The changes and health safety protocol implemented during phased reopening of Walt Disney World’s parks and resorts–no nighttime spectaculars, parades, or meet & greets, reduced hours, advance reservation system for attendance, and more–will transform the guest experience this summer and beyond. You could even say it’s the dawn of a new Disney era.
We wouldn’t say that, but you could. For us, it feels more like the “dawn of a temporary abnormal season at Walt Disney World that is a necessary prerequisite to resuming a permanent sense of normalcy.” But that doesn’t roll off the tongue or evoke positive feelings of nostalgia quite the same way as “dawn of a new Disney era.”
There’s a lot of uncertainty on the near-term horizon at Walt Disney World. Fans have many questions to which they want answers and there’s a lot of apprehension about what the future holds for the parks. In thinking about this, I wanted to contextualize what lies ahead with a look back at another ‘era’ in Walt Disney World history. As it turns out, I didn’t have to look too far…
Last spring, Walt Disney World surprised everyone with the August 29 opening date of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. At the time, it was widely believed that the land would open in late fall (because Disney said so!), with rumors pointing to a December debut in time for the holiday season.
Many diehard Walt Disney World fans who feared a “crowdpocalypse” situation upon the debut of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge had already booked fall vacations to experience the calm before the storm. Some had taken advantage of the Free Dining promo and had little choice in modifying their travel dates. A lot of fans were worried about being denied access to the parks because capacity would be limited and by lottery. The chorus of comments we received was almost exclusively complaints. Over 95% of readers were unhappy with this. Many threatened to cancel their trips, and a lot actually followed through on that.
For our part, we encouraged optimism back then. We advised guests that school schedules and weather were limiting factors on demand for early fall, and that crowds likely wouldn’t be nearly as bad as everyone feared. Our revised Walt Disney World crowd calendar (released well before the land opened at Disneyland or Walt Disney World) ranked September as the best month to visit for the remainder of the year.
When Extra, Extra Magic Hours were subsequently announced, we gushed about this offering. Not only would it be a fun opportunity to be in the parks before sunrise, but it was likely to feature low attendance because the vast majority of guests cannot or will not get up that early on vacation.
To be clear and transparent (lest it seems like I’m straining a shoulder patting myself on the back), I’ve gotten a lot of predictions wrong over the years, including some with the reopening already (I did not expect Epcot to open before fall, and anticipated hotels reopening after the parks). However, I was dead-on with these predictions that bear more than a passing similarity to present circumstances.
Since the closure started, I’ve been going through unedited photos during my free time, and recently stumbled upon those from the last morning of Extra, Extra Magic Hours. (All of the dawn photos in this post are from that final November day of ExEMH. A totally empty Fantasyland is pictured above–that photo was shot about 30 minutes after park opening.)
That was one of our all-time best mornings in the parks, and those few months were a glorious run of great days at Walt Disney World. What lies ahead is obviously very different. Yet I cannot shake the feeling that it presents a similar opportunity.
Before I get all “embrace the silver lining” on you, I want to “get real” with you. Even though I’m looking on the bright side here, this most definitely is not all sunshine and rainbows.
If I were planning my family’s once in a lifetime trip to Walt Disney World, there’s no way I’d book it for July through October 2020. Even November and December are highly questionable. (If you’re trying to plan a summer vacation and Disney doesn’t work for you this year, check out my post: Why This Year Is Perfect for a National Parks Trip.)
If it were our first trip or even if we visited every few years, we’d likely be rescheduling for 2021. There’s the obvious hope for fewer rules/restrictions, plus entertainment and nighttime spectaculars resuming. It’s also a simple call because of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. (In fairness, we would’ve chosen 2021 over 2020 even before all of this.)
As an annual visitor, I’d have pause depending upon the circumstances. Even with the inevitable discounts, Walt Disney World is an expensive vacation destination, and a lot of compromises and concessions are going to be required of visitors in the near-term. I’m not sure I’d be up for those, especially if I had small children or older family members.
Now that we’ve ruled out…pretty much everyone?…let’s get to the upside!
Crowds, or lack thereof. That’s the big advantage. While Walt Disney World has declined to offer official capacity limits, several comments from CEO Bob Chapek and others have suggested the cap will be around 20-30% of normal attendance.
