We return to our consideration of Walt Disney World wait times in January over the last few years. Now, only slightly less relevant since it’s now March. As a reminder, these are the two main questions we’re attempting to answer:
- Are the Walt Disney World wait times that we experienced in January unprecedented?
- Is there an “off-season” at Walt Disney World where we can reliably expect to experience lower crowds and shorter waits? And if so, when?
We begin with January for a couple of reasons. First, the period between the Wednesday after Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend and the Wednesday before Presidents Day Weekend in February has historically been one of the least crowded stretches at Walt Disney World. And people who have experienced low crowds and short wait times during late January vacations are the ones coming back proclaiming that there’s “no such thing as the off-season anymore.” And that may be true. And it may not be true.
At Animal Kingdom, we saw a meteoric rise in average January wait times over the last four years. The numbers above represent the average posted wait time at DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Primeval Whirl, and TriceraTop Spin. That’s a 71% increase in wait times over four years. If you missed Animal Kingdom’s analysis, see this post, which includes an update on how Pandora is looking.
On the other hand, Epcot wait times are virtually flat. That’s a 5.3% increase from 2015 to 2018 – virtually indistinguishable whether you visited in January 2015 or January 2018. 2016’s average wait is lower because Soarin’ was closed for refurbishment and 2017 and 2018 benefit from additional capacity at Soarin’ Around the World, probably offset partially by an increase in interest given the new film. But January wait times are stagnant even given the upgrade at Soarin’ and the opening of Frozen Ever After, in addition to the Festival of the Arts, which debuted in 2017. The full Epcot analysis is available here.
We move on to Hollywood Studios:
Each box represents the combined average wait at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Tower of Terror, and Toy Story Mania on a given day during a given year. Obviously, a lot has changed at Hollywood Studios in the last four years, but if you can believe it, all of these wait times are actually after Backlot Tour closed in September 2014. For example, Toy Story Mania has seen a number of capacity changes. The 2017 numbers include a 50% capacity increase at the popular Pixar ride, while the 2018 numbers return us back to the 2015 capacity, seemingly without reducing the number of FastPass+ experiences distributed each day. That’s because Toy Story is currently operating with just two of three tracks due to a queue reconfiguration for the opening of Toy Story Land. The 2018 numbers also represent the first January on record when Great Movie Ride wasn’t operating. Those are just a few of “literally” hundreds of changes that the Park has seen over the last few years .
So we’re far from an apple-to-apples comparison. But wait times do tell us a bit about what all of these changes have meant for the Park. From 2015 to 2016, wait times barely budged. The average went from 47.5 minutes to 48.5 minutes, which is an increase of 2.1%. And from 2016 to 2017, the average wait across the four rides went down 3.7 minutes, or a reduction of 7.6%. Then from 2017 to 2018, wait times went up a whopping 18.7 minutes, which is an increase of 41.7%. And over the course of the four years, from January 2015 to January 2018, we see a total increase of 33.7%.
My assumption is that a lot of the recent increase is due to higher waits at Toy Story Mania. Let’s take a look at what they looked like all the way back in 2015:
Part of why we start in 2015 is that it was the first full year of FastPass+ implementation. The 71-minute average hearkens back to the good old days when the ride struggled to move through a thousand people an hour and the average wait exceeds 60 minutes by 9:15am and 75 minutes by 9:30am.
The 10-minute climb is a 14.9% increase year-over-year at Toy Story Mania specifically, compared to the 2.1% increase that we saw at the Park’s four rides combined. So other attractions must have seen stagnant or slightly lower waits in that time.
Wait times dropped a whopping 36 minutes, or 44.4%, between January 2016 and January 2017. There are two major reasons – the first and most obvious is the addition of the third track, which increased capacity by 50%. The second is the change in the location where the nighttime fireworks are launched, which allows Toy Story Mania to now operate all day. In 2016, Pixar Place closed for about an hour and 45 minutes minutes in the evening due to fireworks fallout. More operating hours increases FastPass+ availability and means more people have the opportunity to ride each day. Toy Story’s drop in wait times changed a lot of things at Hollywood Studios and made Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster the top FastPass+ priority, as discussed in this post published back in 2016.
