When Does Disney Release Operating Hours?
Disney releases operating hours about six months (seven months depending on how you count) in advance. For example, they released June’s operating hours on November 20th.
Approximately When Does Disney Make Updates to Operating Hours?
Usually, Disney makes changes to the schedule on a Monday about two weeks before a month is set to start. For example, they will make a substantial update to January’s operating schedule on or about Monday December 13th. You’ll notice that at the bottom of each of the Travel Agent Calendar pages is the date that the Calendar was last updated. Disney usually dates the calendar on the Friday before the Monday that the calendars are uploaded to the Internet. For example, January’s updated hours will probably be dated December 10th, even though they aren’t available online until the 13th. Of course, changes can and do happen “randomly” as well.
What Does Disney Usually Change?
Most months, substantial changes aren’t necessary. December was one exception because the original schedule was extremely conservative, meaning the operating hours over Christmas Week were much shorter than they had been in previous years. In the months and weeks leading up to December, Disney extended the hours at all of the four major theme parks. Significant changes are also common around other popular holidays like Easter and Thanksgiving. Since the “economic downturn” began, Disney has scheduled less and less of the “evening spectaculars” like Fantasmic and the Main Street Electrical Parade because they are expensive to produce. They generally schedule them when the Parks will naturally be crowded so that the most guests can enjoy the evening entertainment and Disney can save money by not showing the Parade or Fantasmic on several nights during the week. Over the last year, Disney has been adding a second Fantasmic on nights that previously had a Fantasmic scheduled and a second Main Street Electrical Parade on nights that previously had one scheduled. This is cheaper than adding shows on separate nights. It’s also the most common change that Disney makes about two weeks before a month begins. For example, at the moment, we have just one Fantasmic scheduled on certain dates in January. In a couple of weeks, Disney will likely add additional Fantasmic shows. Obviously, such short notice can make planning a hassle and it’s why we rely on the more up-to-date Travel Agent Calendar rather than the Disney website. They will also occasionally add Fantasmic or the Main Street Electrical Parade on nights that didn’t previously have one scheduled, but that’s much rarer. Disney did add Fantasmic on three nights that didn’t previously have a show scheduled in December, but I can only think of two other instances where they have done that throughout the rest of 2010.
Park operating hours may also be extended on certain days. Magic Kingdom’s hours on Saturdays and Mondays are often extended because of the popularity of those days. Hours at the Animal Kingdom are often extended by one hour as well. Finally, it’s not uncommon for Hollywood Studios’ operating hours to be extended to accommodate the second Fantasmic, which usually begins 90 minutes after the first show starts.
Disney also makes changes as they schedule private Parties or officially announce the dates of special events. For example, the Celebrate A Dream Parade at Magic Kingdom moved from 3pm to 5pm on December 2nd, 3rd, and 4th to make it easier to film the Christmas Parade. Other Parks may close earlier than originally announced for private parties. For example, the Magic Kingdom closes at 6pm on January 18th for a Private Party, even thought the original schedule had it open later.
How Do Operating Hours Changes Affect the Extra Magic Hours Schedule?
Extra Magic Hours “move” with the changes to the normal operating hours. Morning Extra Magic Hour is always one hour long and begins one hour before the theme park opens to the general public. Evening Extra Magic Hours are officially “up to three hours long,” but in practice they are always three hours long. The “up to” is just lawyer-speak for “we don’t owe you anything if something happens.” If the Magic Kingdom has a morning Extra Magic Hour and the original hours of operation are 9am to 10pm, then the morning Extra Magic Hour occurs from 8am to 9am. If Disney changes the schedule so that the Magic Kingdom is now open from 8am to 11pm, the morning Extra Magic Hour will occur from 7am to 8am. The same is true for evening Extra Magic Hours. If Hollywood Studios originally closes at 7pm, the evening Extra Magic Hours are scheduled for 7pm to 10pm. If the hours are extended and Hollywood Studios closes at 10pm, the evening Extra Magic Hours will run from 10pm to 1am.
Are Restaurants Also Open Earlier or Later When the Hours Change?
There are several restaurants in the major theme parks that open one hour prior to the Park opening to the general public (when morning Extra Magic Hour isn’t scheduled). Crystal Palace in the Magic Kingdom, Akershus Banquet Hall in Epcot, Tusker House in the Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood & Vine inside of Hollywood Studios open at 8am, even when the Parks don’t officially open until 9am. This gives those with early reservations (between 8am and 9am) an opportunity to enter the Park when virtually no one else is around and take some pictures without anyone getting in the way. Keep in mind that none of the rides will be open and most of the Park will be roped off so that you can’t wander the Park unsupervised. Nonetheless, you’ll have Main Street, Hollywood Boulevard, the World Showcase Lagoon, or the Tree of Life almost all to yourself. However, if the Park hours change so that the Park opens at 8am instead of 9am, you will most likely lose that opportunity because everyone will be allowed to enter the theme park at 8am, not just those with early morning reservations. When the hours shift like that, the restaurants do not open any earlier than 8am. Other than holiday weekends and Christmas/Easter weeks, it’s rare for Disney to open a Park to the general public at 8am. The Magic Kingdom does open at 8am on Sundays through December because it closes at 7pm so often for Mickey’s Christmas Party, but that isn’t a huge concern most of the year. To minimize the chances of the hours changing on your breakfast date, make your reservation on a weekday as far away from the holiday or holiday weekend as possible. Overall, 8am opens are extremely rare and shouldn’t be a concern outside of President’s Day Weekend, Easter, July 4th, Thanksgiving, and December. I make updates as soon as new hours are announced so that you will have the best chance of rescheduling.
