Tarah Chieffi and family
Tarah Chieffi and family

Welcome to ‘Please Remain Seated,’ Our New Monthly Theme Parks Column

Hi! I’m Tarah, a wife and mom of three boys. I love rollercoasters, ice cream, and not acting my age so much that I decided to become a theme park journalist. I’ll be here each month with my new column, Please Remain Seated, to take you on a grand tour of what’s new in the world of theme parks, from the latest attractions and events to expert travel tips and, of course, theme park food.

Think of me as your own personal Walt Disney World Railroad train conductor. (Fun fact: My dad used to drive the train at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Campground!)

Welcome Aboard

The coronavirus pandemic is still very real, and while this may seem like a strange time to be starting a theme park column, the world is starting to open back up again, and theme parks like Disney and Universal are welcoming visitors. And even if you’re not quite ready to visit a theme park again just yet, I think you’ll still find plenty of items of interest each month here in this column. The parks have been finding some really innovative ways to bring the fun to you while you stay safe at home. (More on that in a minute.)

In our house, we talk almost daily about our next epic family vacation. If you’re in the same boat, it can be fun to daydream together about what you want to eat, see, do, and where you want to stay on your next trip.  I’ve even used all this family vacation talk to encourage my kids to eat their vegetables so they’ll be tall enough to ride The Incredible Hulk Coaster at Universal.

Photo: The Incredible Hulk ©2020 Universal Orlando.

All this time stuck at home has also inspired us to create a bit of a theme park bucket list. When Avengers Campus at Disneyland finally opens, we want to take our oldest so he can pretend to be Captain America for a day. Next time we take the kids to Universal Orlando, we want to check out the killer Jurassic Park suites at Universal’s Loews Royal Pacific Resort.

Dreaming of your next adventure is tons of fun and it’s a good way to pull yourself out of that constant cycle of worry it’s so easy to get caught up in right now. No matter when you plan to venture out to a theme park again, I’ll be here each month to help you prepare.

In the News 

As is often the case right now, we’ve got a mixed bag of news this month. Let’s start with the not-so-good so we can end with the better-than-bad.

It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye

Cinderella Castle inside Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort in Lake Buena Vista, Fla., is currently receiving a royal makeover, and the work is nearly completed. When finished, the icon will feature bold, shimmering and regal enhancements, including sapphire dusting on the blue rooftops and gold trim. (Olga Thompson, photographer)

With the exception of California, most major theme parks in the U.S. have reopened to visitors. Still, sitting closed for months and reopening with attendance limits has severely impacted their bottom line. Unfortunately, that’s led to closures of some beloved attractions, along with delays on others that are currently under construction.

Blog Mickey, an unofficial Disney news site, reported last month that Walt Disney World announced the permanent closure of Primeval Whirl and Rivers of Light at Animal Kingdom and Stitch’s Great Escape at Magic Kingdom in a memo to Cast Members (Disney’s term for employees). The opening date for Epcot’s Space 220 Restaurant continues to get pushed back, while the planned summer 2020 opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure is slowly slipping away.

The previously announced Reflections, A Disney Lakeside Lodge, has mysteriously disappeared from Disney Parks Blog post with the long list of announcements from 2019’s D23 Expo. Other projects that were revealed, including Magic Kingdom’s TRON Lightcycle Run and Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind, may also see delays, according to The Kingdom Insider.

Over at Disneyland in California, which has yet to set a reopening date, Avengers Campus was slated to open on July 18, but no new opening date for the land has been announced. 

Photo: ©2020 Universal Orlando

Universal Orlando Resort’s exciting new park, aptly named Universal’s Epic Universe, was scheduled for a 2023 opening. As reported by Blooloop, Comcast (Universal’s parent company) announced during their Q2 earnings call that the park’s opening would be delayed “until the future becomes more certain.”

Just before the world shut down, Universal Studios Hollywood had planned to open The Secret Life of Pets: Off the Leash on March 27. Considering it was pretty much completed prior to the shut down, it should be able to open when (or soon after) the park does.

