When to visit Walt Disney World is a common question, but that has shifted from top weeks to best years for a vacation due to construction, cutbacks, pent-up demand, prices, and more. Among other things, this addresses whether you should visit in 2022 for the 50th Anniversary, or wait until 2023 when things are back to normal?
This became a big question back when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land turned Disney’s Hollywood Studios became a veritable construction zone. Then work wrapped up there, and the same process has repeated itself at Epcot, with the center of that park becoming a giant dirt pit. Most of this was expected to wrap up just in time for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, with a ton of new things debuting for the celebration and minimal construction remaining.
Then last year happened. Although Walt Disney World only closed for a few months and has been operational for over a year since, the impact is ongoing. Construction delays reverberate, and the parks are still seeing a dramatically reduced slate of shows, nighttime spectaculars, other entertainment, restaurant lineup, scaled back menus, reduced hours, and the suspension of the Disney Dining Plan—among other things. On top of that, the 50th Anniversary hasn’t offered much in the way of new things. Consequently, the question about waiting to visit Walt Disney World shifted from a construction-centered one to a normalcy focused one…
In typical times, we oppose postponing experiences for something theoretically better down the road. In life and with Disney theme parks, there’s this fantasy of a perfect tomorrow and imperfect today. Something better, newer, or bigger on the horizon that you should wait to see. That overlooks the costs of waiting, and also the downsides.
The last year probably has driven this point home on its own, especially as Americans have reweighed their priorities and placed renewed emphasis on experiences. Even beyond that, waiting on a Walt Disney World trip is not much of an option for many families; kids grow up quickly, and taking them sooner rather than later is the best course of action.
That’s still going to be true for many people reading this. The non-monetary cost of waiting is too high or there’s simply a strong desire to go now and not wait for some romanticized notion of a perfect trip that does not exist in reality.
However, that’s not going to be true for everyone. The unique wrinkle heading into 2022 is the idea of settling for a compromised Walt Disney World experience, but one that is priced higher than normal. This was a consideration this year and last year after the parks reopened, but the critical differences were that traveling virtually anywhere required compromises–not the case anymore–and Disney’s prices hadn’t spiked to the current degree.
When it comes to compromises, we’re not really referring to health safety protocol as was the case the last couple of years (although it is highly likely that Walt Disney World will be the only major theme park in Florida with a face mask rule heading into 2022). Physical distancing and all other measures are now things of the past, with limited exceptions. The need to make Disney Park Pass reservations still exists, but we wouldn’t be surprised if that system is retired for everyone but Annual Passholders sometime in 2022.
While face mask rules remain contentious, the bigger impact on the guest experience is the cuts.
Shows like Finding Nemo the Musical, Voyage of the Little Mermaid, Jedi Training Academy, Enchanted Tales with Belle, and Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire are on hiatus. Nighttime spectaculars are back at Epcot and Magic Kingdom, but Fantasmic and Star Wars: Galactic Spectacular are still absent from Hollywood Studios. Same goes for Festival of Fantasy Parade at Magic Kingdom.
Atmospheric entertainment is starting to return, with more performers now in World Showcase. However, a lot–too much to list throughout Walt Disney World–is still missing. Some of this has been announced as returning sometime in 2022, but no dates have been released. Our expectation is that most of it will come back at some point in 2022, but we would’ve said the exact same thing about entertainment this year.
There are several reasons so much still hasn’t returned to Walt Disney World, and it’s difficult to untangle them. Even as Florida saw travel surge, Disney has been slow to scale up–which has cost the company in park attendance and occupancy at its hotels. This has been largely due to staffing shortages, some of which impact entertainment and other substantive offerings.
In other situations, it’s more of a deliberate decision to maintain scaled back operations. As leadership has made clear in quarterly earnings reports, the company has been focused on increasing per guest spending, cutting costs, and improving margins. Entertainment is expensive, so it has been slower to return under Disney’s yield management strategy.
In the company’s “defense,” they’ve gotten more aggressive about addressing staffing woes. Said shortages no longer exist in some areas of Walt Disney World, or aren’t nearly as bad as they were over the summer when things were at their worst. In an attempt to attract certain positions (e.g. culinary roles, housekeeping, custodial, bus drivers, etc.) Walt Disney World is offering $1,500 hiring bonuses for those openings and $1,000 referral bonuses for current Cast Members.
However, many key roles remain unfilled despite Disney’s best efforts to remedy the issue. This necessitates capping attendance levels in the parks and occupancy levels at the resorts so as to not overwhelm staffing levels and available resources. Lower overall attendance and occupancy means lower margins as compared to 2019. It also means demand outstrips supply/capacity, even without restoring everything that has been cut. In other words, Disney is doing worse as a whole as compared to two years ago despite the higher costs and cuts, and that’s largely because of lower guest volume.
