It’s time for another Walt Disney World news roundup. Although it’s the winter off-season at Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom, there are a variety of stories of immediate impact, as well as changes on the horizon for Summer 2021.
Let’s start with what’s undoubtedly the least interesting story: new and extended park hours. All four theme parks, Disney Springs, and Blizzard Beach have seen updates on the DisneyWorld.com park hours calendar. Previously, hours were posted through April 3, and now extend to April 10, 2021. Added hours are the same for all dates:
Magic Kingdom: 9 am to 6 pm
EPCOT: 11 am to 7 pm
Hollywood Studios: 10 am to 7 pm
Animal Kingdom: 9 am to 5 pm
Blizzard Beach: 11 am to 6 pm
Disney Springs: 10 am to 10 pm (11 pm on weekends)
Park Hopping times for those dates have also been added to the calendar. At this point, the start time for changing parks is still 2 pm across the board; as Walt Disney World previously indicated, that could move earlier as demand and attendance dictate…
Additionally, park hours have been extended for the second week of February 2021 at all four parks. The latest round of expanded hours begin on February 7, 2021. The longer hours extend through February 13, 2021, with that Friday and Saturday seeing Animal Kingdom opening at 8 am and Magic Kingdom closing at 10 pm–the longest hours of the year thus far. That makes complete sense, as it’s the holiday weekend that kicks off Lunar New Year, Valentine’s Day, Presidents’ Day, and Mardi Gras.
As we’ve stressed repeatedly, that holiday weekend and the week that follows are the only “red flag” on our 2021 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars in the next few months. It could end up being one of the busiest weeks of the year at Walt Disney World. Seriously—if you have flexibility in travel dates, we’d recommend avoiding that week at all costs. Mardi Gras, in particular, is a huge wildcard since the cancellation of those events could drive more visitors to Florida.
Next, some good news from Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Prior to the closure of Walt Disney World, we were doing weekly updates on the status of the virtual queue and boarding pass system for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and debating the extent to which it was working (or wasn’t working).
Since reopening, our ride reports for the flagship attraction in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge have become much more sporadic. Initially, that was because attendance was low and it wasn’t much of an issue for those who followed our advice and arrived early. However, that ceased to be the case months ago, and we’ve still only done fewer updates. Part of that is due to the improvements.
At the start of the holiday season, two big changes were made to Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance at Walt Disney World. In our view, the 7 am virtual queue release was a significant improvement over the old system that allows for greater flexibility and a more relaxed start to the day at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Same goes for the added barriers that effectively doubled hourly ride capacity, albeit with the downside of partially obscuring views. Neither improvement solved all of the ride’s woes–to the contrary, demand far exceeded capacity and boarding passes were still gone within seconds. Some good news on that front…
The latest improvement started about a month after the prior two, shortly after Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance had its worst day ever on the attraction’s one-year anniversary. The attraction is now processing more boarding groups per day on average, hitting 161 many days. (See above, via Thrill-Data.com.)
We’ve now observed this trend long enough that we’re satisfied it’s an actual reliability upgrade and not a prolonged streak of good luck. It’s unclear as to the nature of the fix, but we’ve noticed that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is typically breaking down less often, resulting in far fewer hour-plus closures. That is having a significant positive impact.
Moreover, the past rule of thumb was that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance processes around 10 boarding groups per hour (see our Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance ‘How to Ride’ FAQ). In the last month, it’s been more like 15 boarding groups per hour. Obviously, that’s a big spike that allows many more guests to ride per day.
Nevertheless, the Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance virtual queue has continued to fill up in seconds at 7 am throughout the holidays and January 2021. This is a result of both sky-high demand for Walt Disney World’s hottest new attraction, and allocation between the two boarding pass drops.
To the latter point, in the last week, we’ve observed the 1 pm boarding pass distribution staying open for much longer than a few seconds. In fact, on some weekdays, it hasn’t filled up in minutes or (in some rare cases) a full hour or more. That’s huge, and means it’s no longer a quasi-lottery for the second distribution.
Our approach–and advice–for the last two months has been to try for the 7 am drop, and if failing at that, change Disney Park Pass reservations to EPCOT. This approach is probably contributing to lower demand for the second boarding pass distribution, as is the plummeting post-holiday attendance. (Crowds are so low that Cast Members have been unblocked from Disney’s Hollywood Studios on select winter weekdays for the first time in over a year!)
