Explaining Increased Disney World Crowds

Upon returning from spending a couple of weeks at Walt Disney World earlier this year, I wrote an article titled, “Is There No Such Thing as an Off-Season?” In that, I speculated that wait times had increased by about 25% at the beginning of the year, and offered a number of explanations, with the mains one being the global economy, improved consumer confidence, and Disney’s manipulation of crowds.

Since then, Len Testa of TouringPlans.com appeared on the DIS Unplugged Podcast to discuss Disney’s manipulation of crowds. Additionally, Josh over at easyWDW.com has done a series of posts comparing crowds this year versus last, culminating in his recent look at wait times around Magic Kingdom. Josh and Len are two of the savviest Walt Disney World crowd trackers, offering what I consider complementary analyses of trends; both of them reached the same conclusion (and more than an anecdotal one) about the uptick in crowds earlier this year.

The key takeaway from Josh’s analysis is that Magic Kingdom waits hovered around 20% higher year-over-year in January and February, were ~15% higher in March, and have leveled out since. These wait times charts are fascinating for a number of reasons, but most interesting (for the purposes of this post, at least) is that the spikes in crowds from the beginning of the year has been “corrected.” With only four full months of the year in the books it’s probably too early to draw any definitive conclusions, but I think it is interesting to consider the why. 

That’s pretty much what Len offers in his appearance on the DIS Unplugged Podcast. I highly recommend giving that episode a listen (it’s short by podcast standards), but the gist of what he said is that the TouringPlans.com statisticians noticed an abnormal spike in crowds at the beginning of the year, at a time when 95% of major school districts in the United States were in session.

He went on to indicate that crowd levels averaged around a 7 on the TouringPlans scale, which was higher than the entirety of the summer season (Memorial Day to Labor Day) with posted wait times that were around 25% inflated year-over-year. What I found most fascinating about Len’s analysis is that the biggest abnormalities in crowds were occurring on weekdays rather than weekends.

Len offers a couple of explanations that I think are totally on the money: the improving economy, consumer confidence resulting from the tax cut, and Disney manipulating capacity. Obviously, we agree with the economic explanations; we already wrote a verbose article on that topic and won’t retread that ground here.

In an effort to test the theory about Disney manipulating capacity, one thing TouringPlans did was send researchers to the parks to see if there was decreased operational hourly ride capacity by counting guests exiting attractions. What they discovered was that many rides had significantly lower operational hourly ride capacity than normal.

Side note: we’ve explained this before, but many Walt Disney World attractions have a huge difference between theoretical hourly ride capacity (THRC), which is how many guests could be cycled through assuming 100% efficiency, and operational hourly ride capacity (OHRC), which is the “real world” number a ride can expect to achieve thanks to humans being human, and all of that.

THRC is like a magical rock troll: not something that exists in reality. Nothing operates at 100% efficiency, as guests can unload slowly, pauses have to be made for accessibility reasons, etc. Another reason that OHRC is often lower is because Disney manipulates it. In the past this has occurred for maintenance or because capacity was under-utilized. In the last couple of years, there have been reports of Disney manipulating OHRC to save operational costs–less wear and tear on attractions and less staffing.

The main explanation Len offers for Disney’s manipulation of capacity is a mandate for Parks & Resorts to decrease operating expenses. This makes complete sense, and is wholly consistent with what we’ve observed from Parks & Resorts for the past few years.

Walt Disney World has seen high capex numbers over the past few years, and there is no end in sight to the ballooning capex numbers between now and 2021. One way to help “offset” that to improve the appearance of Parks & Resort’s financials has been to create new revenue streams. Another has been to decrease opex.

This isn’t just a theory–Disney has stated as much in financial calls with investors. Disney getting over-zealous with off-season cost-savings by decreasing OHRC too much would not surprise me in the least. It wouldn’t be the first time Walt Disney World tried to cut too much fat and ended up hitting bone.

I respectfully disagree with Len’s theory that the manipulation of wait times at the beginning of the year is a scheme by Disney to justify the upcoming multi-day tiered price change (let’s be real–it’s going to be an increase, not just a “change,” for every season except value). This seems like a stretch, and to Len’s credit, he does call it tin foil territory.

