September is supposed to be the “sleepy” month in terms of Walt Disney World crowds; it’s a stretch that consistently has the lowest attendance and wait times of the year after the holiday weekend. In this post, we’ll look at how things are playing out with higher crowds thus far in September 2020.
By way of recap, our Labor Day “Crowdpocalypse” Walt Disney World Crowd Report offered a look at the holiday weekend, which saw elevated attendance as compared to the doldrums of summer but not the extreme crowd levels predicted. We attributed this to the proactive Disney Park Pass reservation system, which prevented the level of crushing crowds observed over the same holiday period at Universal Orlando.
Our follow-up to that focused on the same weekend at EPCOT, which was busier than the other three parks but still not oppressively bad. That theorized these same scenarios would play out every holiday travel period, or any time Disney Park Pass reservations are limited or unavailable and offered strategy for beating the crowds. As it turned out, we didn’t have to wait long for the Labor Day peaks to be tested–those crowd levels were surpassed this past week at Walt Disney World…
Earlier in the week, we noticed higher average wait times and heavier crowds in a couple of Walt Disney World parks. To be honest, it didn’t really raise any red flags at the time. Although Labor Day does not normally see lingering guests from the holiday weekend, this isn’t an average year. All bets were off long ago.
Our preliminary assumption was that more people than normal delayed their summer vacations, taking them over Labor Day. That would’ve justified elevated crowds on Tuesday and Wednesday. While that’s possibly still true to an extent, it wouldn’t account for attendance gains accelerating later in the week and into the following weekend. There must be another explanation (or explanations, plural)…
The next possibility is the intuitive one: reduced hours account for longer wait times. Walt Disney World reduced operating hours across all four theme parks beginning on September 8, with Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios seeing an hour eliminated while EPCOT and Animal Kingdom saw 2 hours cut.
It would thus make sense for wait times throughout the day to increase, as more guests are concentrated during a shorter window of time rather than being spread throughout the day. (Although there really wasn’t a ton of staggering given that the hours were already pretty limited.)
The shorter operating hours could account for some of the increase, but not all of it.
This is only a partial explanation because average waits (per Thrill-Data) over the course of the last week are 33.4% higher at Magic Kingdom, despite a 10% reduction in hours. Above is a look at the disparity between this past week (blue line) and the prior six weeks (all the other lines lumped together).
Equally as likely is that Walt Disney World has quietly increased park capacity. It’s a near-certainty that this has happened.
In our Disney Park Pass availability updates, we’ve stopped using the term “reallocated” and are instead using “replenished” or “refilled.” Those might seem like r-word synonyms of one another, but they’re not. Reallocations were occurring when availability was moved among the three “buckets” of inventory for resort guests, theme park ticket holders, and Annual Passholders.
There have been a few times recently when a park (or parks) have gone from unavailable across all three buckets to suddenly having availability after an inventory dump. This should be obvious, but when you have zero of something, a reallocation is not possible–only a refill.
We’ve pointed this out on a few occasions, but it’s easy to overlook. It’s plausible that most days simply are inventory redistributions from the resort guest and theme park ticket holder buckets since the calendar is usually a sea of green for those. That’s not always the case, though. (On that front, the next “date to watch” is September 19, 2020–currently “no parks available” across all three buckets. We shall see if that’s still the case after the customary Thursday afternoon inventory dump.)
It’s also worth noting that Walt Disney World lifted Cast Member blockouts after the holiday last week at every park except Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Note that this is not open admission–Cast Members are still required to make Disney Park Pass reservations, which are limited and prioritized below all three regular guest buckets.
Pent-up demand among Cast Members could help explain an increase in crowds last week during a time that would naturally be Florida’s off-season. September is normally slow because it’s a weak time for tourism and most locals are going back to school or work during the week. With tens of thousands of Cast Members still furloughed, more than normal are able to visit the parks.
The culmination all these variables is elevated wait times throughout the last week, with a crowd-crescendo over the weekend. While EPCOT and Animal Kingdom saw slightly lower average wait times as compared to the holiday weekend, both Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios had more significant increases.
Given that the comparison is between a holiday weekend and regular off-season weekend, we would’ve expected the latter to see a pronounced decrease. That’s what would’ve occurred in a normal year.
