Will Disney World’s Low Crowds Continue?

It’s no surprise that crowds are low at Walt Disney World right now. In Summer Is Not Peak Season at Walt Disney World, we’ve covered how this has been the “new off-season” for the last few years at Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and especially Epcot. In this post, we’ll look at how things are now–and offer predictions as to whether Walt Disney World’s low crowds will continue this fall and Christmas.

At the beginning of this year, we predicted that Summer 2020 was likely to be one of the least-busy stretches of the year at Walt Disney World. This was despite Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway being open, and our expectation that Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure would likewise debut prior to summer. That was also well before the prospect of the parks closing was even on our radar, which obviously changed things dramatically.

Shortly before the parks reopened, the big question was whether there’d be a surge in crowds due to pent-up demand and a spike in wait times due to rides operating at reduced capacity…or not. Here’s what we’ve observed thus far on numerous visits to all four of Walt Disney World’s theme parks in the last 2+ weeks since they reopened, plus what we expect in August, September, October, November, and December…

With regard to the above question, regular readers of this blog know that we’ve been firmly in the “or not” camp for a while. Back at the beginning of April, we published How Crowded Will Walt Disney World Be When It Reopens? That predicted crowds would drop at least 50% for the remainder of the year (even more for October), and that was as we made several best case scenario assumptions. As should be obvious by now, nothing about this has played out in manner that could be described as the “best case.”

In other words, low crowds and depressed attendance was easily foreseeable months in advance, albeit not to the extent we’re now seeing. There’s a lot of new information and circumstances have changed pretty significantly in the last couple of months, which will have ramifications for the remainder of 2020 (more on that below).

More recently (in the beginning of June), we predicted that after a brief period of pent-up demand was exhausted, organic demand would be low at Walt Disney World for the next few years. This is something we’ve covered in numerous posts, most notably our Dawn of a Temporary Disney Era: Low Crowds & Prices.

Our expectation that overall demand will plummet was (and is) predicated upon a variety of factors, including but not limited to health & safety concerns, Florida’s growing case numbers, various state quarantine rules (read this before booking), mandatory mask opposition, unemployment levels, economic uncertainty, high heat & humidity, general travel trepidation, and Annual Pass cancellations. On top of that, many guests feel that the value proposition simply isn’t there with shorter park hours, reduced entertainment, and more.

What’s a bit more inexplicable is how Walt Disney World is handling Park Pass reservations. If you’ve seen our AP updates, you’re no doubt aware that dates and parks have fully booked up for Annual Passholders, sometimes over a month in advance.

However, it’s important to reiterate that Disney is using three separate “buckets” for Park Pass inventory, and the ones for resort guests and theme park ticket holders have been green for the entirety of the calendar. So it’s more a matter of Walt Disney World artificially restricting AP access to the parks, and not fully reallocating unused resort and day guest availability to APs, rather than intense demand.

Walt Disney World’s reluctance in reallocating Park Pass inventory has been a point of frustration for Annual Passholders. While we’ve felt this ourselves, we also have to laud Disney in their cautiousness. After scathing headlines and unflattering social media commentary from reopening weekend, Walt Disney World is undoubtedly sensitive to negative PR right now. Restricting attendance probably is a savvy and safe course of action until Florida’s numbers subside.

The point of this is not to critique Disney Park Pass policies. We’ve done that enough elsewhere. It’s to point out that even though many dates in some parks are “fully booked” for Annual Passholders, that’s an artificial constraint that isn’t indicative of how busy the parks actually are. Conversely, even ‘opening up the floodgates’ to Annual Passholders would have a negligible impact on crowds outside of Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which is a different beast entirely.

Suffice to say, over the course of the last couple weeks, Walt Disney World has consistently been the least crowded we’ve ever experienced. Less busy than the 1990s when “times were different.” Less busy than at the peak of the Great Recession. Less busy than immediately before or after Hurricane Irma.

And while capacity is capped, this phenomenon is largely occurring due to a lack of demand, not due to limitations Walt Disney World is imposing on attendance.

You’ve no doubt seen photos by now that show how an eerily uncrowded Walt Disney World. As is probably clear, these are not flukes or Photoshop trickery–you could enter Magic Kingdom this afternoon and maybe see a dozen other guests on Main Street.

