We’ve all seen them online: those amazing travel deals during the COVID-19 shutdown.
Low-cost flights, 4-star hotels at a deep discount, gorgeous destinations with no crowds in sight–these offers practically beg intrepid travelers to take a vacation. But in this era of COVID-19, is saving some money worth the risk? And as so many attractions are closed or offering restricted services, will a trip still be fun?
COVID-19 be damned, I set out to find some answers, for the sake of serious journalism, of course. The destination of choice: the great vacation capital of the world—Orlando, Florida. I bought a ticket to Universal Orlando Resort and I lived to tell the tale.
As with any great debate, there are pros and cons to consider when planning a trip to a theme park during a pandemic.
Pro: Those Prices
Like many destinations, Florida is incrementally relaxing the rules about public occupancy to allow destinations to have more guests, but many people are still choosing to stay away until the threat of COVID-19 is eliminated. With demand low and prices even lower, hotel rooms can be found at a great bargain. I splurged on a King Suite at the Loews Royal Pacific Resort, because if I was going to hide from crowds of people breathing on me, I would do so in a nice hotel room.
Much to my surprise, past the temperature check at the front door, the scene inside the Loews Royal Pacific Resort was delightfully devoid of any pandemic gloom. The typical swarms of fanny-packed Orlando tourists were nowhere in sight, but instead, a few families leisurely wandered about the lobby, wearing masks decorated with Universal Studios characters. Let’s not pretend the grown man with a Batman-themed facemask is not loving his Batman-themed facemask, because he is. Even employees had smiles in their eyes and a skip in their steps.
My King Suite had a view overlooking the pool and I stood at the window like the Queen gazing down upon the masses. The pool was packed with kids in the water and adults in chairs, and only employees were wearing masks. Who is going to wear a mask to a pool? Nobody. The sight of all that maskless fun set me on edge. Note to self: skip the pool. No problem. I was perfectly happy in my fancy suite. I took a sip of my Frappuccino with my pinky up.
Con: I Had to Eat Dinner in My Rental Car
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the fear of sitting too close to someone, I had not eaten in a restaurant for over six months. The Loews Royal Pacific Resort has several restaurants and tables are arranged very far apart from each other, but I still wasn’t ready to sit inside where other people were laughing and breathing and not wearing masks. Nope.
Feeling guilty about spending so much time in my hotel suite, I decided to spend some time in my other safe space: my rental car. I went through the drive-thru of that Florida staple, Pollo Tropical, and ate in my car in the parking lot. Yes, I was eating in a parking lot, but at least it was Florida and I was surrounded by palm trees. I opened the windows to make it sexy and give the experience an al fresco vibe.
Then I caught sight of myself in the rear-view mirror, shoveling rice and beans into my face. I looked pathetic. The time had come to lighten up…a little.
Pro: No Crowds!
Guests of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort are granted entrance to Universal Studios an hour early (and before the masses arrive) at 8 a.m. I took the hotel water taxi to the park’s gates. A smattering of guests passed through the gates that early, but almost everyone (including myself) walked directly to Diagon Alley, the wizarding village from the Harry Potter books and movies. Diagon Alley is gorgeous and even the requisite face masks could not hide the gasps and wide eyes of everyone I saw. The sparse crowd spread out and took photos, but I wandered around and pretended that I lived there, walking alone down the street, past Ollivander’s Wand Shop, Florean Fortescue’s Ice Cream Parlour, and the other landmarks from Harry Potter’s world. I started reading the Harry Potter books 20 years ago, and this moment, standing all alone in Diagon Alley, was a dream come true. It was so beautifully quiet. I closed my eyes, and in the light of the morning sun, I could feel it. Magic.
Pro: No Lines!
The low numbers of visitors at Universal Orlando Resort meant that there were barely any lines for the rides, not only at Harry Potter but throughout the whole park. Major attractions, like the 3-D simulators, Escape from Gringotts, and the (absolutely stunning) Transformers ride, would normally have waits of an hour or two, but I waited only 10 minutes at most. Groups in line stood at marks on the ground that kept everybody comfortably separated, far beyond the recommended six-feet guidelines, and as a solo rider, I was always given a row entirely to myself, with empty rows in front or behind me. A voice in my head wished some of these rules could exist forever (without the global pandemic, of course).
Con: It Doesn’t Last
After a quick water taxi ride back to the hotel for lunch (leftovers in the fridge because I still don’t want to be around maskless people while eating), I returned to Universal and meandered over to the other park, Islands of Adventure. But it was a much different scene. While the morning crowd had been polite and socially distant, the afternoon crowd swelled with Florida residents who have annual passes and come just to hang out and breathe on everybody. Common areas were shoulder-to-shoulder packed, and face masks were often down below noses or off completely. Behind my own mask, my breathing became stressed, and I ducked into rides just to get away from the crowds. Then I was shocked to see lines had finally formed, although as a guest of the Loews Royal Pacific Resort my room key also gave me a Fast Pass to skip to the front. That hotel suite was the gift that kept on giving.
While the morning crowd had been polite and socially distant, the afternoon crowd swelled with Florida residents who have annual passes and come just to hang out and breathe on everybody.
Then as I exited the Jurassic Park water ride, I was engulfed in a crowd of cackling rabble-rousers who had their masks down on their chins, laughing and carrying on like they were having fun at a theme park. I panicked. Time to go. I headed for the exit. On the water taxi back to the hotel, the boat captain scolded a rowdy group of parentless teenagers to put their masks back on, and sit in their socially distanced seats where they belonged!
Con: Cheesecake Mistake
With the intention of luxuriating in my Loews suite for the rest of the evening, I ordered approximately 3,000 calories of food from the greatest of all chain restaurants, the Cheesecake Factory. But walking inside to get my order, it was a horror show: crowds of people at tables, each with nothing more than one tiny “social distancing” two-top table between them. People standing around, walking around, it was business as usual here. As I waited for my bag of food, a maskless couple walked up next to me and gasped with glee at the sight of all of the cheesecakes, and—I couldn’t believe it—made eye contact and tried to chat me up about how delicious they looked. Horrified, I wrenched to the side to get away from their maskless faces, pulling a muscle in my back. Perhaps I overreacted or (apparently) I need to stretch out before going to the Cheesecake Factory if I want to survive. Grabbing my bag of food, I returned to the solace of my beautiful hotel suite, where I rested in that luxurious bed while looking out at the glow of the pool, now empty except for some ducks swimming in it. That’s cute. Do ducks carry coronavirus? Note to self: Google that later.
So, Was It Worth It?
COVID-19 test 10 days post-trip: negative. Other than missing out on restaurants (and Orlando is not exactly a foodie destination anyway), perhaps it is possible to have a successful vacation during a pandemic. Just remember, wake up early. And never in my wildest dreams would I imagine myself wearing a fanny pack to a theme park in Orlando, but they really are the perfect size for holding a bottle of hand sanitizer.