We’re back with a Walt Disney World news & rumor round-up! This time we have updates on early November 2020 park hours, attendance woes, good news for Annual Passholders, and some wishful thinking about a potential reimagining of Journey into Imagination. First, a look at Walt Disney World’s year over year declines, and how that compares to Universal Orlando’s numbers.
According to an analyst note from Deutsche Bank (reported by Orlando Sentinel), attendance at Walt Disney World is down 80% year over year in the month since reopening. This comes from research by Bryan Kraft and Benjamin Soff, who looked at proprietary geolocation data to make their estimates.
Deutsche Bank reports that EPCOT and Animal Kingdom are outperforming Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, with Universal Orlando’s parks outperforming all of Walt Disney World. This is especially true on Saturdays when attendance at Universal is “only” down 64% from last year.
Some of this may seem counter-intuitive, so let’s offer some quick commentary. The idea that EPCOT and Animal Kingdom are outperforming Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom seems implausible on its face. However, keep in mind that this is relative to last July and August.
Next, Disney’s Hollywood Studios. If judging by Park Pass reservations, DHS is the most popular park at Walt Disney World right now. However, this is where it’s important to remember that popularity isn’t the same as attendance or guest utilization. Even in normal times, DHS has the lowest capacity of any park at Walt Disney World. With most of its shows dark, that’s doubly true now.
As for Universal Orlando, that probably comes down to a few things. First, there’s no reservation system or anything to deter locals from visiting. Second, they had over a month head-start on Disney, during a time when cases were low and their biggest competitor wasn’t open. Finally, Universal has gone out of its way to attract locals with discounts, ticket extensions, and other incentives.
This is a pretty stark contrast to Disney’s approach. While it’s unclear which strategy will be vindicated in the long run, in the near term, Disney’s approach appears to be a colossal miscalculation. Per Disney CEO Bob Chapek, locals and Annual Passholders make up a disproportionate number of guests right now, as many tourists cancelled trips last quarter.
Despite the company being aware of these demographics woes, Disney is still actively deterring Annual Passholders from visiting and practically encouraging AP cancellations. In fairness, this approach was undoubtedly established before Florida’s case numbers spiked, but Walt Disney World has been really slow to pivot.
With attendance being down significantly, park hours cut, and tens of thousands of frontline Cast Members still temporarily furloughed, it’s been a rough reopening for Walt Disney World. Realistically, the near term future is not much brighter with further cutbacks and belt-tightening measures likely.
It’s going to take a stretch of low case numbers, discounts, more entertainment, improved economy for the middle class, reduction of quarantines, and more for Walt Disney World to truly bounce back. Obviously, a lot of that is beyond Disney’s control.
Nevertheless, the Walt Disney Company plans to lift temporary salary reductions for executives beginning on August 23, per a report in Deadline. As you might recall, Disney implemented pay cuts as a cost-cutting measure several months ago, as a “temporary action” that would remain in effect until Disney saw a “substantive recovery” in business.
At the time, the Walt Disney Company announced in an email to Cast Members that executive chairman Bob Iger would forgo his entire salary, and CEO Bob Chapek would take a 50% pay cut. Additionally, all senior executives would take a reduction in pay—all VPs will have their salaries reduced by 20%, SVPs by 25%, and EVPs and above 30%.
I don’t think you really need my commentary on this. Read the room, guys. This isn’t just poor optics, it’s also a reflection of the chasm between frontline Cast Members and the company’s management. (Not to mention that there has been no substantive recovery in the business, even if the inflated stock price says otherwise.)
Next, some good news. Walt Disney World has once again redistributed reservations from the theme park ticket holders and resort guest “buckets” to Annual Passholders. If you feel like you’ve already read this story, it’s because this is the third time in the last week that Disney has done this–after only doing it twice total in the prior month-plus.
Consequently, there’s currently availability for Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom, and EPCOT beginning August 22 and availability for all four parks on August 23, 2020. This is the first time DHS has been available on a weekend for Annual Passholders in a while (previously, the earliest you could book it was Halloween).
We’re going to assume this trend will continue given the above 80% drop in attendance, but it’s unfortunate that Walt Disney World couldn’t figure this out before so many Annual Passholders chose to cancel due to lack of Park Pass availability. Better late than never, though.
Now some bad news. Walt Disney World has updated its calendar for all four theme parks through November 7, 2020. Previously, hours were listed through Halloween, so this is essentially only another week’s worth of hours. During that stretch, all four parks keep their previously-reduced September and October schedules (see Fall Hours Cut at Walt Disney World).
Notably, November 8, 2020 would normally be (would have been?) the start of the holiday season at Walt Disney World, including the first night of Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. While we do not expect that event to occur, we do anticipate the Christmas season being celebrated in some capacity.
Expect to see an announcement about the holiday season simultaneous with another calendar update. Whether that ends up being bad news or good news depends upon resort occupancy, whether Disney wants to play things cautiously, or if management wants to try to boost attendance and numbers during what’s normally the most lucrative season of the year.
The response to the reduced hours in September and October was not good, and Disney undoubtedly saw a surge of cancellations as a result. Between that and pretty much every decision they’ve made being ill-advised, at some point management will realize that Walt Disney World is not recession or pandemic-proof, and further cuts only exacerbate the problem of low demand. We’re optimistic (perhaps naively so) that lesson will be learned sooner rather than later.
In discussing Journey into Imagination, Tony Baxter said “I just wish we would do the ride over. I would come back out of retirement to do that ride over.” Both former Imagineers played pivotal roles in creating the original Journey into Imagination. At past D23 events, Baxter hasn’t been shy about his fondness for the attraction and its characters, and desire to restore the pavilion to its past glory. So this is not particularly noteworthy or novel in that sense.
However, his comments are probably gaining more traction this go-round for a few reasons. First, the USC panel was livestreamed on YouTube (the video has since been deleted) whereas D23 panels are not broadcast and recording is usually strictly prohibited. Second, Tony Baxter is coming out of retirement to help redo another one of his attractions with the Overhaul of Splash Mountain to a Princess and the Frog Attraction. Finally, there have been credible rumors of a Journey into Imagination reimagining.
Despite all of that, I don’t think there’s any chance that a Journey into Imagination redo is going to happen anytime soon, with or without Tony Baxter’s involvement. Had this year played out differently, I’d say there’s a decent possibility that this is a hint of something to come. But it didn’t and there’s not.
I’d still love to hold out a sliver of hope that the final piece of the EPCOT puzzle, to be announced at the 2021 D23 Expo, is a new incarnation of Journey into Imagination. Nevertheless, I don’t think it hurts for there to be “buzz” among Walt Disney World fans about a redo of Journey into Imagination; the more interest and excitement about it, the more likely it is to happen at some point in the future. At least, I hope. If I could will this “rumor” into reality, it would’ve come to fruition already. Sadly, I think we’re probably in for another 5+ years of the current version.
What do you think of this Walt Disney World news? Do you believe that EPCOT and Animal Kingdom (as well as Universal Orlando) are outperforming Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios? Thoughts on the Disney Park Pass availability changes or early November 2020 park hours? Hopeful that Journey into Imagination is reimagined at some point in your lifetime? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? 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!