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure, so you really have to get the pass that covers both to get to everything. 

What should I wear?

My very favorite trend is to see the adorable teenagers dressed super cute trying to take Instagram pictures around Disney. Seriously. I salute them. I’m not capable of anything besides extreme comfort so I wore shorts and shirts that would endure extreme sweat. I wore jean shorts one day and valued the pockets to hold my cell phone. The next two days I just wore gym clothes so I added a very stylish (haha!) fanny pack to hold my phone and wallet. Wear your most comfortable shoes because you’ll be doing a lot of walking. 

There are a lot of families with matching shirts and outfits. Again, I’m not a planner so that will never be my journey. 

What did you have in your backpack? 

Penn lugged a massive backpack the entire time. It was stuffed with ponchos, (we got caught in one of those famous summer storms) water bottles, and sunscreen. I wish I packed flip flops for the kids for the rain storm. Their shoes got soaked during the storm and they were pretty miserable for the rest of the day. If I had thought to put them in flops while it was raining, we could have wrapped their sneakers in a plastic bag and saved some drama. 

For those of you that don’t know, Florida has glorious afternoon storms. In a snap, the sky turns dark and it starts pouring, but within twenty minutes the birds are chirping. We actually welcomed the rain because it was so hot. 

A note on the backpack: it was very handy and easy to keep at my feet on the Disney rides, but it’s much more cumbersome when navigating Universal Studios. On many of the rides they require you to place it in a locker nearby so you’re adding in some wait time and general hassle to the experience.  

Do you have tips for a Disney first-timer?

I would release any hope of covering absolutely everything. I’ve probably been 20 times in my life and I haven’t seen it all. Pick a few “musts” and then you’ll be excited that you hit more than you thought you would. Realize you will wait in line for everything. Penn waited 25 minutes to get “Butterbeer” at Universal for the kids.  

Also, I would use a planning service to get the best hotel options and to assist with dining reservations. Yes, if you want to sit down at a restaurant at either park you need a reservation and often you need to book those months out. 

Did you get to see the characters properly?

Pre-Covid, you could wait to meet Disney characters and princesses. Parades were incredibly popular and people would get a spot on the sidewalk an hour in advance. It was a thing. As I type this, there are no meet and greet character experiences, parades, or fireworks. But, you can catch glimpses of the famous characters throughout the day. They don’t announce a schedule but they will send a carriage with princesses down Main Street, or one of the floats down the typical route.

Our kids were never super into the parades so we always used it as a time to race on to the rides while other people were distracted. 

How was the dining experience?

I would say we all need to adjust our expectations. There’s a shortage of help in the service industry across our country and theme parks are no different. Our travel agent helped book two sit down restaurant options at Disney and both had really, really slow service. At both parks you have to use mobile ordering for quick service food. If you could anticipate where you would be in 45 minutes, you could order ahead. Still, we found we spent a lot of time waiting for food.

We had a very positive experience at Cowfish at Universal Studios. It’s our favorite restaurant in Raleigh and we were able to get a reservation. That being said, at other places I witnessed some people get snippy with the servers and it was so maddening. None of it was the fault of the staff or even the parks. In most places, there aren’t enough people to serve food as fast as we were used to. We asked a friend who works in the theme park industry and she said, “Many of the workers were laid off and found other jobs so finding people has been tough. And don’t forget, we just went through a pandemic where 500,000+ people died and more are suffering from long term health issues. The workforce is smaller.”  Pack snacks and adjust expectations. 

Whew. This post got long! In our next post, the kids want to share their Disney/Universal favorites. What are your favorite traditions and rides from the theme parks? Let me know!

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