With Walt Disney World now open for a little over nine months since the March, 2020 closures, with Animal Kingdom and Magic Kingdom opening back on July 11, 2020, and Epcot and Hollywood Studios following on July 15th, 2020, I thought we’d take a look at the current trends and see if we need to make any adjustments to our plans based on any changes to attraction capacity, priority, or something else. If you’ve visited since reopening, we’ll also take a look at the ranked weekly averages and you can see if you visited during a “crazy crowded” time, relatively speaking, or you did better or worse than you thought.
Magic Kingdom, with its large number of attractions, and the fact that it’s historically the busiest theme park in the world, likely provides the best insight into our interests.
The following chart shows Magic Kingdom’s weekly average waits chronologically since last July:
The chart may take a moment to digest, but it shows how July and August of 2020 had some of the shortest waits of the year as seen on the left. The summer had been slower for a few years, but not to this extent. Waits then go up in September and move even higher during the first few weeks in October before dropping a bit in November. Disney was caught off-guard by the low initial demand and made some staffing and operating schedule changes to reduce costs, which typically push waits up. Fall crowds have also risen naturally in past years with cooler temperatures and fall breaks in parts of the country driving people towards the Vacation Kingdom of the World. We didn’t even need many of the traditional September and October events, like Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, to drive waits higher. The truncated Food and Wine Festival probably didn’t help much, but shorter menus and a lack of Dining Plan snack credits weren’t enough to catapult waits back to their summer lows. October and November hit crowd estimates with Disney gloating publicly that Thanksgiving and the weeks following had either hit capacity or were nearing it during an earnings call.
Waits go up heading into the holiday season, but the averages for December of 2020 are right around those seen in March of 2021. That will be clearer in the next chart. With the Park Pass system capping attendance, and the fact that Magic Kingdom sold out most days around the December holidays and now again for spring break and Easter, it makes sense that waits would be somewhat equal without a significant increase in the attendance cap. We also see the usual January dip, perhaps in part because of newly-enforced travel restrictions from out of the country. We go from an average of around 35 minutes over Christmas to about 23 minutes in January, a drop of about a third.
One thing that is kind of interesting is that the crowds, or at least wait times, look to largely move in four-to-five week patterns where the averages are similar. It makes sense with spring breaks and holidays and such getting stretched out over a few weeks. Ordinarily, we’d see bigger increases over Christmas and New Year’s, but the Park Pass system continues to do a good job of capping crowds at somewhat reasonable levels. Or at least averages of about 35 minutes per attraction are as “bad” as things get. Back during the summer of last year, waits were about half that, to just about everyone’s surprise.
It will be interesting to see how things look after the couple of Easter spring break weeks end and people have the choice of going in late April or May with most of the current restrictions in place, or wait until the fall when temperatures are cooler, and at least the Ratatouille ride and a version of the Festival of the Lion King are open, in addition to less concern with safety protocols and increased immunization.
Here’s the same chart with what are mostly four or five week patterns highlighted:
There wasn’t anybody out there saying to go to Disney World over the first nine to eleven weeks. Potentially, even if you knew wait times would be largely nonexistent, you could make the argument that passing along such advice would be on the unethical side of things as you potentially put people in harm’s way. And of course, if everyone said “Go in July of 2020, it’s going to be great!” there wouldn’t have been eight or nine weeks right off the bat with basically nobody in attendance. Then the people showed up.
The following bar graph shows the same information in a different way with the trend line heading upwards:
Magic Kingdom’s highest average wait was realized during the week of February 14th, with the Presidents Day Federal Holiday on the 15th. Waits don’t drop a ton during the last couple of weeks leading into March as spring break season is then basically upon us. You have to feel a little bad for those who thought they could sneak in a quick trip before spring break really got underway, by visiting from around March 1st through 7th, but they would have run into waits just three or four minutes shorter than Thanksgiving or Christmas and on par with the rest of actual spring break.