When hours are extended, the restaurants may also be open later, depending on how late the theme park is open. At Hollywood Studios, the hours are usually extended just one or two hours to 9pm or 10pm and the Studios’ restaurants will accept reservations and walk-ups until about ten minutes before the Park is scheduled to close. At the Magic Kingdom, the hours might be extended from 10pm all the way to 1am. Generally speaking, the restaurants will accept reservations and walk-ups until around 10pm, even though the Park may be open much later. The same is true for nights with evening Extra Magic Hours. The table service restaurants usually accept new guests until around 10pm, even if the Park is open much later.
Don’t be worried about Disney transportation after the Park closes or Disney closing the Park while you’re still eating inside. Disney does not shut the Parks down immediately after the stated closing time. In fact, many of the stores stay open for at least 30 minutes, if not longer, and the restaurants stay open long enough for everyone to finish eating. They take reservations up until ten minutes before the Park is “scheduled to close,” knowing full well that you will take some time to eat. Disney runs buses for at least 90 minutes after the operating hours indicate the Park will close and they are very accommodating if you exit later than that. They will either call a bus or a van to transport you back to your resort.
Are Extended Hours an Indication That Crowds Are Larger Than Previously Expected?
No, not necessarily. Because of the downturn in the economy, Disney has been very conservative with theme park hours and scheduling expensive “extras” like Fantasmic and Main Street Electrical Parade. They also often list much shorter operating hours than we’ve seen in past years. For example, the original calendar had the Magic Kingdom open from just 9am to 10pm during Christmas Week. This was never going to be the final operating schedule because Disney World is absolutely packed from December 21st through January 1st. Disney decided to extend the hours that week to 8am – 12am and 8am to 1am, just like the schedule has looked in past years. We can assume they do this because people are happier to see extended hours rather than shortened hours. After all, if Disney released a calendar that had the Magic Kingdom’s hours as 9am to 12am every day of the year and then shortened them to 9am to 8pm or 9am to 9pm as necessary, people would be much sadder. In other words, I don’t rely on Disney’s purported hours to make my crowd predictions on the Crowd Calendars, which is why I don’t have to keep upping my estimate as we get closer to the actual date. One common complaint you might hear about the crowd calendars on other websites is the fact that they’re constantly changing crowd level predictions and recommended theme parks to visit based on operating hours. I haven’t run into that problem because I have a pretty good idea about how, why, and when Disney is going to change their schedule.
What Does Change Crowd Predictions and Best Theme Parks?
There are several things that may change the crowd prediction or best theme parks to visit. The first is the addition of a Fantasmic or Main Street Electrical Parade on a day that didn’t originally have one. Fantasmic is a huge draw and Hollywood Studios is routinely at its busiest when it has Fantasmic scheduled in the evening. Because the operating hours at Hollywood Studios are usually also longer when Fantasmic is scheduled, people who tend to visit Parks when they are open longer will also tend to visit. Most weeks, Hollywood Studios will be open from 9am to 7pm when it doesn’t have Fantasmic and 9am to 8pm or 9am to 9pm when it does have Fantasmic. Common sense would indicate that longer operating hours would allow a greater opportunity to accomplish more during the day. Unfortunately, the longer operating hours often lead to increased crowds and longer lines, resulting in the ability to do much less than you could if you simply visited when the theme park was less busy. If Disney decides to add Fantasmic when it doesn’t previously have one, Hollywood Studios will be much less desirable because of how much more crowded it will be. I would update the Crowd Calendar to indicate this and give some tips about how to beat the larger crowds if you’re locked into visiting on that date due to a dining reservation or other circumstance. Luckily, this is somewhat rare and other than December, I can only think of two or three times when Disney has added a Fantasmic on a night that didn’t previously have one scheduled. Nonetheless, we always need to be aware that it can happen and we may need to adjust our plans accordingly. One other note – Disney does not usually offer the Fantasmic Dining Package when it adds Fantasmics on additional nights because those restaurants are likely booked solid by the time Disney does make the addition.