The same is true in various areas of every park. You could do bioluminescence angels on the ground in Pandora (not recommended), skip through Toy Story Land (toss-up), or have a lightsaber duel under the Millennium Falcon (highly recommended), without being stepped on, getting weird looks, or decapitating an innocent bystander, as the case may be.

This is mostly a byproduct of the low crowds, but the lack of virtual queues–which allow guests to effectively be in two places at once–also play a role.

It also seems that most guests are avoiding the scorching wide-open outdoor areas, and instead spending time in the comparative comfort of shops, restaurants, or attraction lines.

Speaking of lines, if you’ve been watching the My Disney Experience app, the low wait times you’ve seen should largely speak for themselves.

For readers who are normal and don’t stalk the My Disney Experience app from thousands of miles away (not that there’s anything wrong with that), these numbers have generally been low.

Even those generally low numbers could use added context. One thing to note with regard to wait times is that they’re inflated across the board at Walt Disney World right now. This is typically true, but maybe by about 10-15% on average.

Now, it’s not uncommon to see posted wait times that are double the actual number, if not more. Tower of Terror, Splash Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain, and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster have been the biggest offenders in our anecdotal experiences.

The good news there is that the actual wait times at most attractions are easy to eyeball. Due to physical distancing, many lines spill outside their entrance if the wait is actually long. In addition, the lack of FastPass+ makes everything more predictable.

Rather than going by posted wait times, we’ve primarily just been looking at the queues wherever possible and jumping into line when the wait appears short. There’s a bit of a learning curve with this, but by your second or third day in the parks, you get the hang of it.

The vast majority of attractions we’ve done have been walk-ons or under 10 minute waits. This includes headliner attractions like Avatar Flight of Passage, Slinky Dog Dash, Soarin, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, and more.

The longest wait we’ve experienced thus far was for Jungle Cruise, and that was more a result of incredibly low capacity and boat cleaning than it was guest demand. (For unrelated reasons, we’d skip Jungle Cruise going forward.)

As we’ve ‘found our groove’ visiting the parks, we’ve done more late arrivals, arriving after midday and staying until park closing. We’ve already shared some of these in our various park reports, but want to reiterate how well this is going.

It’s very clear that most guests arrive around or shortly after park opening, get everything done relatively quickly due to the low crowds and relatively short waits, and leave by mid-afternoon due to that plus the oppressively hot and humid weather.

Consequently, by showing up in the last few hours the parks are open, you can do pretty much everything with wait times of under 15 minutes. In the last two hours Animal Kingdom is open, Flight of Passage wait times are so low that you can literally re-ride with zero wait.

The only park where this has not proven true for us is Epcot. Due to that park’s appeal among locals (and the fact that it’s open until 9 pm), it seems to be the primary ‘after work’ draw with larger crowds in the evening than the morning. Consequently, we’ve had to wait in line for ~15 minutes at Frozen Ever After and Test Track after 8 pm. Short waits by normal standards, but long by current ones. (At least Soarin’ and Living with the Land have been walk-ons at night.)

Another thing that’s worth noting here is that weekends are the “busiest” time to visit Walt Disney World. This is a trend that will undoubtedly be true throughout the remainder of 2020. This is the case because weekends are the best time for Floridians to visit, and they currently make up a larger than normal percentage of all guests.

We’ve visited on weekends a few times already, and the difference is noticeable. It’s still nothing that would qualify as busy or even moderately crowded by normal standards. If we were using a numerical scale, weekdays would be a .5 out of 10 and weekends would be 2/10 or 3/10 depending upon the park.

This might leave you wondering what this could mean for crowds in the coming months. Frankly, we don’t anticipate significant changes between now and December 2020.

Attendance will undoubtedly tick upwards, but we expect that to be driven by the lifting of Cast Member blockouts and more Park Pass availability being allocated to Annual Passholders. The big result of that will be a greater chasm between the low weekday crowds and higher (but still historically low) weekend numbers.

It’s doubtful that tourists will return to Walt Disney World in significant numbers for the remainder of 2020. As covered in the commentary section of yesterday’s Walt Disney World Delays Resort Reopening Timeline post, occupancy rates have actually been falling for the remainder of 2020–cancellations are outpacing new bookings.