Your favorite crowd calendar didn’t predict that and won’t have much insight to offer with so many changes and no reliable historical data to back up any predictions for some time to come. You could probably make some money by selling subscriptions that say every day is going to be a “4” or “5” when compared with years of previous data. Of course, the past is of little consequence at the moment. The Port Orleans resorts aren’t even open, Extra Magic Hours aren’t a thing, FastPass+ is off the table for most guests, and international travel restrictions and immunization rollouts are still up in the air for many.
If you’re wondering how your visit fared compared to others over the last ~9 months, and whether you have the data to back up that you visited during a time when things were “crazy crowded,” here are the weeks ranked in order by average wait:
The list isn’t very surprising given what we already knew, but it does cement the weekly averages and shows that about 25 minutes is about what most people experienced, on average. But as Disney increased capacity and demand increased for spring break, we’re now seeing the longest waits since Christmas. The week of March 7th was just about the busiest week on record, though the number is inflated a bit because Mad Tea Party was closed for refurbishment, which would bring the Park’s average wait down a minute or two. Still, it’s in the running with Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other busy weeks.
We can also take a look at the average waits between years. The 2020 number only takes into account waits after the Parks reopened in July:
That’s a 26% increase in waits year-over-year, which is also about six minutes per attraction. It may not “feel” substantial – but the waits add up over the course of the day and the headliners see bigger increases than some of the less-popular attractions. Across ten attractions, you could now expect to wait an hour longer than last year, on average.
Our averages are based on daily charts that look like this. Here’s one from Thursday, March 25th:
The day was on the warmer side, but the 8am official open helps with guests on-hand via the Contemporary or Grand Floridian walkways let into the Park between 7:15am and 7:30am. You’ve got until about 9:45am before average waits hit 30 minutes and then continue around there until about 4pm. Average waits won’t drop below 20 minutes until there’s about a half hour left in the day. Above is also a good representation of what waits look like given maximum Park Pass distribution and a day with very little downtime. Some of the days with higher averages are largely due to attraction downtime, particularly at Splash Mountain and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. When those rides reopen, they post long waits as thousands of people inevitably head over and get in line. People who would be in line for those headliners also need to find something else to do, pushing those same guests to get in front of you at other attractions.
We can also take a look at the morning versus the late afternoon and evening:
This chart doesn’t take into consideration wait times or what you can get done prior to official Park opening. If you’re coming in from the Contemporary or Grand Floridian, you’ll typically be inside the Park a half hour early, which will give you time to ride the Mine Train, Peter Pan’s Flight, and another priority. You’ll remember that the average for the day was 29 minutes, so our 31-mminute average, as seen in the lower right during the first 6.5 hours of operation, is longer than that.
But it also doesn’t consider largely nonexistent waits during the first half hour when the Park isn’t officially open, but Disney lets guests inside to help spread them out. If you missed the series on how much of a benefit the walkways and an early arrival lend, see this recent series. Of course, it’s in a number of parts, and finishes up here with a recap of the day. We’ll play fair later this week and come in on the monorail to see how things go.
Here’s the afternoon portion of the chart:
The average wait of 27 minutes is four minutes shorter than the morning period with waits that typically go down from the 34-minute high at 2:45pm to 20 minutes at 8:30pm. It may make sense to take an afternoon break if the longer operating hours allow the time. In the afternoon, you’re looking at spending 20 to 60 minutes or more to experience just about any attraction – even those that have historically been walk-ons.
The chart also offers a good idea about current Magic Kingdom attraction priority as we can rank them based on wait:
Social-distancing comes into play here with Pirates, Jungle Cruise, and “it’s a small world” beating out the likes of historical favorites like Peter Pan’s Flight and Big Thunder Mountain, at least as far as average waits are concerned. The 29-minute average, as seen ranked #11, also does a good job of separating the major priorities from the attractions that are faring pretty well at the moment. Things continue to change as Disney makes modifications to queues, ride vehicles, and seemingly loads every row on some rides arbitrarily. All of these things can have substantial impacts on wait times. That’s less of an issue at Magic Kingdom, where we haven’t seen a lot of modifications since the first few days of opening. We’ll see a lot more of it at Hollywood Studios in particular.
