We’ve been interested in keeping tabs on how and when Walt Disney World increases and decreases the capacities of its various attractions since the theme parks reopened in July. The majority of our touring strategy relies on identifying which rides build waits fastest. We visit them first whenever we’re able to arrive early enough to take advantage of those shorter waits. Then, we pinpoint the next set of rides where waits will begin to rise, and ideally arrive at those attractions just before appreciable waits materialize at each. That way, we’ve minimized waits as much as possible without starting the day at Alien Swirling Saucers.
Attraction waits are largely dependent on capacity, or how many people can ride per hour. If Disney increases capacity at some attractions, and not others, then our priorities and how we move about our day will likely change, as waits drop at the attractions with the new, heftier capacities, and either stay the same or rise at attractions where capacity remains unwavering. “Popularity” also enters the equation, as people inevitably rush to the newest attractions, those that they’ve seen or heard have high waits, or (most commonly) where most other people are heading first.
Disney has made a number of moves over the last six weeks, and particularly during the last three, to increase capacity at certain attractions. Propensity to travel to Walt Disney World will (ideally?) increase heading into the new year, and Disney will want to be ready to meet that demand as best they can. Or, they can at least rationalize selling more tickets and open up more Park Pass spots with additional seats now available on the likes of Slinky Dog Dash, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.
This post will primarily focus on what’s going on at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, as it remains the trickiest Park to tour with the short hours, limited number of attractions, and the whole Rise of the Resistance boarding group thing. Since there will be more words and charts than either of us would like in this post already, we’ll take a closer look at the other Parks as we go about fresh touring days there, but I’ll bring up a couple examples at the end to show how much of an impact simply filling every row on a boat ride can have on wait times.
One of the best examples of Disney increasing capacity via vehicle modification is Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Disney installed plastic barriers and started loading every row in each train back on November 17th, 2020. By filling every row, instead of about half on each train, you’ve effectively doubled the number of people who can ride per hour.
Not all of our charts will be this long, but we can clearly see how much shorter wait times became starting on November 17th:
The chart is color-coded, so average waits for the day of 60 minutes and below are in green, 61 to 75 minutes should be in yellow, and anything above that is red. Waits dropped about 30 minutes overnight, from the 16th to the 17th, and we haven’t seen an average wait for the day above 60 minutes since Disney increased the capacity in November. Prior to the plastic installation, the average was above 60 minutes every single day.
Below is the same data presented in a different way. What is basically the first half of the chart shows the daily averages before the plastic, and then then second half shows how much waits decreased once Disney filled more rows:
We can pretty easily visualize how much shorter waits have been at the Railway from November 17th onward.
And finally, here’s one more chart with just two columns showing the overall average wait before and after the capacity change:
That’s a 36-minute drop in the average wait, or a 45% change, from November 17th through the end of 2020. So even factoring in some of the heaviest crowds of the year over the last week or so, we still see significantly shorter waits. It makes sense given the fact that capacity has basically doubled, but it’s also important that we’re able to identify that fact and make touring strategy changes based on it.
Obviously, one question is whether waits at Disney’s Hollywood Studios are dropping across the board, somewhat independently of any fresh capacity increases at any single attraction. Waits could be down about a half hour over the last six weeks everywhere for all we know.
Fortunately, Disney never really modified the loading procedures for Toy Story Mania.
From day one back in July, Disney loaded every row of every vehicle, even when the people on the two sides were from different parties. The ride’s hourly capacity hasn’t changed in the ~5.5 months since the Park reopened, barring technical trouble. This should offer a pretty good baseline for how the Studios’ waits have evolved over the last few months, and the ride’s waits are just about as close to a “control” as we’re going to find for our ongoing analysis. If waits at Toy Story Mania drop in tandem with the other attractions, then we can probably blame a lack of demand on the falling waits rather than potential capacity increases.
Here’s a look at posted waits at Toy Story Mania for the same dates as the Railway:
We could probably do some color-coding based on standard deviations, correlation coefficients, or something else fancy-sounding, but we’d be liable to come away with exactly the wrong conclusions. Instead, we’ll take a look at the same two charts that we used for the Runaway Railway to see if waits dropped in tandem with Disney’s newest ride beginning in the middle of July:
The overall average wait at Toy Story Mania is a pretty consistent ~28 minutes, with some peaks here and there largely due to track downtime reducing the ride’s capacity for a couple of hours on some dates. The last week has seen some higher waits with Disney potentially increasing the number of Park Passes at the same time they’re increasing attraction capacities, but we certainly don’t see the same mid-November drop that we experienced at the Railway. That makes sense since the Toy Story attraction saw no change in capacity and there’s no evidence that the Studios is having any difficulty continuing to sell out of Park Passes.
