It started as a two week closure of Walt Disney World. Nearly 4 years later, the parks & resorts are still in the process of resuming normalcy and restoring the guest experience to its 2019 status. The next major milestone is on January 9 when several policies that were highly unpopular with guests will be rolled back. (Updated January 1, 2024.)
I can still remember where I was when Walt Disney World revealed it’d be closing, and the subsequent post-reopening announcement that all Advance Dining Reservations, Disney Dining Plans, experience bookings, and FastPass+ selections would be cancelled and that a park reservation system would be introduced. (In between, things got a little weird around here from time to time.)
While the first story became a headline heard ’round the world, it was inevitable. It’s the second announcement that caught me somewhat by surprise, and made abundantly clear that things are going to be very different at Walt Disney World for a while. Never in my wildest dreams did I expect the next few years to play out as they did.
Of course, I’m not naive. We speculated from the very beginning that the pandemic was a pretext for Walt Disney World to make a lot of controversial changes that they’ve wanted to make for a long time. It was our expectation that free FastPass would not return. That park reservations would stick around for the long haul for Annual Passholders.
We also suspected that Walt Disney World would use excuses to find ways to manipulate guest behavior and maximize revenue (…but not that they’d be so successful at it!). Heck, even that Bob Chapek was a placeholder CEO–a hatchet man brought in to make difficult and unpopular decisions that would help Disney emerge stronger despite losing billions of dollars in the process.
All of that was correct. But those were pretty easy and obvious predictions. Bob Chapek was a convenient fall guy who became reviled among fans, but several of those decisions would’ve been made no matter who was CEO. They were set in motion under the original Iger regime, and the company was waiting for an opportune time to implement the policies. The closure gave them that, but I strongly suspect much of that would’ve happened by the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, regardless.
What I did not expect was for the Disney Dining Plan to remain temporarily unavailable for so long. In my “defense,” I think Walt Disney World was slow to react in restoring this. Based on capacity and the exhaustion of pent-up demand, it should’ve returned by this April at the latest.
I also expected park reservations to be dropped much faster for regular ticket holders and especially on-site resort guests. Honestly, I still can’t believe that Walt Disney World didn’t make it an on-site hotel “perk” to not need park reservations starting in, like, Spring 2021. Same goes for the Park Hopping restriction. I’m absolutely shocked that both of these friction points have existed for so long for regular vacation-goers. They’ve long outlived their usefulness and are now, quite literally, counterproductive.
(I also think the release of the full 2024 Disneyland events calendar, for example, is a signal that Burbank has learned lessons from Walt Disney World’s slow pivot. The company doesn’t want to see a repeat of that when pent-up demand dies down in the California parks. But I digress.)
It should go without saying, but that’s why so much is changing as of January 9, 2024–because it’s become actively counterproductive. If per guest spending were still reaching its stratospheric heights of late 2021 and 2022, if attendance and resort occupancy were still through the roof, and if guests were begrudgingly accepting of these changes–complaining, but still voting with their wallets and visiting en masse–then nothing would be changing.
As is obvious to anyone with eyes, Walt Disney World hasn’t used these policies for health safety in over 2 years. When it became clear that this was no longer the case, the spin shifted to being about preserving the guest experience and ensuring that everyone who is able to enter the parks has a magical experience and makes memories that last a lifetime. Or so claimed dearly-departed CEO Bob Chapek.
Chapek routinely invoked fictional families from Seattle or Denver to defend the reservation system and other unpopular changes, insisting it was for the benefit of guests. (You’ve gotta hand it to Chapek–he had gall. I can’t imagine getting up there and telling a bunch of people who hate me that the things I’m doing that make them hate me are actually for their own good!) This might sound plausible if you take it entirely at face value and don’t do any critical thinking.
If you’ve visited Walt Disney World in the last year or two, there’s a strong chance your anecdotal experience with congestion and crowds likely singlehandedly refutes those claims about “guaranteeing a great guest experience.” But we’ve been over all of this before in Disney Doesn’t Want Lower Crowds.
