Earlier this week, the website published a post titled, Walt Disney World Starts Filling Every Row on Attractions Among the Heaviest Christmas Crowds of the Year. We took a look at a number of attractions where Disney recently began seating guests in every row, even on vehicles where they’ve made no safety modifications.
Considering the lengths they’ve gone through to modify some vehicles, it seems at best a bit arbitrary that someone would wake up on December 10th and decide that every row on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, Slinky Dog Dash, and others can now be filled, while it was previously unsafe to do so from the middle of July until then.
The capacity changes do create a bit of a wrinkle in our collected wait times over the last several months, as it’s no longer an apples to apples comparison at a number of attractions with double capacity. Attendance continues to go up, even if wait times at several attractions are down.
Here’s our simple chart of average waits before and after Disney installed the barriers on Runaway Railway and began filling every row:
Lower wait times at Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway after Disney installed the barriers aren’t indicative of lower attendance or decreased interest. More people can simply ride per hour, and with attendance still severely limited by the Park Pass system, wait times haven’t “recovered” from what they were as recently as early November when the average wait was routinely above 80 minutes.
But while Christmas Week wait times may not offer any earth-shattering revelations, they’re still worth taking a look at, as they should represent peak waits given current attraction and Park Pass capacity limits. For most the part, Christmas Day will actually have some of the shortest waits of the week at most of the Parks, but other days during the season see some of the highest waits of the year.
Another wrinkle, and one that I didn’t focus on in the capacity-changing post, is that Park Hopping is back as of January 1st, 2021. Disney made that announcement back on November 20th:
The ability for a ticketholder to Park Hop is based on available capacity at the subsequent Park that they’re paying more money to visit via the Park Hopper add-on, so it makes sense that Disney would be in a hurry to figure out how to increase capacity at its Parks without actually having to spend much money on adding anything new. Dispatching every Slinky and rock ‘n’ limo with every row filled costs the company nothing, but basically doubles those attractions’ capacities, among others.
Considering the Studios is the Park with the least number of Park Passes distributed per day, and the lowest attraction capacity overall, it makes sense that Disney began making modifications heading into the holiday season, knowing that they would continue to need that capacity even after attendance waned early in the new year. After all, if thousands of people decide that they want to Park Hop to Hollywood Studios in the afternoon, and they’re denied because the Park is “full,” they’re probably going to want their money back. We’ll see if we can figure out how much of an impact Park Hopping is having on wait times in a subsequent post, after we’ve collected a little more data.
For now, we’ll take a look at the wait times that we did see over the holidays and whether or not they were still the highest realized so far this year, as they historically are, even as we see attraction capacity increase. Let’s start with a look at Magic Kingdom’s average waits since the end of September with Christmas itself highlighted in festive green. I may not know the actual names of the Skellington family members, but I do know Christmas and green go together:
The results may actually be a little surprising. Magic Kingdom’s average wait on Christmas day was below the 28.6-minute average for the 14-week period, the lowest of the week, and nearly half of the average of the Tuesday prior.
It happened to be unseasonably cold on Christmas Day, but you wouldn’t think the low temperatures would be enough to keep people who have already locked into paying some of the highest prices of the year from staying back at their resort for too long. Looking over all of the Fridays in the chart above, there’s only one with a lower average, and it’s within a few seconds of Christmas back in the middle of November. In other words, Christmas was basically the best day to visit Magic Kingdom in the last 3+ months. I would guess most people didn’t have that on their bingo boards to start 2020. Interestingly, it was about 30 degrees hotter the day before, but that didn’t seem to drive crowds much higher.
Here’s the chart for Christmas 2020:
There are some longer wait times there in the middle of the day, but nothing like you would expect from Christmas, even with morning low temperatures in the 40s. The hours are longer than they have been most days since the Park reopened, but not long enough that they would distribute crowds quite this well. The fact that “it’s a small world” is posting a 60-minute wait at noon – the second longest in the Park – is probably why we’re seeing those barriers on the backs of the rows being tested at that Magic Kingdom boat ride first.
