Autumn Off-Season Arrives Early at Disney World

After wait times and crowds skyrocketed during the middle of last month and peaked at the end of July, the off-season has arrived early at Walt Disney World. This post will take a look at August attendance thus far, and offer theories for the decline.

Obviously, the best explanation is the most obvious one: that this happens every year at Walt Disney World around the time when school goes back into session. However, the decline began earlier than normal in August 2021, so that’s not the singular explanation.

When looking at historical data, we throw out last year entirely. Wait times increased heading into the fall off-season last year even as hours were cut, but the big difference there is that attendance sloped up from the low lows of July all the way to Thanksgiving. It was a total anomaly, likely due to more and more people growing comfortable visiting theme parks.

Rather than theorize about the decreasing crowds, we should probably first provide supporting wait time data for that underlying premise. Otherwise, we’ll get the inevitable “I go every year and last week was the busiest it’s ever been!” comments. (This is not to diminish current crowds–it’s still busy, hot, and the lack of FastPass exacerbates everything–just to say wait times have fallen significantly since late July.)

Let’s start with a look at Magic Kingdom crowds. For context since the graph is a bit difficult to read, the two highest red bars on the far right side are July 27 and July 28 (all graphs courtesy of Thrill-Data.com).

July 28 owns the dubious distinction of having 2021’s peak wait times thus far. It’s also the date we did our most recent Magic Kingdom Rope Drop Report: Busiest Day of Year at Park Opening. I’m very glad guests have received a slight reprieve from the crowds since then, as that was miserable.

While attendance is still elevated, average wait times are down considerably since their summer highs. From 50 minutes at the end of July to 27 minutes on August 13, 2021.

The slowdown is even more pronounced at Animal Kingdom.

The average wait time there on July 28 was 57 minutes. This week, averages have ranged from 27 minutes to 31 minutes.

Hollywood Studios is also seeing lower wait times, but the fall-off has not been quite as extreme as Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom. The July 28 average of 51 minutes dropped to 33 minutes on August 13. For this entire week, DHS averaged a 40 minute wait.

When it comes to “feels like” crowds, DHS gives Animal Kingdom a run for its money. Not only are huge swaths of the park hot and unshaded, but the lack of entertainment and other filler leads to an even greater perception of high crowd levels. (In other words, even when the data shows lower crowds at DHS, we hear “no way, it was bad” from readers. They’re not wrong.)

Then there’s Epcot. Even when the other parks saw soaring attendance last month, Epcot was relatively flat. We explained our theory behind this in last month’s Epcot Crowd & Construction Report. Basically, it’s because the artificial capacity caps that were redistributing attendance to Epcot earlier in the spring and summer are largely gone. Demand is settling into more natural patterns, which means fewer people are “forced” to visit Epcot for lack of other alternatives.

Nevertheless, it is interesting that not even the Epcot Food & Wine Festival can buoy crowds or coax out locals. The above numbers should also help explain why Walt Disney World is doing a full month of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure previews and opening Space 220 Restaurant in September. It’s likely an effort to pull forward demand from locals, freeing up October capacity for tourists. (And/or simply capturing extra visits from locals.)

Finally, let’s smooth out all of those parks and numbers with a look at average weekly wait times across the entirety of Walt Disney World. The last two bars are the first two weeks of August; the two bars before that are the final two weeks of July.

Thus far, wait times have only retreated to their mid-June levels. However, that’s what we’ve previously described as the “sweet spot” when capacity was still capped at a low level (and many days were fully booked) but attraction efficiency had dramatically improved. Now, there is effectively no limit on attendance–the entire Park Pass reservation calendar for August is green. Moreover, wait times will likely continue to decrease. So, what gives? Why have off-season crowds arrived already?

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 preparing for the school year.

As for the more pronounced and earlier than normal slowdown, that could 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. 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.

None of this is a huge surprise and would’ve been foreseeable months ago. In fact, our Pent-Up Demand at Walt Disney World: Scorching Summer or Full Fall? was published on March 9 and made all of these very predictions.

