Natalie Lucia knew her Los Angeles life was getting back to normal the moment she was confronted by a snarling, life-sized velociraptor.
Thursday marked several milestones in California's emergence from the pandemic -- vaccinations became available to all over-16s, basketball fans could watch the Lakers in-person, and Universal Studios Hollywood finally re-opened to impatient theme park fans.
"I have been waiting to see Blue and the dinosaurs since they closed... To be able to see her after 15 months is amazing," said Lucia, a 40-year-old piano teacher, standing outside the Jurassic World section as the velociraptor emerged.
"This is a symbol... I'm going to get teary-eyed! We're finally able to do stuff again, and it's amazing."
The sprawling theme park consists of immersive rides, a giant Harry Potter-themed Hogwarts castle and a tour of Universal's famous studio soundstages -- but it had all been shuttered for more than a year as Covid-19 ravaged the United States's second-largest city.
With infections plummeting after a severe winter spike, Governor Gavin Newsom relaxed California's tier-based criteria for reopening -- allowing Los Angeles-area theme parks to return to operation -- and has announced that all restrictions will be gone by mid-June.
For now, Universal's theme park is following the government's 25 percent capacity restrictions, and on Thursday only annual pass holders and press were admitted -- ahead of Friday's public reopening.
Certain rides that exceed 15 minutes indoors are yet to reopen, live performances are on hold, and characters who used to roam the park posing for photos with guests are still absent -- one giant Homer Simpson danced behind a rope designating a special, social-distanced selfie zone.
But self-described "theme park nerds" Jenny and Cameron Cubak said it still felt "like home" as they stood in line for the new "Secret Life of Pets" experience with their 23-month-old daughter Emily.
"I'm actually really excited even to wait in line," said Cameron.
- 'Magic' -
California has experienced the most Covid-19 cases and deaths of any US state -- in part due to its massive population, but also a result of a December surge that prompted a sharp U-turn on previous reopening efforts.
With the Golden State now among the lowest for per-capita infections, vaccinations have accelerated, and Newsom said Thursday that half of all over-16 Californians would have received at least one dose by midnight (0800 GMT Friday.)
Also Thursday, basketball fans were allowed back to downtown's Staples Center for the NBA champions' clash with the Boston Celtics. The roughly 2,000 spectators who are now permitted at games must show they are fully vaccinated or have had a negative coronavirus test within 72 hours of tip-off.
Back at Universal Studios Hollywood, only California residents are admitted, no parties may be larger than three households, and face coverings and temperature checks are mandatory.
For Sean Duggan and daughter Kaylee, who have season passes to "every park in California," Universal's reopening "gives us a little more freedom," with Disneyland set to follow on April 30.
"We're getting a chance to go outside, do these events, and feel a little bit more secure about being out."
Nekia Griffin, a 46-year-old medical administrator and Harry Potter fan, told AFP her trip to Universal was her "first real outing" since Covid-19 arrived in the US last spring.
"To get a piece of that magic is just, it's indescribable. It's just so wonderful to be back."