As far as a defense goes, that’s not really much of one. (Hence the air quotes above.) It explains the why of the problem, the degree to which Disney has made a good faith effort to resolve it, and the extent to which the company is “suffering” as a result. Basically, that it’s not exclusively a matter of greed–but rather, poor planning, resource allocation, and greater issues impacting the economy as a whole. (Plus some greed thrown in, for good measure.)
That’s probably of little solace to you as a consumer. The bottom line for most people planning vacations is paying more while getting less. It doesn’t matter if there are some “good” explanations for the phenomenon–the only thing that matters is that it’s happening. And at this point, the same scenario is not playing out with other theme parks or across the travel segment. It’s becoming a disproportionately Disney problem–you could go elsewhere and not face the same issues, at least not to this extent.
Now, you might reasonably respond: “my family doesn’t book Walt Disney World vacations on the basis of Voyage of the Little Mermaid.” No one does. You might not be “parade people” or care about ADR availability and so forth. Yet, those things impact everyone visiting Walt Disney World.
If Voyage of the Little Mermaid and other entertainment isn’t running, it’s not absorbing crowds that would otherwise be in line for Slinky Dog Dash or–everyone’s favorite–Alien Swirling Saucers. If restaurants aren’t filling every table, the guests who would be there are eating elsewhere. Certain experiences being unavailable or operating at reduced levels causes guest displacement. In other words, more crowding and longer lines elsewhere.
The question is thus when greater normalcy will return to Walt Disney World? When will resorts, restaurants, and the parks will be closer to 100%? When will most entertainment resume?
We’ve been down this path before, and our previous guesses would’ve been in the past. Again, some of this is beyond Walt Disney World’s control. Resorts and restaurants would already be at 100% if Disney could make it happen–they’re leaving money on the table at this point.
Part of the answer with regard to entertainment likely depends upon staffing, too. Some degree of problems persist there, and to the extent they don’t, it’s likely Walt Disney World is moving slower due to lower guest loads that can be accommodated in the resorts, restaurants, etc.
In other words, we cannot predict with any degree of certainty when some of this will be resolved. What we can do, to a degree at least, is forecast by when some of it will not be resolved.
Personally, I’d start by ruling out January or February 2022. Anything that doesn’t already have a specific date is unlikely to return in either of those months. On top of that, discounts are already out for those dates and there’s nothing for the general public. To the contrary, there are signs of the ongoing ‘sold out’ hotel situation being an ongoing problem through at least early 2022.
I think this winter “off-season” is going to catch a lot of Walt Disney World fans by surprise. Due to postponed trips, a return of international travel, resumption of runDisney and youth sporting events, and people remembering how low crowds were this year—for reasons unlikely to be replicated in 2022—there’s likely more demand this winter. From my perspective, the potential upside is too low and the downside risk of this winter being a repeat of early 2020 is too high.
When it comes to the aforementioned entertainment, it’s worth noting that it took Walt Disney World about 4 months from the time of announcement to the return of Festival of the Lion King. For Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, the turnaround time is going to be a little over 2 months. Both of those had specific dates or seasons attached when their return was announced. More to the point, rehearsals started roughly 2 months before shows resumed.
It’s reasonable to expect the same for virtually everything that Walt Disney World has already announced as returning in 2022. This means the “early 2022” timeframes for Festival of Fantasy and Mickey’s Magical Friendship Faire are probably late February to early March 2022 at the earliest. (It helps that those performers have almost certainly already been recalled and are now working entertainment during Disney Very Merriest After Hours.)
Things like Fantasmic and Finding Nemo: the Musical are much larger question marks. Both have been announced as returning in 2022, but don’t have seasons attached. Our suspicion is that the ‘reveals’ for both were to encourage fans to book trips, without Walt Disney World having to commit to specific dates–or even seasons.
If plans are expedited, either or both could return in March 2022. That would be just in time for the busy spring break season, and would make sense. However, there are no guarantees. Disney could just as easily push them until May 2022 for summer, or even later. We won’t really know until they’re given specific dates, or until rumors of rehearsals leak out ~2 months before both resume.
At this point, our suggestion would be to take a wait and see approach to your next Walt Disney World vacation, with March 2022 likely being the earliest that we’d recommend visiting. In all likelihood, late April or early May 2022 are more realistic timeframes.
