“Are Walt Disney World crowds going to increase in 2021?” and “will wait times be worse this year?” are common questions among WDW trip planners. Many readers are asking whether there’s going to be rising crowds this winter or a surge of pent-up demand for Spring 2021.
These questions make sense, as we wrote an entire post about Revenge Travel in 2021 at Walt Disney World months ago, before attendance levels started rising. We’ve also returned to the topic a few times, offering further insight and predictions about what would happen with crowd levels once things started going back to normal.
While we have a lot of thoughts on this topic, we’ll start with the necessary caveats. First, this is an incredibly fluid situation with circumstances changing on a weekly basis. Everything happening right now has a ripple effect on Walt Disney World, and there are a ton of unknowns that make it literally impossible to predict travel volume and when Walt Disney World can resume operational normalcy. Those variables have big impacts on crowds.
Second, we made some bold predictions about post-reopening crowd levels at Walt Disney World before the parks resumed operations last summer, and if we’re being honest, our track record was not great. In fairness to ourselves, we also forecast the lowest attendance levels since the months post-9/11 and that did turn out to be true.
However, that doesn’t even begin to tell the full story of Walt Disney World crowds in the second half of last year. The problem is that low attendance (and super low hotel occupancy) did not always translate to low crowds or wait times. In fact, some weeks in the fall had higher “feels like” crowd levels than their counterparts during normal years. (The perception of crowds and wait times was further exacerbated by the lack of FastPass.)
We’ll delve deeper into that later in the post. For now, let’s start with a brief recap of post-reopening at Walt Disney World, which serves as the basis for our predictions, as well as the reader trepidation about 2021 crowd levels…
The above graph, courtesy of Thrill-Data.com, tells a fairly straightforward story of wait times increasing every month of last year from September through December.
To some degree, this gave rise to concerns that crowds will keep increasing at Walt Disney World in January 2021, February 2021, and so on. Basically, it’ll be a nonstop climb. Those fears are somewhat understandable, at least, until we look at monthly attendance trends from the previous year:
As you can see, wait times follow more or less the same trend. If you go back several years, you’ll see the same thing–monthly crowd levels increasing from September until the end of the year.
If you were to do a deeper dive into the numbers, you’d see familiar patterns. Spikes during the holidays and school breaks and off-season lulls. There were some unique wrinkles due to the cancellation of special events and a disproportionate number of Floridians in the parks, but the general “crowd contours” were consistent with prior years from September through December.
The main difference is that guests were more acutely aware (and apprehensive of) crowd levels given the circumstances, and that lengthy lines were plainly visible due to physical distancing. When it comes to the actual data, wait times were lower than in previous years. Anecdotally, we also found wait times to be far more inflated than in normal years, so it’s likely actual waits were down by a noticeable amount.
The months that ended up being anomalies were July and August, which were veritable ghost towns as compared to the fall and early winter. While many fans and commentators feared pent-up demand early on, those predictions did not come to pass.
With the benefit of hindsight, we’d largely attribute the summer lows to a few things. First, there’s always a lag between people booking trips and traveling, so most tourists were not prepared to visit in July or August. Second, many more wanted to take a “wait and see” approach with the health safety protocol, crowds, and Florida’s surging case numbers (the highest in the nation at the time). By the time many people saw things running smoothly and the parks uncrowded, they were booking for October through December.
Finally and most significantly, the Disney Park Pass system was not working smoothly, meaning a ton of capacity went to “waste” due to poor allocation among the theme park ticket holders, resort guests, and Annual Passholders. There were several consecutive weeks when all parks were totally unavailable to APs, but a sea of green for the other categories (July is only part yellow in the screenshot above because EPCOT and DHS weren’t open yet). That was fixed by September, and it’s no coincidence that attendance picked up at that time.
The woes of the Disney Park Pass system now seem like a distant memory, but they were a big source of consternation at the time, and threw a monkey wrench into a lot of planning, predicting, and assessing crowd levels. The parks were incredibly quiet and downright deserted some days those first couple of months, but that was not due to lack of demand–many locals were simply shut out of reservations.
Most Walt Disney World crowd forecasts, including ours, did not take those Park Pass problems into account when projecting attendance for the fall and holidays. However, that was not the only thing we missed.
The other big thing was that Walt Disney World increased its self-imposed capacity cap. Prior to the holiday season, CEO Bob Chapek announced that Walt Disney World increased capacity from 25% to 35% while still adhering to health guidance based on industrial engineering estimates. Data from fully booked days over the course of the previous few months suggested to us that there were gradual increases in October through November.
Walt Disney World attributed this increase to efficiency gains such as increased ride capacity, which allowed park operators to increase attendance levels while staying within CDC guidelines. This increase to the capacity of the parks while still observing physical distancing was predicated mostly on two things: added queue markers and more more physical dividers on popular attractions like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Frozen Ever After, and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway to increase hourly rider numbers.
The latter was an actual efficiency improvement whereas the former was only a theoretical one. Without getting too “in the weeds” on this, the problem with the increase in capacity is that industrial engineering estimates assume optimal space utilization, and that simply does not happen. During November and December visits, we found areas with a surplus of empty space in the parks along with heavily congested areas. (This topic is tackled in greater depth in our Magic Kingdom Crowd Report: Fully Booked, 35% Capacity Day.)
