“Off-Season” Wait Times at Walt Disney World – January at Disney’s Animal Kingdom

The website embarks on a new series this week with two main questions in mind:

  1. Are the Walt Disney World wait times that we experienced in January unprecedented?
  2. 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’ll start with the first question and break things down by Park. Then once we’ve established that, we’ll take a look at the big picture stuff.

This is what the main chart for each Park in this introductory series is going to look like:

This chart is relatively straightforward with the days of the month going down the far left column. The columns to the right then represent average wait times at certain attractions on those days in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2018.

These numbers take fives rides into consideration:

  1. DINOSAUR
  2. Expedition Everest
  3. Kilimanjaro Safaris
  4. Primeval Whirl
  5. TriceraTop Spin

I chose those five because they’re constant over the four years and none of them go down for annual refurbishments in January. Adding Kali River Rapids, which typically goes down for most of January and has wait times dictated largely by weather, doesn’t make a lot of sense. And if I added the Avatar rides for January 2018, the numbers would be wildly higher with Flight of Passage averaging something like a 160-minute wait. We will discuss Pandora separately later on.

Larger: Here.

Each entry in the main chart is the average wait over the course of that particular date across those five rides. The chart immediately above depicts wait times on January 31, 2017. The last column is the day’s average wait for the attraction listed in the first column.

And the average wait across all attractions and times of day is found in the lower right hand corner of the chart. So for January 31, 2017, the average wait across all attractions and times of day was 14 minutes and that’s what you’ll find for January 31, 2017 on the main chart.

Here we have the year with the overall average wait for the month of January across those five rides immediately underneath. The year-over-year increases are the highest that we’ll see across the four Parks. 2016’s wait times are 13.8% higher than 2015’s. 2017’s wait times are 18.2% higher than 2016’s. And 2018’s wait times are 26.9% higher than 2017’s wait times. All in all, we see a 70.7% increase in four years and we’re only an additional 5.5 minutes away from a 100% increase.

So what gives? Pandora is the obvious culprit with Rivers of Light and the other nighttime enhancements playing a smaller role. Say what you will about Cameron’s franchise, but it’s hard to argue that the alien land hasn’t been incredibly popular with guests given the immense wait times for Flight of Passage and the number of people now arriving 60+ minutes early for rope drop. But even before Pandora’s opening, the increase from 2015 to 2017 is still 34.6%. During those same years, Epcot and Hollywood Studios wait times are actually down.

Let’s see if breaking it down by attraction offers any additional insight. Here’s DINOSAUR wait times in January 2015:

Larger: Here.

Ah yes, the good ol’ days when DINO didn’t hit a 20-minute wait until noon and the day’s average wait is typically around 15 minutes. Also note the Park’s early closing times – 5pm on well over half of the days.

Here’s 2018:

Larger: Here.

DINOSAUR sees an 84% increase in wait times over the span of four years – an incredible increase. That’s with longer hours too – we see an 8pm close every day. And worse for morning touring, the average wait already hits 20 minutes by 10:15am and is a whopping 51 minutes at noon. That’s pretty wild. Unfortunately, I am missing data for January 3rd and 4th, though we can expect that the average waits for those days would be around 60 minutes, pushing up the 2018 average more.

For a moment, let’s ignore Pandora and rewind back to 2017:

Larger: Here.

Between 2015 and 2017, DINOSAUR’s average wait time in January went up 47%.

One thing we can’t adequately measure is FastPass+ utilization, or probably more accurately, FastPass+ under-utilization. All of these wait times are from the FastPass+ era. But anybody that’s booked FastPass+ this year compared to past years has probably noticed a significant decrease in the number of return times available, particularly a day or two before a given date. And then how few same-day FP+ opportunities there are available on a given afternoon.

We know that most attractions give 60-80% of their capacities to FastPass+. When more guests utilize FP+, fewer guests in standby are admitted and posted standby wait times are longer. DINOSAUR is a good example of a headlining attraction where the majority of guests didn’t historically use paper FASTPASS, partially because of its inconvenient location and because of that, its relatively short standby wait times. With digital FP+, it’s much easier to book DINO in advance. And with more people than ever trying to book FastPass+ at Animal Kingdom given Pandora’s popularity, a lot more of those DINO FP+ are going to be taken, particularly when Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey are routinely out of FP+ availability at the 30-day mark.

Moving on to Expedition Everest in 2015:

Larger: Here.

The 25-minute overall average wait for the month seems more than reasonable, though we see 21 minutes by 10:30am and 31 minutes at 11:30am, on average.

Here’s 2018:

Larger: Here.