Below is a two-column chart showing the average wait at Toy Story Mania before and after Disney made the change at Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway:
Even with the majority of the major holidays occurring after the capacity increase at the Railway in November, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, posted waits are basically stagnant, and actually dropped in the final six weeks of the year. All of those later dates would be after the Railway capacity increase.
Let’s take a look at Slinky Dog Dash, which just recently began filling every row on each Slinky, despite no vehicle modifications.
We saw Disney install the plastic barriers in the loading area a couple of months ago, which “felt” like an indication that some sort of modification to the poor Slinky vehicles was in the works. My darkest days may have been when they removed the poor guy’s swirly tail, lest it fly off and knock the Totchos out of some poor tourist’s hands who already couldn’t find a table to sit down at after ordering from one of the two registers at Woody’s Lunch Box.
I guess since we started with long charts, we’ll stick to them. Here’s Slinky since October 1st, 2020:
More recently, Disney began increasing the capacities of other attractions by filling every row, even if no changes to the vehicle were made. Slinky started “practicing” loading the entire dog on the 10th, and went full tilt on the 11th. Between Disney’s Hollywood Studios reopening on July 15th, and the day before Disney made the capacity change, Slinky’s average for the day was under 60 minutes just seven times in about 90 days, or about 7.7% of time. Between December 9th and 30th, the average wait was under 60 minutes 13 times, or on 59% of days. That means the average was under an hour 600% more often. Those later December dates obviously include Christmas Week, when the Park would be a sellout every day, even if Disney allotted more Park Passes and sold more tickets.
Here’s the wavy chart for before and after the capacity change:
The drop isn’t nearly as significant as what we saw at the Runaway Railway for a few reasons. Obviously, most of the dates where Slinky saw the capacity increase were among the most in-demand of the year. Disney has also replenished Park Passes more often throughout December, meaning there were more people in the Park already to fill those newly-available seats. Disney didn’t increase the distribution of Park Passes quite as quickly after the Railway modification.
Ultimately, Disney’s goal is likely to increase the number of tickets they sell each day, and the number of Park Passes they allot, to bring the waits back up to their previous highs. We’ll see how often that occurs now that we’re headed into a a slightly less-crowded period.
For the sake of continuity, here are the two columns for Slinky showing the average wait before and after the capacity increase:
Of course, the goofy thing about “statistics” is that we can manipulate the data to further just about any narrative we want, without doing anything inherently unscrupulous. Transparency is one reason why I offer the raw data for the two of you who will actually look over the long wait time charts. Here, I’ve simply started the y-axis at 54 minutes. The “After” wait looks like it’s dropped by more than half at first glance, even if the drop is really about nine minutes, or less than ten-percent.
Here’s the exact same information with the y-axis starting at zero:
The decrease in wait times is still there, but it “feels” a lot less pronounced than the previous chart, because it is. Nonetheless, we do see a drop in waits, even if most of the “After” dates are from the busy holiday season.
Moving forward, it will be interesting to see how often we hit those higher “Before” averages. Based on the fact that waits haven’t really “recovered” at Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway yet, Disney has at least shown some restraint in how many people they’re allowing in at the moment. If it was thousands more, we would see Railway waits climb back to 60, 70, and eventually 80+ minutes.
Moving on to Sunset Boulevard, Disney continues to try to increase capacity at Tower of Terror, without a whole lot of luck. There is only so much you can do with a spooky elevator tower. But with Disney filling every row on most roller coasters, even without modifications to the ride vehicles, it’s possible that what they’ve deemed “safe” has laxed quite a bit since August or September.
Here’s the long Tower of Terror chart:
And the accompanying graph:
We certainly aren’t seeing a drop in wait times here, no pun intended. If anything, it looks like they’ve really only gone up since the end of November. We haven’t seen any meaningful increase in capacity here.
Tower of Terror is obviously indoors, compared to most of the other roller coasters that are largely outdoors. I may not need to point this out, but I am not a virologist. If people wear their masks appropriately, even being indoors together like this in relatively close quarters, it may be “safe.” On the other hand, the speed of the drops on these sorts of thrill rides naturally pull a lot of masks down due to speed and that pesky gravitational pull. I’ve struggled to keep my mask up during a number of the faster drops – Expedition Everest and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster come to mind.
But if Disney elects not to increase the capacity at Tower by filling every row, or can’t find a viable solution to fill the middle row that makes people “feel” safe, increasing attendance could have a major impact on attractions where capacity isn’t increased in tandem. Tower of Terror could very well be the ride with the highest average wait moving forward. Time will tell.
Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster is another ride where Disney recently began filling every row. It’s also the attraction where that fact makes me the most wary. It’s indoors, people’s masks have a tendency to fall down, and you’re only a few inches from the group in front of you.