This isn’t to say you should hold off booking if you’re already 100% sure you want to visit. To the contrary, given how the last year has played out, we’d book right now. Make flexible or refundable reservations if you’re still on the fence, but at least get something locked-in. This is a good hedge, as there’s always the possibility that prices will continue to increase, and shortages of rental cars, hotel availability, etc. will persist.
Rather than posing a question in the post title and not answering it, here are four times we’d target for visits next year: late March 2022, late May 2022, September 2022, or early December 2022. 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 sense and each will likely offer more than the visit before them.
Let’s briefly discuss the pros and cons of each timeframe…
First, late March 2022.
Mardi Gras is the first week of the month and Central Florida schools have their spring breaks the third week of the month. Normally, we’d recommend going between the two to minimize crowd issues, but we’d push that towards the end of March 2022 to increase chances of more entertainment and restaurants/resorts closer to 100%, which might mean more discounts. Based on the lethargic pace of everything in the last year, this seems overzealous. If you’re visiting for or before Spring Break 2022, you might want to keep your expectations for normalcy in check.
Next, late May 2022.
Even with Memorial Day weekend factored into the mix, crowds are typically below average in May. On top of that, the end of May 2022 will be the kickoff to summer season, which hopefully means Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, all nighttime spectaculars, and other entertainment ready to roll. The biggest wildcard here is Cosmic Rewind–until an official date is announced, booking this early is a gamble. However, normalcy being largely restored does seem like a fairly realistic expectation for late May 2022.
September 2022 is a safe bet for being a good time to plan a trip.
While crowd levels during other off-season times have fluctuated, September has remained reliably slow over the last several years. That’s unlikely to change. On top of that, whatever returns in time for summer will still be around and the likelihood for discounts is highest in the fall. (If deals don’t appear in September, they’re not happening at all in 2022.)
Early December 2022 is our final recommendation. This is the first full week (or two) of the month, which is always a good time to visit. It’s busier in absolute attendance numbers than September–and by a significant margin–but the addition of Christmas and nicer weather makes it a qualitatively superior time to visit. The other possibility here is that TRON Lightcycle Run will open in time for Christmas 2022.
We have a hard time imagining that much else will change between September and December 2022. Whatever is back by one will be back by both, and whatever isn’t probably won’t ever return. It’ll have been 2.5 years since the parks reopened at that point. However, it’s worth noting that we said the exact same thing about this year. Disney’s slow roll coupled with shortages and economic disruptions are not things many saw coming–so who knows what’s next.
One thing we would not book based upon is Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, which runs until April 2023. Unfortunately, the “celebration” is mostly in name and is more about marketing than anything else. Unless there’s a big ‘second push’ to the festivities, you aren’t really missing much by waiting out the 50th Anniversary.
It’s unclear whether Disney Enchantment–the new Magic Kingdom fireworks–will run beyond the World’s Most Magical Celebration, but that’s a gamble you can afford to take given that show’s quality as compared to its predecessors. The other two major additions are Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Harmonious at Epcot, and they’ll be around for years to come.
To the contrary, a strong case could be made for booking towards the end of the 50th Anniversary or after it’s over. Since it’s mostly a matter of marketing, you won’t be missing out on anything substantive and the impact of that advertising campaign playing itself out could mean lower demand.
Ultimately, which one of those time frames is right for you is largely circumstantial. If you’re a first-timer, we’re hard pressed to recommend the first half of 2022 at all. There are still too many unknowns and Walt Disney World’s recent track record with taking its time in restoring the guest experience does not instill confidence.
If you’re a Walt Disney World regular who doesn’t mind a few compromises, visiting in the first half of the year might make more sense. However, there’s still the issue of pricing (no discounts) and residual pent-up demand. If the latter remains high and Disney is still having trouble getting restaurants or resorts back to 100%, you’re going to overpay for a lesser experience. At that point, it comes down to what you value and expect from your Walt Disney World vacation. Obviously, that won’t be the same for everyone.
Then there’s the second half of 2022 and into early 2023. We would hope that by then, the current woes are long since in the rearview mirror, everything long ago normalized, and prices have abated due to the supply-demand imbalance tipping back in the other direction. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of that will happen, either. For the last decade-plus, Walt Disney World prices have only trended upward, and that might be the case even with the return of discounts and more room inventory.
If we were planning a trip at this point and could only target one set of dates, it would be September or December 2022. We’d roll the dice on those dates before 2023, as it’s likely that all or most issues will work themselves out by then, pent-up demand will have run its course, and discounts will be back. As for 2023, that’ll likely bring with it more price increases, not much more normalcy, and also not much in the way of new additions.
Do you agree or disagree with our recommendations for visiting Walt Disney World in 2022 v. 2023? Do you have a trip planned for late March 2022, late May 2022, September 2022, or early December 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!