How Crowded Will Disney World Be After Reopening?

How bad will crowds be when Walt Disney World’s parks reopen?” and “which months will be busiest when WDW reopens?” are two common reader questions right now. Many readers are understandably anxious about crowds when rebooking vacations, and we’ll attempt to answer here based on history and our expectations.

This is an ongoing series, coming in response to feedback and concerns raised in response to our When Will Walt Disney World Reopen? post. We’ve also tackled the question of Will Huge Discounts be Offered When WDW Reopens? and soon will address operational modifications. (We’ll also revisit the first question.)

A lot of this is speculative, dependent upon how the next couple of months play out and what the national mood is going forward. While we’re comfortable discussing generalized trends and possibilities, it would be incredibly premature to offer numerical crowd levels or an update to our 2020 Crowd Calendars for Walt Disney World. We’ll try to have one of those as soon as possible–if you want to be notified when that’s ready, sign up here for our FREE Disney newsletter here.

When it comes to Walt Disney World crowd predictions for the remainder of 2020 after the parks reopen (whenever that might happen), there are generally two schools of thought. The first is that most guests who have had their trips cancelled will rebook later in the year for the months that remain, meaning several months worth of crowds will be crammed into what’s left of the year. This would mean a significant spike in attendance.

The second is that crowds will be significantly lower across the board due to surging unemployment, plummeting consumer confidence, economic anxiety, travel trepidation, and more. If you’ve read any of our past posts related to the topic, you already know we fall firmly in the second camp.

We’ll cover both theories here, discussing what each means in terms of how busy Walt Disney World will be. However, there are a ton of variables that will be at play and we don’t have a crystal ball–if we did, we’d probably use it for something cooler, like finding out who wins the 2021 World POG Federation Championship…

Before we delve into this discussion, let’s set the economic backdrop. Although people might visit for the “Disney Bubble” they don’t book vacations while in one. Real world circumstances have a significant impact on travel numbers–look no further than the attendance lulls following 9/11 and the Great Recession for conclusive proof of that.

The latest weekly jobs report showed 6.6 million Americans filed for unemployment, for a two-week total of roughly 10 million jobless claims. This number is a record by a colossal margin, and is likely still an underestimate given that many states and individuals reported troubles with processing and filing unemployment claims, respectively.

Moreover, some companies have done everything they can to keep people employed, but simply will not be able to do so the longer this goes on. Walt Disney World and other Central Florida theme park operators are good examples of this. The Walt Disney Company has announced it’ll furlough employees on April 19, and it’s likely Universal and other businesses will follow suit–adding to those numbers.

The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis district has estimated that the United States could see as many as 47 million people lose their jobs when all is said and done. That would put the nation’s unemployment rate at 32%, a figure higher than what was seen during the Great Depression. Other estimates project lower and larger numbers, but the one constant is that they’re all unprecedented highs.

While those numbers are eye-popping, they only tell the beginning of the entire story. Several questions remain unanswered. How rapidly will recovery occur? Have we simply hit “pause” on all economic activity? To what degree will there be lasting damage? Will the American consumer bounce right back? How quickly will those jobs return?

Unfortunately, I’m not an economist or financial expert who simply operates a Walt Disney World blog as a side hustle. Nor did I stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night. (Although even that sounds delightful right about now!) However, I do watch a lot of CNBC and read a ton of financial news, and one thing is clear to me: no one really knows.

Well-credentialed experts each appear confident in their own personal economic projections, but they contradict one another. Suffice to say, there’s no clear consensus. Unlike the weather forecast (which itself isn’t a hallmark of reliability), these experts are working with even less complete information. So much of the story remains to be written.

Economists have offered up no shortage of predictions for the “shape” of the economic recovery. Initially, a rapid V-shape rebound was favored. Now, more believe it could be an L, W, or U-shape recovery. Some think we’re looking at a “Nike Swoosh” shape (here’s a decent overview of the possibilities). We haven’t yet to hear of any “Hidden Mickey” shape bounce-backs, but there’s still time.

We’ve already spent a lot of time fixating on the current and potential future state of the economy, but the reason for that is simple: it’s the best proxy we have right now for future crowd levels at Walt Disney World. This is all totally unprecedented, so traditional crowd prediction methodology are pretty much out the window.

Consumer confidence is a great barometer for generalized attendance trends, and it already showed a significant drop last month (and that only surveyed sentiment through the 18th–before the parks even closed). It’s safe to assume the consumer confidence numbers for April and May will see an even sharper drop, which is significant because this is the timeframe that average Americans would typically be booking travel for September through December.

On social media, we’ve seen a lot of people worried that Walt Disney World crowds will be colossal in October. (That specific month has come up again and again.) This is based upon comments people have seen posted in Facebook groups, blog comments, and other Disney-centric social media. This fear has been exacerbated by long waits on the phone to book the Free Dining Summer Recovery Offer.

In its own way, this illustrates the problem with online echo chambers. If you’re surrounded by other diehard Disney fans on social media, of course you’re hearing from other people who are rebooking trips and eager to get back to the parks. You thus might assume that “everyone” is booking for the fall and it’s going to be packed.