Here’s a look at the chart for Tuesday three days prior, when the average looks to be in the top 1% of wait times since reopening, and over 60% higher than the waits we saw on Christmas day:
The high temperature on December 27th was 16 degrees higher – sunny and about 70 degrees instead of 55, which would make the day more attractive. But with the Park Pass system and the natural holiday demand, there was not a lot of availability to switch around your Park Pass days that week even if you wanted to, and Christmas at Magic Kingdom was one of the first December Park Pass sellouts. But temperatures were even higher on December 24th, with a high of 82 degrees, and the 30.2-minute average was still barely higher than the overall average of 28.6 minutes for the 14-week period. Looking over the last six weeks, I see over 60 days with longer waits than Christmas.
This past Monday saw an average wait of 40 minutes, or a 60%+ increase over the Christmas holiday. Let’s take a look at that chart to see if there are any irregularities that would result in higher waits:
Nothing specific necessarily stands out, outside of the fact that wait times are considerably longer across the board. This may go back to our staffing discussion, where Disney is poised and ready to combat capacity holiday crowds. But with the Park Pass system, they know just about exactly how many people are going to be present on any given day, and they knew both Christmas and January 4th were largely unavailable under the Park Pass system. It’s possible that they wanted this Christmas to look good in an effort to bring back holiday crowds paying the highest prices of the year in late December of next year, but most people have no idea what crowds or wait times at Disney World look like on any given day, so it seems unlikely that any such effort would be successful. This past year and now into this year is such an anomaly that we’ll basically throw the data out once things return to “normal” and the Park Pass system is potentially phased out earlier than expected this year.
But the fact that crowds and waits are this unpredictable doesn’t stop the various websites from trying desperately to drive traffic to their sites via their crowd calendars. Here’s WDW Prep School’s in January:
They’ve got January 4th as a “5/10” crowd level, despite the average wait being in the top 1% of wait times since the Park reopened in July. That would make it a 10 out of 10. January 3rd, where the site has the crowd level as a 10 out of 10, saw waits that were about 25% shorter. You could probably throw darts and come away with a more accurate calendar. Worse, the site specifically tells people not to go on Thursday, when waits were considerably lower, and then recommends the Monday with much higher waits. It’s objectively terrible, inaccurate advice.
Then they’ve got Christmas and the days surrounding it as a “10/10:”
Christmas Day actually saw the second-lowest average wait in the last month, which would be a far cry from a 10/10 crowd level. So I would say that didn’t go very well. You’re really doing a disservice to your readership by disseminating information that is completely inaccurate. If you based your itinerary for your $5,000+ vacation based on these perceived, made-up crowd levels, you’d end up visiting the Parks on some of the worst days possible. To call the poor advice “dangerous” is probably a bit dramatic, but you’d probably be a little annoyed if you could have been waiting in ten-minute lines instead of sixty-minute lines, when your “expert” predicted the exact opposite.
WDW Prep School tried to get you to pay for their information for a while before realizing that nobody would. TouringPlans still charges for the privilege. This is what they have for January 4th:
Obviously, any wait times prior to the March closures are irrelevant moving forward if you’re trying to identify dates in the future with the lowest crowds or wait times. That seems like it should be the ultimate goal. People are planning for the future, and can’t teleport to the past, so only what’s happening now is relevant.
They did at least cop to the fact that wait times were one level higher than the prediction that probably changed 32 times over the course of 2020, but a wait time in the top 1% since the Parks reopened would be the definition of a 10 out of a 10. Otherwise, you just have a scale that goes from 1 to 4. You would have to adjust the numbers for what the crowd levels mean, and continue to adjust them as capacities at attractions change. They are apparently not doing that, and instead comparing the current waits to those from earlier in the year, and many years past, when there were no masks or capacity limits. It was a completely different time that is now completely irrelevant moving forward.
