For longer than we’ve been writing this blog, people have been saying, “there’s no off-season at Walt Disney World anymore.” It’s true that almost every year for just under a decade, annual attendance has increased. In most cases, this has been 1% to 5% bumps (per annual TEA reports), but it’s still noticeable–especially in aggregate.
During our January trip to Walt Disney World, we were shocked by the crowds. We visited at roughly the same time last year, and if you told me that crowds were up by 10% year over year, my response would be, “that’s it?” Mind you, an increase of 10% is pretty significant. If wait times are any indication, it was more in the neighborhood of 25%. And this is after busier-than-normal Halloween and Christmas seasons. At this point, it seems less like “abnormally” crowded days or weeks are aberrations, and more like the “new normal.”
We’ve encountered a lot of speculation as to why attendance has surged at Walt Disney World recently, with a pronounced spike over the course of the last year (save for June and early July of last year). Some have speculated that it’s guests who postponed due to Hurricane Irma. Others have suggested shifting school calendars. James Cameron credits himself (probably). Our take? It’s the economy, stupid.
Actually, it’s not just the economy. Hurricane Irma likely does play a small role (albeit negligible on its own). Schools shifting away from year-round schedules likely makes things less predictable, and shift crowds away from summer (a phenomenon we discussed last summer). Walt Disney World getting aggressive in marketing itself as a conference destination also plays a big role. Ditto other events that draw tens of thousands of guests to Orlando.
Moreover, Walt Disney World has mastered the art of manipulating crowds, incentivizing guests to travel during what used to be the off-season. These discounts coupled with the proliferation of travel planning advice concerning when to visit effectively works as a carrot and stick approach to redistribute crowds more evenly across the calendar.
This is nothing new–Disney has been effectively manipulating crowds for (at least) the last 5 years, refining its approach along the way. This would explain October and early December gradually becoming more crowded over the course of several years, but not the surge that has been evident more recently.
No explanation can account for the huge spike in crowds for the last six-plus months outside of the hot economy and consumer confidence hitting record highs. These are factors we’ve discussed at length in past posts, and that’s because they play such a huge role in discretionary spending on travel.
When analyzing crowds of today, it’s also worthwhile to look at past trends, particularly in tandem with the economy. During the global financial crisis, attendance at Walt Disney World held relatively flat. This was an impressive feat during the Great Recession, and led to a view of the parks as recession-proof. (In part, this led to the investments we are now seeing–Parks & Resorts was viewed as a stable and reliable business unit.)
Since the economic recovery began, attendance at Walt Disney World has soared. Magic Kingdom’s attendance numbers have climbed by over 3 million annual guests during that time, per TEA reports. This is in spite of pretty steep ticket and hotel price increases, neither of which have done much to slow attendance growth.
With the economy seeing unprecedented growth in the last year and continuing to roar, crowds are unlikely to retreat at any point in the near future. Even if the economy were to tank tomorrow (quite unlikely), there would still be another year or so of high crowds due to the accordion effect resulting from people booking vacations in advance (with non-refundable components).
It’s not just the U.S. economy that’s doing well. International markets that have contributed heavily to Walt Disney World attendance historically are once again doing better (Canada and Brazil, among others), and Treasury’s intentions of further weakening dollar will only further stimulate inbound tourism.
These crowd levels should not just be cause for concern in terms of wait times. Hotel occupancy is through the roof, and when those numbers are as high as they are, there’s less of a need to incentivize tourists via discounts. We already saw scant availability in some of the discounts released late last year.
It seems a safe bet that the Free Disney Dining Plan promotion will have very limited inventory, and perhaps will be pared down further. (While I’d expect it to be offered this year given the bounce-back deal, it would not surprise me if there is no Free Dining at all come 2019 or 2020.)
This all brings us back to the titular question: is there an off-season at Walt Disney World? Right now, I would say that there is not much of an ‘off-season’ in traditional parlance. There are certainly days that are less busy and days that are busier. There will also be weeks when the parks have low crowd levels, but they are fewer and scattered across the calendar. If you’re looking for a clear delineation between peak and off-season, you’re unlikely to find it.
To this end, I would have an increasing amount of skepticism when relying upon crowd calendars. I think things have been trending in this direction for a few years now, actually. Crowd calendars still have utility at a high level when considering over-arching trends–and when viewed in tandem with weather and seasonal events–but I would not put my full faith in day-by-day, park-by-park scores. Relying upon these for planning your travel dates is an invitation for disappointment.
This sentiment is not a shot at other planning resources. Our own Best and Worst Months to Visit Disney World post underscores the low crowds of January, dubbing them as “lethargic.” If what we experienced in January is lethargic, I fear what Easter or October will look like. In the few years since we first published that post, I’ve revised its rankings several times, as crowds continue to grow and shift. After waiting in line 20 minutes for the TTA PeopleMover in January and seeing several attractions with 2-3 hour waits on a regular basis, I am about ready to throw my hands up in defeat.
There was a time when the past was the best predictor of the future when it came to Walt Disney World crowds. Data from previous years coupled with park hours, school calendars, etc., could produce reliable forward-looking predictions about Walt Disney World crowds. I’m not sure to what extent that remains true. There seems to be far more fluidity and unpredictability to crowds now.
As for whether the concept of an off-season at Walt Disney World is truly a thing of the past, I don’t think so. What the robust economy giveth, the sluggish economy taketh. (Although not entirely, see the ‘recession-proof’ line above.) It’s hard to envision the economy continuing its current trajectory unabated, indefinitely. To the contrary, a ‘correction’ (to put it mildly) is due at some point in the medium-term.
When that happens, either attendance will fall or discounting will be more aggressive to maintain current numbers, or both. With each price increase and upcharge offering, Disney is gradually shifting its reputation to being a luxury travel destination. That’s a perception those who are firmly in the middle class–a demographic visiting now in strong numbers because they are doing well–will likely remember if when there’s a recession.
What I think is less likely is a return to the off-season crowd levels of the aughts and decades prior. Those days are gone, unlikely to return at any point in the foreseeable future. Walt Disney World has grown and changed considerably (a reality that’ll be further cemented with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and the additions of the 50th Anniversary after that), as have the sophistication of the company’s marketing and crowd-spreading efforts.
For long-time Walt Disney World fans, this might all sound like bad news. Selfishly, we all want our visits to be relatively crowd-free. We also want the parks to continue growing and evolving (except when our own nostalgia is threatened). It’s all a delicate needle to thread. While I have some trepidation about what the future might hold in terms of crowdedness and pricing, I’m also incredibly optimistic about the money being invested into the parks right now, and how much better things will look for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Frankly, if I had to choose between the lower crowd levels of a decade ago coupled with the creative stagnation of that era, or the all-around growth of today (and the near-future), I’ll choose the latter every single time. Absent of being able to pick the “right” dates on the calendar, there are still other ways to beat the crowds. At Walt Disney World just as in life, the times they are a-changing; you better start swimming or you’ll sink like a stone.
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!
What has your experience been with crowds at Walt Disney World recently? Have you encountered ‘dead’ weeks in the last two years? Do you agree or disagree with our take on the off-season? 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!