Labor Day weekend is the last hurrah for summer crowds before off-season begins at Walt Disney World. Our Labor Day Crowd Predictionsanticipated high attendance, long lines, and elevated wait times. After experiencing the ‘eye of the storm’ crowd-wise, let’s take a look at the holiday’s peak.
For starters, our expectation for heavy attendance was predicated on a few observable factors, which are relevant here because they’ll impact future holidays at Walt Disney World. Basically, the same story is likely to play out over Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years.
First, all hotels were sold out at Walt Disney World for Friday and Saturday nights. Same goes for Disney Vacation Club resorts. Third party hotels in the Bonnet Creek and Disney Springs areas did have availability, as did off-site properties, but options were limited.
Second, Disney Park Pass availability for Labor Day weekend was virtually non-existent. As you’re undoubtedly aware by now, there are three “buckets” of inventory for these theme park reservations. All of these showed “no parks available” for Saturday and Sunday, meaning all four parks were essentially sold out to capacity over the peak of Labor Day weekend.
These Walt Disney World-specific data points were reinforced by U.S. travel data. That included roundtrip flight reservations for September 4-8, which showed Orlando as the #3 destination (as compared to #14 last year). Likewise, 5 of the top 10 hotel reservation cities were in Florida, with four of them–Orlando, Lake Buena Vista, Bay Lake, and Kissimmee–near Walt Disney World. All of these variables culminated into what we expected to be a crowdpocalypse scenario at Walt Disney World…
If that crowdpocalypse term sounds familiar, it’s because we used it to describe the situation when Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge opened last year at Disneyland. In particular, as we asked Why Are Star Wars Land Crowds So Low?It’s sort of the same story here. Crowdpocalypse? No.
There are some pretty significant differences here, though. There was data to “prove” that Walt Disney World would be busy for Labor Day weekend, rather than just speculation about impending doom. Nor did we drone on for months about how busy Labor Day would be only to be proven wrong. There’s also the reality that unlike the opening months of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, Walt Disney World was not a ghost town over Labor Day weekend.
One thing that should be clear from our recent Magic Kingdom Weekend Report: Low Crowds & Higher Waitsis that photos can be misleading right now. In that, we share a series of images with lines spilling outside attractions and into extended queues. Then minutes later, totally empty walkways.
Additionally, photos can be used to further agendas. If the narrative or preconceived perspective is that Labor Day crowds will be hellaciously bad, there’s a tendency to find evidence to reinforce that. It’s not necessarily anything malicious or duplicitous–it’s a subconscious thing we all do to varying degrees.
Accordingly, rather than starting with my own anecdotal perceptions of crowds (those will follow), we’ll begin with a look at the objective numbers, courtesy of Thrill-Data.com:
First up, Magic Kingdom.
In all of these, what we’re doing is comparing Saturday of Labor Day weekend posted wait times to previous Saturdays in August. The blue line in each is Labor Day weekend. As you can see, wait times started higher Labor Day weekend in Magic Kingdom, before normalizing.
Next, Animal Kingdom.
We’re choosing Saturday for all parks for the sake of consistency and because it didn’t rain. Saturday was really hot, but that’s nothing new. (Sunday was similarly hot, but two heavy rain showers could skew mid-afternoon and early-evening numbers.)
Finally, Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
As you can see from these graphs, wait times ranged from slightly below average to slightly above average. Wait times over an hour were pretty rare, including for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Avatar Flight of Passage. With even a modest amount of strategy, you could easily “beat” these crowds.
In terms of my anecdotal or observational perspective, crowds were surprisingly low. In part, this is because I was bracing myself for the worst. After seeing all of the booking data, I expected a terrible weekend that would result in more unpleasant and embarrassing headlines for Walt Disney World.
Fearing the worst, we actually debated whether to go at all. While we have curiosity about crowd patterns and want to report on them, our health and safety is paramount. Accordingly, we stalked social media on Saturday morning, watching photos and videos of crowds, assessing whether we wanted to visit. When things didn’t seem too bad, we headed to Disney’s Hollywood Studios on Saturday afternoon, just missing the second Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance drop.