You could make the argument that the scale shouldn’t change so people can compare waits with past trips. But with so many changes in how you go about your day with no FastPass+, scheduled parades, stage shows, character meets, etc. going on, telling your paying subscribers that one of the busiest days since reopening is also a below-average crowd level, really isn’t helping anyone plan. They would get all of the crowd predictions wrong even if they did change their scales, so it sort of doesn’t matter what they do. But not letting your paying subscribers know that they are in for one of the busiest days of the year by assigning it a “3” doesn’t help anyone.
But it didn’t take much to figure out January 4th would be busy with local schools still out and lower-tier Passholders being able to visit for the first time after a couple weeks of blockouts.
Of course, the next question is what Christmas would look like without all of the current nonsense. Here’s a chart of Christmas Day usually looks like:
Obviously, about a million things were different back in 2019, and the preceding years, but the 62-minute average, even with longer hours and much lower waits in the evening as people waited “patiently” in the Hub for the New Year’s Eve Fireworks, is indicative of the ordinary holiday demand. The 62-minute average is easily higher than this year’s ~25 minute average and higher than any other day in 2020. Had you gone this year, waits would have been far less than half, but you probably would have wanted to bring a jacket and there were no festivities to speak of.
Bringing back this year’s Magic Kingdom chart one more time:
The averages for the week of December 20th and 27th ended up being the longest of the year at an average of a combined 34.9 minutes. But the average wait for the preceding four weeks was 30.0 minutes, or just 14% less. So in that respect, the Park Pass system “worked” to curtail crowds and keep wait times reasonable. Had you been able to go earlier in December, you would have saved a lot of money, and not missed out on any of the usual bonuses of Christmas Week, like Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmastime Parade, the holiday fireworks, and various stage shows, special character outfits, and other things that take over around Christmas.
One of these days I will make the long chart for Epcot, but rest assured we have them for the other Parks. Here’s Epcot’s chart for Christmas Day of this year:
The 27-minute average wait is below-average for the last month and lower than most weekends over the last 12+ weeks. So the people didn’t head there either.
Here’s what a regular Christmas looks like:
That’s about 63% higher with triple digit waits at both Frozen and Test Track with Soarin’ hitting around 90 minutes for most of the day. This year, we didn’t see any triple digit waits, and Frozen peaked at 50 minutes with an average of just 25. Thank those newly-installed barriers.
Here’s Epcot on January 4th, since we checked it out for Magic Kingdom:
We don’t see the same bump as we saw at Magic Kingdom, with the 25-minute average just about the same as the 27-minute average from Christmas. That’s the main reason why I neglected to start a long daily average wait chart for Epcot. The expectation was that any day would be just about like any other, and your touring plan really isn’t going to change regardless of the day you visit. We do see higher waits on most weekends than we saw on Christmas or on January 4th. That may be less true with Frozen’s wait basically going down to 30-50 minutes from 60-90 minutes. We’ll probably start a chart once the Ratatouille ride opens to track how that’s going. Then I can have a fresh chart and the previous data will be irrelevant given new crowd flow and the excitement over one new, solitary attraction.
Here’s Hollywood Studios:
Our Hollywood Studios chart isn’t exactly useless, but the numbers aren’t necessarily representative of crowds, with Disney increasing the capacities of several prominent attractions over the last couple of months, and specifically around December 10th. Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster was also down in its entirety each of the last few days that make up this chart, which decreases the Park’s overall attraction capacity with a similar number of people looking for one of an already-limited number of things to do. That’s going to push up wait times elsewhere and is the main reason for why we’ve seen 50+ minute averages over the last few days.
Like Magic Kingdom, the Studios saw its lowest averages of Christmas Week on Christmas Day and the Saturday following. Even with the capacity increase at several attractions, the 48.2-minute average for the week of December 27th is highest yet, even if it’s skewed slightly with Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster closed on two of the days at the end of the week. It will be interesting to see if waits normalize around 45 minutes again, signaling another significant capacity increase with the demand to match, or if there’s more variance from week to week.