With cuts to park capacity, there will also be reductions in ride capacity to accommodate physical distancing. This means that, at least in theory, the capacity reductions could cancel each other out, resulting in wait times comparable to normal numbers.
There are also worries that Disney will further reduce attraction throughput to save labor and operating costs. This is a legitimate concern given both past precedent and the fact that park hours are already being cut.
However, this is not what has been observed thus far at Shanghai Disneyland, even with significant cuts to ride capacity and park hours. There, wait times are less than half of their normal levels, and many attractions are veritable walk-ons.
Per the official app, posted wait times for headliner attractions such as Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, TRON Lightcycle Power Run, Peter Pan’s Flight, and Pirates of the Caribbean Battle for the Sunken Treasure are all frequently in the 10-40 minute range. Even Soaring, perpetually the park’s most popular ride, is usually under an hour. (Less than half its normal wait time.)
Equally as important, “crowds” in Shanghai Disneyland are non-existent. We’ve seen photos of Mickey Avenue (that park’s version of Main Street) totally devoid of people, and other areas of the park are sparse.
The idea of visiting Walt Disney World without crowds and congestion sounds fantastic to us. We love themed design and simply being there, and frequently stay late to savor the atmosphere. Being able to enjoy the ambiance for the entire day–even in the heat and humidity–really appeals to us. I’ve also been salivating at the idea of pristine park photography during the middle of the day, which is normally impossible.
Of course, there are obvious differences between Shanghai Disneyland and Walt Disney World.
For one, Florida has Disney Vacation Club resorts, and those are likely to hit a high occupancy rate even if the hotels don’t. Walt Disney World also has a passionate fanbase and ardent Annual Passholder population. By contrast, Shanghai only has a couple of hotels and Disney’s brand affinity is in its nascent stages.
The other side of the coin is that Shanghai only has one park to “soak up” guest demand, guests there are accustomed to wearing masks (so there’s little resistance), and 300 million people live within three hours of the park by car or train.
By contrast, Walt Disney World has 4 parks to absorb guests, people are already cancelling trips due to health safety requirements, and aside from a modest local population, the vast majority of visitors will need to book and take flights to visit Florida.
These are all significant hurdles for Walt Disney World that Shanghai Disneyland simply does not face. On balance, this all suggests to me that Walt Disney World’s crowds during the initial months of reopening will resemble those in Shanghai–with Walt Disney World potentially having lower crowd levels.
Then there’s what has been observed at Disney Springs thus far. Aside from the World of Disney store’s opening day, when eBay pirates docked their ships and stormed the store, Disney Springs has been totally devoid of crowds. Read Our “Ghost Town” Experience at Disney Springs for an idea of how it has looked.
Of course, just as there are differences with a theme park halfway around the world and Walt Disney World, so too are there between theme parks and an outdoor mall. Nevertheless, this is all instructive, and the best “data points” that we have.
Perhaps the best recent data points for Walt Disney World’s reopening come from California, and the months leading up to Disneyland’s Diamond Celebration several years ago. (We could look further back and see the same with Disney California Adventure during its massive overhaul and reimagining.) This is probably a more apt domestic comparison than Disney Springs or Extra, Extra Magic Hours because visiting pre-Diamond Celebration or during DCA’s transformation entailed a similar compromise.
In the ~5 months leading up to the Diamond Celebration, entertainment at Disneyland was incredibly limited (the blink and you’ll miss it fireworks show was a joke that disappointed virtually everyone who waited more than 5 minutes for it), Sleeping Beauty Castle was behind a giant scrim, and way more attractions than normal were down for refurbishment. It was a rough stretch and, at the time, we discouraged tourists from visiting.
However, it was also absolutely glorious. In retrospect, I’d gladly take that stretch of months over the chaos that followed for the next few years (I loved Paint the Night, but not that much). Disneyland’s popularity exploded thanks to all of the new entertainment and offerings and the park became uncomfortably crowded.
Prior to the Diamond Celebration, crowds were incredibly low, wait times were minimal, it was easy to dine wherever, and there was a sense of optimism in the air about the future. This last element should not be dismissed, and I’d expect the same to be true at Walt Disney World the next few months.
