A couple of weeks ago, we published Autumn Off-Season Arrives Early at Walt Disney World. That took a look at lower than normal wait times and crowds for the first half of the month, offering theories as to why the slowdown was occurring prior to most schools going back into session.
Despite the data, many Walt Disney World fans disputed that analysis. Some recent visitors contended that crowds were still bad or above average. Of course, if compared to August 2010 or even August 2020, they would technically be right. However, Walt Disney World attendance has increased by millions of guests per year over the last decade–with the very noteworthy exception of last year. It all depends upon your frame of reference, we guess.
With two more weeks or wait time data and experiences at Walt Disney World, we have seen this trend continue. Numbers have plummeted even further. In fact, in the last full week of August 2021, Walt Disney World not only had its lowest wait times of the year–but the lowest since the exact same week last year…
Now, some might view that as “evidence” that crowd levels are normal for this time of year. After all, the same week in two consecutive months of August had almost identical wait times. However, I think (or at least hope) we can all agree that August of last year was an anomaly.
Walt Disney World had just reopened, Florida’s case numbers were elevated, travel trepidations were off the charts, and it was primarily locals, plus some diehard out of state Annual Passholders and a scattering of DVC members visiting the parks. Only a few hotels were open, and they were all operating at incredibly low occupancy. As word got out that the parks were veritable ghost towns and more people became comfortable traveling, attendance gradually increased through the remainder of the year.
Fast forward a year, and the circumstances are very different–even if some sound eerily familiar. The best illustration of that–for anyone who wants to compare year-over-year wait times for whatever reason–is comparing last July to this July…
The average wait time during the last full week of August 2020 was 18 minutes and the average wait time last week was also 18 minutes. By contrast, the average wait times across all of Walt Disney World during the last week of July 2021 was 43 minutes. The exact same week in July 2020 saw an average wait time of 15 minutes.
That should help contextualize the average wait times this week v. the last week of August 2020. For more, let’s take a look at park by park wait times with some graphs courtesy of Thrill-Data.com.
We’ll once again begin with Magic Kingdom, which had an average wait time of 18 minutes.
Going attraction by attraction, the wait times at even the Magic Kingdom headliners aren’t bad.
Top averages were Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 50 minutes, Jungle Cruise at 40 minutes, Peter Pan’s Flight at 37 minutes, Astro Orbiter at 33 minutes, and Splash Mountain at 29 minutes.
We visited Magic Kingdom today and during the middle of the day on a Sunday, wait times weren’t even this bad.
The only attractions with significant waits were Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Peter Pan’s Flight, and even those had shorter posted wait times and neither queue spilled outside the entrance. (We didn’t do either, but based on what I saw, I have a hard time believing the actual wait for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was above 30 minutes.)
Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad all had 10 minute posted waits but were near walk-ons, the recently-completed Jungle Cruise had a 25 minute wait (actual wait of ~20 minutes), and the PeopleMover was also a walk-on.
If you told me one month ago that we could do three-quarters of the Magic Kingdom Mountain Range with no wait, I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet here we are.
Notice anything missing from the photo above?
The last time we saw this few strollers at Magic Kingdom, it was in the first couple of weeks post-reopening. Of course, this makes sense. Parents are understandably apprehensive about visiting right now, plus schools are back in session.
The slowdown is even more pronounced at Animal Kingdom. Above is a look at average daily rates (rather than weekly) to showcase just how much crowds have fallen off there.
The average wait time there on July 28 was 57 minutes. This week, averages have ranged from 11 minutes to 15 minutes.
Of course, average waits of 11-15 minutes means there will be attractions and times above and below those numbers.
If you visit during the last few hours of the day, you can really clean up right now at Animal Kingdom. There’s not enough to fill an entire day there, so most people park hop in the afternoon. This results in posted wait times like those above, and scenarios where Avatar Flight of Passage, Navi River Journey, Expedition Everest, and others are walk-ons.
Hollywood Studios is also seeing lower wait times.
The end-of-July average was 50 minutes. This week, the average wait times was 25 minutes. Further helping matters is that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance boarding groups were available after 1 pm every single day of the week.
We did Disney’s Hollywood Studios yesterday, and had a great experience.
At the end of the night, everything was a near walk-on. We did Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, Slinky Dog Dash, Tower of Terror, and Toy Story Mania all with virtually no waits. (Unfortunately, Rise of the Resistance had downtime and its queue was backed up towards the end of the night, but that’s its own thing.)
Last but not least, there’s Epcot.
Epcot had an average wait time of 13 minutes this past week versus 29 minutes at the end of July. We visited Epcot on a handful of evenings the last week-plus, and the “feels like” crowds (especially on weekends) were definitely higher than this. It would seem that the Epcot Food & Wine Festival is drawing out some locals.