Here’s the Christmas chart from this year:
For once, the people who paid the most actually got to enjoy some of the shortest waits. Things remain pretty rough from 10am through 6pm, but it seems pretty clear that the cold temperatures were enough to turn people back, even with 5-minute waits at Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway in the last hour of operation, both before and after the brief spurt of downtime, people neglected to head out. Bring a hat.
Here’s the chart for January 4th, with the 51.6-minute average only bested by the Saturday prior:
The 26.8% increase on January 4th over Christmas is relatively sizable, but also largely due to Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster’s downtime. But even then, the 89-second coaster’s 41-minute average on Christmas is considerably less than it had been for about 90% of the time since the Park reopened. You can thank Disney now filling every row for those lower wait times. With so many changes at the Studios, there aren’t too many grand conclusions to come to other than to say things will be changing in the future. With Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster now operating, we’ll have even more numbers with asterisks next to them for the rest of the week.
We’ll finish up with Animal Kingdom:
Animal Kingdom is historically the least-crowded theme park on holidays, though it had done its best in 2019 to up its game with live holiday character performers, special Tree of Life projections, and new decorations, among other things. Most of the decorations were up this year, along with the projection shows, but the performers were obviously not out, as they weren’t at Epcot and the other Parks. Considering the low Christmas wait times that we’ve seen so far, Animal Kingdom’s 21.1-minute average, more than ten minutes below the average for the 14-week period, doesn’t come as a surprise. The 16.1-minute average on the Thursday is surprising, as we have to go back to a weekday in September to find an average that low, but it’s clear that the cold kept people away from Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom in particular, which is how it’s been for years. Just two days before the 16.1-minute average, we have an average of 45.9 minutes, which is among the highest that the Park has seen since reopening.
Conclusion: Bundle up early and go take advantage of lower waits at Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom on colder days.
Also like Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom saw a big bump on January 4th, with a wait that was more than double Christmas, at 40.4 minutes. There isn’t another weekday during a non-holiday week that gets close to that number. About 30 minutes is as high as the average typically gets.
We’ll take a look at the Christmas chart to round things out:
There isn’t anything too surprising here, but it’s worth noting that they’re now seating guests in every row on Expedition Everest and on every seat on Flight of Passage, which helps to reduce waits there. Previously, a row was left between parties on Everest and Flight of Passage left a seat empty between every group. Na’vi River Journey is apparently still one group per boat, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they decide the backs are high enough that they can start filling both rows there. From our Christmas chart, River Journey’s 41-minute average is the highest in the Park, making it “the most popular ride” at Animal Kingdom based on its wait time, which is longer than Flight of Passage and on this particular day, over 2.5 times Expedition Everest. I’m not sure how many people have had the joy of the big outdoor drop on Everest when it’s 42 degrees out, but it “feels” like it’s around -42 degrees.
Here are the wait times from Christmas 2017 for comparison:
Had you visited three years ago, the average wait for Flight of Passage was 202 minutes, or more than three hours, with a peak wait of 270 minutes, which is 4.5 hours. This year, the peak wait was 55 minutes, with an average that was almost 170 minutes shorter. There aren’t too many things that I would pick in 2020 over 2017, but the morning wait for Flight of Passage would make that (short) list.
Here’s January 4th of this year for comparison:
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see if the 40+ minute averages are the “new normal,” or a combination of lower-tier Passholder blockouts ending, local schools being out of session for one final day, another quiet capacity increase, and warmer weather. We’ll certainly know more as we move through the month with Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend and Presidents Day coming up in the near-term.
So ultimately, what are our takeaways from this Christmas? The cold morning temperatures caused a sizable number of people to stay back at their resorts into the late morning. Some number of Passholders with Park Pass reservations likely stayed home altogether. The Park Pass system also caps attendance at a pre-determined number of people whether they show up or not. Obviously, people canceling their Park Passes open them up for others to book, but it may be rare that a Passholder would remember or bother to click the buttons to complete the process.
So cold weather, combined with limited attendance via the Park Pass system, largely kept holiday crowds in check. I guess I can say I hope that isn’t true this year? My opinion may be different 191 minutes into a Flight of Passage wait.