Unsurprisingly, Toy Story is a clustercuss in January of this year as Disney has reduced the ride’s capacity as it works on rerouting the queue for the opening of Toy Story Land on June 30th. It’s unlikely that Disney reduced the number of FastPass+ experiences distributed to account for the capacity change, which means that a similar number of people are returning with FP+ priority with fewer vehicles to seat them. In turn, only something like 150 standby riders are going to ride per hour, which is less than half of what would ride at full capacity. We see waits rise 49 minutes, which is more than a 100% increase. Incredibly, really.
With six semi-independent simulators, Star Tours is theoretically a ride that could always operate at a very high capacity. But it often doesn’t depending on expected demand, or more recently, because Disney thinks they can get away with it. The website has discussed capacity reductions and how, in addition to FastPass+, they’re the primary driver of increased wait times. At the Studios in particular, you might remember when I visited back in April 2016 to ride all five rides at rope drop in standby. Part 1 of that post is available here with Part 2 following here. Apparently Testa and co. over at TouringPlans have finally come to the realization that it’s decreased capacity, and not increased attendance, driving wait times higher. You’ll find that they are typically three years behind the times in just about everything related to Walt Disney World, whether we’re talking about the quality of food at restaurants or the number of people in the Park in late January. But considering the earth is at least 2,000 years old, being three years behind is not so bad in the grand scheme of things. January 2015 was otherwise before the so-called Thanks Shanghai budget cuts and before we saw a lot of the tightening up that happened later that year and into 2016.
Here’s Star Tours in 2016:
Year-over-year, we see a not-insignificant increase of five minutes, or 23.8%.
The 26-minute overall average in January 2017 is the exact same as January 2016.
We see a big increase here with the overall average wait up to 33 minutes, an increase of 26.9%. What’s most startling is how fast wait times increase in the morning this year compared to last year. In 2017, the average wait at 10am was 12 minutes. In 2018, it’s 23 minutes. That’s an increase of almost 100%. On the other hand, in 2017, the average wait at 1pm is 35 minutes. In 2018, it’s 41 minutes, which is an increase of “just” 17%. That does seem in line with what I’ve experienced in person – Disney is too slow to ramp up capacity in the morning to keep wait times low. That slowness increases the number of people waiting in standby early in the morning and it’s not until the afternoon, when capacity is steadily increased, that wait times recover.
While we’re here, we might as well take a look at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. Wait times are not a very good gauge of how “busy” the Park is because downtime affects waits far more than attendance or intended capacity. But the average wait in 2015 was 57 minutes – considerably lower than Toy Story Mania’s that year.
And unlike Toy Story, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster’s average wait decreases from 2015 to 2016, down to 51 minutes from 57 minutes.
Then from 2016 to 2017, we see an increase of 11 minutes, or 17.7% higher wait times.
And finally, 2018, with a 6-minute increase over 2017’s 62 minute wait time, which comes out to a 9.7% climb.
So what can we conclude from all of this? No matter what the reasons may or may not be, Studios’ wait times are higher in 2018 than they have ever been before. A big part of that is Toy Story Mania, where wait times more than doubled from January 2017 to January 2018. That’s not because of attendance and not because of any nefarious capacity reductions, but because of the track closure.
Star Tours’ increases are likely due to a tightening of capacity – running fewer simulators later into the morning. That’s not a new thing – we’ve been discussing it for more than three years. But it has probably become a worsening phenomenon as it seems like the company sees people are “willing” to wait a certain amount of time for an attraction and then try to meddle with capacity and staffing to make that wait time a reality for the majority of the day. And the vast majority of visitors won’t notice – the family that got in the Star Tours standby line at 3pm in 2015 waits 30 minutes, in 2016 waits 39 minutes, in 2017 waits 39 minutes, and in 2018 waits 42 minutes. An increase of three minutes over three years “feels” hardly noticeable, even if morning wait times are higher. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster’s modest increase could be chalked up to a lot of things, one of which would be Great Movie Ride’s closure and an overall lack of things to do at the Studios.
But so far, the fact is that Animal Kingdom wait times are up more than 70% in the last four years. Epcot’s wait times are virtually flat over the same period, up just over 5%. And Studios’ wait times are up 33.7%. It will be interesting to see how Magic Kingdom looks in January and then we’ll take a look at wait times at the most popular theme park in the world over the course of the entire year.