Still, if you average the waits for these attractions, you get nearly ten hours of standing up in line. Magic Kingdom is currently open for 13 hours, but it’s likely to go back to the 9am to 7pm hours that we saw prior to the busier spring break season. That’s also ten hours. The longer hours we’re currently seeing help spread crowds out a bit, but spending seven or eight hours standing in line on your feet, with most of the queues extending outdoors, uncovered, and occasionally through the likes of a closed Columbia Harbour House a la Peter Pan’s Flight can make for a cumbersome day even with an intelligent plan.
With two (or more) days at Magic Kingdom, you’ll likely want to focus on a few of the higher priority attractions early. Then move on to the moderate-to-low priority attractions in the afternoon, and see how far you can get with “anytime” attractions like Country Bear Jamboree and Enchanted Tiki Room by 1pm. They’re currently a lot less “anytime” with social-distancing measures in place blocking every other row and mandating three empty seats for every party of up to four guests in theaters. With one day, you may need to hone in on some priorities, or you’re going to find yourself waiting in the afternoon for quite a while. Bring a hat or sunscreen as most attraction queues start outside. A phone charger may also be a necessity.
Here’s one example of reduced capacity at “it’s a small world.” We’ve only got four people in that yellow boat coming in to unload. Previously, 12 or more people would fit. Those same 12 people are still waiting. Or, technically, a couple of boats back. But you get the idea.
Meanwhile, Disney can fill every pirate boat on Peter Pan’s Flight because of the distance between the vehicles and the high backs on the likes of the Jolly Roger. Wait times are largely a capacity game with demand obviously coming into play. If you keep the capacity at Peter Pan’s Flight around 900 guests per hour, but drop “it’s a small world” to a similar or lower number, you’re going to end up with similar wait times.
For years, people often wondered why Peter Pan’s Flight was “still so popular.” The reasons being that FastPass+ historically took up about 600 of those 900 possible seats, leaving only a couple hundred standby riders to board per hour. On the other hand, “it’s a small world” would traditionally move through more than twice that per hour. Hence, waits for small world were historically much lower than Pirates. You could argue that Peter Pan’s Flight is still more popular because people are willing to wait an hour for it, while passing by a 40-minute wait for “small world,” but that isn’t happening at the moment. People are willing to wait longer, on average, for “small world.”
We still have one major wrinkle in touring waiting in the wings, which is one reason why we haven’t been hitting the pavement as hard as usual. Disney has promised to open each theme park 30 minutes early to resort guests every day beginning on some undisclosed day. That will throw current itineraries off whether you’re staying on property or not. Ideally, resort guests arriving early would move through the headliners right as the second wave of off-site guests begin heading in, but that hasn’t historically been the case. Most people are headed straight for the Mine Train, though Splash Mountain and Space Mountain are also viable first choices. Heck, as things stand, visiting Pirates or Jungle Cruise early makes more sense than heading for Big Thunder or Peter Pan’s Flight.
Moving forward, at some point, we’ll see how much of an advantage that extra 30 minutes for on-site guests provides. My guess is that it will end up being the same 30-minute head start that everyone previously enjoyed, now advertised as an “on-site benefit.”
Logistically, it will be interesting to see what Disney does with social-distancing and the high number of off-site guests arriving early, particularly at a Park like Hollywood Studios, where there isn’t exactly gobs of space inside the entrance. They could pull them off to the side, or move them backstage, but it’s going to be a pretty lousy start to the day for thousands of people staying off-site who watch with frustration as thousands of other guests head inside and get in line before them just because they’re paying more to stay at the All-Stars than you are at the Waldorf. Ideally, Disney would have some way of covering this practice up. They have for years with Extra Magic Hours, but this is every Park every day, with a 30-minute arrival window instead of an hour. But the half-hour head start will be key, even if you’re a resort guest who arrives just a minute or two before thousands staying off-site are let go. You may not be in the ideal position of taking advantage of the full time, but you’ll still be in front of thousands of off-site guests now vying for their place at the end of the line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Space Mountain, and others.
