Historically, September is the least-busy month at Walt Disney World in terms of crowd levels and average wait times. Even as other off-season months have spiked in recent years, September has held strong as being a reliably quiet and good month to visit for those seeking low crowds.
On that basis, we predicted early-on in the process of Walt Disney World’s phased reopening that July and August would see the worst of pent-up demand and visitors seeking a last-minute escape before school went back into session. Following that, our expectation was a slow September–likely with the lowest crowd levels since post-9/11.
If going by raw attendance, you could say we were right. Of course, that’s only because of limits imposed by the Disney Park Pass system, and wouldn’t account for reduced capacity rides, or shows, restaurants, and stores that were closed. In actuality, September 2020 was the worst in recent memory, especially when crowds are judged on the basis of posted wait times…
Judging by our review of average waits (per Thrill-Data), things only got worse from there. Let’s take a park by park look at the increases in month over month wait time increases at Walt Disney World, followed by some commentary to explain the cause of these spikes and the degree to which you should be concerned…
First up is Magic Kingdom. Here, the green line is September, with red being August and blue being July.
Even a cursory glance reveals that crowds were up substantially last month, with a larger increase than the one from August to July. Here, wait times were up 41% as compared to August and nearly 70% as compared to July.
Next, we head to Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which has been our pick for the worst park (subjectively speaking) on the most consistent basis since the beginning of the phased reopening.
September wait times at DHS were up 39% as compared to August, and 58% as compared to July.
Over at Animal Kingdom each of those lines are even farther apart, with crowds almost exactly doubling each month since reopening
Wait times were up 45% last month as compared to August, and 103% since July.
Finally, EPCOT. Here, there really was not much of a difference between July and August, but a sharp increase in September crowds.
All told, we’re looking at an increase of 33% as compared to August at EPCOT.
When averaged across all four parks, wait times were up 40% in September 2020 as compared to August. (If averaging across all attractions, that number would likely be slightly different, as we’re giving equal weight to parks with different numbers of rides.)
Let’s take a look at some of the likely causes for this…
First, Walt Disney World reduced operating hours across all four theme parks beginning after Labor Day weekend, with Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios seeing an hour eliminated while EPCOT and Animal Kingdom saw 2 hours cut.
It thus makes sense for wait times to increase, as more guests are concentrated during a shorter window of time rather than being spread throughout the day. However, those reductions are only 10-20% and some hours were extended on weekends. So that’s a partial explanation, at best.
Walt Disney World increasing and/or better allocating Disney Park Pass availability is the better explanation. In July and even August, Annual Passholders saw mostly “unavailable” dates despite a sea of green on the reservation calendars for theme park ticket holders and resort guests. In late August, Walt Disney World was more proactive in reallocating availability, allowing more APs to visit the parks.
Additionally, there have been many dates that were totally unavailable across all three calendars that suddenly became available. Walt Disney World denies having increased park capacity, but that’s flatly contradicted by their own reservations system.
Quite simply, Walt Disney World offered more Park Pass reservations in September 2020 than the months before. This is especially true for Annual Passholders and Cast Members, who had significantly more opportunities to visit the parks than July or August.
In our estimation, Floridians accounted for the vast majority of the increase and the spike is due almost entirely to more Disney Park Pass availability. This is also why there’s such a disparity between weekdays versus weekends, except at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Second, the rise of virtual learning and working made visiting during the off-season more attractive. Finally, that reports of low crowds in July and August prompted many to book trips to take advantage of those.
There’s probably a sliver of truth and credibility to each of these theories. However, I am skeptical that each moved the needle much, if at all. We did several resort stays and visits in September, and our anecdotal experiences during those suggested to us that occupancy was flat or even down as compared to summer. Compulsive checking of the Disney Vacation Club booking engine corroborates this–with way more availability available for September 2020 than a normal year.
Unfortunately, I have not heard any credible rumors or insight into hotel occupancy numbers at Walt Disney World or nearby off-site hotels–I’m simply going off of my own observations here. Nevertheless, I’d be downright shocked if out of state visitors accounted for more than a few percentage points of the attendance increase.
In short, posted wait times are heavily inflated at Walt Disney World. This is almost always the case, but it’s especially pronounced right now. We’ve personally experienced this on a consistent and repeated basis. There have been instances where the posted wait time is 40 minutes and our actual wait is 5 minutes. Inflation of 50% or more is pretty much the norm right now.
There are likely a couple reasons why this is happening. A cynic might suggest that it’s to give Wall Street an inflated impression of performance–that things are back to normal and business is booming. Perhaps there’s some degree of truth to that.
More likely, it’s to discourage more guests from getting into certain lines. Due to physical distancing and almost every guest being in the standby line (as opposed to FastPass+ inflating wait times and thus reducing the size of the standby line), these lines are filling up. Extended queues are in use, and often overflowing from those and spilling out into walkways. Even then, the actual wait often isn’t that bad.
That presents a problem, as posting the actual wait time would encourage more guests to queue up–to the point where some of these lines would become totally unmanageable and have literally nowhere to go. It’s feasible for the Frozen Ever After queue to extended into the China pavilion since that’s mostly unused. It cannot, however, extend all the way to Italy without impeding operations.
Inflating the wait times discourages lines from getting longer. Locals, Cast Members, and Annual Passholders–many of whom have done every attraction countless times, often balk at any posted wait time over 30 minutes. Since this trio disproportionately makes up Walt Disney World’s guest-base right now, this strategy is particularly effective.
Wait times were unreliable in July and August, but not inflated to the degree we experienced in September. Accordingly, the percentage growth of wait times almost certainly does not reflect the percentage increase in attendance.
With that said, attendance was unquestionably higher in September 2020 than the two months that came before it. We’re not trying to explain all of this away. Crowds were heavier, actual waits were longer, and congestion was noticeable in some spots. In short, there were definitely more guests each of the parks every single day. There is no getting around that.
In some cases (EPCOT on weekends and Disney’s Hollywood Studios before 2 pm every day), our view is that it ‘feels like’ crowds were worse than the story told by posted wait times. In other cases (the other two parks or other days/times at those two), the ‘feels like’ crowds were not nearly as bad as the wait times suggested.
Ultimately, this should be both concerning and reassuring. It’s troubling that wait times and crowds are growing, but we should expect that to continue. Walt Disney World’s goal is to gradually increase attendance and capacity, which is something that has also played out at other parks that have also reopened.
The silver lining even there, though, is it means more restaurants, stores, entertainment, and longer hours will return with those crowds. Another reassuring thing is that actual wait times are not as bad as those graphs indicate, as inflation is pretty rampant and extreme right now. Additionally, in many cases there isn’t anywhere for more crowds to go without opening more or increasing ride capacity. Quite simply, actual wait time increases should decelerate.
In normal years, October through December get progressively busier. There’s simply no way for 40% increases each month through the end of this year. Something’s gotta give. Walt Disney World has several available tools for achieving that, from decreasing Disney Park Pass availability for Annual Passholders and Cast Members to reducing empty seats or adding dividers on ride vehicles. Walt Disney World’s ‘ghost town’ crowds of the summer are definitely a thing of the past, but the future outlook is better–especially for those who want to see things get back to normal.
Did you visit Walt Disney World in September 2020? What did you think of the crowds? Any parks, times of day, or days of the week noticeably worse than the others? Did you notice a significant difference between posted and actual wait times? If you’ve been in past Septembers, how do you feel this compared? Any theories as to why this happened? 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!