Peak Crowds in Winter “Off-Season” at Disney World
During our visits to Walt Disney World thus far in January and February 2020, we’ve been surprised by the high crowds. This isn’t just at Hollywood Studios for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Epcot for Festival of the Arts, but in Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom, too. In this post, we’ll take a look at these “off-season” attendance trends and attempt to explain some of what’s happening.
This is hardly a new development. January and February have seen steadily increasing crowds for the last few years, with a pronounced spike two years ago. At that point, data showed wait times were up over 20% year over year, which was due to a variety of factors. It’s safe to say that January and February 2020 have been up once again.
It’s also true that Walt Disney World’s annual visitor numbers have increased for the last decade by 1% to 5% per year. While it’s impossible to say in which months the largest increases are occurring, it’s pretty safe to surmise that summer is actually decreasing. This means that other months are picking up the slack, and then some. Chief among those months are undoubtedly the winter, which used to see off-season lows but now feel closer to peak season…
In reality, crowds are not nearly at peak season levels, but they’re well above average. Given that January and February used to be a sleepy time of year at Walt Disney World that we referred to as the holiday hangover, this is quite the change–and comes as a huge shock to anyone visiting today who last visited in February a few years ago.
So, what happened?! Well, a few things…
First, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. This is the obvious one. For the last couple of years, guests have been postponing visits to Walt Disney World while waiting for Star Wars Land to open. Disney has publicly commented on this, and offered aggressive discounts the last two years to entice guests to visit.
When Galaxy’s Edge partially opened last fall, it initially didn’t move the needle a ton. Extra, Extra Magic Hours were largely ghost towns, and it was pretty clear that Disney made a miscalculation. There are a variety of explanations for this–from potential guests being apprehensive about crushing crowds to the reality that there’s a low ceiling on how many people can be “lured” to Florida in September.
Things got progressively busier in November and December, with holiday attendance coinciding with the opening weeks of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. With this blockbuster attraction open (to rave reviews but also frustration over the novel virtual queue), Galaxy’s Edge was complete.
Still, it’s safe to say that some guests with lingering fears of high attendance held off on visiting in December. Unlike those delaying fall visits, these concerns would’ve been well-founded, especially in light of recent Christmas season visitation trends.
That brings us to January and February 2020, which Star Wars and Walt Disney World fans might view as the “perfect” time to visit Galaxy’s Edge. In theory, this would be after the initial surge of visitors and also during a time that is traditionally off-season for travel. Intuitively, it would seem like a sensible time for a first visit to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.
That has proven to not even be remotely true. Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the park we’ve been visiting far more than any other, and we’ve observed rope drop crowds there during the last two months that are worse than all but the peak holiday dates (and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance’s opening day) in December.
It’s difficult to make an apples to apples comparison here because of shifting policies and park opening times. At the very least, it’s impossible to say that crowds have dissipated for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance’s boarding pass dash.
We’ve said this before, but the misconception remains, so we’ll reiterate: wait times do not drop for new attractions. (Except maybe Alien Swirling Saucers, as most guests have realized “cute” isn’t worth more than a 15 minute wait.) Throwing out opening day as an obvious anomaly, most new additions at Walt Disney World have risen in popularity after their first few weeks of operations.
With Pandora – World of Avatar, Toy Story Land, and Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, you would have been better off visiting on a weekday only a few days after opening, rather than a few months later. Heck, look no further than Seven Dwarfs Mine Train wait times for proof that things don’t “die down” a few months or even years after opening.
Walt Disney World attendance is not primarily driven by locals. It’s important to remember that every single thing on any given day is new to a huge number (maybe even a majority) of guests in the parks. Moreover, so much is driven by social media buzz and online conversation. Sometimes, it takes a few weeks or months for a new ride’s positive word of mouth to snowball.
This has inarguably happened with Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. And in this case, it’s the substance of the attraction and the unique protocol for how to experience it. (Which Walt Disney World still is not sufficiently doing through official channels.) If you polled day guests on a random day in mid-December, I’m confident significantly fewer of them would’ve understood how to experience Rise of the Resistance as compared to those who are knowledgeable today.
The second explanation for increased crowds at Walt Disney World in the last couple of months is ESPN Wide World of Sports events. Youth sporting events during January and February is hardly a new development; several years ago we stayed at a Value Resort during one of the cheer competitions. We’ve always seen groups in the parks during the winter months.