As expected, this is another significant increase. 76%. If you’ve visited this site before, and particularly during 2016, you might remember our extensive discussion about capacity reductions and how running fewer vehicles and reducing staffing increases waits even given fewer people in the Park. This isn’t unique to Walt Disney World. If you go to your local McDonald’s at 12pm, you’re probably going to find a good number of people and several cashiers. Return at 9pm that same day and there will likely be fewer people and perhaps just one cashier that has a couple of other responsibilities. It makes sense from a business standpoint. Unfortunately, Disney has proven to be particularly bad at identifying when and by how much they should ramp up or down staffing. They were slow to identify how much attendance was lagging in the summer. And slow to identify how much attendance was increasing in the fall. That led to artificially low wait times during June and July and much longer wait times in October, even if it didn’t need to be that way. Much of January may prove to be another example of a failure to increase capacity and extend hours given much higher attendance. On the other hand, thinking within the company seems to be that guests should be willing to wait a standard amount of time to experience attractions, whether they’re visiting during a relatively “high” or “low” crowd time. That’s part of why you’ll see a 45-minute peak wait at DINO whether you’re visiting on a day with attendance in the 25th percentile or the 75th percentile. Capacities and staffing can be manipulated enough that the company can save considerable money during less crowded times. It makes sense from a business standpoint, but makes trying to identify “less crowded times” a fool’s errand for your average guest. You could wait less with more people in the Park if Disney has increased staffing and capacity compared to a less crowded day with much lower capacity.

Expedition Everest does not suffer from that phenomenon – you’ll almost always find five trains on the track. And if anything, the hourly capacity is actually higher in January 2018 than it would have been a couple of years ago. But the 76% increase remains. In 2018, that means we see the 20+ minute average wait a full hour earlier at 9:30am. By 11:30am, the average posted wait is 58 minutes, compared to the 31 minutes we saw just a few years ago in 2015. It’s difficult to account for how much of an effect early morning FastPass+ utilization has had on wait times, but I think we have to assume that it’s made a significant impact given the fact that the average wait is now 46 minutes at 10:15am. In January. And again, that’s not a capacity thing – they are running what is basically the maximum number of vehicles from Park open through Park close.

So no, it’s not just you noticing the longer waits.

Here’s a look at posted wait times at Flight of Passage since October:

Larger: Here.

The average wait in January 2018 was 169 minutes, which is actually higher than October’s 148 minutes. Most of us probably don’t want to wait either amount.

But it is interesting to see how much wait times have increased at attractions outside of Pandora. I’d expect Animal Kingdom attendance to see a 10-15% increase year-over-year depending on how you calculate it. Word is that upper management is disappointed by those numbers, especially when it’s people shifting away from Hollywood Studios. But the attendance gains are not proportional to the wait time increases. We’ll see what Animal Kingdom wait times look like over the course of the year when we try to answer question number two.

The conclusions are not as quantifiable as I’d like. Wait times are (probably) up in part due to increased FastPass+ utilization, in part due to attendance increases, in part due to capacity decreases, in part due to Pandora, and in part due to other variables. But the fact remains that wait times at Animal Kingdom are up in January. By a lot. And they have been increasing rapidly each of the last four years.

Interestingly, we are not going to see the same thing when we take a look at Epcot.

Comments

  1. Angelique says

    I’m hoping Disney continues to be blind to the fact that summer attendance is down and doesn’t adjust staffing. Or maybe I want them to recognize that attendance is down and offer better summer resort rates. Crap.

    Thank you for what you do, Josh.

  2. jz says

    Excellent article Josh.

    My family had the pleasure of being at Disney over Christmas time. Animal Kingdom was and remains our second favorite Park – even before Pandora opened. But we also discovered why so many folks complain about AK – there still aren’t enough things to do in the evenings.

    I’m fairly good at timing FP+ and ‘anytime’ attractions. But once the sun went down, there simply was not enough to do since we’d already experienced some of the attractions prior to sundown.

    What further complicates the math for January – weather. Because when the temperatures are a bit colder, there may be fewer animals along the walking trails, and this gets people back on the standby-line more quickly.

    Pandora is an excellent addition, but one or two more attractions – that take time, like the Safari – would make this a truly all-day Park.

    Which, in part, is what makes Hollywood Studios so depressing these days. The closing of Great Movie Ride took away 30-minutes of action-packed adventure through cinematic history. HS is a waste of time if a family does not have Park Hoppers (we do). This will certainly change when ToyStory Land opens and when the Chinese Theater is reopened with something to do. But right now, and as much as we enjoy the shows, HS is too small and a waste of money if utilizing day passes.

    FWIW, we very much enjoyed our first lengthy visit to Nomad Lounge, but still have little luck finding enjoyment at a three-course meal at Tiffins.