Officially, according to the CDC:
COVID-19 is primarily transmitted from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. These droplets are released when someone with COVID-19 sneezes, coughs, or talks. Infectious droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.
Disney’s somewhat official reply is that the backs of the seats on these roller coasters are high enough to decrease the opportunity for that transmission. But beyond the obvious screamers in front of you, and the many droplets that come with that, you’d have to think that there are a lot of unsavory particles in that room. As far as the vehicles are concerned, nothing has changed since the Park reopened in July. Disney may be tapping into people being tired of the whole thing. A lot of people would rather wait 30 minutes than 60 minutes and take their chances over the course of the 89-second ride. “COVID on a roller coaster” isn’t a major departure from the original lyric.
Here’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster in a long graph:
It looks like Disney began filling every row on Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster on the 9th of December, which is right around the same date as Slinky Dog. Prior to December 9th, the day’s average was under 40 minutes just three times. After December 9th, we saw the daily average fall below 40 minutes seven times, or more than twice as often in a much shorter span with many busier days.
Here’s a look at the two-column chart for before and after the capacity change:
Since December 20th, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster only posted an average daily wait above 52 minutes twice, and both days the average was that high due to significant downtime. Prior to the December 9th capacity increase, the day’s average was above 52 minutes on 29 occasions. That’s a lot more and includes a lot less-crowded days.
You would expect the period from December 24th to December 31st to see the highest waits of the year. Here’s Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster during that time period. It may not be the best example with the downtime on the 30th and 31st, but we’re here, so it’s the example we’re using:
The average on the 30th is due to the fact that the ride only operated for an hour. Technical trouble continued into December 31st. And the ride has actually been down in its entirety for the last three days.
Nonetheless, Christmas week waits pale in comparison to what we saw in October, where the average every day was above 50 minutes:
Such is life when you’re basically running the ride at half-capacity.
As we assess wait times, it’s impossible to have a true “control” given so many different things can go wrong with attractions, affecting their wait times. Nonetheless, Disney has seated every alien at Swirling Saucers since the Park reopened, meaning the intended capacity hasn’t changed since July. We can see if there was a drop in waits from mid-December through the end of the month there:
And the answer looks to be no. Below, I’ve created a chart showing the average wait for Saucers before and after the capacity increase at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster:
So with no change in capacity at Saucers, the wait went up 15% at Saucers, at the same time it went down 15% at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster.
Here’s a different look at the Tower of Terror chart, with the date where we suspect Disney increased capacity at Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster and Slinky Dog around December 10th shooting up in red:
As we can see, waits continue to climb there for the most part. Most of the spikes earlier in the year are due to downtime, whether just one elevator is operating or the whole thing is down for an hour or two.
— WDW News Today (@WDWNT) December 23, 2020
I didn’t think it was possible to modify the cockpits at Smugglers Run to load more than one group in each, but apparently Disney has installed plastic there, too. You’ll spend about five minutes pressing buttons in the Falcon. Currently, at least the test cockpit looks to be configured so parties of up to four are able to occupy the two pilot and gunner seats, while groups of up to two are relegated to the engineer role in the back. Previously, a party of anywhere from one lonely blogger to up to six bloggers who all actually hate each other would have occupied the same cockpit, so the ride’s capacity would have been anywhere from about 17% to up to 100% based on each individual party size.
I don’t think too many cockpits are yet outfitted with the new layout/plastic barriers, so if Disney moves forward with it, it could be a few weeks until we see a demonstrable change in waits. Here’s a look at December, anyway:
And if we can verify that at least some of the cockpits were retrofitted with the plastic as early as the 23rd, we can take a look at our two columns of averages before and after that date:
So we’re not seeing much of a change there quite yet. It may be several weeks as Disney sees how things go and ultimately decides if they want to outfit every cockpit using the new configuration or not.
But at least as far as the Studios is concerned, we’re seeing some major changes in capacities at certain attractions, effectively doubling the capacity at the following:
- Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance: From mid- to late-October
- Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway – From the middle of November
- Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster: From the middle of December
- Slinky Dog Dash: From the middle of December
- Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run: Tests began in late December
These rides remain operating at limited capacities:
- Star Tours
- Tower of Terror
These rides have operated at basically full capacity from the start:
- Alien Swirling Saucers
- Toy Story Mania
We’ll see if more changes come to Star Tours and Tower of Terror.
