Now or Normal? Disney World in 2021 v. 2022

When to visit Walt Disney World is a common question, but lately that question has shifted from top weeks to best years for a WDW vacation. Now, it’s whether to go in 2021 for the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary or wait until 2022 when things are back to normal?

Ironically, we first started covering this question ~5 years ago when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge was announced and Disney’s Hollywood Studios became a veritable construction zone. That, Toy Story Land, and other expansion finished, but a similarly large-scale project began at EPCOT, thus extending the question.

Then last year happened. The multi-month closure of Walt Disney World and subsequent reopening with divisive health safety protocol. With that came a dramatically reduced slate of shows, nighttime spectaculars, other entertainment, reduced restaurant lineup, scaled back menus, and temporary suspension of many offerings–like FastPass+ and the Disney Dining Plan–that many Walt Disney World fans have come to love. In so doing, the question about waiting to visit Walt Disney World shifted from a construction-centered one to a ‘temporary abnormal’ focused one…

Before we get started, I’ll share some personal “philosophy.” I’m vehemently opposed to postponing anything for something theoretically better down the road. Don’t let the romanticized notion of the perfect be the enemy of the good. Never do tomorrow what you can do today. And so on. For many of you, waiting is not much of an option anyway, as kids grow up quickly, and taking them to Walt Disney World sooner rather than later is the best course of action.

I’ve shared this sentiment in previous incarnations of these should you wait or visit now? posts. However, it should ring particularly true now after our collective experiences of the last year. Walt Disney World fans who were waiting for the “perfect” time last year after Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure would still be waiting in 2021…and possibly beyond.

There’s always something new on the horizon, or a reason/excuse to postpone a vacation. That was true in prior years, and is doubly true right now as potential Walt Disney World guests debate whether to wait for a mix of new stuff to open, things to return, and health safety rules to be relaxed.

This is not to say you should settle for a compromised Walt Disney World experience, especially one that is pretty close to the normal price. But I personally would not wait indefinitely on the “perfect vacation” because that’s an illusion that will always be out of reach. There’s a healthy middle ground. Maybe that entails visiting Walt Disney World this year, or maybe it means holding off until 2022. That’s what we’re here to help you decide.

Enough waxing poetic, let’s get down to the brass tacks of choosing a best time to visit. For the purposes of this post, our timeline is pretty much October 2021 and beyond. Not because the months between now and then are bad, but because that’s realistically the earliest, most significant “turning point.” Additionally, most people reading this today to determine when to plan a trip are likely looking at summer or beyond.

For those who are delaying trips right now, there are broadly two categories of reasons why: additions and omissions. Things that exist right now that you do not want, and things absent that you do want. Let’s start with the unwanted additions…

In the interest of disclosing my personal biases and perspective, I’m incredibly optimistic about the coming months and believe much of the current pessimism isn’t just wrong, but actively harmful. Moreover, I’ve been bullish in my predictions for Walt Disney World relaxing physical distancing and face mask rules for the last several months. Even last fall, my expectation was a rough holiday season before dramatic improvements in the late winter and spring. Public health experts have offered more gloomy commentary and opaque timelines stretching into 2022. Obviously, they are experts and I am not.

However, their focus is singular and mine is not. Physical distancing and attendance caps are Walt Disney World’s biggest impediment to profitability. Public tolerance of face masks, especially once vaccines are widely available, remains unknown. These are incredibly relevant considerations as to when Walt Disney World relaxes its rules, even if public health experts disagree on what society should do.

In a recent earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek implicitly conceded as much. Prior to this, the company had consistently and repeatedly stated its measures were dictated by health experts. During that call, Chapek said measures will be “determined by the rate of vaccination of the public.” He also said if vaccines are available to the general public per Dr. Fauci’s April timeline, Disney views that as a “game-changer.”

The significance here is that it’s a shift from subjective guidance to objective measures. The vaccination rate (or availability) is quantifiable, guidance from health experts is not. The latter is subject to goalpost moving, the former is not. Operating in Florida, Walt Disney World could literally go back to normal (more or less) tomorrow if the company so desired. In my view, Chapek’s statements offer insight into the company’s forward-looking expectations and projections for normalcy.

With that said, Chapek’s remarks also did not express any sort of immediacy. There wasn’t exactly an optimistic discussion about the remainder of this fiscal year (through September 2021). Instead, the company spoke of pent-up demand and looked toward the future. To that point, Chapek said: “Do we believe we’ll be in the same state of 6 foot social distancing and mask wearing in 2022? Absolutely not.”

What this means for late 2021 is unclear. In When Will Walt Disney World Stop Requiring Face Masks?, I predict a gradual relaxation of that rule. It’s possible Walt Disney World could loosen some of its policies (like Universal Orlando has already done) or transition from a rule to a recommendation. That could potentially occur by fall.

I’d put the likelihood of the current face mask rule remaining as-is come October 1, 2021 at under 50/50. With that said, I would not bet the farm on that prediction. It’s also a near-certainty that at least “some level” of these rules and protocol will remain into 2022.

If these measures are a non-starter for you, it’s wise to delay visiting Walt Disney World until next year–or at least be prepared to postpone your trip.

Face mask rules are the most talked-about and contentious aspect of the health rules, but the bigger impact on the guest experience is arguably driven by physical distancing and the resulting attendance limits (the former concerns safety, the latter concerns profitability–two different things, but for our purposes, they’re the same). That’s because those have a ripple effect on the substantive offerings in the parks.

