I recently had the opportunity to interview Seth Kubersky, who is the author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando and coauthor of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and The Unofficial Guide to Las Vegas, as well as a collaborator on The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World.
Seth is nationally recognized as an authority on theme parks and amusement attractions, and he contributes to Attractions Magazine and the Unofficial Universal Orlando Podcast. A native of New Jersey, Kubersky earned a B.A. in theater from The College of William and Mary in Virginia. He has produced and directed dozens of plays through his award-winning Empty Spaces Theatre Co. and at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival. As a stage technician and entertainment supervisor at Universal Orlando from 1996 to 2000, he worked on the Ghostbusters Spooktacular and Terminator 2: 3-D attractions, Mardi Gras parades, and Halloween mazes.
Here’s the transcript from my interview:
Hey, it’s Johnny Jet and welcome back to my podcast/YouTube channel. Today we have Seth Kubersky, who is the author of Unofficial Guide Universal Orlando 2021. But you’ve also written the Unofficial Guides for Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Las Vegas.
Seth Kubersky: Absolutely! Thank you so much for having me on.
Johnny Jet: So where do you live by the way?
Seth Kubersky: I’m here in Orlando, Florida. It was winter last week. Today, it’s summer again. It’ll probably be fall tomorrow. LOL! So I’m right here in the home of all the theme parks so I can be here full time for the Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando.
Johnny Jet: So how many times have you been to Universal Orlando?
Seth Kubersky: I stopped counting a long time ago. I can tell you I’m there in the parks an average of two to three days a week.
Johnny Jet: Wow! So I assume you have the yearly pass? Or do they give you one?
Seth Kubersky: You know, for the Unofficial Guides, we do not accept anything special or any kind of freebies from the park. We buy our tickets. I pay for the top of the line annual pass because I make full use of it. But we go in just like regular customers, we pay ourselves so that the parks are not treating us special.
Johnny Jet: And how much does the top of line pass cost?
Seth Kubersky: Well, I just renewed mine for with tax about $560 bucks for the year. But actually right now they’re giving an extra three months free. So that works out to 15 months. It’s a lot of money. But it’s actually significantly cheaper than the equivalent Disney pass.
Johnny Jet: It sounds like a great deal since isn’t it around $100 to go on a day pass?
Seth Kubersky: Much more than that! If you want a pass to see both parks it’s going cost you about $180. Yeah, so for under $600 bucks for the year, I get unlimited visits. 365 days a year. I get free parking. I get all sorts of discounts at food and hotels, even things like a free ticket to their Halloween Horror Nights, when that’s happening in the fall. So if you take advantage of it, the annual passes, even if you get the basic level pays for itself after about four visits.
Johnny Jet: So that’s why the parks are always so crowded! It’s mostly locals.
Seth Kubersky: Well, that’s especially what is going on right now since the parks reopened during the pandemic. We’ve been seeing upwards of 50% or more people are just locals who are coming in and the remainder are people who are driving in you know from a few hours away. Or taking a day trip. We obviously don’t have the international tourism right now. And you know people traveling across the country is a lot less than it was so it’s the Orlando residents the Florida residents who are really taking up the slack. And the parks have been giving a lot of great Florida resident discounts to help encourage that.
Johnny Jet: So has the park change drastically since last year or year before?
Seth Kubersky: It’s a very different experience and to be brutally honest, if this is going to be your once in a lifetime only trip to Orlando for the foreseeable future I put it off till 2022 or so. Because you know right now, it’s not the 100% experience. You’re missing out on a lot of things that people expect from a Florida theme park like the parades, the fireworks and being able to hug the characters. So you know if you want to have those kinds of things, you’re going to have to wait a little while longer. But average wait times are way down. The employees seem happier than ever to be at work. And, you know, the parks have really been going all out with special events to try to make it worth the while for the people who are still coming.
Johnny Jet: That’s great to hear! Do the parks do a good job making people wear masks? I mean do you have to wear a mask? I know Florida is kind of on a different level, isn’t it?