The same is true for Main Street Electrical Parade at the Magic Kingdom if it’s during a week with limited Electrical Parades. Most months throughout the year, Main Street Electrical Parade is only scheduled on three or four days per week. For example, for the week of January 9th to 15th, Main Street Electrical Parade is scheduled on just three nights – Monday night, Thursday night, and Saturday night. As we know from reading the crowd calendars, these days are naturally the busiest anyway. Mondays are busy because so many people travel over the weekend and visit the Magic Kingdom on their first full day. Thursday are busy because of the morning Extra Magic Hour that is so attractive to Disney resort guests and Saturdays are busy because of visiting locals, long hours, and people revisiting the Magic Kingdom before leaving on Sunday. Disney schedules the Main Street Parade on these days because it gives the most people the opportunity to see the Parade without the masses having to do anything differently. Disney saves money because they don’t have to run the Parade on Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday and the majority of people will have an opportunity to see the Parade. If Disney were to add the Main Street Electrical Parade on Wednesday and extend the hours to accommodate it, the Magic Kingdom would be busier because people who pay attention to details like this will take advantage of the additional show. You might be surprised with how many people arrive at their resort with absolutely no idea what they’re going to do on any particular day. When they sit down with the Times Guide, they’ll schedule the Magic Kingdom when the hours are longer and the Main Street Electrical Parade is running. Disney rarely adds Main Street Electrical Parades, but it’s always a concern for those of us who want to visit the theme parks when crowds are at their lowest.
“Unforeseen” events may also change the recommended Parks. For example, I wrote about the Expedition Everest Challenge just the other day. Last year, the Challenge occurred on June 12th. This year, it’s happening on May 7th. It’s not a huge event and it won’t affect the overall crowd level, but it’s worth noting that a few thousand unexpected people will be at the Animal Kingdom on May 7th. Other events like this can have a substantial impact on crowd level and the best theme parks to visit. If the dates for Star Wars Weekends aren’t as expected, the May and June calendar will change. There’s simply no way around unforeseeable changes like this. The trick is to identify these inaccuracies as early as possible and make the necessary changes so that you can stay ahead of other people trying to change their own reservations and plans.
And the Crowd Level? What If All the Disney Resorts are Sold Out?
One thing to keep in mind is that Disney owns more than 25,000 “hotel” rooms on Disney property. According to Disney’s latest financial report, their average occupancy rate is 83%, which comes out to about 21,000 rooms full of Disney vacationers on any given day. During Peak or Holiday seasons, that number is closer to 100%, and during extremely slow seasons, occupancy might dip to around 75%. Even with a 20% swing in occupancy, we’re only talking about 5,000 rooms. That’s not enough to make a substantial impact on the overall crowd level. When the crowd level jumps from a 2 to a 7, it means that a lot of people are coming from hotels, motels, resorts, campgrounds, timeshares, rental properties etc. from outside of Disney World. This is why Disney World is so much more crowded during school vacations, summer, and holidays. Higher occupancy outside of Disney World is what makes a difference in crowd levels. It has very little to do with occupancy of Disney-owned resorts. Disney will find a way to fill their rooms, whether it be with lower prices or additional “freebies.” In other words, we can expect Disney-owned resorts to be somewhere between mostly-full and completely-full throughout the entire year.
Make Sure the Disney Resorts are Actually Sold Out, Not Just “Sold Out” For A Particular Promotion
In a similar vein as the last point, make sure you check resort availability by checking dates without a promotion attached. To do this, simply go to DisneyWorld.com and enter your dates and resort preference on the left side of the homepage, without clicking into any promotion banners or links. Certain resorts may become unavailable with the Free Dining Promotion or other percent-off promotions because Disney designates a certain number of rooms as being eligible. Once that quota is filled, the resort will show up as “unavailable,” even though there could be hundreds of rooms available at full cost or with other discounts.
Disney resorts are also commonly “sold out” during events at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex or during large conventions. For example, Pop Warner pretty much sells out all of the All-Star Value Resorts and Port Orleans Moderate Resort. A large convention may also sell out all of the Epcot area Deluxe resorts. Because many of these event participants will be focused on activities outside of the theme parks, it actually means crowds will be lower, not higher.
Dining Reservation Availability is an Even Worse Indicator of Crowd Levels
Now that dining reservations can be easily made online and the Free Dining promotion has been extended to numerous dates throughout 2011, fully booked restaurants are more common than ever. It’s not uncommon for people to make multiple dining reservations at different theme parks for the same time either, which further skews the “data.” For example, someone might make a 5pm reservation at Tony’s Town Square at the Magic Kingdom, ‘Ohana at the Polynesian Resort, and La Hacienda de San Angel at Epcot so that they have “plenty of options” depending on where they end up that day. This past September, when the Free Dining promotion was in full swing, just about every restaurant was booked solid for the entire month. However, crowds were extremely low. There is simply no definitive relationship between dining reservations and crowd level. There will be few dining reservations available at the end of August and during Christmas Week, but the crowd levels will be radically different.
The Importance of Being on Top of Things
Overall, Disney’s scheduling changes are more annoying than anything else. It requires tweaks and modifications to itineraries that were previously “perfect,” but are now less so. Luckily, the news is usually good, whether it be additional Parades or extended operating hours. By staying on top of new operating schedules, you can make modifications to your dining reservations and itineraries before other people even realize Disney makes changes to operating schedules. This will put you in the best possible position to have a wonderful, well planned vacation.