Happy New Year! It’s officially 2024, but before we completely close the book on last year, we want to take a final look at the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, which earned the dubious distinction of being the #1 worst week at Walt Disney World.
This crowd report takes a look at the triple-digit wait times for the entire month of December, entirety of last year, and the last ~3 years to put into context just how bad the week leading up to NYE really was. While this is a fundamentally a recap, our goal is offering insight for those planning Christmas and New Year’s 2024 and 2025 trips to Walt Disney World.
It wasn’t just the week immediately after Thanksgiving that was blissfully uncrowded. That along with the first two weeks of December all ended up having low crowd levels, especially as compared to what followed. Average wait times across the entirety of Walt Disney World ranged from 29 to 34 minutes during that 3-week stretch. We’ll put that into context in just a minute, but suffice to say, those are exceptionally good crowd levels.
It was a similar story prior to that to end October and start November. Average wait times were 31 minutes for both the last week of October and first full week of November. After that came Veterans Day and Jersey Week, which saw a fairly significant spike and a 41 minute average. Then another lull, with another 31 minute average. Then Thanksgiving, with a 41 minute average.
It’s purely coincidental (and a little weird, frankly) that these weeks are all 31/41 minute averages. It’s not normal for the numbers to be that clean, for lack of a better term. Across the board, those weekly wait times are both below average by historical standards and lower than the pent-up demand period seen the last couple of years.
Normally Thanksgiving would see significantly higher crowd levels than Veterans Day, and the week before would be slightly busier. Our suspicion is that Thanksgiving falling earlier than normal might’ve resulted in crowd levels being lower than normal, but that’s just a guess. There are a lot of attendance anomalies in the last few years that defy explanation.
We’ve made this point before, but the key takeaway is that the holiday season is a roller coaster for crowds. Between the start of November and early January, there are no fewer than a half-dozen holidays and breaks that have huge impacts on crowd levels. Some of these are obvious–the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. Others, like Jersey Week, are decidedly less so.
The very good news is that in between those holidays, there are lulls in crowds. The breaks act as crowd magnets, of sorts, for Walt Disney World. People are less likely to take off of work or pull their kids out of school when a built-in break is just around the corner. This makes the downtime even more pronounced, with the exception of locals and diehard Disney fans who know about the better times and are able to visit during them. (That second part is key. A lot of people have the knowledge–far fewer can act upon it!)
That brings us to the last couple of weeks, which were unsurprisingly busy. The week leading up to Christmas had an average wait time of 45 minutes, making it busier than Thanksgiving or any week of the year since Easter. When you account for the exhaustion of pent-up demand and timing of Christmas Day, that’s about what we expected–maybe a tad lower.
Regardless, we’ve long anticipated that the week leading up to Christmas would be far less busy than the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. In part because that’s been the trend for several years. More significantly, because Christmas falling on a Monday–instead of later in the week–made it likely that holiday break crowds would be consolidated into the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.
Even with the benefit of seeing wait time data, trends throughout the year, and precedent from the prior year (when Christmas fell on a Sunday–so same idea), the wait time averages for Christmas week were slightly lower than I expected. Again, 45 minutes was the average–I would’ve guessed a number around 47-49 minutes, which is not an insignificant difference.
And this brings us to the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Everything above is aimed at serving two purposes, with the first being preserving a (somewhat) contemporaneous account of this holiday season’s crowd patterns for the sake of anyone planning a 2024 Christmas-time trip to Walt Disney World.
The second purpose is contextualizing just how bad–how much worse than expected–crowds were during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Some Walt Disney World fans are going to say that this is always the worst week of the year, so the outcome was “obvious.”
The first part of that is true–we predicted that week would be the worst of the year–the second part is not. There are varying degrees of bad and–if you looked at wait times data for the last few years and trends for 2023–it’s unlikely you would’ve predicted it would’ve been this bad.
Let’s dig into the data and look at Walt Disney World wait times. As always, all graphs and stats are courtesy of Thrill-Data.com:
The above graph is condensed and difficult to discern on a daily level, but the point is showing the entirety of 2022 and 2023 crowds on a single graph.
In case it’s not clear, the days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2023 (far right) surpassed the graph’s other peak, which is the same days in the prior year. That’s a big deal, especially when you look at the rest of the year. Even at a glance, you should be able to tell that 2023 was less busy on average than 2022.
That’s what the backside of pent-up demand looks like. We’ve been over this countless times and we’re not going to rehash it here, but even Disney executives have conceded that attendance and occupancy have been down, which they mostly attribute to the exhaustion of revenge travel to Florida and end of the 50th Anniversary. This trend has been fairly obvious post-Easter; spring break was really the last hurrah for pent-up demand.
