We head back to Universal Studios Florida for another update, with emphasis on Orlando’s first nighttime spectacular to return at a major theme park. In this park report, we’ll share night photos of the park, Cinematic Celebration images and thoughts, and commentary about the good & bad of Universal’s reopening.
The day actually began at Magic Kingdom, with our new “Deluge Debut of Christmas 2020 at Walt Disney World.” This is effectively a two-part ‘Sunday theme park report’ with Magic Kingdom being the main event. Towards the end of the evening there, a torrential downpour began, pushing the vast majority of guests towards the exit.
The actually gave us the idea to bounce over to USF for an evening entertainment encore, as that park was still open for another few hours. Extending the closing time until 10 pm on the weekends is just one of several things that Universal Orlando has “done right” when it comes to modified reopening operations. In our previous Islands of Adventure and USF Photo Reports, we touched upon this, but wanted to discuss it a big further here, as the topic came up a lot in the comments to those reports…
Let’s start with the good of Universal Orlando’s phased reopening. In our view, these successes stem from a couple of things: aggressiveness and leanness. Unlike Walt Disney World, which has been incredibly methodical and conservative, Universal has been bold, often out in front of its Central Florida counterpart. Universal opened first, has restored more on an earlier timeline, and seems to view this as an opportunity to capture local marketshare and sow fan goodwill.
A large key to their success in being aggressive is thanks to being a leaner operation. Not just in terms of bloat or bureaucracy, but in “product” complexity. Walt Disney World has way more moving parts, many of which are planning and resource intensive. While Universal has counterparts for most of those, they’re not nearly as popular or integral for guests. Quite simply, Universal is a more relaxed experience for most guests, and that’s big reason why they’ve been able to act dynamically and more quickly than Walt Disney World.
Before we delve into Universal Orlando’s concrete successes, a brief note on our evening in the park. It was totally uneventful and predictably uncrowded. Sunday nights are much slower than Saturday to begin with, but the one-two punch of post-Halloween and the downpour further depressed attendance levels.
Accordingly, I’m just going to sprinkle random photos from our night in Universal Studios Florida throughout the first half of the post, all presented without commentary because, frankly, what you see is what you get: a bunch of empty walkways and walk-on attractions…
On the topic of Universal’s specific reopening “wins,” the big one is the degree to which entertainment and shows have already returned. For this, it’s probably easiest to simply look at the Universal Orlando Showtimes page (there are tabs at the top for each park).
As is probably clear, that’s a lot of entertainment–most of what was available pre-closure. Much is running in modified form, but it still gives the Universal parks more or less the same energy and sense of life as they had before. While Walt Disney World’s cavalcades and character greetings have been good additions, some areas of the Disney parks definitely feel flat.
Universal also surprised fans in September with two haunted houses, Universal Monsters: The Bride of Frankenstein Lives and Revenge of the Tooth Fairy. Those were originally slated to debut as part of Halloween Horror Nights 30, before that special event was cancelled.
Universal deserves a ton of kudos for this—with large numbers of actors and staff, these houses are not cheap to operate. HHN is usually a hard ticket event and one that is viable largely due to alcohol sales. To offer even a portion of the experience to day guests is a great, guest-friendly move.
During the last few weeks, Universal has further accelerated its efforts to enhance the parks with more entertainment. This weekend, the Beetlejuice haunted house also opened for what appears to be (a fairly perplexing) two-day run.
Last week, Universal Orlando made an even bigger move by quietly bringing back its nighttime spectacular, Cinematic Celebration. To my knowledge, this happened without any announcement–no press release, nothing on the official blog, zero app push notifications, and not a single tweet. There has quite literally been more fanfare for pizza fries during that time. (In fairness, pizza fries are very much deserving of the attention and accolades.)
In several ways, it feels like Universal Orlando’s game plan has been a mix of managing guest expectations and underpromising, overdelivering. There has been almost no hype about what’s happening now or next, with marketing efforts being focused on the deep discounts on tickets, hotels, and other promotional offers like UOAP perks or their merchandise “garage sales.”
From our perspective, this has been a truly winning formula. Universal Orlando has effectively lowered the bar on our expectations by offering stellar deals…but then handily surpassed that by going above and beyond with the in-park experience. This has increased our tolerance to the occasional problem, which, like Disney, Universal has had.
Here, it’s worth pointing out that the grass is often greener on the other side. (Usually, that is not the type of double-standard Disney and Universal fans apply to their respective ‘home’ park.) While Walt Disney World fans might be envious of Universal Orlando’s approach to reopening, it has not been without its share of criticism.
Operating during this era of ‘temporary abnormal’ is untrodden ground for all theme parks. It’s easy for those of us sitting on the sidelines to Monday morning quarterback their operational decisions, but the reality is that of course mistakes are going to be made.
By and large, not requiring reservations to visit the parks has been a positive for guests of Universal Orlando, and has avoided adding further friction to a modified experience that’s full of it.