This is not particularly surprising. Anecdotally, we’ve regularly heard from countless readers over the course of the last few weeks that Florida’s rising case numbers are giving them pause or have already caused them to cancel. Suffice to say, the real world circumstances in Florida are dramatically different now than they were when Walt Disney World announced its reopening plans in late May.

The silver lining there is that since peaking in mid-June, virtually all indicators have been trending in the right direction for Orange County (where Walt Disney World is located) for several weeks now. The county was ahead of the curve on masks and restricting bars after tracing several outbreaks to Orlando nightclubs. Universal and Disney have undoubtedly helped, setting a precedent for safety standards and habituating locals to effective mitigation measures.

However, Orange County is located within Florida, where things still do not look good on the whole. That’s what makes the headlines and shapes public opinion. We’ve been hoping Florida would do more to get those numbers trending in the right direction, but that has yet to happen. Perhaps as more major businesses require masks (and actually enforce the rules) or once the weather cools down and more Floridians get out of the air-conditioning the situation will improve.

Either way, time is running out and we’re nearing the point where the rest of the year is a lost cause for Walt Disney World from a tourist perspective. On average, Walt Disney World vacations are booked 5-6 months in advance. In order to salvage November and December, people would need to be booking trips right now. Between the news and the quarantine rules, that’s unlikely to be happening in any large numbers.

Even assuming more people than normal are willing to book last minute trips due to the fluidity and uncertainty of the times, Florida’s numbers probably need to trend downwards significantly by late August. Even if that does happen, we’re still looking at Walt Disney World’s least busy Christmas season in over a decade.

With that said, we do expect the holidays to be busier than now. November and December still have more vacation packages booked than September and October (although that’s not saying a ton) and many of those with trips booked who are on the fence will delay cancelling as long as possible. That could give Florida enough time to get its act together.

On top of that, Christmas is a very popular time for Walt Disney World fans. It’s also a time of year when the weather is more pleasant, making mask-wearing more comfortable and dining outdoors more practical. Add those factors to Disney’s glowing health safety reviews, and there’s likely to be an uptick. Still much lower than normal, but likely busier than right now.

September and October are different stories entirely. The weather is still uncomfortable then, schools are back in session, whatever pent-up demand exists among lower-tier APs will likely be exhausted, and Halloween has effectively been cancelled. September is always the slowest month of the year at Walt Disney World, and that’s likely to be especially pronounced this year.

In short, September 2020 will likely be the least busy month at Walt Disney World since the same month in 2001. We expect September to be so slow for Central Florida tourism that we’re genuinely concerned some non-Disney parks will shift to seasonal operating schedules, potentially closing on weekdays.

October is usually a different story, but so much of that is fueled by special events. By that, we mean not just Walt Disney World’s offerings, but also conventions and group events. None of that is happening this year. There are also questions about how (or if) school breaks will cause crowd spikes.

We doubt it, and instead expect October to resemble a slightly busier version of September. August will likely be somewhere in between, but that’s a bit of a wildcard with schools returning to session but also lower levels of Annual Passes and Cast Members starting to be unblocked.

Ultimately, a lot still remains to be seen. As we’ve stressed many times, we would not travel to Florida right now if we lived out of state, and we don’t recommend anyone else do so, either. Walt Disney World’s exceptional safety measures give new meaning to the “Disney bubble,” but the parks still don’t exist in a vacuum. You have to travel to get here, and are exposing yourself to higher risk scenarios along the way and during your visit.

However, a lot can change in only a short period of time–a lesson we’ve probably all learned dozens of times over recently. If the prospect of low crowds and short waits outweighs the currently compromised experience, your best option is to be as flexible as possible and able to book a trip on shorter notice than normal. If you’re on the fence, choose target travel dates for October or beyond and be ready to pounce if things start looking more promising. If they are not, cancel or don’t book. That’s really the best advice we can offer right now given the fluidity and uncertainty of everything.

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

Are you considering a trip later this year, or have Florida’s rising numbers (or other factors) already made that out of the question? When do you think the ideal time to visit this year will be? Expect more discounts or low crowds for the remainder of the year? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of crowds at WDW? 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!


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