Other Florida parks have experienced delays as well. According to ThrillGeek, SeaWorld and Busch Gardens locations across the country recently announced that some of their highly anticipated 2020 ride openings would be moved to 2021.

Halloween Isn’t Entirely Canceled

While both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando have canceled their Halloween festivities this year, both parks are still offering some pretty spooky merch in their online shops. Other family-friendly haunts, including LEGOLAND Florida’s Brick-or-Treat and SeaWorld Orlando’s Halloween Spooktacular, are moving ahead with new safety measures in place. 

Dumbo Turns 65

He’s never lost his boyish charm, but it’s actually been 65 years since Dumbo the Flying Elephant first took flight at Disneyland. The attraction opened in 1955 and has been taking kids of all ages on high-flying adventures ever since. I love Dumbo so much that it even earned a spot on my list of the best Disney rides for little kids and Toddlers.

Theme Park Tips for Your Trips During COVID-19

If you’re missing your favorite theme parks, the low crowds and short wait times can be enticing, but there’s a long list of health and safety guidelines you’ll want to be familiar with before you decide to go. 

Most parks require masks for guests ages two and up, and you may not be able to roll up to the ticket window on a whim. Walt Disney World requires that you purchase a ticket and reserve a Park Pass for your preferred park before your visit, and Universal Orlando recently introduced date-based ticket pricing. Most theme parks currently have dedicated pages on their site for all the covid-related health and safety information you need to be aware of.

Guests will remain physically distanced while experiencing attractions at Walt Disney World Resort theme parks in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. These new boarding procedures are part of the new health and safety measures implemented as part of the parks’ phased reopening beginning July 11, 2020. (Matt Stroshane, photographer)

My fellow theme park reporter for FamilyVacationist, Megan duBois, recently visited Walt Disney World to experience its new safety measures for herself. (She also checked in on Disney Springs ahead of its reopening.) Her advice: Bring extra masks for your family (one mask is unlikely to survive a full day in the Florida heat) and extra hand sanitizer.

At the tail end of our family beach vacation earlier this year, I took my family to Universal Orlando, and while I was impressed with the safety measures and cleanliness, there’s no denying the experience was different. Theme parks are meant to be an escape from the everyday world, but with social distancing markers, masked guests, and safety signage all around you, it’s hard to escape this new reality. 

We still made some incredible memories (I will never forget seeing my oldest son receive his first wizard’s wand at Ollivander’s Wand Shop), but we’re not in a huge hurry to bring them back. It wasn’t easy to convince our three-year-old to keep his mask on, and I noticed we didn’t eat or drink nearly enough in the parks because of our masks. Still, Mom and Dad may make a solo trip to hold us over until we’re ready to visit a theme park again with the whole family in tow.

Just Desserts

Photo: ©2020 Universal Orlando.

Something that you will soon learn about me as you follow this monthly column is that I take my theme park food choices very seriously. I definitely have my favorite snacks that I eat at least once on every trip, but I also spend a lot of time researching what’s new that I may want to try before every trip. Seriously. You won’t believe the running list I have going right now for the new Taste of Epcot International Food and Wine Festival!

Because the parks were closed for so long this year, Disney and Universal knew their fans were missing all of that over-the-top delicious theme park food. They graciously shared some of their most popular recipes online so families could enjoy them from home. 

You can try Disney’s Mini Gingerbread Bundt Cakes with Orange-Vanilla Sauce or their S’mores Gelato Shake from D-Luxe Burger at Disney Springs. Universal recently shared the recipe for their Confetti Milkshake from Toothsome Chocolate Emporium (a personal favorite) and a chocolatey Pineapple Upside Down Cake from Volcano Bay. But alas, at least for now, the Hogsmeade Butterbeer recipe remains a closely guarded secret.

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Tarah Chieffi
Tarah Chieffi is a theme park and family travel journalist who discovered her words were best used to help travelers plan fun-filled family vacations. When she isn't eating theme park food and riding roller coasters, she can be found cycling wherever her bike will take her, tucked under the covers with a good book, or planning her next adventure with her husband and three young sons.