We’re just a few days away from Memorial Day Weekend and what typically marks the beginning of the summer season at Walt Disney World. There was a time when the summer was among the worst times to visit. Nightly hotel rates were among the highest of the year. Temperatures and humidity were somehow even higher. There was a discernible lack of special events. School was out, which meant the Parks were packed with vacationing families from around the country. As recently as a few years ago, all of that combined with peak travel from South America, which meant large tour groups that often went “under-supervised” at best.
More recently, summer crowds have dwindled. South America’s economy tanked and Brazil heavily taxed group travel, basically eliminating the green shirts and flag-carrying 20-year-olds that had permeated property from around 2009 to around 2016. That dearth of special events pushed more and more people to the fall when Mickey’s Not So Scary and Food and Wine highlighted the season, especially when combined with cooler temperatures and the supposed promise of lower crowds and waits. The summer was decidedly not where it was at.
If you’re a regular blog reader, or at least visit the website on that fortuitous afternoon when there’s actually a new post, you’re more than familiar with the changes in crowd flow from posts like, “When is the Best Time to Visit Walt Disney World Based On A Lot of Wait Times,” which dates back to 2018, along with a follow-up at the conclusion of the season, “Walt Disney World Crowds Continue to Shift Away from the Summer.” At the time, we were working with charts like the one below to examine crowd fluctuations. In this particular example, we take a look at the average wait by month across Magic Kingdom’s major attractions from just under three years ago, borrowed from that previously-mentioned post:
While June rivaled March’s high, the average was less than a minute longer than February, shorter than the spring break high of March, and within about 10% of January’s 40.3-minute average. At the time, January was long hailed as the “secret” best time to visit. Yeah, not so much. July’s average was lower than five of the first six months of the year and August’s waits were even lower than that. September followed, as it traditionally does, and has remained the best month of the year to visit as far as wait times are concerned, even with the shorter hours and capacity cuts that we’ve endlessly chronicled over the last 10+ years.
Of course, there have been updates since 2018. I think. You can pull up last year’s summer…summary…here, for example.
Of course, there’s nothing “normal” about the past 15 months or so, whether we’re talking about Walt Disney World crowds, or just about anything else. I wish I could pull up the wait times from the last global pandemic that shut down everything but Florida for a year to offer some amount of scientific insight into what to expect from the future. Well, I guess I actually don’t wish that. But in this instance, it might provide a little bit of clarity into the mind of your average tourist. As scary of a thought as that might be.
It doesn’t help that Disney has been wrong about crowds at just about every turn over the last couple of years. For example, Disney was so concerned about the overwhelming anticipation spurring from the opening of Galaxy’s Edge that they offered Extra Magic Hours at every Park for months following its opening. Certainly, the people would want to not actually meet whatever a Hondo Ohnaka is, and collect a fuel they had never heard of on his behalf, all the while mashing blinking buttons instead of paying attention to what could have very easily been a stellar attraction. Forget the excitement of swinging gun bays, TIE Fighters, Luke Skywalker, and the Empire. It’s the potential of collecting that third container of coaxium that will get the people excited.
Until the three months and hundreds of extra, needless hours to spread out nonexistent crowds ended.
And then everyone and their mother showed up in December, just as hours constricted and Disney reduced capacity after wasting tens of millions of dollars on empty Parks and early mornings that harken back to high school homeroom. As if I graduated.
Then there was the summer of 2020, when Disney reopened the Parks after a months-long closure. Anticipating pent-up demand, they scheduled Animal Kingdom to open at 8am for months on end. Flight of Passage was popular after all, right?
Nobody showed up then, either. Actually, if we enhance the image, there might be one of a hundred faceless bloggers taking a picture of a cupcake in the distance.
At least until the middle of October, when Disney cut capacity and shortened hours. And people began showing up in droves. Wrong, again.
Little of this makes a tremendous amount of sense, of course, especially since reopening. Theoretically, Disney knows exactly how many people to expect each day via the Park Pass system, which has required guests to make reservations in advance for 10+ months. And if Evil Emperor Chapek is to be believed, said system will be in place for many months to come.
Here’s how the rest of May currently looks as far as Park Pass availability is concerned:
Park Passes for the rest of the month are completely unavailable, indicating maximum capacity has been reached as it currently stands. At every Park. On every date. For every ticket type.
Here’s June, which doesn’t look much more promising if you’re staying at a Disney resort and haven’t made your Park Pass reservations:
Epcot is basically it as it stands if you’re a resort guest or staying off-site and purchasing tickets. Considering our data from earlier, with June proving to be the busiest month of the summer, the lack of availability checks out. “Get in early,” they said. It will be less crowded, they said.