However, these have reached a fever pitch this year. Just look at the Winter Calendar for the ESPN Wide World of Sports. In January and February 2020, there have been almost non-stop events. Many of these are major, drawing thousands of attendees and spiking occupancy at the Value Resorts. (Some weekends it has literally been difficult to book a room at some resorts. During the off-season!)
Seeing a sea of cheer, baseball, and soccer jerseys in the parks is a bit surprising, but it shouldn’t be. Walt Disney World has mastered the art of manipulating crowds, incentivizing guests to travel during what used to be the off-season. RunDisney events are the biggest exemplar of this, and it would appear that Walt Disney World is applying that same formula to youth sporting events now.
Along these same lines, over the course of the last three years there has been a steady increase in the number of international tourists to Orlando, specifically from South American countries. It’s currently the hot and wet summer months there, making it a good time for an escape to Walt Disney World. (Think of these guests as “reverse snowbirds.”)
Another explanation is an influx of locals. Whereas Disneyland has been historically regarded as a local’s park, Walt Disney World has been viewed as almost exclusively as a tourist destination. We’ve been skeptical of this view of Disneyland for the last several years, and are now also likewise skeptical of this perception of the Florida parks.
To be sure, Walt Disney World is still overwhelmingly a tourist destination. Floridians are absolutely not driving seasonal attendance trends or crowds. However, we do believe it’s likely that their impact is being underestimated. We’ve mentioned in a couple of posts about recent price increases that there is an ongoing population explosion in Central Florida, with several cities in the Orlando metro area being among the fastest growing in the United States.
Among Floridians, the winter is a great time to visit. There’s the perception that it’s the off-season, the weather is nice, and there’s heavy local marketing for seasonal events. Most importantly, there are attractive special offers for Florida residents that become available this time of year.
The main one is the Discover Disney Ticket, which offers admission to one Walt Disney World theme park per day for only $49 or $59 per day. This ticket went on sale January 2, and if our interactions are any indication, has proven quite popular. While it’s valid any day through June 30, 2020 (so there’s no sense of urgency to use it immediately), our suspicion is that it’s most popular right when it becomes available and shortly before the deal ends.
The next explanation is Epcot’s Festival of the Arts. While this event is not new, its rising popularity follows the same “snowballing word of mouth” principle as any other new addition. The first year, this event caught everyone by surprise, but its popularity was limited by virtue of most people not being able to take last-minute trips to experience it.
In every subsequent year, Epcot’s Festival of the Arts has increased in popularity. In our view, this is very well-deserved (as we’ve said before, this is by far our favorite event of the year at Epcot). This year, that’s quite the feat, as Epcot is a veritable construction zone with much of Future World torn up.
Finally, there are various other factors. Consumer confidence remains strong and people seem willing to spend freely, but this isn’t really a new development that would explain a surge this year. Reduced park hours as compared to historical averages is another potential explanation, but this is also not something that really differs from last year to this year.
Trying to determine the exact causes of increased crowds at Walt Disney World is largely observation, and doesn’t even rise to the level of “inexact science.” There could be other valid explanations we’re totally overlooking, and we could be giving outsized weight to variables that have negligible (or not) impact. We want to make it abundantly clear that all of this is predicated upon our observations, which are extensive but still anecdotal.
In the past, another explanation for the appearance and perception of increased crowds has been Walt Disney World’s reduction of ride capacity, staffing, and reduced entertainment. The challenge with this explanation is that it’s really difficult to ascertain.
Epcot definitely has reduced capacity (both in terms of physical space and ride capacity), but Disney’s Hollywood Studios unquestionably has more. I haven’t observed anything that leads me to believe Disney is artificially reducing capacity at Magic Kingdom or Animal Kingdom, but I can’t say that definitively.
Part of this is simply the new normal of Walt Disney World crowds. Attendance has increased steadily every year since the Great Recession ended–by several millions of guests per year–and park hours have been reduced during that same time.
Many fans offer misguided praise to ticket and hotel price increases, but neither of those have done anything to slow attendance growth or cut crowds. If addressing congestion is actually Walt Disney World’s priority (it isn’t), the long-term solution is building rides that are people-eaters (not literally, although that’d work too). The short-term solution is increasing park hours. Of course, both of those approaches cost money, so they’re not as attractive as raising prices. But we digress.
Ultimately, the colossal crowds in January and February 2020 make it easy to see why so many long-time fans proclaim that “there’s no such thing as off-season at Walt Disney World” anymore.
While the parks are not experiencing peak season wait times or congestion right now, they look and feel closer to that than they do a typical January or February day of 5 years ago. (Several random weekdays the last couple of months could’ve passed for Spring Break, crowd-wise.)