Likely, those staying off-site will simply need to move the first couple of priority attractions to the end of the day and go about their business as though they arrived a half hour “late.” But we’ll still be looking at some complications and a lot of different scenarios.
When that 30-minute head start comes to fruition remains to be seen, but it will likely arrive when social-distancing measures are eased. That could be as early as late summer, since we haven’t seen the changes come over the busy spring break season.
You may have noticed that Splash Mountain is conspicuously missing from our conversation. I chose not to include it in our daily charts for two main reasons. One, it’s an attraction with one of the longest waits, so it can play a big role in the day’s overall average. And that average will be very different depending on downtime and weather. The weather is going to be heating up, so we won’t have to concern ourselves with the 5-minute averages we saw earlier in the year.
But we’re here, so we can take a look at a couple of Splash Mountain charts, some longer than others. Here’s the raw data:
We can see how much Splash would skew the day’s overall average in places. For example, the Splash’s average on January 13th was 8 minutes, compared to 72 minutes on January 1st. Of course, that also came with holiday crowds. But if you look at March 21st, the average is only 25 minutes, compared to 76 minutes on the 25th. You can largely chalk that up to weather, with the noontime temp on March 21st at 61 degrees. On March 25th, the high at noon was 90 degrees, pushing people towards the water ride given the temperature was 35 degrees higher.
Second, we’re still expecting the ride to go down for a considerable amount of time in the future for the “Prince and the Frog” overlay. Removing Splash, and its likely 60+ minute daily summer average, would make the Park “feel” less crowded by lowering the day’s overall average. So keeping Splash’s average in the mix would skew the data more than offer insight, and once it eventually goes offline, perhaps this winter, we’d see a big change in the Park’s overall average wait by eliminating some of those high and low numbers.
For a little more insight into what I’m talking about, here’s Splash’s average wait by month so far this year:
That’s a 57% increase in average waits from January to March, largely due to the daily temperature. That number will rise heading into the summer’s hotter temperatures and people looking to ride one last time before the transformation. March 25th’s 76-minute average is likely what you can expect from most of the summer. Most guests will either want to head straight there after Mine Train or make it one of their top priorities on their Frontierland/Adventureland day.
Just in case Splash’s increase this year is happening everywhere else too, we can compare average waits to “it’s a small world,” an indoor attrition that rarely goes down. I won’t paste the whole chart of wait times, but we can see on the graph that there’s much less of an increase from January to March:
Here at “small world,” we see a 26% increase from January to March, or less than half of the 57% increase at Splash. It makes sense that “small world’s” average would go up with January again proving to be relatively slow, while February and March pick up across the board. But the change in wait has much less to do with the weather or an announced overlay.
Just about finally, people are always concerned that they’re visiting the Parks when they’re less crowded. Currently, with nothing significant to drive crowds on certain days of the week outside of weekends and holidays, when local passholders push up attendance, we shouldn’t see a tremendous difference in average waits during most weekdays. Here’s the full look at the average daily/weekly wait since the Park reopened:
Wednesdays and Thursdays are typically the best days of the week to visit, as they have been for much of the last ten years. Saturdays continue seeing the highest averages. Waits on Fridays are actually the second-highest, followed by Monday and then Sunday. We’ve blamed longer Monday waits on the number of people who travel over the weekend and visit The Most Magical Place on Earth on their first full day. That phenomenon looks to continue. Sundays are slightly better as people pack up and head out. But if you’re looking for the lowest waits, a Wednesday or Thursday is typically best. That will be less true with junky weather on Monday and Tuesday as people hold off on visiting.