  3. Mary says

    We were in Animal Kingdom on January 4th and I have never seen it so crowded in 18+ trips. It was literally shoulder to shoulder crowded. We had a FP for Dinosaur after lunch and the FP line went into DinoLand. We left at that point. Thanks for the analysis!

  4. Tara says

    Interesting. I’m glad January isn’t on my radar soon lol.

    Now then….there’s this place called The Edison. I’m waiting patiently 😆

  5. Elizabeth says

    I’m not an Orlando local, but due to some unusual circumstances, I was able to visit the parks almost every weekday in January. I was surprised by how busy they were! I’m glad to know it wasn’t my imagination. Thanks for the analysis, Josh!

  6. Doug says

    This sudden jump is really puzzling, considering how a year or so ago we were talking about how Team Disney was running in circles around the first attendance drop in a while. Guess we need a time machine to go back and change all the blogs and guidebooks to downplay October, the week after Thanksgiving, and January.

  7. NoTime42 says

    “I’d expect Animal Kingdom attendance to see a 10-15% increase year-over-year depending on how you calculate it. Word is that upper management is disappointed by those numbers, especially when it’s people shifting away from Hollywood Studios”

    I still LOL at this (I think there was a mention of the disappointment in a quarterly report)
    FoP is probably the best attraction in WDW, they did an outstanding job with Pandora, and my WDw trips are better because of it.

    BUT ….Avatar was never going to be the reason guests would book a trip to WDW. It really shows how out of touch executives are.

  8. Lance says

    Thank you for the analysis, Josh. It was especially applicable to us because we just got back from a trip in which we had two full days at Animal Kingdom and we could picture exactly what you are describing.

    I still don’t get the “not-a-full-day-park” comments, but to each his own. We spent two days at DAK (we never get parkhoppers anymore) and had to leave early both times because the rain simply made things miserable. We still didn’t get everything done that we wanted to (or had to rush things to try to stay under cover or indoors).

    We rode Flight of Passage once on our first DAK day, but only because we arrived at rope drop 1.5 hours ahead of opening. The second DAK day we went against the common wisdom and skipped Pandora to ride Safari first, like in the ole’ days. Our second day was much more enjoyable, as we crammed in every Wilderness Explorer badge in the park and tried to enjoy the things we miss when we fight our way to the next headliner.

  9. joel says

    I would think think part of the reason for the increases would be during that time Hollywood Studios was slowly shutting rides down which left more time for people to visit other parks. I don’t know about others, but Hollywood used to be a 2 day park for us 2-3 years ago. Now it is easily a one day park. Secondly I think things were so bad at AK attendence wise in 2015, it was only a matter of time before they started to show increases. And its also important to remember, that other than Frozen, Epcot really has not experienced anything new and fresh in many years….other than the paint jobs of course.

  10. Mark says

    We were at AK during the afternoon and evening of 1/31 and crowds were manageable. We used FP+ for KS, AFoP and Rivers of Light.

    The impact of crowds and FP+ is very substantial. Over 5 days ( M-F), we rode 20 fewer times than same exact das in 2017. 4 fewer rides per day.

    What was most noticeable is that stand-by lines now back up beginning at 10am. Prior to FP+ these levels were not seen until 11-11:30.

    It’s unfortunate but reality.

    • Emma says

      Most popular theme park resort in the world, unfortunately there’s going to be crowds. The fun is planning how to work around them to get all you want done!

  11. John says

    We were debating the apparent attendance changes just last night, as we were discussing an upcoming August trip. We took our first big family trip in July 2004, and have been coming 2 out of every 3 years since. Until 2012, the summers were clearly the busy time – hot, sweaty, and packed. Since 2012 ? Definitely seems like Thanksgiving to Christmas and now January are far more crowded. I went last November/December, and it was FAR more difficult to make ADRs 180 days out than it has been planning for this August trip. I don’t know if ADR difficulty is any indicator of crowd size, but I’m optimistic that our August trip this year will (just like the last couple) be less of a clusterbleep than our recent November/December trip was.

    One thing I do know – once Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge opens up, all bets are off. Whatever cyclical staffing Disney employs better get pitched and it better be all hands on deck at Hollywood Studios for at least the first two years. Good news is that it might finally lure traffic away from FOP.

  12. Jo D says

    And this is why we pay to subscribe to your amazing website….. oh, hang on a minute…… I love this stuff, but then I am a bit of a nerd.

  13. Chris H says

    While wait times and crowds aren’t as tightly correlated any more, I still think there is merit to finding low crowd days. An experience like walking through the parks is vastly different depending on crowd levels.

  14. says

    This really is fascinating, as my family had extended trips around this time 8n 2012, 2013, and 2015. We were pretty spoiled with low wait times then! Now we go in late February / early March. Was always busier, but manageable. Will be interesting to see how this year compares to last on our upcoming trip!

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