On March 15, 2020, with the sweet sounds of Mardi Gras playing me and my friends out, I exited Universal Orlando Resort’s parking garage not knowing when the next time I’d be able to return would be.
These past few months of closure, while some of us have been hard at work perfecting Irish Soda Bread, a team at Universal has been hard at work preparing us for our phased reopening that began on June 1st.
Over the last few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to meet with four of our executives about the reopening process and what it’s looked like in four key areas — operations, food and beverage, entertainment, and hotels.
I spoke with the senior vice president of food and beverage for parks, Mandy Bond, all about updates to the dining experience. Here’s what I learned.
KATIE: What has the process been like for you and your team to prepare for reopening?
MANDY: We worked nonstop throughout the closure to keep our Team Member grills open for those who were still working on property. Because the health and safety of our guests and Team Members are our highest priority, we also put a great deal of thought into how we were going to reopen. We ended up basically with the three buckets you’ve probably heard before — screening, sanitizing, and spacing. Screening includes temperature checks for both our Team Members and guests upon arrival. Sanitizing includes looking at our already aggressive cleaning processes for all of our restaurants and based on CDC guidelines, increasing our frequency. It’s not just wiping the table down when someone leaves, we’re constantly wiping every surface that our guests touch. And spacing, or social distancing, is also a big factor. We seat guests at least six feet apart inside our restaurants and are currently operating at 50% of our capacity.
KATIE: How have Team Members responded so far to all of this?
MANDY: Our Team Members are proud to work for Universal Orlando. Everybody says the same thing — they’re beyond pleased with our company and the way they were treated during our closure. And they now have this overwhelming desire to move forward and welcome back our guests.
KATIE: What types of conversations, both internally and externally, have prepared you and your team for reopening?
MANDY: I really believe in telling the ‘why’ behind decisions. Many of our internal conversations have been explaining to our Team Members the reasoning behind changes. I often refer back to the CDC guidelines. CDC recommends facial coverings, so we’re going to wear facial coverings. We’re not just saying, ‘you need to have your temperature checked.’ We’re saying ‘The CDC recommends that we check everyone’s temperature.’ Externally, I’ve had the privilege to walk with Orange County officials, Dr. Pino with the Orange County Health Department, and Mayor Buddy Dyer. We discussed all of the processes that we have put into place for the reopening of food and beverage and also talked through screening, sanitizing, and spacing. That opened up communication for input and adjustments from them.
KATIE: What are the top things guests need to know about the operational changes in your area of Universal?
MANDY: I am going to start with what they need to know that hasn’t changed — we still have great food and exceptional service. That has not changed! The way it looks when you walk into a restaurant looks different — the first thing you see is a Team Member with a facial covering. You sit at your table and may immediately notice that it’s empty — no salt or pepper shakers, no napkins or flatware. We are sanitizing everything before it is taken to the table and we set the table in front of you. Our quick service model is completely different. I absolutely love how we upgraded the overall experience for our guests. We have direct to table with mobile food and drink ordering through the official Universal Orlando Resort mobile app, which is critical to download and set up payment in before guests come for a seamless experience throughout the park. Mobile food and drink ordering allows guests to skip the queue line to a cashier, use contactless ordering and payment, and have their order delivered directly to their table. This model allows our guests to social distance while dining in a quick-service environment.
KATIE: What can guests look forward to now that parks are open again?
MANDY: Dining at Universal continues to be an immersive experience. Guests play a role in the experience. Our chefs are back at work brainstorming new creative offerings that delight guests and provide fuel for the next attraction.
KATIE: Yes! I’ve had the privilege of writing some of the recipe blogs for Universal At Home, and they’ve been great, but there’s something obviously missing when you can’t immerse yourselves in these iconic locations.
MANDY: I agree. It was great we shared recipes during our closure, but come back now. We’ll make it for you.