Seth Kubersky: Florida is very much. We’re kind of a wild west here. But the parks themselves are definitely the safest places that I feel outside of my own home. I definitely feel a lot safer visiting one of the theme parks than I do the local grocery store because they have put people out in force to enforce the rules. On almost every corner you’re going see someone with a little sign reminding people to wear masks, you know, gently encouraging people and if people don’t take gently encouragement, they will throw people out of the parks. Most private businesses, they just, you know, really don’t do anything to force people to do it. But, you know, if you’re you’ve paid $180 bucks to get in for the day, you’re probably not going to argue you’re going to wear the mask.
Johnny Jet: So have you seen them throw people out or you just heard about it?
Seth Kubersky: I’ve seen a few confrontations. I’ve definitely seen stuff going viral on social media. But it’s a very, very tiny percentage of people. And all they need is a gentle reminder. The biggest trouble is for people who are used to walking around and drinking and eating. But now they’re very serious that if you want to eat that popcorn, you’re going to sit down on a bench away from other people and then put your mask back on when you’re done.
That’s a culture people aren’t used to. People are used to strolling around sipping on a drink. And so that’s one thing that requires a little reminder. But you know, everyone I think, wants to be able to be able to have this. We don’t want to be shut down like the California parks. The people running the parks, the people working in the parks, people visiting the parks all want them to stay open so they’re doing their best to comply with the rules.
Johnny Jet: That’s great to hear. And you know, in a lot of countries, especially Europe, it’s culturally rude to walk and eat.
Seth Kubersky: And you’d never do that in an Asian Park. If you went to Universal Japan, you wouldn’t walk around to eating a churro. So maybe it’s just time for Americans to get with that program.
Johnny Jet: I agree. So how many times you’ve been the Disneyland in California?
Seth Kubersky: I come out several times a year and I usually stay a week or more each time. Plus, the Unofficial Guide also has other people on staff who are out there at Disney parks in California in order to keep us updated. Obviously right now, there’s nothing happening in Disneyland and our 2021 Disneyland book is kind of on hiatus. We did a lot of work on it. And then everything kind of went on pause. But as soon as the parks announce a reopening date and we’re able to get out there and check them out in person. We’ll be working on that Disneyland book.
Johnny Jet: So does your annual pass for Walt Disney World work for Walt Disneyland?
Seth Kubersky: At one point I did have the by Coastal Park pass. They had a thing called a Premiere Pass which was valid at both Florida and California parks but were extremely expensive. They make you pay for that one! But now there is no Disneyland annual pass program whatsoever. I’m desperately clinging to my last ever Disneyland annual pass as a memento. It’s a big cultural change. There’s a million people in Southern California who have grown up having a Disneyland annual pass which was a rite of passage and a major part of people’s social lives. And we’re just going to have to wait and see what Disney cooks up to replace that annual pass system.
Johnny Jet: But as someone who only goes once or a couple times a year I’m going to benefit from the elimination of the annual pass. I mean I checked out one of those calendars where they show you what the slow days are and we went on the slowest day of the year and it was still super busy.
Seth Kubersky: A lot of that happened when they allowed monthly payments instead of having to buy them all in one big chunk. That really encouraged a lot of people to invest. It was there after work social life. You get off work at five and you head over to Disneyland but that’s not going to be around for quite a while. I’m sure the parks will be less crowded in the future because of this. And I’m sure California will be much stricter about setting capacity limits than Florida has been. Even here in Florida, you’re looking at average of 35% of their maximum capacity.
Johnny Jet: So can you feel the difference? I mean, you said the lines are shorter.
Seth Kubersky: The wait times are shorter, but lines are much longer. Psychologically, the parks often feel more busy because of social distancing is taking a cue. A line that formerly would have squeezed into a few switchbacks is now sneaking all the way outdoors because people are spaced out every six feet. So the actual time you’re going to wait for a ride is a lot shorter than it would have been if you’d come a year ago. But that line is going to look a lot more intimidating.
Johnny Jet: So what’s the most popular of ride at Universal Orlando is it Harry Potter?