And then there’s a few shows where we still see three empty seats left open for up to four guests to sit per section:
- Lightning McQueen’s Racing Academy
- Muppet*Vision 3D
- Vacation Fun – An Original Animated Short with Mickey & Minnie
- Walt Disney Presents
- Frozen Sing-Along
So we’re still in “wait and see mode” as the holidays don’t historically offer much insight into “normal” crowds. That’s different this year with the Park Pass system limiting the number of guests who can visit on any given day. One assumption could be that Disney filled every row around the holidays to help meet higher demand, but it seems unlikely that they would go back to selling fewer tickets if the demand is there and people are comfortable enough with the situation.
We’ll continue to monitor what Disney is up to and reassess our touring strategy as necessary.
Of course, there is now a new wrinkle with the potential to Park Hop after 2pm, which will have some effect on wait times as new guests arrive in the afternoon. We’ll have to give that a few weeks to see if the number of people leaving the Parks to visit another basically makes it a wash, or if people are flooding into the Studios after not being able to reserve a Park Pass there originally. If Disney keeps Epcot open until 9pm most days moving forward, I’d expect to see people headed in that direction as well.
This post already has more graphs and charts than I’d like, but the increase in capacity by filling every row isn’t relegated to the Studios:
— WDW News Today (@WDWNT) December 31, 2020
If you’ve read one of these posts about wait times over the last ~six months, you’ve probably seen me mention that “it’s a small world” and Pirates of the Caribbean have seen longer average waits than Peter Pan’s Flight since the Parks reopened. That’s another example of where Disney continued to fill every pirate ship on Peter Pan, while only filling about half the rows on the water rides.
If we see these barriers installed on boat attractions across property, and every row can be filled on Pirates or small world, then that may be good news from a wait time standpoint as the attraction capacity is now doubled. But I think we can be pretty sure that Disney is looking to sell more tickets, as they’re already discounting heavily to local Floridians for inexpensive theme park tickets good for the next few months. So two rows may open up, but there are going to be more people there to fill them.
As promised, these changes in capacity are not relegated to the Studios. Frozen Ever After at Epcot recently began filling every row. Here’s that chart from October on:
It’s pretty clear when Disney introduced the boats with the barriers, as waits dropped by over half from December 17th to December 18th. Over Christmas, we even saw average waits in the low 20 minutes.
Here’s the two-column breakdown of before and after the capacity increase:
As you would expect, doubling the capacity on what is now getting to be an attraction that a lot of people have experienced had a major impact on wait times. The average went from over 71 minutes to under 40 minutes basically overnight. That’s a drop of 47% and most of those post-barrier waits were around the holidays, when crowds would be elevated.
Just to make sure that there was no sudden drop in interest at Epcot, we’ll take a look at Soarin’, where no major modifications to capacity have taken place in the last few months:
That’s the last long chart. But if you’ve visited in the last few months, you may find some interest in seeing how your visit lined up with other dates. Or it might just be a lot of scrolling.
Here’s the two column-chart for Soarin’ average both before and after the Frozen capacity increase:
So while Frozen’s waits almost dropped in half with the capacity increase, waits at Soarin’ rose over ten minutes, or more than 30% over the same time period. So we can pretty definitively say that the drop in waits at attractions that now see higher capacities aren’t due to a sudden drop in holiday crowds or interest.
So what does it all mean?
We’ll need to make some changes to our approach based on the changing wait times and capacities. For several months, we prioritized the Runaway Railway first because its average wait was the highest at the Park. Since that is no longer the case, we’ll need to make some adjustments. Smugglers Run was looking to be the new highest-priority, but if they increase capacity there, as ugly and disorienting as the plastic around the seats might be, then we’ll need to reconsider that as well.
The other thing is that Disney is not going to keep the attendance caps/Park Pass allotment the same as early November levels moving forward. That will end up changing wait times again as attendance rises. If they aren’t able to figure anything out to increase capacity at Tower of Terror – where the ride typically plummets with about seven out of ten seats empty, we’ll need to devise a plan where we either start or end the day there, even if that’s a far cry from how we’ve historically toured.
Last month, we waited here, closer to the entrance to Fantasmic than the Twilight Zone, for Tower of Terror at 5pm, at the same time the Railway’s actual wait would have been under a half hour. We would have been better off switching the two, beginning with Tower and waiting less for the Railway here. But there’s only so much you can foresee on the first or second day of a major change like that.
It also remains to be seen what kinds of complaints Disney receives over the new procedures, and if it’s cause enough to go back to the way things were at some attractions. Holiday demand was higher, and we saw longer hours to also help boost attendance, but it doesn’t take a lot of people to fill the Studios’ Park Pass allotment with its limited overall capacity, even on a random Tuesday in January.
We’ll continue to monitor wait times, and see what sorts of bends and weaves we need to make to stay ahead of the crowds and also visit the attractions when waits are lower, even if the strategies end up being a lot different than how we would have gone about our day back in 2019.