In terms of explaining why these crowds are so low, our theories are more or less unchanged. Our first theory is that this slowdown was an inevitability. It’s the natural conclusion of pent-up demand exhausting itself as the summer travel season drew to a close. After scorching spring and summer travel seasons during which Americans made up for lost vacation time, people have gotten their fix and are now going back to school.
The more pronounced slowdown can be partially attributed to the lack of international visitors, conventions, and group events that would normally sustain the off-season after school starts going back into session. There have also been widespread flight cancellations that likely play a small part. Finally, even those school districts that haven’t yet gone back might have more stringent quarantine policies, leading to greater August attendance drop.
Another big component could be Walt Disney World fans who normally visit this time of year, but are postponing trips until October for the start of the World’s Most Magical Celebration. That thus makes this a “sweet spot” for crowds, and one that should continue until things pick back up during the last week of September.
Although we suspect that all of these explanations play a part in contributing to lighter than normal August crowds, they’re unlikely the primary causes of the precipitous crowd collapse.
Whenever these two controversial topics come up, there’s often confirmation bias at play. We hear “if Disney just got rid of the mask rule, the parks would be packed!” from one group and “if Florida did X, Y, or Z, we’d feel safe visiting!” from another group. Regardless of how you personally feel about any of this, try to set that aside. Not everyone shares your opinion–different people are cancelling for different reasons.
In talking with travel agents and third party vendors we know, all have stated that they’re seeing a high volume of cancellations driven by “current events” in a broad sense. Of course, that’s entirely anecdotal and constrained to who we know, but the sample size of high-volume vendors is large enough that it’s likely close to accurate.
For what it’s worth, these cancellations don’t just impact August and September. They extend all the way through the end of the year. Even if/when Walt Disney World drops the indoor mask rule and Florida’s case numbers turn around, it’ll only make so much difference. At least in part, the damage is already done.
With that said, there are also some things we know are not the primary explanations for Walt Disney World’s slowdown, because we can control for those. Basically, anything that also existed in late July can be ruled out.
Weather is probably not a major cause of the drop-off. Yes, it’s miserable in Florida, but it has been “nicer” the last couple of weeks than it was in late July when the parks were packed. Rain and heat can impact wait times to a minor degree, but the only thing that significantly throws them off is hurricanes.
Another thing that is not an explanation is pricing, nickel & diming, or backlash at Genie+ and Lightning Lanes. Due to differences in seasonal pricing and discounts, it’s significantly less expensive to visit now than it was in July. Moreover, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes hadn’t even been announced when this slowdown began.
Many of you undoubtedly want to believe that attendance is dropping because fans are fed up with Walt Disney World’s pricing. Again, don’t let that cloud your judgment. If those changes and cutbacks are going to catch up with Walt Disney World and impact attendance, it’ll likely happen in 2022 at the earliest, and not any time in the immediate future. Right now, a similar slowdown is occurring at Universal Orlando, so any explanation that applies to one park operator but not the other is unlikely to be a main driver of the drop that both are experiencing.
Ultimately, this bodes well for those with Walt Disney World vacations planned for September 2021. With that said, our expectation is that the return of Annual Passes is announced very, very soon with those likely to go on sale shortly after Labor Day. That could result in a slight bump in terms of pent-up demand, but the continued decline of visits among tourists could more than offset the resumption of AP sales.
As previously discussed, this should give some “breathing room” to crowds from October to December 2021, too. However, that absolutely does not mean crowds will continue to be this low. We were previously forecasting that 3 month stretch to have Walt Disney World’s worst-ever crowds, so even a 15-25% pullback still means the parks will be incredibly busy. I don’t want anyone saying or thinking I promised low crowds due to the cancellations–it’s still going to be packed. Just probably not quite as packed.
We’re getting to the point where cancellations could outpace new bookings for the remainder of the year. There’s an average lag of approximately 5 months between booking and traveling. It’s an inevitability that Florida’s case numbers will dramatically decrease next month.
With that said, it’s possible that word will get out about low crowds, which could cause a slight bump in bookings for October and beyond (exactly what happened last year). It’ll be interesting to see how things play out, but if you want to take advantage of low crowds, a last minute trip between now and September 26, 2021 might make sense.
Have you cancelled a trip to Walt Disney World in 2021? Have any anecdotes of your own about cancellations? Conversely, are you considering a last-minute trip in September to take advantage of the anticipated low crowds? Do you think Walt Disney World’s crowds will hit record levels come October 2021, or will enough people cancellation to blunt the numbers? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? 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!