We are in the process of revisiting our Disney’s Hollywood Studios strategy as that’s not the best advice–at least right now during the off-season at Walt Disney World. Expect something next week as we test a couple of different approaches.
In relatively minor routine maintenance news, the Disney Skyliner gondola will be unavailable on January 24, 2021 between Caribbean Beach Resort and Pop Century/Art of Animation Resorts. Bus transportation to EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios will be available as an alternative from the latter two resorts.
Other routes along the Disney Skyliner gondolas will all be operational–meaning the Disney’s Hollywood Studios to Caribbean Beach Resort and Disney’s Riviera Resort to EPCOT routes remain open. Aside from the unfortunate incident early on (and some post-reopening unreliability in July and August), it’s been relatively smooth sailing for the Skyliner.
The Skyliner has quickly become our favorite form of transportation at Walt Disney World (other than our feet) and is far and away the most efficient. Here’s hoping the other routes also receive whatever preventive maintenance might be needed in the coming months.
Continuing along, Walt Disney World has announced the return of another stage show in Summer 2021. Harambe Theatre at Animal Kingdom will host the return of the fan-favorite troupe of musical storytellers, along with Simba and his friends, in a celebration of the Festival of the Lion King.
When it returns, Festival of the Lion King will be presented in a modified format to “be mindful of the current environment.” There will be adjustments to the show on stage and backstage, including updates to choreography to allow for appropriate physical distancing. Walt Disney World will also adjust how the audience is seated, in line with other theater-based experiences at Walt Disney World.
Not to knock good news and an undeniable step in the right direction…but my first reaction to the announcement is that Summer 2021 is still a long time away, and this is only one show. To be fair, plenty more could be announced in the coming months, but it feels like a prolonged timeline for starting to bring back entertainment.
Perhaps it’s an early indicator that Walt Disney World is writing off Easter and Spring Break, not expecting much travel between now and Memorial Day, at the earliest. (We don’t want to read too much into this, but it’s certainly not a good sign for anyone hoping for a Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure opening date in the near future.)
On the plus side, if we were to prioritize the return of shows in parks other than Disney’s Hollywood Studios by need, Festival of the Lion King would be #1. It will greatly assist in extending the amount of time guests spend on average in Animal Kingdom, and helps round out the current attraction lineup in that park.
Still, it feels like a small step, especially after Walt Disney World brought back the Frozen Sing-Along last October. If an indoor stage show involving singing can return, there is absolutely no reason that the outdoor stage shows cannot return. We’ve given Walt Disney World a lot of credit for their health safety protocol, but some of it is just theater (not in the same sense as these shows) or cost-cutting at this point.
From an objective perspective, Walt Disney World brought back the highest-risk show first. By that standard, literally every other show is fine–especially the outdoor ones, but even other indoor ones. Bringing back Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Beauty and the Beast Live on Stage, or even Fantasmic would make more sense, but those are all presumably more expensive.
A bit of an aside, but as our collective knowledge has evolved about the nature of transmission via aerosols, it has been really disappointing that Walt Disney World has said nothing at all about ventilation or air filtration. Instead, Disney has gone on a plexiglass installation spree. Of course, the difference is that plexiglass is not an abstract concept–it’s visible, so it offers the illusion of safety even if basically useless.
We’ll conclude with something fun and optimistic. In the Disney Parks Blog announcement of the Muppet Show coming to Disney+, there was a passing note that “the Muppets have been a part of Walt Disney Imagineering for the last couple of years.” The post also mentioned that Walt Disney Imagineering is responsible for the “Muppets Now” streaming series and viral social media videos.
While there had been past rumblings of the Muppets having a champion within Imagineering, this was news to me. I am totally on board with it, too. First, Imagineering is a good fit for its marriage of creative and technical expertise. Second, there have only been a handful of things in recent years that have nailed the humor and essence of the Muppets, the main one being the Liberty Square “Great Moments” show. Everything else, even the underrated ABC mockumentary parody (that finally hit its stride right before cancellation), has missed the mark. Finally, Imagineering being the guardians of the Muppets makes them more likely to appear in Walt Disney World and the other parks. I’m not suggesting we’ll see anything on that front in the immediate future, but it certainly bodes well down the road.
Thoughts on longer hours for the holiday stretch in February? Happy to see improvements to the reliability and efficiency of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance? Think this trend will continue? Excited for Festival of the Lion King’s return, or were you hoping for it–and more–to be back sooner? What about Imagineering managing the Muppets? Agree or disagree with our commentary? Other thoughts on any of 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!