This has been a fairly longwinded recap on post-reopening crowds at Walt Disney World, but it’s somewhat necessary to provide proper context to attendance trends and their causes. Since this is impossible to predict with a high or even moderate degree of certainty, we feel it necessary and appropriate to “show our work” based upon what’s already happened.
Predicting that crowds would increase from September to December of last year was easy. We got that right, even if we missed some of the particulars. Looking forward to January through April 2021–and beyond–is significantly more difficult.
If we add January and February of last year to our second graph, we see something somewhat surprising: those months were busier than the prior December. Even though the winter has been getting busier over the last few years, that was still fairly unprecedented.
Given everything that happened afterwards, it might seem like an eternity ago, but we wrote about the phenomenon last February in Peak Season Crowds During Winter “Off-Season” at Walt Disney World. We largely attributed the spike to the grand opening of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, a huge number of youth events at the ESPN Wide World of Sports, and international tourists coming Orlando from South American countries for their summer vacation.
While Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance remains popular, the current capacity cap on that park and greater awareness of the hoops required to ride will likely significantly limit its drawing power in January and February 2021 as compared to last year.
More importantly, there isn’t a single youth event scheduled for ESPN Wide World of Sports and international travel is virtually nonexistent this winter due to border closures. So both of those things, along with runDisney races, conventions, and other normal winter draws will be total non-factors this year. That’s huge, as all of those have been means Walt Disney World has used to bolster crowds during what has traditionally been the winter off-season.
Beyond that, there’s also the reality that Walt Disney World is (hopefully) hitting the upper limit of crowd levels it can accommodate without increasing ride efficiency. After installing a veritable sea of “please wait here” markers in November, not many more have been added since…because there’s not really room for more. Some areas of the parks are already a literal maze of markers.
Thankfully, Walt Disney World has turned to increasing capacity by increasing ride efficiency. Meaning that more physical dividers have been added to attractions and some roller coasters and other marquee rides (such as Expedition Everest, Slinky Dog Dash, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, and Flight of Passage) are now loading every row/seat.
Potentially unpopular opinion, but I’m on board with this. For all of the attractions in question, the ride duration is short, guest orientation is correct, and air flow is good. From an objective risk standpoint, you have far more to worry about dining indoors than doing an outdoor roller coaster that zips around at high speeds (or even an indoor ride, for that matter).
At some attractions, the increased hourly capacity has resulted in plummeting wait times on non-peak days. That’s exactly what we’ve seen with both Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Frozen Ever After. There’s actually potential scenario where attendance drops in January and February 2021, and wait times drop even further because of these efficiency gains.
We’re tempted…but ultimately too cautious to make such a bold prediction. Quite simply, there are too many variables at play and unknowns at this point, and we’ve been burned by boldness since reopening. We do believe that a lot of what drove crowd levels sky high last winter will be absent, but other changes could offset that.
With Florida being “fully reopened,” more snowbirds could seek the state out as a temporary escape. Conversely, with a nationwide spike in cases following the holiday season, more people could pump the brakes on travel plans. Along those same lines, people could postpone trips due to the vaccine, opting to wait just a little longer until that’s available to them.
If we had to guess, we’d predict that cancelled events, limited international travel, fears of spiking cases, and optimism/willingness to wait for the vaccine will be the overriding factors, and attendance will drop in January and February 2021 at Walt Disney World. As usual in the post-reopening world, expect weekends to be significantly busier than weekdays since that’s when locals have work off. Same goes for holidays and the dates surrounding them. (Also as always, none of these trends apply to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. It’s always equally busy.)
This analysis is conspicuously confined to the first two months of the year…which probably is not helpful to anyone planning a trip for the other 12 months. We’re even more hesitant to make predictions for those months because there’s even more uncertainty. When will the vaccine be available widely to the general public? When will Walt Disney World further ease or drop physical distancing, capacity caps, and the face mask mandate? When will new attractions debut?
Stretching the predictions a bit further, we’d expect more or less the same through mid-March 2021, but are less confident in that prediction. Once Spring Break season arrives in full force, followed by Easter, all bets are off. Regardless of what happens with Disney’s policies and vaccine distribution, we expect elevated crowd levels. For one thing, Walt Disney World was closed at those times last year, so it’s an easy prediction that the parks will be busier–it’d be true if only one guest showed up.
That’s also when we anticipate that “revenge travel” will really come into play. While special events and international visitors will take a while to come back, Americans will have significant fatigue from the past 12 months (at that point) and be ready to get out, vacation, and do things. U.S. savings rates have soared to record levels over the last year as Americans have spent less on dining, shopping, and leisure–exactly the types of things people do at Walt Disney World.
It’ll still be a while before the parks fully recover–and Disney will need to make some changes to facilitate all of this. However, after initial skepticism last year, we’re now fully on board with the notion of pent-up travel demand and Walt Disney World attendance coming roaring back in 2021. We anticipate that starting around April 2021 and accelerating for pretty much the remainder of the year, further fueled by Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary in October 2021. Of course, this is total guesswork, so it’ll be interesting to see just how wrong we end up being this time. 😉
Are you considering a trip this winter, or do the United States’ rising case numbers (or vaccine availability on the horizon) make you want to delay? What are your expectations about crowd levels this year at Walt Disney World? When do you think the ideal time to visit this year will be? Expect more discounts or low crowds for 2021? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of crowds at WDW? 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!