Disney World News: Character Meets Come Back Soon, Time v. Money, Capacity Cuts

We’re back with another Walt Disney World news roundup, right in time for the start of Spring Break 2022! This one covers the latest changes to park hours & Extended Evening Hours, return of traditional character meet & greets, parks operating at reduced capacity on a permanent basis, and the company’s view on time v. money, new dining at Disney Springs, and more.

As usual, we’ll start with the latest release of new and modified operating schedules. All four theme parks have had hours for another week added to DisneyWorld.com’s park hours, and the current calendar now runs through May 18, 2022. Here are the hours for most dates that are newly-added for late Spring 2022:

  • Magic Kingdom: 9 am to 9 pm
  • Epcot: 10 am to 9 pm
  • Hollywood Studios: 9 am to 9 pm
  • Animal Kingdom: 9 am to 7 pm
  • Disney Springs: 10 am to 11 pm (11:30 pm on Fridays & Saturdays)

There are a couple exceptions to this. First, Magic Kingdom closes at 4:30 pm on May 15, 2022. As with past early closures, this will be a great low-crowd day to visit. Second, Magic Kingdom starts closing at 10 pm on May 16. Hopefully, this is the start of new, later standard hours for Summer 2022.

In addition to these boilerplate hours for May 2022, there are also extensions to park hours from now through March 26, 2022. In particular, Epcot now opens at 8:30 am daily instead of 10 am through then, which is relatively unprecedented. On a related note, I just did Early Entry at Epcot, and it went from being one of the worst options for that to second-best. Full report soon!

Magic Kingdom has had its closing extended until 11 pm on many of those dates (from 9 pm), with Extended Hours until 1 am on select dates. This is the first time in a long time that we’ve seen that. For its part, Disney’s Hollywood Studios is now opening at 8:30 am, and Animal Kingdom is now operating from 7:30 am until 8:30 pm.

These extensions make for some really interesting Park Hopping options. Early Entry coupled with staying late and a midday break means you can do really well with savvy strategy and without Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes. That’s true even on crowd level 9/10 or 10/10 days. Again, more on that fairly soon.

Next, a new dining option is coming to Walt Disney World this month. Local Green Atlanta is opening a food truck, Local Green Orlando, at Disney Springs. An exact location and opening date have not yet been announced.

Local Green is a minority-owned business founded by songwriter Zachary “Big Zak” Wallace to address a ‘food desert’ in the area where he grew up, and provide healthier options. Local Green is a fast casual restaurant with a mission of redefining healthy, sustainable, and affordable food. The restaurant serves a mostly plant-based menu with a focus on vegan, vegetarian, and pescatarian dishes.

While not on the same level as the cancelled Beatrix, this sounds like a solid addition to the Disney Springs fast food lineup. Before you dismiss it as “only” a food truck, it’s worth pointing out that there are a couple of such options that are among the best at Disney Springs, including the 4 Rivers Cantina Barbacoa Food Truck and the Mac & Cheese Food Truck. One person in our house is very excited for this addition!

Another positive addition is a new Pocahontas segment during the Beacons of Magic on Spaceship Earth during the 2022 Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. Per Disney, an orchestral version of the Academy-Award winning song “Colors of the Wind” was chosen “for its message of intrinsic value and respect for beauty of nature and living things – with new visual flourishes that evoke the musical scene from the film with techniques entirely original for Spaceship Earth.”

We’re still digging out, so to speak, from everything over the course of the last week, but we’ve actually already finished eating everything new at the 2022 Epcot Flower & Garden Festival. That was the easy part. Now, to write about it all–Outdoor Kitchen reviews should start later tonight or tomorrow.

Finally, the Walt Disney Company CFO Christine McCarthy spoke at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom 2022 Conference. You might recognize that name if you follow our reports on quarterly earnings calls, as she’s a regular participant alongside CEO Bob Chapek, frequently discussing Parks & Resorts results and fielding questions.

Even if you don’t follow those, you likely heard her controversial quip a few months ago regarding the impact of inflation on food costs: “We can adjust suppliers. We can substitute products. We can cut portion sizes, which is probably good for some people’s waistlines.”

Anyway, McCarthy discussed a range of topics relating to the Walt Disney Company, from Ukraine and Russia to streaming services in emerging markets to Disney+ getting an ad-supported option. Some of her remarks about streaming subscription tiers were interesting as they reflect similar thinking that’s driving decisions at Parks & Resorts, but are mostly unrelated to this post’s topic of “Walt Disney World news.”

Turning to the parks, McCarthy indicated that the company has continued to invest on capex projects at Walt Disney World, Disneyland, and Disneyland Paris, with some of these set to debut soon. She didn’t provide and numbers or forward-looking forecasts, which is what we were hoping to hear as that would help us better set expectations for the coming D23 Expo announcements (or lack thereof).

Next, McCarthy discussed product segmentation in the theme parks. She stated that the company wants its offerings to be “accessible,” while also giving consumers the choice to upgrade to more expensive options for greater flexibility, comfort, or convenience. (Here’s where parks parallel the Disney+ ad-supported option.)

While discussing how this relates to Walt Disney World, she said that the Genie+ service and Lightning Lanes improve and enhance the guest experience. She didn’t offer anything to support this, which is curious since earnings calls were touting high guest satisfaction scores the first few quarters after Walt Disney World reopened. They’ve been silent on that topic in the quarters since Genie debuted. Any guesses why?!

McCarthy went on to say of the free Genie itinerary builder, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, “some people have more money than they have time, others have more time than they have money.” This line caught the attention and ire of fans on social media, and the backlash was about as swift as her previous waistline comment.

