COVID Preparedness: Disney vs. Universal

Many people have asked me about my experiences at Universal Orlando and Disney World in the height of the COVID pandemic.  Is it safe? Which park does a better job of cleaning and sanitizing? How did it feel staying at the resorts?

Well, read on, and read all the way to the end because I’m doing a FREE giveaway!

My kids and I stayed at Universal Orlando on June 15-22, 2020,

and my daughter and I stayed at Disney World on August 3-6, 2020.

I thought the best way for me to answer these questions is to have a little friendly competition called Disney vs. Universal. These two resorts will face off in the following categories:

  • Safety in the Parks
  • Cleanliness and Atmosphere at Resort Hotels
  • Food and Beverage
  • Overall Experience

Safety in the Parks

Opening a theme park in a pandemic is a daunting task, and Universal took the plunge first. They opened their doors to pass holders and resort guests on June 3, and Disney World welcomed pass holders and resort guests on July 11.

Cast Members at the Haunted Mansion wearing face shields and masks.

Requiring Hand Sanitizer

Universal was very regimented about pumping hand sanitizer into the hands of every person immediately before he or she got into a ride vehicle. There was no question about it: if you refused the sanitizer, you did not get to ride. Now, there is no way Universal could monitor whether a freshly sanitized hand touched a face (or any other body part) and contaminated the ride surfaces. Still, I thought this was an excellent way to minimize the spread of germs.

Disney World made hand sanitizer stations available before every ride, but there was not a Cast Member to require guests to sanitize. I did not even see a Cast Member monitoring the hand sanitizer stations so the dispensers could be refilled right away.

Hand sanitizer stations at Disney World.

Mask Etiquette

Universal seemed to have many more roaming team members throughout the parks, and they were continually telling guests to pull up their masks and make sure the mask covered their nose. Universal also made announcements that reminded guests they were not allowed to take off their masks at any time during a ride.

We even had to wear masks when we were enclosed in our own car on the Hogwart’s Express.

I heard Disney Cast Members telling guests to cover their noses with their masks, but not as often as Universal. Disney also seemed to have fewer Cast Members in the parks than Universal.

Disney required face masks on all rides.

Fast Passes/Express Passes/Virtual Queue

Universal still had Express Pass in place, which allows guests who stay at a Deluxe Resort or purchase the pass separately to skip the line. They also had Virtual Queue for many popular attractions like Hagrid’s Motorbike Adventure, Escape from Gringotts, Forbidden Journey, The Mummy, and King Kong. Virtual Queue helped disperse the crowds, and there were plenty of team members who enforced physical distancing.

Social distancing markers at Universal Orlando.

Disney World suspended all Fast Passes, so all guests use the standby line. While both Universal and Disney are limiting their capacity in the parks, the standby lines got quite long, and I did not see Disney Cast Members roaming to make sure guests used the physical distancing placards on the queue of the rides.

Disney posted safety reminders on trash cans throughout the park.

In summary, Universal reopened after 80 days of COVID closure and I think they had a stable, unified plan on safety in the parks and resorts. Disney reopened after 117 days, and in my opinion, their safety measures needed some tightening.

Universal forced you to sanitize before rides and Disney only made hand sanitizer available, making it feel completely optional. Universal was more proactive about physical distancing and had measures in place like Virtual Queue and Express Pass to separate and disperse crowds.

Hands down (sanitized hands, of course), Universal for the WIN.

Cleanliness of the On-Site Resorts

My kids and I stayed at Cabana Bay when we were at Universal Orlando. We stayed in a Family Suite, which had two queen beds and a double sofa. The lobby area of the resort was spotless, and Cabana Bay had plenty of staff available to welcome guests and check them in.

Check-in process at Cabana Bay Beach Resort.

 

Immediately upon entering the main entrance of Cabana Bay, a team member took our temperatures and gave us a color-coded bracelet to let all staff know we passed the health screening. Every day, we had to go down to the lobby to get screened again, and the bus driver would look for our bracelet before allowing us to get on the bus. When we arrived at the park, team members rechecked our bracelet. Resort screening was efficient and effective for the entire day.