While the year-over-year numbers should help demonstrate why we expected a very busy but not that busy week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve, the above graph of just December 2023 should showcase the difference over the course of the month.
Notably, many of the dates in the first half of the month have average wait times of less than half the 68-70 minute averages of the days leading up to New Year’s Eve. Christmas week was no slouch, but those wait times are downright moderate relative to the week that followed.
With the exception of the last two weeks, this is a pattern that plays out pretty consistently from year to year. The data doesn’t tell the whole story, to be sure, as Christmas brings congestion (higher “feels like” crowds) that aren’t always reflected in wait times. Conversely, there is (usually) more of an effort at crowd control during the peak week (and it helps that people are stuck in multi-hour standby lines), so congestion often is not as bad as expected. Still, the first half of the month is an infinitely better experience than the second half.
It’s amusing (I think) to look at how December 2023 compares with other months in the last two years. It goes down as tied for the #1 month of 2023, with January.
Despite the New Year’s crowds, it’s still not even close to December 2022. But then again, pretty much no month in 2023 was (aside from January). Again, the exhaustion of pent-up demand should be fairly evident in these numbers. January through April were down year-over-year, but still strong. After that, a pretty sharp drop-off.
Let’s take a quick look at each of the parks:
Magic Kingdom is actually pretty unremarkable.
It did see a solid stretch of very busy days, but there were actually several worse days in October, November and December. Even without cross-referencing the Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party schedule, I’m 100% sure all of those truly terrible crowds were non-party days nestled among several party dates.
EPCOT is…holy cow.
We had expected this holiday season to be busier at EPCOT, between the Disney100 celebration, end of construction (mostly), debut of Luminous, and for the simple fact that people love EPCOT’s Festival of the Holidays. Even with all of that, I wouldn’t have predicted this bad of wait times.
This is essentially a return to 2019 and earlier normal for EPCOT, which was always a bonkers time for the park. It’ll be interesting to see whether this momentum is sustained in 2024 once EPCOT is fully “finished.”
If you look at screenshots of the highest wait times at Walt Disney World last week, DHS dominated. Based on that, you might’ve drawn the informal conclusion that Disney’s Hollywood Studios was the worst park during the week leading up to New Year’s Eve.
The thing to keep in mind about Disney’s Hollywood Studios, though, is that it always has higher average wait times than the other parks at Walt Disney World. That’s due to its top heavy ride roster and insufficient number of “filler” rides (so not stage shows). This isn’t to say that NYE week was “good” or even “not bad” at DHS…it’s just that a lot of days and weeks are bad at DHS, so it’s not quite as stark.
Finally, there’s Animal Kingdom–the biggest yikes of all.
We’ve mentioned before that Animal Kingdom typically sees the biggest swings between low and high crowd levels. Once it reaches a certain tipping point, the lack of attractions is really felt and the park experience basically breaks, for lack of a better term.
You probably saw screenshots of 200 to 300+ minute wait times for Avatar Flight of Passage. Based on scattered reports from social media, those were actually accurate. That was not a record, either–both 2018 and 2019 saw higher numbers. And now you know why they built a bathroom in the middle of the queue!
In the end, December 28-30, 2023 all set new records for the worst day of the post-reopening period…that were broken by subsequent days. The averages on those days were 68 to 70 minutes, beating the 67 minute average of December 27, 2023 that was tied at the time for the busiest day of the post-reopening period (with December 29, 2022).
Not to point out the obvious, but these days were all 10+/10 crowd levels, and the worst average wait times since at least December 2019. That’s right–there wasn’t a single day in 2020, 2021, or 2022 that surpassed December 27-30, 2023. That’s the 4 busiest days in 4 years! Not just the worst 4-day stretch, either. Each of those individual dates were the busiest single days since 2019.
It’s arguably even bigger, or at least more surprising, when put into the context of otherwise decreasing crowds over the course of the last ~8 months. This is precisely why the colossal crowd levels of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2023 were not “obvious” as some fans might claim. That the week would see heavy crowds, sure. But that week outperformed expectations and trends.
For our part, we predicted peak season plus attendance, with crowd levels of 10+/10 during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Our expectation was that it would be the busiest week of the year, surpassing both Easter and the first week of January (busy due to winter break). All of those were easy predictions, so we don’t get a pat on the back for any of that.
While I didn’t commit to specific wait time averages, I will admit that I would not have bet on any of those days hitting a 70 minute average. Without the benefit of hindsight, I probably would’ve predicted a 62 minute peak. That’s still a 10+/10 crowd level, but it’s very different from a 70 minute average.
That 10+/10 crowd level not make complete sense, so let’s break that down a little. Currently, a 54 minute wait time is a 9/10 crowd level, whereas 55 minutes is enough to hit the 10/10 crowd level threshold. However, that 70 minute average is still a 10/10 crowd level, technically.
