Disney World News: Magical Express Update, Crowds Crash & Construction

We’re back with another Walt Disney World news round-up! This covers a few stories, including the latest on winter crowds and construction progress in the parks. Additionally, we revisit the big story of the week, the ending of Disney’s Magical Express, with additional details as we try to make sense of that.

Let’s start with some good news: crowds crashed and wait times plummeted at Walt Disney World this week. This is something we predicted would happen in our Will Crowds Keep Skyrocketing at Walt Disney World in 2021?, but after the first week of 2021, we were starting to get nervous with our forecast.

Thankfully, it now seems like the first week was a temporary blip. The elevated early January 2021 crowds were likely a matter of holiday holdovers, Osceola and Orange County schools still being out of session, and probably some runDisney regulars who didn’t cancel trips even though the Marathon went virtual.

This past week, average daily per park wait times at Walt Disney World ranged from 14 minutes to 33 minutes. To put those numbers into context, those are the lowest levels we’ve seen since last August. Some days in the middle of the week were actually more on par with last July, when there were ‘ghost town’ days in the parks with minimal crowds and wait times.

Wait times did pick up on Friday, and will certainly be up again this weekend and early next due to the long holiday weekend. As we’ve stated repeatedly, the next 2-3 months will probably be the biggest sweet spot this year to visit. There could be good dates beyond that, but the remainder of the year is way less predictable due to myriad unknowns. Consult our January 2021 Crowd Calendar, February 2021 Crowd Calendar, and March 2021 Crowd Calendar for specific best and worst dates to visit Walt Disney World.

Even if capacity has been increased from 35% to 40% (as rumored), there’s no way three of the parks are coming anywhere near that number. As always, Disney’s Hollywood Studios remains the wildcard since its normal capacity is so low, but the good news there is that several rides have become more efficient. This includes Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which has been performing significantly better of late, with one less extended downtime per day on average.

We were “only” in the parks one day this week, but it was noticeably less busy as compared to the previous week. We plan on doing a brief visit to Magic Kingdom next week, but otherwise are dramatically cutting back our park time in the coming weeks. Totally a matter of personal risk tolerance, but with the new strain variants plus the latest Florida surge, our prior risk assessments are now unreliable. That coupled with being (hopefully) in the home stretch before getting vaccinated makes us less inclined to chance it.

While at EPCOT this week, we did spot some construction progress.

Above you can see crews actively working inside the old Electric Umbrella building. This half of the structure is a bit behind MouseGear, pictured below:

At MouseGear, construction teams are in the process of installing floor-to-ceiling windows and re-enclosing the building.

The interior is still totally gutted, but this would seem to bode well for MouseGear hitting its target reopening of late 2021. It would be fantastic if a path through the center of Future World could reopen by the end of the year, but we’re not holding our breath.

Moving to World Showcase, the permanent gelato stand (“La Gelateria”) being built adjacent to the Italy pavilion is now visible over the construction walls there.

It’s a bit cold right now, but I will “begrudgingly” eat every single flavor whenever this dining spot opens. That’s how dedicated I am to this very important research.

The second of five floating platforms for Harmonious has been installed in World Showcase Lagoon, as testing continues on the other dystopian war barge for the upcoming nighttime spectacular.

Jokes about the Waterworld-inspired post-apocalyptic ramshackle floating community aside, we’re taking a wait and see approach on the daytime Harmonious sight-lines. It looks bad now, but these will all be fountains during the day once up and running, and that could add kinetic energy to this large expanse of the park. (I’m actually pretty optimistic that this will look good when all is said and done.)

The walls are down around the Streets of Paris expansion in the France pavilion, revealing a wait time sign outside the new area (smart move) and freshly-planted flowers. The latter is a curious move that seems to suggest something might be imminent.

However, we are skeptical. It’s just as likely that Walt Disney World wanted the area to be show-ready for filming promotional footage or PR photos. As we discuss in the latest update to our Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure Opening & Info post, the attraction is done and could debut literally whenever. It’s all about what’s most advantageous for Walt Disney World at this point.

Continuing along, we have an update on the bombshell news that Disney’s Magical Express is ending in 2022. There aren’t any significant developments in this story, but we want to offer some clarifications and context since that post is 475+ comments strong, with very little input from us.

First, as touched upon in the post, the Brightline train station at Disney Springs is not intended to be the replacement for Disney’s Magical Express. We’ve noticed that many commenters have pointed to the Orlando stretch of that being finished in 2022, which would make it the logical successor to DME.

That’s only partially accurate. While Brightline’s 170-mile expansion from West Palm Beach to Orlando International Airport is planned to be completed by sometime in late 2022, that does not include the Disney Springs station. The current segment has been under construction for years, and is roughly half completed. I know Walt Disney World fans love Big Thunder Mountain, but jumping off an actual runaway train probably is not safe.

As for when the Walt Disney World station will be completed, Brightline stated in its last ridership report that the company anticipates commencing service at the station at Disney Springs in the second half of 2023. The exact location of the Disney Springs Brightline station has not yet been revealed, and unless it’s in a super secret hidden spot, construction has not started on it either. Given all of that, late 2023 is an incredibly optimistic timeline, which is typical of transportation projects.