This may seem like a superfluous lesson in recent Walt Disney World history, but it’s important for understanding the why of what happened–and why it’s changing in 2024. The narrative since his return has been that Bob Iger wasn’t wild about how things had gone under Chapek and the degree to which there was disillusionment among fans.
For whatever it’s worth, I do believe at least part of the official narrative. Leadership on the ground had sounded the alarm about souring sentiment and anemic guest satisfaction scores starting in late 2021 and continuing into 2022. By all accounts, Bob Chapek was not responsive to this, taking the perspective that guests are in control of pricing and that demand is the ultimate indicator of satisfaction. (This isn’t some secret–listen to his interviews!)
He certainly is not without fault, but to his credit, Bob Iger is much more responsive to actual fan feedback beyond ‘voting with wallet’ behavior. While a number of the changes are certainly circumstantial–the backside of pent-up demand–I do think they wouldn’t have occurred with the same promptness in the absence of Iger and some wouldn’t have happened at all. He may bear a lot of responsibility for the unpopular changes, but he also deserves credit for their demise. Other leaders would’ve stayed the course and let satisfaction suffer.
Regardless, here’s a rundown of everything changing in January 2024 and thereafter…
Refurbishment ‘Season’ Starts
Let’s get the negative news out of the way first. One simple trick for telling when Disney expects winter off-season to start is by looking at the Walt Disney World Refurbishment Calendar and seeing when the water ride(s) are scheduled for downtime. Right now, that means Kali River Rapids, which is closing for its annual closure starting January 8, 2024.
Not only that, but Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster was a relatively last-minute addition to the calendar and also closes on January 8, 2024. There are a bunch of other refurbishments in January and February, which is a sure sign that the off-season has arrived. (This works similarly in the late summer and early fall, but sometimes refurbishment schedules are dictated by necessity–not crowds.)
Disney Dining Plan Returns
For arrivals beginning on January 9, the Quick-Service Disney Dining Plan (QSDDP) and standard or regular Disney Dining Plan (DDP) are now bookable–while the Deluxe Disney Dining Plan (DxDDP) and Disney Dining Plan Plus (DDP+) remain unavailable…for now. See our Ultimate Guide to the 2024 Disney Dining Plan for everything you need to know about the DDP, including whether it’s likely to be worth the money for you.
Although it’s very much a love-it-or-hate-it thing, the Disney Dining Plan is neither inherently good nor bad. It can be a great tool or a terrible waste of money depending upon how it’s used. For some people, the Disney Dining Plan is great. For others, it’s awful. Like so many things at Walt Disney World and in life, it’s not one-size-fits-all.
Although we’re hardly DDP diehards, we’re glad to see the Disney Dining Plan returning. Our major hope is that this leads to even more normalcy on the food front, as it’s one of the few areas at Walt Disney World that is still far from firing on all cylinders as compared to pre-closure.
Theme Park Reservations (Mostly) End
Theme park reservations are required to enter a theme park through January 8, 2024. Starting with visits on January 9, 2024, theme park reservations will no longer be required for date-based tickets. A date-based ticket requires you to choose a start date when you purchase. For other admission types, theme park reservations may be required.
If you’re a regular tourist who isn’t an Annual Passholder, there’s about a 99% chance you will not need park reservations for Walt Disney World starting on January 9, 2024. Pretty much all vacation packages include date-based tickets, with the only notable exclusions being student groups, tour groups, convention guests, youth sport event guests, military tickets, and (again) Annual Passes.
Park Hopping Restrictions Retired
Beginning January 9, 2024, guests with a ticket with Park Hopper benefits or an Annual Pass will be able to once again visit another Walt Disney World theme park at ANY TIME OF DAY during park hours. As a reminder, since returning in 2021, Park Hopper access has only been available after 2 p.m. each day. Now, there will be no more waiting!