We’ll see some of that below as we take a look at just 2021 so far, also eliminating the first two days of the year, which would have been holiday holdovers:
You can basically add three or four minutes to the averages for each day and come away with 2021’s chart, which obviously doesn’t include those first eight weeks of nonexistent crowds and does include more than half of spring break. The difference between visiting on a Wednesday or a Saturday remains significant – the 7.3 minutes less you can expect to wait in line across 12 attractions on Wednesday is almost 90 minutes saved in line, but visiting on a Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Friday will all result in average waits that are within about two minutes of each other. That’s a little less significant.
And to complicate things further, and going back to weather, Wednesdays aren’t always the best day to visit. If you look at the week of March 7th, Wednesday’s average is higher than the following or preceding Friday, Saturday, or Sunday. During the week of February 28th, the difference in average waits between Tuesday and Wednesday is even more pronounced. The weather must have been real nice on Tuesday, and downright deplorable on Wednesday. But beyond weather, attraction downtime and other factors also come into play when it comes to overall average waits.
If you’re booking Park Passes in advance, then Wednesday and Thursday make the most sense. But if the weather is lousy on Monday and Tuesday, you’ll either need to be prepared for longer waits and heavier crowds on Wednesday, or switch things around and put on those ponchos to take advantage of shorter waits on nastier days. One other thing to keep in mind at Magic Kingdom is that a lot of attractions are outdoors and close for lightning in the area. So a bit of rain is usually okay, but you may find several outdoor favorites closed if lightning is in the area. It typically moves through quickly, but occasionally sticks around longer than either of us would like.
So what are our takeaways?
- Disney World is more crowded in 2021, with more Park Passes distributed and a general increase in demand. Still, there are “better” times to visit with lower waits, like much of January over March. January still saw lower waits and demand, in part due to newly-imposed quarantines and other restrictions on international travel that kept most of South America and Europe out. Those shorter waits materialized even with shorter operating hours and a reduction in entertainment.
- Once those travel restrictions are eased, we’ll likely see an increase in demand again. With Park Passes filling most days as it is, Disney will have to do something substantial to increase capacity if they want to meet at least part of that demand. Fast forward ten weeks or so and attendance may officially be raised from the current 35% maximum to 45% or higher. Disney would have to make some significant alterations to how they operate to let thousands more guests into the Parks each day, but we’ve already seen them add capacity at attractions without modifying vehicles and extending hours, so it’s possible.
- Presidents Day Weekend 2021 saw the highest waits so far, eclipsing Christmas 2020. That was in part due to Mad Tea Party’s refurbishment keeping the average a couple minutes higher, since the tea cup ride typically averages about 15 minutes.
- Wait times as they currently stand are about as long as they can get given current conditions. You may want to take a look at the chart from March 25th above and add five minutes to the waits for a better idea about what to expect from Easter.
- Wednesdays and Thursdays are typically the best days to visit Magic Kingdom, with some weather and attraction downtime caveats.
- Crowds and waits are somewhat returning to historical patterns, with spring break obviously giving more people an opportunity to travel versus much of January.
Looking towards the summer, it’s hard to say what crowds and wait times will look like. Disney hasn’t made the move to announce reopening dates for more hotels, which is a good indication that they don’t expect a boom in demand. Or, if there is a boom, they don’t have mechanisms to meet that demand at the theme parks even if more resorts are filled. Ideally, this will be the last summer without meet and greets, nighttime spectaculars, parades, etc. so it doesn’t make a tremendous amount of sense to fight the heat, face masks, prices, and lack of overall amenities.
The fact that they put off the opening for the Ratatouille ride to October 1st is a good indication that they don’t expect to need it to drive attendance there. Several restaurants, including Nine Dragons and Restaurant Marrakesh remain closed. Disney is likely honing in a major uptick come this fall, with the possibility that the summer will be on the softer side. If given the opportunity, I’d certainly wait a year, or at least until things normalized. But those $1,400 checks are burning a hole in a lot of people’s pockets. But things could be dire enough that the money is actually going to essentials that don’t include an early morning ride on the Mine Train.
We should have a better indication about what to expect for the next few months come the middle of April, after the Easter crowds have moved on.