However, weekends have recently started getting busier, to the point that both parks are often hitting capacity before noon on Saturdays. Those not paying close attention to social media and crowd trends have undoubtedly wasted time driving to Universal Orlando midday on a Saturday only to be turned away.
This got to the point that Universal sent emails to Annual Passholders and on-site guests encouraging anyone with flexible plans to “consider visiting on a weekday when the attendance tends to be lighter” for the next two weekends.
Universal attributed this to increased demand, indicating that the parks are still limiting attendance as part of the enhanced procedures. To that point, last Saturday (the week before Halloween) was chaotic with long lines just to enter Universal Studios Florida later in the day after that park hit capacity in the morning.
Exacerbating this, one of the “next two weekends” that Annual Passholders with flexible plans were encouraged to skip was when the aforementioned Beetlejuice haunted house debuted. As you can imagine, that didn’t go over so well with Universal Orlando Annual Passholders on social media.
There have been other complaints here and there. One that comes to mind is crowding in Wizarding World of Harry Potter. Another is physical distancing and mask enforcement. In my view, the latter is a symptom of the former, and the former is difficult to control. Universal Orlando has done a good job considering the circumstances; anyone decrying anything short of perfection has unrealistic expectations.
Our original plan was to visit last Saturday for Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration. Once it became clear crowds would be a headache, we nixed those plans. When rumors leaked about the Beetlejuice house, we rescheduled to this Sunday.
When it became clear on Saturday how popular that’d be, we scratched our Sunday plans. Then the deluge began late in the day Sunday, and we called yet another last-minute audible and headed to Universal Orlando.
Obviously, we’re extreme examples given our high degree of flexibility. You might claim this isn’t realistic for tourists; we’re locals and Annual Passholders, so our circumstances are fundamentally different.
However, we do the exact same types of things when we travel. We’ve long had go-with-the-flow demeanors and have likewise strongly encouraged even hardcore planners to embrace spontaneity. In the past, many readers have resisted that.
If you’re visiting theme parks this year, you really don’t have any other choice. Aside from getting mad when things outside your control don’t go as planned, I guess. But that’s not much of a “strategy” either.
Some of you may not want to compromise or be flexible, and that’s understandable to a point. If that’s the case, you simply should avoid visiting theme parks for the next year or so.
This might seem beside the point, and it sort of is, but it’s also essential to it. Feedback from readers who have visited the parks since reopening has been all over the place. More than anything else, it seems largely dependent upon expectations and flexibility.
Just something to consider if you’re debating a trip right now, especially for those who know they’re not amenable to rolling with the punches and demand the full theme park experience. Anyway, back to the primary topic at hand…
Our main objective in finishing our weekend at USF was seeing their nighttime spectacular, Universal Orlando’s Cinematic Celebration, which is now showing at 9:45 pm on Saturday and Sunday nights. We staked out spots in the Central Park viewing area approximately 30 minutes before show time.
Universal describes this as “a colossal celebration of music, water and light that transforms the park and takes you into the movies like never before.” Since this is a Disney-centric blog, we’ll offer the obvious comparison: it’s Universal’s take on World of Color.
Cinematic Celebration features pulsating scores from Universal’s most iconic movies (new and old) with dancing fountains erupt and scenes are projected onto mist screens.
Visuals include roaring dinosaurs from Jurassic World, speeding cars from Fast & Furious, the mischievous antics of the Minions from Despicable Me, E.T. phoning home, Harry Potter doing wizard stuff, and more. There are also spotlights, pyro, and projections on the buildings that form the backdrop.
I’m not wild about all of the films that are featured, but I really like Cinematic Celebration, as well as its predecessor and the Halloween Horror Nights twist on the concept.
In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Cinematic Celebration is better than the most recent nighttime spectaculars in three of Walt Disney World’s four parks. (That’s not a high bar, but Cinematic Celebration is a solid show.)
As with so many things, photos do not do Cinematic Celebration justice. That’s especially true here, as these are not particularly good due to my poor location choice.
I still haven’t captured a single photo of Universal’s lagoon fountain shows that I like.
For many of you, I’d imagine one impediment to visiting Universal Orlando is familiarity. You’re seasoned Walt Disney World veterans who know those parks inside and out, whereas Universal is entirely new. While it’s “only” a theme park, there’s understandably some degree of intimidation there.
I know the feeling. I’ll say there’s also something to be said for discovering and potentially mastering new things. It’s fun and satisfying, even if it’s “only” a theme park. Hopefully with our continued Universal posts, you’ll be well-positioned to do both on your next visit to Central Florida!
Have you seen Cinematic Celebation at USF? Been to Universal Orlando on a Saturday or Sunday this fall? If you’ve visited both Disney and Universal post-reopening, which do you think is doing better? Thoughts on anything else covered here? Do you have any questions about the current modified Universal experience? Will you be attempting to visit Central Florida this holiday season, or are you waiting until 2021 or beyond? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!