The only limit going forward will be capacity limitations. This means that, in theory, you could get turned away upon arrival if your destination is already hit its attendance limit–but that was true even with the 2 p.m. Park Hopping rule. To my recollection, this has only ever been an issue once in the post-reopening era–on Magic Kingdom for a few hours on October 1, on the 50th Anniversary.
On the busiest days going forward, Walt Disney World will once again use capacity closures and prioritize on-site guests for admission. I can’t even recall the last time on-site guests were shut out of the parks during a phased closure. So if you’re worried about this happening with reservations being removed…don’t. (You really don’t want to be there for a capacity closure, regardless.)
Annual Passes Get “Good to Go”
Already, Annual Passholders may visit the theme parks after 2 pm without a theme park reservation, except on Saturdays and Sundays at Magic Kingdom. Applicable pass blockout dates apply.
Walt Disney World also is introducing “good-to-go days” for Annual Passholders and Cast Members starting on January 11, 2024. That’s when the first calendar of good-to-go days will be published, not the first good-to-go days. It’s unknown when they’ll actually begin, but around that date certainly makes sense–it’s when the winter off-season arrives.
On these “good-to-go days,” Annual Passholders and Cast Members may visit theme parks without needing a park reservation. Once introduced, Walt Disney World will roll out these “good-to-go days” on an ongoing basis. Our expectation is that a majority of dates in 2024 end up being good-to-go at Walt Disney World.
Lightning Lane Advance Booking
In response to guest feedback, advance booking of Lightning Lanes is coming to Walt Disney World in 2024. While the aforementioned changes will all go into effect on January 9, it’s unlikely that pre-arrival Lightning Lane reservations will be on that list. We nevertheless wanted to mention it because it was announced alongside the other changes, so there’s been a lot of confusion and many fans are assuming this will also happen on January 9, 2024.
Our expectation is that it will not. From what we’ve heard, Walt Disney World made the decision to offer advance booking of Lightning Lanes before figuring out the logistics, and there’s no reason to believe it’ll be ready in less than a month at this point. Given how little is still known, it wouldn’t be surprising if the new system doesn’t launch until Spring 2024. Our guess is that the goal is to have this ready for Spring Break, which would mean a launch of early March 2024.
Pretty much everything else is also unknown about advance booking of Lightning Lanes, including how many days prior to arrival guests will be able to make ride reservations. Our guess is that it’ll be a much shorter timeframe than the old FastPass+ system, but far enough in advance that people with weeklong trips can book Lightning Lanes for the duration of their trips ahead of traveling. It’s also unknown what the reservation limits will be, but our guess is 3 to start, and likely with a tier system for some of the parks. In all likelihood, this is going to look a lot like FastPass+ but paid.
Whenever it does change, it’s likely that advance booking of Lightning Lanes will (again) radically overhaul the entire line-skipping system. We also wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if Walt Disney World overhauls DAS again, as it sure seems like the DAS Abuse Crackdown from last month was simply an opening salvo.
As discussed at great length in our Guide to the 2024 Free Dining Deal at Walt Disney World, we’re expecting a return of that popular promotion. In fact, the prospect of Free Dining probably explains (at least) half of the excitement for the return of the Disney Dining Plan. Can’t have Free Dining without the DDP!
We will be closely monitoring both the 2024 Walt Disney World discount situation and advance booking of Lightning Lanes, keeping our ears open for more news about both. Should something–anything–be released or rumored, we’ll send you an alert if you sign up for our FREE Walt Disney World newsletter.
How do you feel about Walt Disney World’s changes that start on January 9, 2024? If you’re a tourist, do these changes give you welcome freedom and spontaneity? Does this not go far enough for you–do you want to see more restored to 2019 normal? Think Walt Disney World regrets requiring resort guests and theme park ticket holders to make reservations, or implementing any other changes? 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!