By that point, Disney’s Hollywood Studios was a ghost town. The least or second-least busy we’ve seen it since reopening, with minimal wait times for everything. In fact, that graph doesn’t tell the full story because, despite posted wait times, most attractions were a walk-on after 4 pm. (Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway being the exception.)
It helped that Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance had its most efficient day since reopening, getting through all 128 boarding groups hours before park closing. It speeding through the virtual queue plus low wait times on other attractions plus not much open in the park plus the heat probably resulted in guests heading for the exits earlier than normal at DHS.
Our experience was largely the same at Magic Kingdom on Sunday. We again erred on the side of caution and waited to see morning crowd photos “just in case.” When those didn’t look too bad, we headed to the park. (Right in time for the sky to get ugly and us to get drenched!)
Posted wait times were definitely longer than our post-reopening weekday visits, but pretty typical for recent weekends. (We should note that even weekends have been far below what’s normal for summer.)
At Magic Kingdom, the longest lines were literally for the new snacks and novelty food packaging. The Madame Leota Sipper at Sleepy Hollow is the hot thing right now, and its line had numerous switchbacks and at times stretched along the walkway back to Fantasyland.
In both parks, some gift shops had lines to enter. I’m not really sure what the deal was with those–I’m guessing a new merchandise release given that the eBay pirates were out in full force–and I didn’t care enough to find out. The crowds and wait times were low to moderate; that’s what matters. I doubt anyone’s Thanksgiving or Christmas week trip hinges on the status of lines for some random store.
There was plenty of evidence that Walt Disney World was prepared for something worse. Temporary switchbacks and new “please wait here” markers had been added to many attractions at both Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
The queues for Pirates of the Caribbean, Space Mountain, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster, and other attractions winded through their respective lands. In some cases, Disney got clever with minimal space, using a labyrinth of switchbacks and markers that randomly weaved through the parks. None of that proved necessary.
So…what happened? Clearly, “average post-reopening weekend” was not what all of the data points suggested. From hotel reservations to Park Pass availability to travel trends, there was every reason to believe Walt Disney World would be slammed this weekend.
There are some plausible theories. It’s possible that this is partly a redux of the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge at Disneyland–locals feared crowds, so they stayed home. However, if that were the explanation, we would’ve seen cancellations of Park Pass reservations and availability open back up. That did not happen. So that is highly unlikely as the primary factor.
Cutting to the chase, the most likely scenario is that Walt Disney World leaders feared the worst, and restricted Park Pass inventory below the norm. While we don’t know the exact capacity cap in use right now, we know it’s 20-30% of normal levels–and this wouldn’t be the first time Walt Disney World further limited attendance (under those levels) since using this reservation system.
This would explain a lot–including why availability opened back up two weeks ago after previously being fully booked for every park. Rather than getting greedy and wanting to pack the parks, that release was probably a sign that Disney had been really cautious with Labor Day weekend inventory prior to that.
This would also explain why Walt Disney World just released more Park Pass availability for all four parks across all three buckets for Labor Day itself. Again, it probably isn’t about a desire to pack the parks, but instead a minor correction from an overly-cautious approach.
Disney leaders likely realized the previous two days were a little too conservative, and attendance could easily be increased by 10% or whatever without negatively impacting the guest experience or safety.
This is great news all around for anyone who does their homework and plans ahead prior to visiting Walt Disney World (if you’re reading this, that’s you). Annual Passholders had the opportunity to book Labor Day weekend reservations within the last couple of weeks, which is more than can be said for weekends in October.
Likewise, everyone staying on-site in Walt Disney World hotels had ample opportunity to make Park Pass reservations so long as they did so two weeks prior to traveling–and Disney’s email reminders would’ve been sent out well before then.
This second point is significant because it demonstrates in practice something we’ve been reiterating for years (usually with regard to construction of new ones): Disney-owned hotels are not the cause of attendance problems. Every single on-site hotel could be booked to capacity and every single one of those guests could go to the parks and that would still constitute less than 50% of daily theme park attendance.