If Walt Disney World truly intended upon Brightline being the replacement and wanted continuity of airport transportation service, they could’ve negotiated a 2-year extension with Mears. Disney holds literally all of the cards there, so it probably wouldn’t have been too difficult.

Moreover, if Disney actually intended for the Brightline station to be heavily utilized, the company probably would’ve chosen the more logical location by the ESPN Wide World of Sports where the station could’ve been its own hub. The company picked the location near Disney Springs to utilize the existing bus network–it’s going to be difficult to serve regular day guests and any heavy volume of airport arrivals with luggage. As such, we think it’s highly unlikely that Brightline is the reason Walt Disney World is ending Magical Express.

Next, Mears Transportation, the operator of Disney’s Magical Express, issued the following statement to Spectrum News 13: “Walt Disney made us aware of their decision…While we are disappointed Disney will no longer offer this service, we intend to continue offering transportation services between the airport and all area theme parks and hotels to meet the demand of our visitors now and in the future.”

Mears was not notified of Walt Disney World ceasing the Magical Express service until the same morning as the general public, per reporter Carlye Wisel. The end date coincides with the expiration of the current contract between the parties.

In our previous post, we stressed not taking Walt Disney World’s press release and purported motivations at face value due to the strained relationship with, and future viability of, Mears Transportation. We also wouldn’t take the above statement from Mears at face value.

You might feel sympathetic to Mears if you’re assuming they were blindsided by this news, but that’s not necessarily the case. For all we know, Mears and Disney had contentious negotiations for months that went nowhere, but Disney didn’t notify the company of the final decision until the general public announcement to avoid leaks. I’ve seen enough of how Mears does business over the years to not give that company the benefit of the doubt or view them as a victim.

We’ve also noticed many commenters giving deference to Walt Disney World, suggesting the company has something else up its sleeve that’ll be announced at a later date. It’s entirely possible that a replacement will be announced later this year, but we suspect that’ll be due to decreased hotel bookings and a surge of guest complaints, not because it was part of the plan all along.

The minute this news broke, we knew this was going to be the controversy of the year among Walt Disney World planners (hence us likening it to the resort parking fee). There are times when we think Disney leadership is out of touch, but not that out of touch.

Disney knew exactly what kind of reaction this news would garner. If there were a replacement in the works, it would’ve been hinted in the original Disney Parks Blog announcement to diffuse the outrage. While some fans relish bad news and the chance to be outraged, many more bend over backwards to give Disney benefit of the doubt.

If something else were planned as of right now, Walt Disney World would’ve stated as much. The more deferential fans would’ve defended the decision, making it more of a split reaction. Instead, those who normally take a “wait and see” approach joined in the discontent.

There’s also the fact that Disney essentially said, “we’re getting rid of this because Uber is better–oh and we’re doing you a favor here with this cut!” That doesn’t leave a ton of room for interpretation that something new is planned.

Some have nevertheless defended the decision by pointing to Walt Disney World’s closure and subsequent lost revenue. For one, the Walt Disney Company is not teetering on the precipice of bankruptcy. Disney has tens of billions (yes, with a b) of dollars cash on hand. While the current circumstances of Walt Disney World and Disneyland are obviously not ideal and have necessitated cutbacks, let’s not overstate the bleakness.

More importantly, Disney’s Magical Express has always been a financial net positive for the company. Obviously, Disney pays money to Mears, but the cost is built into the prices of hotels. Guests view it as a valuable amenity or perk and it maintains a captive audience for Walt Disney World that won’t venture off-site to eat, buy groceries, supplies, or visit competing theme parks. Magical Express has been very valuable to Walt Disney World in the last 15 years.

Claiming this is a smart move because Magical Express cost money would be the equivalent of saying Magic Kingdom should shut down all of its rides because those cost money to operate. Literally everything at Walt Disney World costs money to operate, but you’ve gotta spend money to make money. The expense of Disney’s Magical Express likely paid for itself many times over indirectly, which is why this move is all the more perplexing.

Ultimately, that leaves us exactly where we were upon the announcement of this news: confused. This move is a lose-lose for both guests and Disney. (There are two big winners: struggling local small businesses and Universal; it’s highly unlikely that helping those parties is Disney’s motivation.) There’s no making sense of it. This could be a shortsighted move made with the tunnel vision of direct cost savings, but we don’t have that low of an opinion of Disney’s leadership. They make dubious decisions from time to time, but this would be next level. Which is why we hope/suspect there’s still another shoe to drop here.

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

If you’ve been in the parks the last week or so, have you noticed the significantly lower crowds? Think this trend will continue–minus holidays and weekends–through mid-March 2021? Input on construction progress at Walt Disney World? Have any commentary about Walt Disney World ending Disney’s Magical Express? Upset that you’ll have to rent a car or use Uber/Lyft, or did you find DME too inefficient, anyway? Other thoughts on this? 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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