In particular, these limits are why shows like Finding Nemo the Musical and Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular are on temporary hiatus. They’re the reason all nighttime spectaculars and parades have been suspended. Why Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, Christmas Party, Candlelight Processional and more were cancelled last year. And so on.

Walt Disney World has already announced that Festival of the Lion King will return in Summer 2021. Our expectation is that several other entertainment offerings will join it this summer and fall. We also expect modified Halloween and Christmas parties to return, albeit with a later start date (so no Halloween in August) and fewer event nights. Same goes for at least one nighttime spectacular by Fall 2021.

While physical distancing/health safety and attendance limits/profitability can be treated interchangeably, they also create something of a chicken and egg scenario. Walt Disney World may not want to restore entertainment with physical distancing in place because it’s not profitable to do so with reduced attendance levels. However, attendance won’t increase above a certain level without restoring more entertainment.

Further complicating things, the construction that we mostly expected to be finished by October 1, 2021 will now stretch into 2022 and beyond. Several new attractions were previously announced as “opening in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary” but now are delayed indefinitely–likely until Summer 2022 at the earliest. Of those projects, it’s likely that only Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Harmonious will debut by this fall.

Timelines for that plus what has debuted recently are covered in What’s New & What’s Next at Walt Disney World in 2021 & 2022. Some of this is nothing new–our separate Should You Skip EPCOT? post discusses visiting that park during this state of transition, which was always going to run through the 50th Anniversary. Now it’s just likely to continue into 2023 instead of 2022. Nevertheless, construction certainly still factors into the decision of whether to wait or not.

Rather than posing a question in the post title and not answering it, here are four very specific times when you should visit: mid-October 2021, early December 2021, early March 2022, and/or late September 2022. Obviously, these are not the only times we’d recommend visiting (to the contrary, we ourselves will make countless visits between those times), but those windows make a lot of sense and each will likely offer more than the visit before them.

Let’s briefly discuss the pros and cons of each timeframe…

Mid-October 2021 is more specifically the third full week of the month. Three weeks after what will presumably be the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary and one week after the Columbus Day holiday.

The upsides of this are missing the initial surge of guests for the celebration plus a reasonable degree of normalcy and offerings restored to the pre-closure Walt Disney World experience. The downsides are that there’s still a ton of uncertainty around the degree to which normalcy will return by then, and several high-profile attractions previously slated to debut by the start of the 50th Anniversary won’t yet be open.

Early December 2021 is the next recommendation. This is the first full week (or two) of the month, which is always a good time to visit (especially this year as Pop Warner moves to Universal Orlando).

Essentially, pros & cons are the same as mid-October 2021. It’s simply plus Christmas. We have a hard time imagining that much else will change between October and December–Walt Disney World will likely push for as much normalcy as possible ahead of October 1, leaving most remaining changes until 2022.

Epcot Flower & Garden Monorail Race

Next, early March 2022.

Now we’re starting to get into territory where the “optimum normalcy demanded” should be more comfortable. It’s possible rules will be dropped and more restored in January 2022, but we don’t view the calendar year as some important demarcation. That’s not Disney’s fiscal year and it’s the start of off-season. March 2022 leads into spring break, which leads to Easter, then summer.

Finally, mid-September 2022.

Same idea here with operational normalcy–but also new attractions and entertainment. Our expectation is that Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary will last 18-24 months, meaning the celebration will occur into 2023. As such, next summer or fall are around the halfway point when Disney might roll out new offerings to give the celebration a second wind. Expect TRON Lightcycle Power Run and/or Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind to open by then.

You might notice one word that’s conspicuously absent up until now is crowds. That’s because it’s literally impossible to predict how 2021 crowds will compare to 2022 crowds. There are too many unknowns, from attendance caps and physical distancing to pent-up demand or a delayed recession. No one can tell you with any degree of certainty how this March will compare to next September in terms of wait times and congestion.

However, what’s more realistic is picking best weeks within specific months–even more remote ones. This is because we know some variables that impact crowds–like holidays, school schedules, and seasonality–are likely to remain true even as larger trends change. All of that is already built into the recommendations above. Beyond generalizations like those, don’t bother with trying to “time crowds” in the next 2 years at Walt Disney World. It’s a fool’s errand.

Ultimately, which one of those timeframes is right for you is largely circumstantial. If you’re a first-timer, we’re hard pressed to recommend 2021 at all. If you’re a Walt Disney World regular who needs an escape for the sake of your own sanity, visiting before even mid-October 2021 might make a lot of sense. It all comes down to what you value and expect from your Walt Disney World vacation. Obviously, that won’t be the same for everyone.

While there are a lot of near-term unknowns, there’s also upside to visiting near the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Once we cut through all of the “temporary abnormal” and unknowns, there is cause for optimism: even with the EPCOT project ongoing, we’re towards the end of Walt Disney World’s largest-ever expansion cycle (that didn’t involve a brand-new theme park). For the last several years, many Walt Disney World vacation planners have been waiting, so it’s good to finally be in a position where most of the fruits of all this construction have already debuted or will soon.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

Your Thoughts

Do you agree or disagree with our recommendations for visiting Walt Disney World in late 2021 or 2022 years? Do you have a trip planned for mid-October 2021, early December 2021, early March 2022, and/or late September 2022? Are you looking forward to visiting once big additions, like TRON Lightcycle Run or Guardians of the Galaxy Cosmic Rewind, are open? Will you go for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary or wait until after that’s over in 2023? Any thoughts or predictions of your own to add? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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