We’d strongly caution against buying into this–it’s an extreme case of selection bias. High call volume is easy to explain away: there’s also a huge surge in cancellations and we don’t know what staffing numbers are like right now. This is all supported by the reality that only a minority of guests are even eligible for the promo.

Even assuming a number of best case scenarios about the speed and strength of our nation’s recovery from this–plus a lack of health concerns–it’s really difficult to see a massive spike by early fall. For one, September and October are “naturally” Florida’s off-season, a time when school is back in session, meaning less travel.

October has not been off-season the last several years, but that’s largely been due to a huge spike in conventions and other events. The year’s convention schedule has already been decimated, with many events already cancelled for fall. (We wouldn’t be surprised to see no youth events on the calendar for ESPN Wide World of Sports for the remainder of 2020.)

On average, Walt Disney World vacations are booked 5-6 months in advance. (Most people reading this almost certainly begin planning earlier. You’re reading a Disney blog–you’re not the average guest.) In order for those fall months to fill up, people would need to be booking trips right now.

With so much uncertainty in the air, it’s safe to say that this is not occurring on a widespread level. As this closure continues, the same will almost certainly hold true for November and December. At present, it’s difficult to envision the general public eagerly booking trips to a destination with a reputation for crowds and lines. There are simply too many unknowns and anxiety is high.

In our recent post about Walt Disney World Accepting Reservations for June 1, 2020 and Later, we posited that Disney had opened reservations for summer (and offered Free Dining Recovery Deal) to get more bookings and boost the occupancy numbers. Otherwise, it would not even be practicable to open the resorts this summer.

It’s absolutely true that Walt Disney World can work its “magic” to drive reservations. A general public Free Dining offer or even more aggressive discounts could help spike hotel occupancy to acceptable levels. Good deals can overcome a lot, including fears about congestion.

What’s largely out of Disney’s control is occupancy at off-site hotels. Walt Disney World is somewhat dependent upon Florida tourism, as a whole. While fans bemoan the construction of new on-site hotels and how they’ve exacerbated crowds, the reality is that most guests on any given day are still coming from off-site.

Even if Disney can somehow against all odds manage 90% on-site occupancy for the fall and winter, the actual crowd levels in the parks will be largely dependent upon what booking levels look like off-site. It’s safe to say that third party hotels will likewise offer deals to get back on their feet, but those don’t have the same impact of enticing people to visit Walt Disney World. Nevertheless, let’s say those hotels see a recovery and WDW offers a strong general public 4-day ticket deal to recover some off-site guests.

All of that is making a number of best case assumptions about consumer confidence, the economic recovery, and Walt Disney World’s ability to quickly and effectively deploy discounts to buoy resort occupancy.

If the average American has economic anxiety, unemployment remains above 10%, and/or consumer confidence does not rebound, fewer people will be booking trips. To us, the best case scenario looks like a 15% drop in domestic attendance–and that doesn’t even take into account international guests who may not even be able to travel to the United States.

Again, this is all the general public we’re discussing. Walt Disney World fans will no doubt disproportionately make sacrifices, jump on discounts, and do everything they can to return to their happy place. However, Disney fans are a (vocal) minority of all guests on any given day.

All of the above discussion reflects the second school of thought regarding Walt Disney World crowds after the parks reopen–the beliefs to which we subscribe. The other is that most guests who have had their Walt Disney World vacations cancelled will rebook later in the year for the months that remain.

The theory here is that Americans won’t sacrifice their 2020 vacations. If the parks are closed for ~2 months and reopen on June 1, those couple months worth of crowds will be redistributed for the remainder of the year. This is the best (or worst, depending upon your perspective) case scenario.

If Disney can simply spread the crowds that would’ve materialized during the closure over the rest of the year that could mean a 10-25% daily increase in crowds, depending upon how long the closure lasts. This is theoretically possible if you ignore real world reality, we guess. It’s also theoretically possible that Walt Disney World will begin accepting Monopoly money and we’ll each be named Princess or Prince of Magic Kingdom for the day.

However, we will concede that we don’t know how this will end up playing out. This is totally unprecedented in a number of ways, and it seems like every single day has included a new and usually unpleasant surprise. It’s virtually impossible to predict how the nation will look and feel several weeks from now, let alone several months.

We feel our thinking represents a sober view of how the general public’s current attitude towards booking vacations and the variables that will impact that in the coming months. While it’s likely Central Florida locals eager to get out of the house will pack the parks (to the degree that’s even possible) in the first few weeks after reopening, we’d expect that to be a temporary surge. After that, our preliminary expectation (read: total shot in the dark guess) is that you can take normal crowd calendars and drop those numbers by about 50%. Take October’s numbers and drop them even further than that. This doesn’t even take into account crowd control measures and operational modifications Walt Disney World might make, but that’s another topic for another day…

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 think Walt Disney World’s crowds will rise or fall once the parks reopen? Are you anticipating colossal crowds this fall and holiday season, or the lowest levels since the Great Recession or 9/11? Will you immediately book a trip, or wait until the economy recovers? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? 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!


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