I still expect Disney to add Park Passes and increase capacity across the summer months this week or next, perhaps waiting for Memorial Day to see how operations go with the Park hours set, a lack of staffing, and increased capacity at just about every attraction where an empty seat might go unfilled.
Interestingly, Annual Passholders are much better off. Here’s what they see available in June:
This is likely due to a combination of things. Since Disney hasn’t officially been selling new Annual Passes, there aren’t that many of us left. Blockout dates also come into play on lower tier Passes. And the proposition of heading out the door to a theme park in June is almost as frightening as the proposition of heading outside sans turtleneck and (faux) down jacket when low temperatures threaten 70 degrees on that one day in December. Florida may still sink into the ocean, but you can bet our bars will still be open at full capacity. Snorkels optional.
Still, the weekends are already filling as most Passholders can make up to three Park Pass reservations at a time, along with the first week of the month.
Here’s July for resort guests:
Unsurprisingly, the current trends follow what we’ve seen in the past, with far more availability in July. Disney should add thousands of Park Passes in the coming weeks after defining just what they can handle/get away with offering.
And then August is wide open, as is most of the rest of the year:
So what we’re currently looking at isn’t a great departure from past years – it actually aligns pretty much perfectly, even given the fact that this past year has been anything but normal.
As we look forward to the summer, and the prospect of sold-out day after sold-out day, we’ll take a look at wait times from this past Saturday as an early baseline.
Starting with Animal Kingdom, since alphabetical order is how we operate:
Animal Kingdom remains the most doable Park in a day, even if Disney actually cut an hour off the end of the day with the current 7pm closes this summer. The key will remain arriving an hour early to take advantage of Disney’s unadvertised early openings that will hopefully continue into the summer. The Parks have typically opened 30 to 60 minutes before official open to help spread out the early-arriving crowds. Flight of Passage may post a 75-minute wait at official Park opening, but by that time, those able to arrive by 7am should more or less be able to walk on the attraction before moving onto Na’vi River Journey and either Kilimanjaro Safaris or the attractions in Asia or DinoLand.
But even on one of the best days to visit this year, at 11am, you’re still looking at spending 20 to 60 minutes to experience just about any attraction, with no FastPass+ respite to skip those long lines, as we have taken advantage of so many times in the past. Flight of Passage is 80 minutes, DINO is 30, Everest is 30, Safaris is 55, River Journey is 55 minutes. And those waits are largely accurate, if not exaggerated by a few minutes to account for unexpected slowdowns that you may or may not experience.
Those longer waits start as early as 9:15am and continue until about 4:30pm. There are a few alternative attractions that shouldn’t carry a wait – the usual Maharajah Jungle Trek, Gorilla Falls Exploration Trail, Animation Academy, and whatnot. And with Disney basically throwing out social distancing, filling every row on most attractions, seating separate parties together when possible, decreasing the amount of space between guests at shows, in addition to opening up rows, the waits we see now may not be far off what things look like after the June peaks, even with much higher attendance.
Wait times will always be a capacity game. If you have a restaurant that ordinarily seats 80 people, but you’re only seating 40 at a time because 500,000 people are dead and you don’t live in Florida, and the usual 80 people show up, then obviously half the people are going to have to wait for the first 40 to finish.
If you now seat the same 80 people as you would have prior to March 2020, and 80 people show up, then nobody waits. But if 160 people show up, then half your guests are waiting for an extended period again. It’s an oversimplification of how the theme parks and individual attractions potentially operate, but summer wait times will depend entirely on how many people Disney lets in and how many people actually show up. As usual, the lower your expectations, the better time you’ll have.
You may remember that Disney casually mentioned some number of months ago that it would be offering a 30-minute head-start for on-site guests at each of its theme parks, with basically no additional details about when that campaign might begin. The website’s thinking was that the early openings that all guests currently enjoy would apply only to on-site guests. But the logistics of such a plan would be difficult to pull off, particularly with (publicly denied) current labor shortages. What good is a 30-minute head-start if there’s no transportation to the Park available, even if you’re standing at the bus stop an hour early?
Disney has also booked up the majority of its available inventory of rooms without the extras that it has historically offered. There are no Extra Magic Hours. Beginning next year, there won’t even be any Magical Express, so you’ll either be relying on a $40+ Uber ride, renting a car and paying for parking, or using another shared ride service like the Mears buses that will service the resorts conspicuously like Magical Express, only without the name and probably with significantly worse service. Whatever you do, don’t get in Nick’s van. Unless you see me pulling up behind him, in which case you’re safer in the van.
Briefly back to our Animal Kingdom chart:
For those of you who aren’t early risers, it’s clear that wait times drop in the evening. Animal Kingdom may then be a prime Park Hop, or a good opportunity to show up late for lunch, hit what should be closer to anytime attractions again with capacity limitations lifted, and then move on to the priorities in Pandora in that last hour. Otherwise, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to get away from waiting a half hour for most rides you’ll actually want to experience, with the potential that those waits will go up substantially as we drift closer to June and into early July.