Fortunately, there are still ways to avoid–or at least minimize exposure to–crowds and lengthy wait times. Our Park Itineraries for Walt Disney World are useful assets, offering strategy for maximizing what you accomplish during the less-busy morning hours.
We advise increased skepticism of congestion prediction tools, but our 2020 Walt Disney World Crowds Calendars: When to Visit & Avoid is still a decent resource for getting an idea of weeks that are generally good or poor dates to visit–but we’d caution against over-reliance on it.
To conclude on a positive note, there’s another reason why Walt Disney World is busier, and one we can all appreciate–it’s improving. Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is the best attraction in decades, and the rest of Galaxy’s Edge is incredibly ambitious. Pandora – World of Avatar remains awesome. New dining and resort options are exciting. Even Epcot–in the midst of all its construction–is showing flickers of progress (two of the new films, new restaurants, etc.) after years of stasis. There’s a lot of money being invested in the parks, and we can barely contain our excitement for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary (next year!!!).
Frankly, if I had to choose between the lower attendance 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. There are still other ways to beat the crowds–but you can’t “beat” parks that feel like they’re stuck in the past. 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 thus far in 2020? Have you been surprised by the “off-season” attendance the last two months? Have you encountered ‘dead’ days during this time? 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!
wow. it is surreal to read this article and look at the photos a year later…
The higher than usual winter season crowds has continued into March. We just returned from 5 days at WDW March 2 — March 6, and while this was supposed to be the 3rd best weeks of the year to visit, it was more crowded than I have ever experienced. We are Fla residents and annual passholders, and maybe it was others like us trying to hit WDW before Spring Break gets in high gear, but based on the crowd demographics it sure didn’t feel that way. It was just an accident that we happened to be there the week (and actually in HS the morning) that the new Runaway Railroad ride opened, and I’m sure that this added to the crowds levels, but we spoke with many families from Michigan who seemed to be overly-represented and who told us that this week was Spring Break. Maybe the Spring Break calendars are unusual this year because Easter is so late. Hopefully this was just an anomaly and the rest of the year plays out as the crowd calendar predicts (subject, of course, to the COVID-19 wildcard), but based on the January, February, and early March crowd levels, I wouldn’t bank on it.
We visited Feb 1-8 and were surprised by the heavy Crowds (Its a Small World was 40 min consistently!). We noticed that wait times were long but when we boarded rides like Dinosaur and Soarin’, only half of the ride lines were being utilized. Frustrating! Also when big rides like Sash Mountain and Test Track Are down for refurbishment, you really notice the crowd levels in the rest of the park. So even though we were there during the off season the first week of Feb, we still waited in line for Avatar Flight of Passage for nearly 3 hours! At least the weather was beautiful and with a good plan you can still see and do almost everything despite Disney’s early closing times. (Boo the that!)
How do you get the special tickets for Disney World for $49 or $59 dollars a day. We are going in May and would be a great help to keep costs down. Please let me know as soon as possible please.
I think those are exclusively for Florida residents.
Throwing in my anecdote. We were turned away from parking at AoA on Feb 14 due to crowds. Parking! We were going to eat and walk around the grounds there. I think the Skyliner had a lot to do with the situation.
So we went to CBR nearby, and nearly got turned away until we told the guard we just wanted to grab a bite, and he was good with that. Indeed said skyliner parking was a cause.
We were at Epcot on Feb 9 and it didn’t seem to bad, but World Showcase was definitely busy.
Just returned from a late January/early February trip and definitely noted the crowds were on the high side. Lots of cheerleaders and Star Wars fans. But one thing I really noted was how many super fans there were. Country Bears and Carousel of Progress showed to full houses that stomped their feet and sang along (and, in the case of Country Bears, confirmed to the cast member host via show of hands that the majority of the audience had seen it way more than 10 times). I wonder if the recommendations to go in January/February have filled the park with blog reading Disney aficionados?
What an outstanding forum and insightful comments from Mr Bricker. We just got back from a Feb 8-12 visit, which represented my 40th trip to Disney since the first journey in 1994. Overall, Mr Bricker’s assessment was quite accurate. I found the crowds some 20% higher than expected. Because of many trips there, we were able to navigate and have a great time. Even though my Disney strategies have changed over the years, the cardinal rule still remains …if you want to maximize time on rides and minimize wait times, get there EARLY! That’s not easy with young kids, but it’s still the number one most important rule. So many other things I could say, but I do want to comment that I think local promotions and Floridians in the parks are somewhat more responsible for the attendance increases than Mr Bricker’s assessment. Locals are easy to spot as they have no wrist band. For our particular trip, here are my top reasons the parks were more crowded than I would have seen a few years ago in February….