We’ve since updated both our August 2021 Crowd Calendar and September 2021 Crowd Calendar and more or less reiterated the same sentiment in those, with the only real wild card being the resumption of Annual Pass sales. (I think the initial impact there will be fairly negligible.)

However, pent-up demand fizzling out is not the only explanation. As we’ve noted elsewhere, trip cancellations have been on the rise in recent weeks, driven by Florida’s record case numbers and the reinstated indoor mask rule. It should go without saying, but 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. In some scenarios, those are outpacing new bookings for the coming months. Of course, that’s entirely anecdotal and constrained to who we know–but the sample size is large enough that it’s likely close to accurate.

However, it does conflict with what Disney CEO Bob Chapek said on the recent earnings call, when asked about the Delta variant’s impact on bookings. He stated that park reservation demand for the current quarter is ahead of last quarter’s attendance numbers and the company is “still bullish” about Walt Disney World going forward.

As we pointed out in analysis of Disney’s earnings call, that quarter-to-quarter comparison isn’t apples to apples. The last quarter encompassed April through June, which had lower capacity caps and many fully booked days, meaning attendance was artificially limited. At the beginning of the quarter, that limit was 35%. It was significantly higher (probably at least 65% or 70%) by July. So of course the actual attendance for the current quarter would be higher. That doesn’t mean actual forward-looking demand is still as high.

Decreased demand and rising travel trepidation is corroborated by…pretty much everything else. Per ABC News, TSA has reported lower screenings, airlines have warned of growing cancellations, airfare is dropping, and the purchase of travel insurance is on the rise. (Nevertheless, travel numbers–from TSA screenings to airfare–are all up sharply as compared to last year at this time.)

Most notably, Southwest–which might as well be the unofficial airline of people visiting Walt Disney World–warned investors that it’s seeing mounting cancellations and slower bookings due to the Delta variant. Other airlines have expressed similar sentiment in their earnings calls. It’s to the point that Southwest said it probably won’t be profitable for the quarter, even as demand for the upcoming Labor Day holiday remains strong.

Turning to Americans themselves, the University of Michigan’s consumer sentiment reading saw a dramatic drop in early August as the Delta variant increased fears. The consumer sentiment index tumbled to 70.2 in its preliminary August reading. That is down more than 13% from July’s result of 81.2 and below even the April 2020 mark of 71.8 that was lowest of the pandemic era.

Morning Consult has been gauging when consumers will return to normal activities, like attending movie theaters, concert venues, and amusement parks. After bottoming out at 15% in the beginning of January, that number now soared to 51% of the population on Independence Day. It has since retreated to 44%. As with airline numbers, that’s still significantly higher than last year at this time–nearly triple–but it’s a quarter-to-quarter decline when continued improvement was expected prior to the Delta variant raining on the parade.

Purely speculative, but I suspect there is even more travel trepidation for Florida than other states. While the state benefitted from its early reopening this spring, the reverse is likely true due to rising cases now. Orange County officials have noted that they’re seeing convention and group booking cancellations. It’ll be interesting to see what the Orlando International Airport traffic statistics show for July v. August.

Ultimately, this bodes well for those with Walt Disney World vacations planned for the remainder of this month and September 2021. I don’t want to get out over my skis too much, but it should give some “breathing room” to crowds in October through December 2021, too.

The reasons for my, let’s call it, restrained optimism there are two-fold. First, we were previously forecasting that 3 month stretch to have Walt Disney World’s worst-ever crowds, so even a 10-20% 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.

Conversely, 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 this month. It seems probable the indoor mask rule will be lifted within a couple of months. Word will get out about low crowds, especially when they really bottom out in mid-September. However, all of that will be too late to significantly impact Fall 2021 bookings. To be sure, some people will take last minute trips, but in large part, the damage is already done. While I wouldn’t necessarily bet on it since Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary is such a wildcard, it would not be surprising if 2021 wait times peaked on July 28.

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 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!

67 Responses to “Autumn Off-Season Arrives Early at Disney World”
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