This is a fairly lousy, albeit often-seen, look at a day at Epcot, with Test Track down at Park opening pushing up waits at the other two Future World headliners right off the bat. Mission: SPACE and Soarin’ would ordinarily post 10 to 15 minute waits first thing in the morning, with Test Track continuing to pull the majority of crowds with the official opening of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure still over four months away and our series on visiting Animal Kingdom more likely to be complete by the time Cosmic Rewind opens in uhhh…a while.
But Epcot remains most doable if you spend the first four or five hours of the day in World Showcase and then move down to Future World after 4pm, anyway. We can clearly see how much shorter waits are as early as 3pm, compared to 11am to 2:45pm. Traffic patterns will likely shift with the opening of the Rat Ride, depending on if the marketing can convince you that a so-so dark ride clone from France that opened seven years ago beats the sensation of traveling down the highway at 64mph in a convertible for six seconds. Time will tell.
Onto the Studios:
Currently, we’re actually in the best shape we’ve been in in a long time with Disney throwing social distancing to the wind and filling every row on Tower of Terror and far more seats in shows like Muppet*Vision. Just a week or two ago, Tower of Terror would have been the highest priority by average posted wait time, with only about six or seven guests seated in each elevator.
Here’s a look at The Twilight Zone from the last couple of weeks:
While those are some pretty garish colors on the right, the website did mention it was working with limited visual aids as its summer tour culminates in Seattle for a few weeks. But we can clearly see when Disney made the capacity change with the average wait dropping from 81 minutes on the 20th to 34 minutes the following day. We then see waits drop further the following three days. I’d make a second chart for something like Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway to show that waits have remained stagnant there, even as they’ve dropped so much at Tower, but you’ll just have to take my word for it. Because this keyboard is very small. And those colors are very ugly.
Tower of Terror, and Disney’s constant capacity fluctuations, are one reason why we’ve had trouble pinpointing exactly how to go about the day. If you had visited Hollywood Studios most days over the last six or seven months, Tower may well have been your top priority. Its average wait was higher than Slinky Dog Dash during that time because Disney filled every row there before they did at Tower. Or even if you left Tower for last, those 50+ minute waits at the end of the night are actually very much real, unlike the majority that we see, where Disney is trying to push you towards the exit so they can shut down the shop.
It’s the same thing we saw at Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway when Disney installed the acrylic plastic barriers and began filling every row, effectively doubling the ride’s capacity with waits dropping by about 40%, from 80+ minutes to around 40 minutes. The Railway was no longer the top priority with the longest waits. Now, it barely cracks the top five. And Hollywood Studios barely has five rides.
So potentially if there is a takeaway, it’s that attraction priority will eventually fall back to what we saw prior to the March 2020 closures. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney increases the Studios’ capacity by a solid 30% over the coming weeks. At least if someone notices that waits are falling below 40 minutes.
As a brief aside, sometimes I lay awake at night wondering how many people would show up at Hollywood Studios every day and pay full admission if it was completely empty. If there was absolutely nothing there. And that number, which I’m pretty sure would still be in the thousands, continues to haunt me.
Ideally by the first week of June, we should have a good idea about how the next two or three months will shape up from a priority standpoint. And we’ll be able to minimize waits as much as possible whether the crowds return in early June and then prepare for an even busier mid-October.
We probably need a separate post on Magic Kingdom, but we can at least preview the chart for posterity:
We’ll see if we can race through the rest of Animal Kingdom and get over to Magic Kingdom for a better look at how things look at present, but this particular day is one of the least crowded we’ve seen in months. Thank attraction capacity increases without the accompanying increase in Park Passes.
It may be worth noting that out of my last dozen or so visits, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain, and Splash Mountain have never all opened on time. Despite the low average waits, we see that here with both Mine Train and Splash opening a half hour after official Park open due to technical trouble. With the Park actually opening between 7:15am and 7:30am most days, with the official 8am open, that actually means we’re looking at an hour-plus of downtime to start the day.
We’ll see how to best handle that if we ever get out of Animal Kingdom.
The good(?) news is that with Disney ramping up capacity, we’ll have a clearer idea about what to expect from the summer and where our priorities land. If you’ve suffered through the last ten months of posts, you’ve no doubt seen me point out how “it’s a small world” has virtually always had a longer wait than Peter Pan’s Flight, which is a major reversal from what we’ve seen for about 50 years. At least here, that’s not the case, even if Pirates is still posting a wait that’s a solid six minutes longer. What does the future hold? Apparently, only excitement.
We’ll see how things play out this weekend and reassess where we’re at.