After months of misery being stuck at home, those guests who do choose to accept the limitations and visit Walt Disney World anyway will be enthusiastic just to be there. Rather than sporting “Most Expensive Day Ever” shirts, people will be less cynical and ready to have some fun again.
Many others think there will be disputes or grumbling about new rules–I empathically disagree. That’s happening online now. In park, it will filter itself out via self-selection of attendees. The vast majority of those who proceed with vacation plans will be doing so not with the intent of breaking rules for a week–they’ll be doing so because they really need a vacation, and will be happy to escape the real world.
Admittedly, we also come at this from a different perspective than many people. Paradoxically, we are not huge planners even though we offer a wealth of resources for that. We welcome the return of more spontaneity to Walt Disney World with open arms and hope some of these changes are permanent. (See our Being Spontaneous at Walt Disney Worldpost for more on the importance of this.)
Many readers have remarked that there’s nothing magical about all of the new rules or changes Disney is implementing. This is a fair point (to a degree), but it’s also the temporary abnormal–a necessary compromise if you want to enjoy some aspects of public life for the next year or so while the country is still in the midst of a pandemic. Your entire life is going to be full of compromises; while Disney offers a “bubble” and feelings of reassurance removed from daily life, it is still very much located within the real world.
In any case, we think there’s nothing magical about planning a weeklong vacation down to the minute months in advance; many fans have just been conditioned by Disney to view that as normal. For the first time in ages, a Walt Disney World trip should now feel like an actual vacation, with spontaneity and the freedom to relax. (That’s true even with the temporary protocol in place.) For many, this will be a very different way of doing Disney and will require an adjustment. You might just end up liking this laid back approach more!
We embrace new ways of experiencing Walt Disney World. Prior to becoming locals, we would try to find a new “angle” for each trip to keep things fresh. It was a fun challenge, and we’d create artificial impediments or themes to force ourselves to try new things.
Even more recently, we’ve done things like this (see our “SS Harbor Beach Club Strategy“). The upcoming changes present new obstacles to navigate and I am, perhaps weirdly, looking forward to making lemonade out of lemons and finding fresh ways to do Disney during this unprecedented time. Among other things, I’m really looking forward to more resort time and ways to make the most of those pricey places to stay.
It should go without saying, but that’s not going to be everyone’s approach–nor is it even normal. Many frequent Walt Disney World visitors go for the sense of familiarity, to relive past experiences, or with certain-must dos in mind. The next several months–maybe the next couple of years–are going to alter a lot of that.
If certain components of the Walt Disney World experience being absent (or the addition of new requirements) make it a non-starter for you, nothing written here is going to change your mind–nor should it.
Rather, what we’ve attempted to do here is offer some degree of ‘grounded optimism’ amidst a sea of sadness. It’s easy to be pessimistic right now–the news is a nonstop barrage of negative stories, a lot is changing, the future is uncertain, and many compromises will be necessary as we go forward. Some (many!) people should simply opt out and cancel their upcoming Walt Disney World vacations in light of this. There’s no amount of upside or spin that can change that.
However, what is getting lost in the chorus of complaints is the potential upside. Just because it’s going to be a bad time for many people to visit doesn’t mean it’s a bad time for everyone. (To the contrary, precisely because it’s a bad time for so many means it’s likely to be a good time for those who can make it work.) Ultimately, we’ll put our money where our mouths are on this–we’ve already booked several DVC resort stays in the last week and are dreaming up ways to leverage the current circumstances to our advantage. With that said, we would recommend choosing travel dates very carefully, and we’ll be back with Part 2 of this post tomorrow to discuss exactly that. Stay tuned!
Will you be visiting sooner rather than later, likewise hoping to make lemonade out of lemons and do Disney differently? Or, will you hold off, not viewing the current value proposition or guest experience as being workable for you? Do you agree or disagree with our perspective? A variety of viewpoints are welcomed here, but we will not tolerate insults, arguing, or politically-charged comments. Additionally, please do not debate the efficacy of health safety policies—all such comments (for, against, otherwise) will be deleted. Those arguments are played out and isn’t the appropriate forum for that.