My son passed his temperature check, so he is receiving a color-coded bracelet to show he has been screened.

During COVID, Universal is not providing housekeeping so they can limit contact between guests and staff. While I understand their reasoning, our room was disgusting at the end of the week.

Our Family Suite at Cabana Bay.

When we needed fresh towels or toiletries, we’d call down to the front desk and make our request. A team member would bring our supplies in a large plastic trash bag and leave it outside our door. We tried to put out our towels and trash every day, but often no one would come to pick it up. There was also some spilled food in the hallway that looked like taco meat, and it was still there after several days. I love the vibe at Cabana Bay and I am a big fan of their pool as well as their proximity to Volcano Bay Water Park. But even the general housekeeping of the resort left something to be desired.

Cabana Bay Beach Resort is within walking distance of Volcano Bay, the water park.

This is an issue completely separate from cleanliness, but in my opinion, Cabana Bay needs some TLC. It opened back in 2014, and it has not received a refresh yet. I visited Cabana Bay shortly after it opened, when the paint was crisp and the linens were fresh. Universal needs to do some soft renovations because the resort now requires some maintenance. When we used a side entrance door to the resort, my daughter reached to open the door and the door handle came off in her hand!

Yes, the door handle came right off in her hand.

Now, to the Disney resorts. Nadia and I stayed for two nights at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort with my friend Dottie and her daughter Amber. There are a few areas where I can’t make a fair comparison because the kids and I stayed at Cabana Bay for five nights, but here is my best attempt to be unbiased.

Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort has a gorgeous view of the Skyliner, the newest mode of Disney transportation.

Disney’s cleanliness standards were far superior. The lobby, common areas, grounds and our resort room were spotless. We did not have as much time to get the place dirty, but the entire resort felt extremely clean and sanitary. While the parks seemed a bit understaffed, the resorts were overflowing with staff members.

Disney posts its cleanliness and sanitation standards in the resort rooms.

We also visited Wilderness Lodge for a meal, as well as the new Riviera Resort. Both resorts were gleaming, and there was an abundance of staff who were cleaning and sanitizing.

Lobby of Disney’s Riviera Resort. The whole resort was spotless.

Caribbean Beach Resort did not do any daily health screenings, so I do see this as a potential problem. The only temperature checks we had were before we entered the parks and before we ate at a table service restaurant. This means someone could eat at the food court, swim in the pool and ride a bus before having a temperature check, and I think it is much safer to have the temperature checks at the resort and use the color-coded bracelets. (NOTE: I understand Disney has expanded their temperature screenings to include temperature checks at the resort, but they put this into place after my trip).

Friendly cast member greeting us at Disney’s Caribbean Beach Resort.

I did see many more Disney Cast Members cleaning railings and surfaces at the resort than I saw team members cleaning at Cabana Bay.

Winner: For Resort Cleanliness, Disney comes out ahead by a mile.

Food and Beverage

Universal had most of its restaurants open. When we ate at quick-service locations in the parks like The Leaky Cauldron in Diagon Alley, we used a QR scanner to look at the menu, and we could pay within the app. At snack locations or resort restaurants, we settled with a credit card.

Cottage Pie with fresh spring greens, served at The Leaky Cauldron at Universal Orlando.

One of my favorite aspects of a Disney trip is dining. There are countless options from Signature Dining to Character Dining. During COVID, Disney has temporarily closed many of their restaurants, and they have suspended character meals until further notice (except for two).

One of the only two character meals open at this time at Disney World.

While the Disney World app makes it easy to make table service dining reservations, I found many of my favorite restaurants closed. Many counter service locations were also closed. However, Disney has a sound system in place for quick service dining. I could order counter service food on the app and pre-pay, and the app would notify me when my food was ready. I showed the notification to a Cast Member at the entrance of the restaurant, and he or she would allow me to proceed into the restaurant to pick up my food and choose a seat.

Counter service ordering at Pecos Bill’s Tall Tale Inn at Magic Kindom.
The toppings bar was closed for guest safety.
Cast Members distributed individual servings of toppings for taco bowls and burritos.

