By Jaimz Dillman
Florida theme parks have taken a major hit this year due to closings and pandemic precautions. Now that places have opened up a bit it seems the general public has lost their freakin' minds to get "back to normal". On a recent week-day visit to Universal Orlando Resort, the lines started before even hitting the parking garage toll plaza. Being there fairly close to opening and seeing this is never a good sign. Still, we ventured forward and attendants had cars placed every other space so that felt promising. Moving on we met the line for temp checks which moved fairly quickly and groups seemed to keep to the 6ft. reminder markers on the ground. Stepping forth to security, guards directed us to which lines were open. Once bags were searched and we were through the metal detectors it was a walk with the masses to the line at the gates.
Now, mind you, being a Florida native and having worked for over 14 years in the theme park industry of course wait times, the heat, and encountering other guests was expected. What was surprising was the general lack of care coming from people invading not only the suggested 6ft rule but personal space as well. We moved several times as families descended into our little bubble and relocated to quieter surroundings. The park does do a great deal on their end to keep things clean. Attendants at the start of every ride and/or attraction are pumping out hand sanitizer like it's liquid gold, markings on the ground in every line reinforce where to stand, railings, door handles, tables, and chairs are being wiped down at every turn, periodic announcements reminding all to stay safe play throughout both the studios and islands and mostly everyone stayed masked where required.
Major layoffs have been a big topic in the news affecting the number of employees working at some of Florida's largest employers- and it definitely showed. There was a general tone of team members being stressed and none too thrilled about lack of support. One server I spoke with said they had 3 call-ins that day and had no one to cover the shifts. With counter service restaurants turned to table service for safety this made for uncomfortable wait times not only for food but for even ordering drinks. Couple this, with only select locations being open there was minimal places to choose from.
The added Halloween offerings may be the reason for an uptick in attendance. Without the annual Halloween Horror Nights celebration, Universal has tried to appease the hordes or horror fans by making available a few daytime spooky spectacles.
Two haunted houses- Revenge of the Tooth Fairy and The Bride of Frankenstein Lives- are up and running open to close. There are some adjustments made inside the mazes for added safety, both for the actors and the guests. Strangely the wait time for these limited-time walkthroughs was minimal allowing for nice pacing of guest flow and we were able to take our time to admire the sets and actors instead of the usual rush.
Revenge of the Tooth Fairy is laid out like a storybook and it's visually beautiful. Stepping into the pages you hear the narration of what's happening as it's read to you. But this isn't a bedtime story- of course, something goes terribly wrong. You wind your way through the twisted nightmare among shrieking fairies and their victims to an unfortunate conclusion that will change your thoughts on putting any teeth under your pillow. The scares were plenty but you could see a few places where actors were missing making you wonder what should've been there but we still got a full experience.
Right off to the side of the main concert stage is The Bride of Frankenstein Lives and this was our favorite! The visual of the first room sets the tone for a woman who's lost her love and is set on rebuilding... literally. Cast almost entirely of women there's a strong underlying tone of female empowerment here. Brides are all through the story along with a female Igor/Renfield, sisters are doing it for themselves- and they don't want you interrupting so- Get Out! Kudos to the costuming department for making the monsters so visually stunning.
Recently, Universal has gotten keen to the longtime HHN fans and the Tribute Store pays homage to what those fans want. Director of Universal Orlando’s Visual Merchandising team Rob Cametti created the experience for the 25th anniversary of Horror Nights and it's been a very well-received addition to the event. Various props, signage, and memorabilia from previous years are all on display and stylized so much the door attendant had to reassure young guests entering it wasn't a haunted house but indeed just a store. She said she does it all day.
Different rooms have the usual t-shirts, keychains, hoodies, posters, and such you expect in a gift shop. There are a few throwback wax mold machines to make your own Frankie or pumpkin that are nice surprises. And in the custom design vein, you can create your own t-shirt from a myriad of art choices. Take your time browsing the artwork lining the walls and hallways. There are bits and pieces from every icon, house, street scare team, and more to help fill the void until next year.
Maybe our favorite room was the finale- say his name 3 times and you'll feel right at home in the Beetlejuice room! This is also where you'll find some tasty treats for purchase at the bakery- including beating heart gummies, monster cake pops, scary doughnuts, mummy pretzel dogs, and Frankenstein monster crispy treats (careful, the icing on a lot of items will leave you with a green or black stained mouth- but worth it!). There are other seasonal food options scattered at quick-service stations in the park including franken-fried chicken, funnel brains, and crowd favorite pizza fries.
Another activity to include in your fright-fest is the skeleton stalk featuring 13 different unique and fun themed skeletons and scarecrows. Some are more silly than scary but they're all done up in their costumed best. If you can find all 13 you're rewarded with a small prize.
Speaking of costumes, heading over to Islands of Adventure you are welcome to dress up and visit trick or treat stations at select locations marked with pumpkin signage. There are some limitations being masks must still be worn, costumes masks can't cover the face, clothing must be appropriate, and the treats are for 12 and under. If you're used to the haul you get from other park's events in the area you'll be sorely disappointed in the couple pieces of candy they dole out. Barely worth it in the opinion of some kids overheard leaving one station.
With limited hours to experience favorite rides and shows, there's bound to be some that get left out. And with wait times exceeding 2 hours for some of the most popular attractions standing in the open sun and heat with masks on- it can make for a rather disappointing day. But if you're venturing in to get your Halloween fix, the houses, fun food, and tribute store will be the cure for what ails ya.