That’s a 15 minute spread–which is absolutely massive–but the exact same crowd level. Nowhere else on the scale (except, I guess, 1/10 since it could theoretically start at 0 minutes–but that never happens in practice) has that range. Usually a crowd level has a range of a few minutes before it moves up or down. Not 10/10. It can be 54 minutes, 67 minutes, 80 minutes, 330 minutes, etc. Hence the 10+/10 crowd level.
The salient point is that there are varying degrees of ‘bad’ crowds and that 10/10 isn’t a static level of awfulness. This is also why fans saying it was “obvious” that crowd levels would be 10/10 between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are missing the point. That it would hit 55 minutes was, indeed, obvious. But 70 minutes? There was absolutely nothing to signal that would happen–and that extra 15 minutes is huge. Something you can’t fully appreciate unless you’re there and experiencing those wait times.
Since we’re documenting this for the sake of planning for Christmas and New Year’s Eve 2024 and 2025, the big unanswered question is whether it’ll get better or worse. It would be stupid for me to make a highly confident prediction a full year or two out, and it’d be even dumber for you to listen to one after reading all of the above about how this year came as a surprise. So I’m not going to do that.
What I will do is point out a few variables. First of all, Christmas Day 2024 falls on a Wednesday, as does New Year’s Day 2025. In past normal years, whenever we’ve seen those holidays fall midweek (Wednesday-Thursday), crowds have been more evenly spread across the two. The week between the Christmas and New Year’s Eve is still busier, but there’s not as pronounced of a difference.
Even though a lot has changed during the intervening years, I think it’s probably safe to say that the fundamental nature of school and work breaks is still more or less the same. Meaning that Walt Disney World might see lower or higher crowd levels in 2024 as compared to 2019, the holiday season crowd patterns should look similar to then, when Christmas 2019 also fell on a Wednesday.
Another consideration is park reservations, or lack thereof. This holiday season was the last with them for regular guests; Christmas/New Year’s 2024 will also be like 2019 in that regard. While this Christmas-New Year’s week was a record-setter, that happened despite all days being at least yellow and several being totally unavailable for park reservations.
In other words, crowd levels could’ve been even worse absent reservations. It’s impossible to say how many people were turned away during the last week, but the number was not 0. For several parks and days, there was nothing over a week out. Although you all know to plan far in advance of that, many average visitors do not. Could the average have hit 72 minutes or more absent reservations? It’s certainly possible.
Phased closings operate in a similar manner, but they’re not the same. The parks running out of reservations means tickets aren’t even available for purchase; phased closings mean certain guests have to wait before the gates reopen–or they’re redirected to Animal Kingdom or EPCOT. The thresholds are also different for capacity closures versus reservations.
Beyond that, there are also unknowns about the broader economy, what Walt Disney World will do to celebrate Christmas 2024, the year’s marketing campaign, special offers, attraction openings and entertainment offerings, and so much more. Just a small sampling of specifics that could move the needle one way or the other:
Tiana’s Bayou Adventure opening in June/July rather than November/December
Free Dining being offered in November through the week before Christmas
Cinderella Castle Dream Lights returning
An ‘echo’ of pent-up demand (meaning that a lot of semi-frequent Walt Disney World fans visited in 2021-2022, skipped 2023, and return for 2024).
I’m not saying any of those things will happen–I have no clue–but any of them could occur, which would move the needle on crowd levels and wait time averages.
With all of that out of the way, there are a few predictions I am willing to make:
Even if you aren’t limited in travel dates, you still might want to consider Walt Disney World for New Year’s. We’ve spent almost every NYE in either Walt Disney World or Disneyland since 2011, but had to skip 2023 (new baby); we very much missed the experience and are ready to go back. Our circumstances are somewhat unique in that we don’t mind not doing many attractions. Even if you’re an infrequent visitor, there’s still something to be said for the excitement, spectacle and communal feeling of being there for New Year’s Eve. We cannot wait to do it again!
Whether New Year’s has days in 2024 with average wait times above 70 minutes…I honestly have no clue. If two time travelers showed up at my doorstep today and one claimed that the peak day was “only” a 60 minute average and the other told me it was an 80 minute average, I wouldn’t know who to believe. The first seems a bit too low; the latter a bit too high. But the point remains that a 20 minute swing is within the realm of possibility, and that both of those would be 10+/10 crowd levels. Happy New Year!
Were you at Walt Disney World for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve? What was your experience? If you’ve visited during the same week in the past, how did it compare? (Please specify whether your frame of reference is pre-closure or post-reopening.) Thoughts on our analysis for this week in 2023 or looking forward to 2024/2025? Do you agree or disagree with my assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!