Over the Saturday of the holiday weekend, we were delighted to find that crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios were actually lower than the post-reopening average. It would seem that Disney over-corrected here, as wait times this Saturday (blue line) were up 66% over the holiday weekend (red line).
It probably also doesn’t help that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance had an abysmal weekend, getting through only 36 boarding groups one day and 40 the other. That’s a sharp contrast to the record 128 boarding groups the Saturday of Labor Day weekend.
We’re to the point now where wait times in September 2020 are higher than they were last September. Above is a comparison between the post-Labor Day week this year (blue line) versus last year (red line) at Magic Kingdom.
Obviously, this is not an apples to apples comparison given the dramatically reduced park hours and lack of FastPass+ this year. Nevertheless, with midday waits about 10 minutes higher this year (plus the aforementioned lack of FastPass+ and cut hours), it’s fair to say that waits are quantitatively worse. You’d accomplish far less on a full day this September than last.
As such, above is a look at the Magic Kingdom wait time trends last week (blue line) as compared to the week of 9/9/19 (red line). That’s a lot better! Still, not quite what we’d like to see given the circumstances and other compromises of visiting Walt Disney World right now.
The silver lining, if you’re looking for one, is that congestion still remains relatively low most weekdays. If that’s your measure of crowd levels (as opposed to wait times), Walt Disney World is still in good shape. Weekends are a bit dicier, though.
The elimination of FastPass+ means guests are not in two places at one time. On top of that, wait times are increasing at levels disproportionate to actual attendance since attractions are being operated at significantly reduced capacity. This means that most of the time, the “feels like” crowds while wandering around are still pretty low.
Most of you who are contemplating a trip right now–with all of the compromises that entails–are probably doing so due to reports of low wait times. So the whole low “feels like” crowds angle is probably grasping at straws. (Just trying to find a bit of positivity in this!)
Strategically, you can still beat the worst of the crowds by simply avoiding weekends. There’s a significant split between weekdays and weekends, and avoiding the parks on Saturdays and Sundays–or doing Disney’s Hollywood Studios then–is a savvy plan of attack. That will probably remain true going forward.
Frankly, I’m not sure what the takeaway is here. Drawing any definitive conclusions from one week of what should be the off-season is a tad premature. That’s especially true as Walt Disney World continues to test & adjust what works and doesn’t, making tweaks as the phased reopening process continues.
Organic demand among tourists remains low. The vast majority of Americans are not yet comfortable visiting theme parks. Most potential guests have either cancelled or postponed Walt Disney World vacations until 2021. All it would take is a pullback of Disney Park Pass reservations for Annual Passholders and/or Cast Member blockouts, and the story would be very different here. There’s nothing to say that either or both won’t happen, especially if the more lucrative tourists and day guests get cold feet about visiting due to rising attendance and wait times.
On the other hand, these trends make sense and we have no reason to believe they’re total anomalies. Walt Disney World’s goal is to gradually increase attendance and capacity, which is something that has played out at other parks that have also reopened. To an extent, the interests of guests and those of Disney align here.
Both want to see restaurants, entertainment, seasonal offerings, longer hours, etc. return, and the only way that happens is with increased demand. (Disney isn’t bringing back Cinderella’s Royal Table or Minnie’s Halloween Dine out of corporate benevolence–it’s because both are now viewed as sustainable.) Guests just don’t want higher wait times. It’s something of a catch-22 situation.
Basically, our goal here is to offer readers an early “heads up” that while congestion levels will probably remain low for the remainder of the year, we’re now seeing signs that wait times may not. Until Walt Disney World can increase attraction capacity, which probably wouldn’t happen until physical distancing recommendations are eased, wait times for popular attractions will steadily increase with increased park attendance and capacity caps. Just one more thing to consider if you’re still on the fence about a 2020 Walt Disney World trip. We’ll keep you posted as to how this plays out and changes over the coming weeks.
Did you visit Walt Disney World this week or weekend? What did you think of the crowds? Any parks or times of day noticeably worse than the others? If you’ve been in past Septembers, how do you feel this compared? Are you okay with longer waits if it means a greater return to normalcy–or will you just wait to visit Walt Disney World? Do you agree or disagree with anything in our report? 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!