Seth Kubersky: Oh, Hagrid’s Magical Creatures Motorbike Adventure by far. Right now it’s the new roller coaster that opened in 2019. So it’s been operating for about a year and it’s still definitely getting the longest lines in the park. When it first opened, I went on opening day and waited seven and a half hours for that one. I’m happy to report that the average wait times now are well under an hour for it. And it’s definitely worth it because it’s one of those combinations of a family friendly dark ride with detailed animatronics, sets and special effects. But it’s also a high speed roller coaster, with the most launches of any roller coaster in the world that goes backwards, it drops in the dark, it has all sorts of surprises. And it’s one of those rides that people keep coming back to over and over and over again.
Johnny Jet: How many times you’ve been on that ride?
Seth Kubersky: Again, I’ve lost count. But I have to get that one in in at least once a week.
Johnny Jet: And so what’s the best advice to get on it right when the park opens and just make a beeline to it, or?
Seth Kubersky: Well, that’s what a lot of people tend to do. Unfortunately, if you are not eligible for early entry, which is offered to people who are staying at their onsite hotels. By the time the park opens to the regular guests, it already has a long line in the morning. So the best time to hit it is actually right around lunchtime between noon and 1pm. You know the people who lined up early have all pretty much burned through it. And a lot of people are lining up to eat. And so every day it seems to have a little drop in its wait time are between noon and one. And then my personal favorite is to get into line about an hour before the park closes. Because it is just special after dark. Riding it in the daytime is great. But riding it after sunset is just amazing.
Johnny Jet: So once you’re in line, do they let you go through even if the park closes?
Seth Kubersky: Absolutely. On rare occasions, they may close off and attractions queue before the park closes. But normally you can step into a parks into an attraction queue right up to the minute the park closes. And as long as you’re through that door, the will let you ride. Many nights they’ll keep the ride running for up to an hour after the official closing just to get through everyone who’s in the queue.
Johnny Jet: And so does that advice about you know going at lunchtime work for almost every ride or just not at every ride?
Seth Kubersky: We actually, we let you know in the book as we list the best times to visit each attraction. For a lot of them for the most part, it’s the earlier the better. But there are some sort of hidden dips depending on things like water rides. They have different kind of patterns as people want to ride them during the hottest part of the day. And certain attractions like Hagrid are much better after dark. So you know we have touring plans in the book that sort of chart you the best way to most efficiently experienced them all.
Johnny Jet: Gotcha. So you know, besides buying this book, what is your best advice for a first time visitor to Universal Orlando, Disneyland and Walt Disney World?
Seth Kubersky: The best advice no matter what theme park you are ever visiting is to buy your tickets before you show up. Never waste time buying tickets at a turnstile and always aim to arrive at the park an hour or so before the official opening time. Because the first few minutes that a theme park is open is golden. You can often ride as many attractions in the first half hour or hour as you would in the next three hours.
So the early bird gets the worm and specifically at Universal there are amazing perks for staying at hotels onsite. And they include things like free front of the line express passes so you can skip the lines for most of the attractions. If you’re staying at one of the top hotels. If you do the math, it’s actually cheaper to stay on site than it is to stay off site and buy one of those passes.
Johnny Jet: What’s your least favorite ride at any of these parks the kiddie rides?
Seth Kubersky: I’ve got a soft spot for some kiddie rides. I love a good Dumbo or a little kitty coaster. I’d say the worst attraction operating at any Orlando theme park right now is Fast & Furious – Supercharged. It is based on the Vin Diesel movie series. But it is neither fast nor furious. It’s a very sad simulator ride with computer graphics that look like they came off of a PlayStation.
Johnny Jet: Are you a roller coaster junkie?
Seth Kubersky: I love them but I’d like coasters that have pacing and innovation. But not necessarily are trying to shake my brain out of my skull. I love The Incredible Hulk Coaster and Haggard’s right now. Not a big fan of the Hollywood Rip Ride Rockit at Universal because that one shakes you side to side. But the VelociCoaster that they are building in Jurassic Park, I think is going to be a world beater. I think that’s you’re going see that shoot to the top of a lot of people’s top 10 roller coaster lists.