This struck me as a ‘why are you booing me, I’m right‘ moment. I suspect there’s a lot of pent-up frustration at play–anything she said about Genie+ probably would’ve drawn fan ire. She also probably could’ve worded this better or in a more delicate way.

However, the salient point that time and money are both precious resources and some consumers have more of one or the other is hardly controversial. In fact, several years before Genie+ entered the scene, we discussed exactly this topic in Saving Time v. Saving Money at Walt Disney World.

This is a tradeoff consumers make every day. Do you book a short stay at the Grand Floridian or a lengthy one at Pop Century? Have you splurged on After Hours events or Dessert parties? If you’ve ever even weighed the pros & cons of these, you’re performing a time v. money calculation. I’m not sure why the statement has people upset.

I get that there’s a lot of frustration with Genie+ that’s probably spilling over into the outrage here, but I would personally rather be upset about matters of substance. There are still glitches plaguing the system, it’s cumbersome and counterintuitive, features are missing, and even after moving over an Individual Lightning Lane attraction per park, there still isn’t enough ride capacity anywhere but Magic Kingdom. Those are real things that are guest-unfriendly to be upset about.

Beyond that, there’s also the reality that McCarthy was speaking at a Morgan Stanley conference. As with the quarterly earnings calls, the target audience is very different than a normal press release or puff piece on the Disney Parks Blog about seasonal cupcakes. Personally, I’d rather be communicated to in blunt terms and plain language. I guess others prefer the insincere, flowery language of carefully-crafted (well, sometimes) corporate comms?

Moving along, McCarthy next made a noteworthy offhand remark while discussing the return of entertainment and nighttime spectaculars, that traditional character meet & greets are next on deck, and will be returning soon.

Of course, “soon” is a very nebulous term, meaning something very different to the company than you or me. After all, last July we were told that the Disney Dining Plan would be back soon, and we’re still waiting on that one!

However, things should be different this time. Character sightings already exist throughout the parks, and more have been added in the last month. It’s a simple conversion for those, almost like flipping a switch.

It also “helps” that these sightings are not very good, with low utilization rates and (presumably) lower guest satisfaction. We’ve done several of these, and my personal rating would be “better than nothing.” Not exactly high praise.

There’s also the matter of precedent. Up until very recently, Disneyland Paris had even more stringent health safety protocol than Walt Disney World. Over the weekend, they brought back normal character interactions, with hugging, high fives, or other appropriate contact.

Closer to home, Star Wars: Galactic Starcruiser is entirely normal. Not only could we pose with characters aboard the Halcyon, but they got up in our faces, touched our shoulders, whispered to us, and more. Similarly, the new Cinderella Castle stage show doesn’t have distancing for its performers. It would seem that everything new after the dropping of the indoor face mask rule is normal. Now it’s just a matter of going back and adjusting everything that came back before that.

The last topic of interest that McCarthy discussed is park capacity at Walt Disney World and Disneyland. She indicated that neither is back to full capacity, something we knew based on the last quarterly earnings call.

As a quick refresher, CEO Bob Chapek stated there that capacity limits were in place, and were self-imposed as a form of mitigation due to staffing shortages and since all entertainment and substantive offerings weren’t yet back. This was pretty well-known even prior to Chapek’s comments, but it was the first time the company confirmed it.

McCarthy added that attendance levels will likely never return to what they were prior to the closure. The company started using the Disney Park Pass reservation system due to capacity restrictions, but discovered that it has been a good tool to keep attendance manageable.

She added that the company does not want to have Walt Disney World or Disneyland’s parks “bursting at the seams.” McCarthy went on to say that when the parks aren’t oppressively crowded, the company has found that spending increases. “If you are having a good time, you are probably inclined to spend more money.”

Personally, I don’t buy this one. For years, Disney has used ‘controlling crowds and keeping attendance manageable’ as a pretext for ticket price increases. It has been shockingly effective, leading to many fans defending or at least begrudgingly accepting them. The thing is, that has never been reflected in the reality of wait times or, to my eye, in-park congestion.

If you visit Walt Disney World on a busy day right now, the “feels like” crowds are every bit as bad–often worse–than they were pre-closure. While it’s absolutely true that the company is limiting attendance, the threshold is not “comfortable experience.” It’s something higher, aimed at ensuring the park’s infrastructure isn’t overwhelmed. Or, as she put it, “not bursting at the seams.” However, there’s a big difference between crushing and comfortable crowds.

As we’ve said for years, the company wants to have its cake and eat it too: higher prices and high crowds. They are absolutely not looking to reduce crowds, which would explain why annual attendance numbers increased–not decreased–every year of the last decade up until 2020. Disney just wants to make sure crowds aren’t so overwhelming that the result is lower morale among employees, services stretched to their breaking point, and anemic guest satisfaction scores.

In other words, slightly reducing attendance on the busiest 5% of days (the week leading up to Thanksgiving when the parks were packed to their breaking point and Genie+ collapsed under heavy crowds is a good example of what Disney does not want). This is not the same as cutting crowds across the board. I don’t want to belabor this point, but I think it’s important to understand the true aim here, because way too many fans hear comments like this, then see price increases and act like Walt Disney World is doing them a solid. Context is key.

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

What do you think about all this Walt Disney World news? Excited for the return of traditional character meet & greets? Thoughts on the great time v. money debate? What about cutting capacity on a permanent basis–do you buy this, or think Disney will continue packing the parks, just not quite to pre-Thanksgiving levels? 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!

48 Responses to “Disney World News: Character Meets Come Back Soon, Time v. Money, Capacity Cuts”
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