Happiest Pandemic on Earth?
During the early days of the pandemic, California required theme parks to close — and, like everything else associated with the pandemic, the shutdown lasted much longer than expected. It was also unprecedented. Disneyland had shut down only three times before: after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, right after the Northridge earthquake in 1994, and following the 9/11 attacks. But those were just one-day closures. This time, Disneyland was shut down for 412 days — and it wasn’t alone. Universal Studios Hollywood, Legoland, Knott’s Berry Farm, and Disneyland’s sister park California Adventure were all closed for over a year. When they reopened, there were new rules — and a very different experience. I went to Disneyland, California Adventure (including the new Avengers Campus), and Universal Studios Hollywood in June and late May, before the Disney parks dropped most mask requirements and social distancing. Here’s what that once-in-a-lifetime experience was like, for better and for worse.
Hand Cleanliness Was a Theme
Disney has consistently been ahead of the curve when it comes to sanitation (when norovirus was a common threat, the company installed hand sanitizer stations on Disney cruise ships), so it was no shock to see motion-activated pumps everywhere (and they were at Universal as well). So, what was new? Disney also had mobile hand-washing stations so you could scrub away without entering a bathroom.
Masks Were Worn, Period
Masks were required, and although people grumbled and protested at Costco, drugstores, and other locations across the country, compliance was high (admittedly, some noses were peeking out). This was no big surprise, given that both Disneyland and Walt Disney World don’t believe the customer is always right if he or she is breaking the rules, and reportedly have had no problem kicking out people who dropped their masks. Medical exemptions were not accepted.
Characters Were Met at a Distance
No, Mickey and Minnie weren’t doling out hugs, but lots of characters were available for meet and greets, even if it was more of a meet-and-wave experience. Some of these interactions were more successful than others. Black Panther stood at a safe distance but could still talk to my kids (and convince them to make the Wakanda Forever arms-crossed greeting), but it wasn’t as easy for other characters. While it was charming to see Goofy mime a fishing skit from a second story over California Adventure’s lake, a female pirate at the Pirates of the Caribbean ride and Tiana from "The Princess and the Frog" had to yell down from balconies to the little kids who wanted to talk to them.
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Getting a Lunch Table Wasn’t Always an Option
The biggest problem for most theme parks seemed to be food service. While many seating areas lost some tables and chairs to enforce social distancing, it wasn’t always clear where they had ended up. People with trays full of food were left wandering around looking for tables that weren’t turning over.
Ordering Food Wasn’t Easy
Of course, people were only wandering around desperately if they could get the trays of food in the first place. At Disneyland and California Adventure, food that wasn’t available at a kiosk had to be ordered online, and the wait could be two hours or more. At Universal Studios Hollywood, food choices weren’t great (overpriced Panda Express, anyone?) but lines were shorter.
Reduced Crowds Didn’t Mean No Crowds
One of the biggest advantages was that crowd size was reduced to either 25% or 35% of capacity, depending on the virus rates in the surrounding county. While that meant less crowding, it didn’t mean no crowds at all — or attempts at crowd control. While some parts of every park seemed empty, people still congregated at the most popular locations. Spots like New Orleans Square in Disneyland (where the Pirates of the Caribbean and Haunted Mansion rides are) were still surprisingly crowded.
Ride Capacity Was Changed
While most rides were unchanged due to pandemic restrictions, rides that usually involved sitting next to or near strangers had plastic shields between seats, or parties were separated by rows. For rides that involved boats or cars on an indoor ride, usually each vessel was limited to riders in one party — which could mean just one or two people getting an entire car to themselves. Even if that made for a cool selfie, it also made for a longer line.
… But Getting Into the Park Was Harder in Some Places
While you weren’t likely to be stuck on the rooftop when you parked, those handy parking trams for Disneyland or California Adventure that whisked you from the parking garage to the park entrance? During the pandemic, they weren’t running — at all. That meant 15 minutes of walking to get to the park and, more importantly, that same slog as you were leaving the park, when little kids were usually exhausted and bleary-eyed.
New Rides Were Still Hot Tickets
Surprisingly, even if most of us were stuck at home during the pandemic, theme park designers and construction workers were hard at work. The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash at Universal Studios Hollywood and the Avengers Campus at California Adventure both opened during the pandemic. While this meant long lines for both, the Avengers Campus line was really, really long. If you didn’t get into the virtual queue that opened at 7 a.m. or noon, you were standing in line for a long, long time — seven hours on opening day, then three or four hours on the days after that.
You Needed Reservations
Buying a ticket wasn’t enough. At Disneyland and California Adventure, you also needed to make a reservation. At Universal Studios Hollywood, you had to specify what day you were coming. If you needed to reschedule? While that was technically possible, you often had to do so within a tight window (for Disneyland, tickets that allowed two park visits required the second visit happen within 13 days of the first, for example) and after the parks reopened, some days were completely full within minutes.