Johnny Jet: And have you been to other theme parks in in Asia and Europe.
Seth Kubersky: I’ve done Europe and been to Disneyland in Paris. And one of my favorite parks in the world is Efteling. It’s a fantastic park in the Netherlands and it’s older than Disneyland. It’s also based on a lot of the same Disney fairy tales, but the creepy European version of the grim fairy tale version with all the blood and guts. Great Park rides. I haven’t made out to Asia yet. But you know, that new Super Nintendo World in Osaka and also Shanghai are definitely on my bucket list.
Johnny Jet: How does Disneyland Paris compare to the other Disney parks?
Seth Kubersky: Disneyland Paris is the most beautiful Disneyland Disney park with the worst maintenance and upkeep. It does not hold up well in France is hard winters. And it has not gotten the tender loving care of the other parks over the years. It has some wonderful, unique attractions. And there’s a lot of great stuff about it. But I would say if you are going to Paris spend more time in the real Paris and less time in the Disney Paris.
Johnny Jet: I love your brutal honesty! Which hotel do you recommend for people at Universal Orlando?
Seth Kubersky: They’ve got a wide range of price points. If money is no object, the Portofino Bay is just gorgeous. It includes all of the perks and has fantastic restaurants. You can even take a boat to the to the parks. If you’re on a budget, look into the Cabana Bay. It’s themed around something I love which is 1960s, mid-century modern. So it’s very retro. It’s even got a lazy river running around the pool. And it’s walking distance to the volcano, bay waterpark.
Johnny Jet: What’s your favorite month to go and favorite day of the week.
Seth Kubersky: It’s hard to beat the very end of August or early September. Schools in Florida go back to school in early August. Schools might still be out of session if you’re from up north or out west but here in Florida, the local attendance drops way down towards the end of August. But the weather hasn’t quite cooled off yet but it’s not as bad as July and they start holding Halloween events in the theme parks. That’s my favorite time of the year. Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Orlando if you’re into haunted houses you can’t beat it. It’s rated over and over again the top Halloween event in the world. And for the kids they’ve got great Halloween events at SeaWorld and Disney also.
Johnny Jet: And what day of the week is best to go to avoid crowds Tuesday, Wednesday?
Seth Kubersky: You know there used to be a good rule of thumb that Sunday and Monday was good based on people’s travel patterns. But the pandemic threw all that out of the water. The most important thing to know is Saturday and Sunday are busy, busy, busy right now because everyone has the weekend off. The best days are probably Tuesday and Wednesday. But that can vary.
Johnny Jet: Okay, good. And how about a place to see a calendar where you know what days of the week are good, do you?
Seth Kubersky: Yeah, sister website touringplans.com. We have the most scientific calendar that is available on the web. We have been gathering data for decades. And you can get a sample of the calendar online. And you can access it if you’ve purchased our book. You can get a subscription to our website for a discount.
Johnny Jet: Okay, good. And how much is a subscription by the way?
Seth Kubersky: For the Universal Book it is less than $10 to subscribe to the website data. For the Disney books it’s less than $20. We like to say it’s less than lunch at one of the theme parks. And it’s good for a year.
Johnny Jet: Since it’s 2021 do you cover COVID-19 in the book?
Seth Kubersky: Absolutely. Thank you for asking about that. We are actually the first printed guidebook we know of that really focuses on COVID-19. There’s an entire new special chapter right at the front of the book that details all the changes you need to know. And then throughout the book, we actually have a little COVID cartoon character. He’s a cute little guy with a mask. And he highlights all of the tips that you need to know about how COVID has affected Universal Orlando.
Johnny Jet: Well, Seth, I appreciate you taking the time.
Seth Kubersky: Thank you so much for letting me talk to your viewers. This is great.
Johnny Jet: All right. Well, hopefully I’ll see you in Orlando, but maybe not on that crazy roller coaster.
Seth Kubersky: Trust me when that VelociCoaster opens everyone’s going want to get on that one.
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