Winner: This is a difficult decision. Universal dining felt more “normal” to me even though a few restaurants in City Walk and the parks remained closed. However, I tend to favor Disney’s food options and food quality. I think the only Universal quick service dining locations that rival Disney’s quick service are Three Broomsticks and The Leaky Cauldron.

I like Disney World’s dining options and restaurant selections so much that I’ll have to go with Disney. Nothing can quite top breakfast with Mickey and Friends.

 

Overall Experience

So, which park offered the best experience for a summer trip during COVID? I had a great time at both parks, but the winner is UNIVERSAL.

Why?

Universal did a better job with crowd control and making hand sanitation mandatory. They also screened guests at the resort before they got on the bus or traveled to the parks. Universal still allowed us to hop from park to park, and most of the attractions and restaurants were still open.

View of Universal Orlando and Islands of Adventure.

Disney made sanitation stations available but did not enforce it. They did not allow park-hopping, even though I had a park-hopper ticket in my account. More restaurants and attractions were closed at Disney. Without the characters and the Cast Member interaction, I missed out on many aspects of “the Disney experience.” I think if I weren’t such a loyal Disney fan through and through, I would have felt less disappointed. So, perhaps it is a compliment to Disney that Universal won out on this face-off. The Disney experience is so multi-faceted and includes so many elements of family fun that you cannot fully experience it in a restricted COVID environment.

Disney by Numbers

I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. I love Disney Parks and Destinations for so many reasons. I actually began thinking of how I value the aspects of the park in percentages, and I found it very insightful. (I referenced these percentages in a previous post but I’ve revised it here after some more thinking.)

I think the attractions and rides comprise 40% of my enjoyment. Dining experiences (like character dining) and character meet and greets comprise 20%. Nighttime shows and fireworks comprise 20%, and cast member interactions comprise the last 20%.

During COVID, the only aspect of the Disney park experience that is still functioning is the ride and attraction aspect. Most rides are open but at limited capacity. This means I am missing out on 60% of what I consider the authentic Disney experience because many dining locations are closed, there are no parades, fireworks, or character meet and greets, and Cast Members must keep their distance and cannot socialize normally with guests.

Interactive play areas at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train closed.

However, I think that you can still have a fun Disney experience if you focus on attractions. Read my recent blog post where I capture more highlights of my Disney trip, and I conclude YES, you should go to Disney World if your goal is to ride all the rides in the parks!

We rode every ride at Magic Kingdom in a single day, and several rides multiple times.

CONTEST!

Thanks for reading my post! Let’s have another contest. To show how much I love Disney, I am giving away a prize pack of Disney goodies:

The prize pack includes:

  • One pair of Disney Mouse Ears that says, “Most Magical Place on Earth.”
  • One official Disney World autograph book.
  • Disneyland t-shirt, unisex, size Medium.
This prize pack can be yours!

I will deliver the prize pack if you are local, or I’ll mail it to anyone in the continental U.S. All you have to do is this:

  1. Share my Passport and Pen Facebook page  on your page(and give it a “like” too!).
  2. Follow The Passport and Pen on Instagram.
  3. Comment below: If you could leave tomorrow, would you rather go to Disney or Universal? And what ride, restaurant or attraction would you run to FIRST?

Good Luck! I’ll draw the winning name next Wednesday, September 23, after I return from my trip to Cabo San Lucas.

 

 

4 Thoughts to “COVID Preparedness: Disney vs. Universal”

  1. Jessica Francis

    If I could leave tomorrow, I would visit the Wizarding World of Harry Potter at Universal and ride the Hogwarts Express!
    I wonder if there’s a spell for eliminating germs. Maybe “Microbius Obliviate” would work!

    1. rachelmorrell

      At this point, I’d be willing to try anything to get COVID to disappear! Let’s go down to Universal and try it!

  2. Joni Paul

    I would go to Disney if I could leave tomorrow! I would head towards Flight of Passage! It would be better if I had you and the the CTF Besties with me! 🙂

    1. rachelmorrell

      I love Flight of Passage! We always have fun when we’re all together! All that’s left to decide is the resort…

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