While this does not definitively prove that–not all hotels are currently operating and theme parks are only operating at 20-30% of normal capacity–it comes as close as we’ll ever get. It also bodes well for guests traveling Thanksgiving, Christmas, and other peak periods when the resorts are likely to book up.
The biggest loser here is the uninformed visitor. People planning last-minute or arriving day-of to purchase tickets only to be turned away because the parks are at capacity and no Park Passes are available. That might sound like heresy to diehard Walt Disney World planners, but this does happen–more often than you’d probably think. (The fact that Disney increased signage on Sunday about the parks being ‘sold out’ suggests it happened a decent amount on Saturday.)
It’s unfortunate that this has to happen to anyone. Thinking about the disappointed kids missing out on their first visit is sad–we’re not saying anyone “deserves” to be shut out. But the unfortunate reality of limited capacity is that it’s going to happen. And the most equitable system is probably the one that ‘punishes’ those who don’t take 10-15 minutes to Google current policies right now, knowing that virtually nothing in the world is operating as normal.
The alternative is the chaotic scene that played out at Universal Orlando over the same days. Those parks do not have a reservation system, instead using a first-come, first-served system. Universal Studios Florida, Islands of Adventure, and Volcano Bay water park all hit capacity both days of the weekend and the crowd photos looked…not good.
Same thing happened with both CityWalk and Disney Springs (so Walt Disney World was not immune to crowds this weekend). Obviously, those malls also do not use a reservation system for entry.
Here’s where I need to admit that I was wrong. For weeks, I advocated for Universal Orlando’s regular entry and against theme park reservations. My argument was that Disney Park Pass would seldom be necessary, and instead add unnecessary friction to the process that would discourage visitors and further suppress attendance. (Sarah never agreed with me, for what it’s worth.)
That argument remains valid, but this weekend lays bare the pitfalls to such an approach. Disney Park Pass might be overly conservative and a hassle, but it underscores how Walt Disney World is emphasizing safety right now. Without question, Disney could see higher attendance and make more money by simply using a first-come, first-served system.
However, that would be reactive instead of proactive, and result in the scenes like those observed at Universal Orlando over the weekend. Universal was justifiably skewered in theme park circles on social media, but thus far we haven’t seen any mainstream coverage of the colossal crowds. (And if it does happen, we wouldn’t be surprised if the headlines include the word “Disney” while showcasing photos of Universal.)
When it comes to media coverage, Disney has a higher profile and is a larger target than Universal. We saw the same thing play out when Walt Disney World reopened right as Florida cases spiked. Disney fans might malign this practice as unfair, but it’s worth remembering that Disney also benefits tremendously from this type of coverage and its perception as a leader in safety. Live by the sword, die by the sword.
Ultimately, we’ve been very pleased by what we’ve seen from crowds at Walt Disney World this holiday weekend. This makes us more optimistic about the Christmas-time holidays, which we previously recommended avoiding. While it’s possible that Disney will change its approach and elevate attendance caps too much, they’ve consistently prioritized safety thus far and there’s no reason to expect that to change.
We still find ourselves regularly annoyed by the Disney Park Pass system and think it could use tweaks to make it more guest and Annual Passholder-friendly. However, I’ve been wrong about Park Pass enough at this point that I’m now resigned to view it as a “necessary evil” that has some pretty tremendous upsides. Finally, you might notice that EPCOT is conspicuously absent from this Labor Day crowd report. That’s because we’re going there today, and because it has been something of an outlier. Not to the point of safety concerns or even heavy crowds–but this post is already long, so we’ll address it separately tomorrow.
Did you visit Walt Disney World this weekend? What did you think of the crowds? Any parks or times of day noticeably worse than the others? Does this leave you optimistic about the Christmas season holiday weeks? More forgiving of the Disney Park Pass reservation system’s many woes? Do you agree or disagree with anything in our report? 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!