The Fanny Pack Fiasco Revisited

The Fanny Pack Fiasco Revisited

By far the most popular article I’ve ever written on this blog was a little piece called The Fanny Pack Fiasco, which detailed my first trip to Universal Studios in Florida. The short version is that a small fanny pack which accompanied us to every single park in Orlando caused us problems in exactly one – Universal Studios – and it soured our experience enough that we ended up doing little at that particular park.

It’s been four years since that trip. My husband and I spent this past Christmas in Florida with his family, ringing in the new year with trips to the Disney and Universal parks. We had a fantastic time; our trip seemed blessed by fantastic luck. We blew through Fantasy Land in the Magic Kingdom in half a day, mostly because we were able to ride the Haunted Mansion and It’s a Small World without having to wait in line. Our trip to Islands of Adventure was similarly blessed. We rode Jurassic Park twice in quick succession without having to wait in line. Same with the Hulk (though sadly we had no such luck with Spiderman).

In contrast, our trip to Universal Studios was riddled with problems. In fairness, our visit did coincide with their anticipated peak, meaning that there were a lot of people present on that particular day. Lines at an amusement park are inevitable, and we arrived prepared to deal with that situation. What I was most interested to see (aside from what rides had changed since my last visit) was how the park dealt with the bag and locker system that caused us such a headache the last time.

Universal Studios has lockers located outside of every ride in their park. Several of the lines are even set up to divert you to the lockers if you need to make use of them. The staff pull you out of line for the Gringot’s ride, for example, and force a member of your party to put everything in a locker. They then have to catch up with the rest of their group, who is herded onward. During the Fanny Pack Fiasco, these lockers were free for exactly thirty minutes. If your stuff inhabited the lockers for any longer than half an hour, you’d be forced to pay for the extra time. Which meant that if you took longer than that to ride a ride, you would have to pay for each one (after summoning a staff member to open the locker and give you back your wallet). Our shortest wait time at Universal Studios this visit was probably 40 minutes.

Luckily, Universal has changed their policy. While you’re still required to shove your stuff in a locker before going on any of the rides, they don’t charge you after the initial thirty minute time period. So if it takes you an hour to ride the ride, it isn’t going to cost you extra for the enjoyment. I was surprised by this change, but it is a welcome one. Certainly it takes a lot of the stress out of the day.

Another complaint we had during our previous visit was that there was no universal standard for what could and could not be taken on a ride. We were turned away for a tiny fanny pack, but another gentleman was allowed to ride with a huge camera case he wore across his shoulders. We walked past several staff members who said nothing, only to be turned away by the ride operator. When we asked about this, we were told that it was, indeed, the ride operator who makes the decision. That has also changed. There are now staff members situated at the start of every line warning riders that they must put their personal belongings in a locker.

This might seem like a welcome change (and in some ways it is). The trouble is that they want you to absolutely empty your pockets before you get on any of the rides. In some cases they don’t even want you having a wallet in your pocket. (What?) On the way to one of the rollercoasters, the staff asked my father-in-law to take his wallet out of his back pocket and put it in the zipper pocket of my jacket. So that it sat at my waist, where the lap bar for the rollercoaster sits (the same one that freaked me out the last time).

In short, riding the rides at Universal Studios remains a major ball-ache.

This can be countered; you can rent lockers at the front of the park. $10 gets you an entire day without hassle. But presumably you would NOT put your wallet in there since you might want to eat or purchase something at some point during the day. So you may still be sent to the locker area a couple times throughout the day. The locker area is a huge hassle because you have to use a fingerprint scanner console to lock and unlock it, and there are only two consoles for every row of lockers. Not to mention they sometimes refuse to recognize the fingerprint of the person who locked it, which means you need to summon an attendant.

But this ball-ache has other consequences. For example; I did not bring my camera with me to Universal Studios. We have all of 9 pictures from that day, all taken from mobile phones. Universal helpfully counters this by having photographers located throughout the park, but you have to pay to access that service (surprise, surprise).

It’s hard to ignore these issues when you’ve spent half a week at Disney World having absolutely zero issues with carrying a backpack; and I paid special attention to this, waiting for the moment we would be asked to set our bags aside or stow them in a locker. In Disney World it never happened. Absolutely every ride had a little pouch installed either under the seat or on the back of the seat in front of you to accommodate your items. Even the Aerosmith Rockin’ Rollercoaster which goes upside down accommodates its riders in this fashion. And while Islands of Adventure also has lockers situated beside each of its rides, we were asked only once to empty our pockets – when we boarded the Hulk.

In fact, it’s hard not to compare these two companies, considering that Universal is Disney’s competition and its parks are designed in a similar fashion. Everything about Universal screams we want more money in ways that Disney doesn’t. For example, whenever we paid for parking at Universal Studios, we were asked to upgrade to preferred parking. Even when we arrived before the park opened and were parking in the front of the non-preferred lot (no further a walk from the garage). In Disney, no one ever once tried up-sell us; they simply have a sign posted listing the price for preferred parking and allow you to choose. It’s a small detail, but you’d be surprised how big a difference it makes. Likewise, Disney hires many people whose sole purpose is crowd control; they show you where to park, they urge you through lines and organize you to keep those lines moving. Disney is, in fact, extraordinary at moving a large amount of people through its parks in the most efficient manner possible (they even have people managing their cafe lines).

Maybe some of these comparisons are unfair; Universal is a different type of park. They clearly don’t focus on customer experience in the way Disney does. They clearly aren’t as family oriented either. That doesn’t make it a bad park. It’s unfortunate that one of the parks in Orlando has to be the worst one and, for me, Universal Studios is it. But our group did make an interesting point: no one plans their dream Universal vacation. Most people visit the parks because they’re there. And if you’re organizing a huge cross-country vacation, you may as well do everything there is to do.

So Universal Studios has changed a lot since my last visit. It’s got a lot of cool new rides – they even improved the Mummy ride. But if there’s one Orlando park I wouldn’t mind missing, it’s still this one.

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