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Universal Orlando asks to reopen theme parks in June

Guests stroll at Universal CityWalk on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Universal began limited operation at select venues in CityWalk last week. They are also limiting capacity at venues and increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures due to the coronavirus.
Guests stroll at Universal CityWalk on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Universal began limited operation at select venues in CityWalk last week. They are also limiting capacity at venues and increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures due to the coronavirus. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Universal Orlando is targeting June 5 — just two weeks away — as the day it will reopen to the public if the theme park gets approval from Orange County and Gov. Ron DeSantis.

It would be the first of the theme parks to reopen in Central Florida after it shut down, along with Disney and SeaWorld, on March 16. SeaWorld told Vice President Mike Pence and DeSantis on Wednesday that it would like to open sometime in June. Disney has not indicated when it might reopen and a spokeswoman said Thursday the company did not have any information it could share on dates.

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Universal executive John Sprouls presented the outline of a reopening plan on Thursday to Orange County Mayor Jerry Demings’ task force on reviving the local economy.

“Our plans have been weeks in the making and build upon our recent experience reopening portions of Universal Orlando CityWalk," read a letter from Sprouls to Demings. “You will see we have created a new level of best-practice for our already aggressive health, safety and hygiene procedures. We have followed CDC guidelines, the advice of health officials and recommendations from our own experts.”

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Sprouls said the park would open June 3 and 4 for some invited guests and annual pass-holders to “stress the system.”

Universal’s proposal won unanimous approval from the task force with five members abstaining because of a conflict of interest. No task members asked any questions of Sprouls about the specifics of the plan. Nearly 1,700 people were tuned into the live-stream presentation.

The next step is for Demings to sign off on the plan and forward it on to Gov. Ron DeSantis for approval before the parks can open.

“I need some time to digest what has been presented today,” Demings said adding that he would likely talk with the governor’s office Friday morning.

Masks and temperature checks will be required for all employees and guests. Universal will also manage attendance at each park to ensure social distancing. Sprouls did not say, nor did documents submitted to the county, how much attendance would be limited or at what percent of maximum capacity the the parks would allow.

He also outlined a series of changes the park is making to ensure safety such as not allowing employees to share wardrobes and closing play areas for children.

Post-show meet-and-greets with performers, single-rider lines and valet parking would also be suspended as part of the enhanced safety measures to limit contact between people.

Sprouls said the park will rely on team members they’re calling “ambassadors” to enforce rules.

“Those people will be everywhere," he said. "They will be extremely visible.”

Sprouls said guests will notice changes from the moment they park.

“We are expecting them to understand that some things are going to be different and there are going to be procedures in place that we are going to ask them to cooperate with as we go through the journey of them being here with us,” he said.

Eduardo O’Neal of Orlando, an annual passholder at Universal Orlando, was in the park March 15, the last day the attractions were open.

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He’d like to return during the days designated for passholders.

He has been required to wear a face mask at work.

“I’m not worried about the face masks," he said. "I feel like we’re going to eventually get through that. But for now, the face mask, the temperature checks, all of that is needed. We all want something to do other than just staying at home.”

Dr. Raul Pino, health officer for the Florida Health Department in Orange County, was among a four-person county inspection team who visited Universal Orlando’s parks on Thursday morning. He was accompanied by Dr. Christian Zuver, the county’s EMS Medical director; Shane Gerwig, Orange County building official; and Jon Weiss, director of the county’s Planning, Environmental and Development Services.

The committee also gave its blessing to the reopening of 13 other attractions, including Andretti Indoor Karting & Games, Fun Spot, Gatorland, ICON Park, K1 Speed Indoor Kart Racing, Magical Midway, Nona Adventure Park, Orlando Starflyer, Slingshot, and Wonder Works. They also approved plans for Aloma Bowling in Winter Park and the Boardwalk Bowl Entertainment Center.

Demings signed off on the plans presented by the 12 smaller attractions on Thursday evening and submitted a letter of endorsement to DeSantis for the dozen businesses.

Dr. George Ralls, chief quality officer for the Orlando Health hospital system, cited the thorough approach of the attractions with many going beyond CDC guidelines.

The bowling alleys, for instance, won’t display racks of balls for bowlers anymore but will provide them through a valet who will wipe down each one.

Like the New York City public transit agency, Andretti kart racing is using ultraviolet light lamps to kill the virus at its attraction.

“We all understand what’s at risk if we don’t get this right,” Ralls said Wednesday.

Guests gather at Universal CityWalk on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Universal began limited operation of select venues at CityWalk on Thursday. They are also limiting capacity at venues and increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures due to the Coronavirus. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)
Guests gather at Universal CityWalk on Thursday, May 14, 2020. Universal began limited operation of select venues at CityWalk on Thursday. They are also limiting capacity at venues and increasing cleaning and disinfection procedures due to the Coronavirus. (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel) (Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel)

Universal is the first of three major theme parks to present a reopening plan.

Disney and SeaWorld Orlando are not yet scheduled to outline their plans publicly, but both are expected to do so soon. The next task force meeting is May 27.

Disney reportedly ran out of tickets within minutes for its May 11 reopening of Shanghai Disneyland.

The park in the Chinese city of 24 million people closed in January because of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus.

Visitors to the theme park are required to wear face masks at all times unless they are eating.

Shanghai Disneyland also requires physical distancing and sharply reduce capacity.

Children’s play areas and theater shows, which tend to draw crowds, remain shut. Hand sanitizer is available throughout the park.

Disney now forbids selfies with its characters because of the highly contagious virus, according to a broadcast report on NPR.

The task force listened to a range of public comment from emailers, some of whom are fearful of a covid-19 resurgence to others ready for a return to life as normal.

Aaron Lake of Winter Garden used a dozen exclamation points to underscore his demand, “OPEN UP Orange County!”

“There is nothing constitutional about ‘orders’ which shut down businesses, lock people in their homes, cancel school, cancel church, demanding masks,” Lake wrote. “The government’s job...READ THE CONSTITUTION, is to protect my rights not worry about my health. That is my personal responsibility.”

Several others complained about business requirements to wear face masks.

“Masks prevent us from breathing fresh air,” wrote Claudia Medina Moon of Orlando. “This is a free country and we should be able to make our own decisions.”

Dewayne Bevil of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report.

To contact Stephen Hudak, call 407-650-6361 or email shudak@orlandosentinel.com

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