Personally, I don’t think Disney needs a good (public-facing) reason to justify price increases…or any reason at all. So long as their internal financial projections justify it, they’ve got sufficient rationale (from their perspective). Guests will project their own explanations onto these increases, and an explicit rationale from Disney probably isn’t going to move the needle on the guest perception.

Most people who form strong opinions about price increases are going to be at far ends of a spectrum: super fans who will fall over themselves to offer a favorable explanation as to why they should pay more, or cynics who liken Disney to a money-grubbing tourist trap and will assume the worst. Everyone else is somewhere in the large middle ground of “indifference” (at least until they book a trip and have sticker shock).

Look back at this Orlando Sentinel article from several years ago that compiled statements from Universal and Disney justifying their price increases. I would (like to) think that most consumers would see through these statements as PR fluff. Likewise, I’d like to think the same of whatever rationale Disney proffers for this year’s and next year’s increases.

As with most PR fluff, I think justifications for price increases are likely to be forgotten by most consumers within a few days after the price increase announcement. Only the zealots are going to remember a statement about the goal of reducing crowding, and I’m guessing those people are going to visit no matter what. Given that, it seems like quite the elaborate ruse to cause an artificial spike in crowds for the sake of justifying a price increase.

Moreover, if comments on general news sources are any indication, most readers already assume Walt Disney World is crowded and unpleasant. Not only is it an elaborate ruse, it’s a detrimental one. Crowds no doubt impact guest satisfaction surveys, ratings given on sites like TripAdvisor, and long-term perceptions…which are reflected in things like reader comments.

So where does that leave us as to why it felt so busy at Walt Disney World early this year in what was traditionally an off-season time? Here, we can accept the conclusion that attractions were being operated at less than full capacity without accepting the premise that this was to artificially increase crowding. And we do.

There are a few reasons that this reduction of capacity could have occurred. First, there’s the cost-savings angle; operating attractions at lower capacity would require less staff and less maintenance, both of which would save the company money. This is an explanation that we also most definitely accept.

Second, after our ‘Is There an Off-Season?’ post, we heard from a couple of Cast Members working in the parks that internal attendance forecasts (that are used to determine staffing, among other things) were off, sometimes by nearly 10,000 guests per day.

I can’t even begin to explain why this would have occurred, but it could be that internal forecasts were intentionally lowballed by management because those numbers are what drives ride vehicle deployment and staffing levels at attractions. That’s a wild guess.

It could as simple as Disney being caught flat-footed. I think this is likely closer to the reality of what happened, and Disney whiffing on attendance projections compounded what otherwise might have been perceived as “reasonable” opex cuts to make for a situation that felt very crowded.

Finally, there’s the possibility that Walt Disney World was (or is) simply understaffed and they allocated staffing resources to weekends. In our Disney World Union Wage Negotiations post, we mention that there are 3,500+ unfilled positions at Walt Disney World, and aggressive sign-up bonuses are being offered in an attempt to fill them. Being short-staffed on the attractions side could cause a decrease in OHRC, which would explain a lot of this.

This is all interesting if you’re a Disney geek trying to explain why a time of year that has been consistently uncrowded was suddenly busy, but doesn’t really help if you’re planning a Walt Disney World vacation and wondering to what degree you can rely on crowd calendars.

The good news here is that since January and February, wait time numbers and crowd reports have more or less returned to normal. It would seem that normal and peak season crowds are far less likely to see such spikes, so if you’re traveling during a time of year that was not previously a ‘dead’ time of year, you will not see a comparable (percentage-wise) increase in wait times.

The bad news is that without having a clear picture on the why of the January and February spike, we cannot say with certainty whether other consistently uncrowded times of year like late August, September, and mid-November will see similar spikes. If this is simply a matter of Walt Disney World manipulating crowds to save on opex during times of year that are consistently uncrowded, those would be obvious targets. (Although I would hope and expect Disney to use a defter touch with future manipulations.) If other variables played a significant role in the early 2018 crowds, perhaps we won’t see comparable spikes in the fall. Unfortunately, without a definitive explanation as to why crowds spiked before, we’ll have to wait and see how things play out.

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

Have you noticed a more pronounced uptick in crowds recently? Do you have any theories as to why this is occurring? Do you agree or disagree with our take? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!


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