1. Opening of the Star Wars “Resistance “ ride and it’s success. We rode it twice and it was incredible .
2. Unbelievably warm weather that drew out the locals who can be spontaneous on their visits to the park. Greatest ratio I have seen in recent years of “naked wrists” to magic bands.
3. Almost frenzied pace of increasing promotions for sports-related events that lead to Park attendance.
4. Overall strong economy that allows a greater percentage of the population to afford a ticket, especially in Florida. Same concept as more people being able to buy a home.
5. A greater commitment from a Disney to improve the parks and create “headliner” rides that can compete with Universal.
6. Finally, an ever-increasing sense in America to enjoy family-friendly experiences together. I don’t agree with everything Disney does by any stretch, but they still focus on the parks being psychologically (yes, physically too) safe for traditional families. We’ll hopefully be back in August.
First off, love your blog – as an overplanner who has only been to Disney once 4 years ago, it’s fed my need to have a rough plan for every minute of our 1 week visit in March. 🙂
Based on the above analysis, I’m going to believe that the week of March 3rd when we get there will be slow – everyone will be avoiding Runaway Railway when it opens, and ESPN’s schedule is slow that week. My brain needs to believe this – we’ll address reality when we get there!
Great posts from everyone. This clearly helps us understand what we may encounter and will cause us to lower expectations before we head down on 2/24/20.
We really appreciate everyone taking the time to post their recent experiences and Tom for providing the forum.
Just got back from the parks yesterday, I feel like I’m in the minority because while the parks were certainly busy I didn’t find them unbearable. Maybe living in New York City has skewed my view of what constitutes crowded, but while things were busy we got to do everything we wanted and only waited in a couple of lines for more than 30 minutes (thanks to FastPass and being willing to opt out of rides we’d experienced before when the waits were long).
Personally, I think the expectation of visiting some of the most popular theme parks in the *world* without encountering crowds is unrealistic. There’s going to be people no matter when you visit, accept that you’re going to have to wait in some lines and you will still have a fabulous time even with the crowds. Plus the people watching can really help make those long waits fly by!
We are here this week and it has been crazy busy! When I booked crowd calendars predictions were low. But it has been just as packed as late December. Popular ride time waits are easily 150 minutes. Even with rain today Animal Kingdom was packed and I had trouble finding any Fast Passes available. The Fast Pass Line for Flight of Passage was even backed up and with a Fast Pass they were telling people at least a 40 minute wait.
In Epcot many items from the food booths are not even available due to being sold out well before park closing. If you want to try any of the foods from the Art and Food Festival I would suggest getting there early.
Please tell me when to go next…I have 3 young kids and our first priority is lower crowds, followed by nice weather. We were just there Jan 18-25 and thought the crowds were ok other than MLK weekend. These are the times I’m thinking for our next possible trip:
11/24-12/5 2021 (I know this will start with very large crowds, but I thought they would die down the week after Thanksgiving?)
I don’t know about the other dates but I was there for a week that began on 12/08/2019. Many years ago, crowds USED to subside a bit after Thanksgiving until right before Christmas but that was not the case from what we experienced. Lots of people and be prepared to stand in long lines if you do not have FastPass for what you want to ride.
I’d take the Nov-Dec dates as the best intersection of moderate crowds and nice weather.
With that said, it’s highly likely that those September dates will have the best crowds…but also the worst weather.
The September dates will definitely have the lowest crowds. But you may run into rain, overwhelming heat or even a hurricane. The November/December dates aren’t bad. The weather should be much better, and crowds die down a lot after Thanksgiving.
I think the booming economy is a big factor. Consumer confidence is high. I just hope Disney keeps spending big bucks to expand and that new parks are coming!!
Weird. This has not been my experience. Have spent a week in February at the parks since the FotA started at Epcot. The crowd has felt the same all three years. The big rides always have long wait times. But with the exception of 2/3 which was busy at MK due to Super Bowl people. We waited less than 30 mins for almost everything else or just walked on. Heck most days we were at MK this past week (spent three) Space Ranger Spin had standby lines fo 40 mins which I dont think I have seen too often. Even had some opportunities to just stay on the ride during the middle of the day. 2/3 was the only day this week the parks felt crowded and even then it felt more like a normal Saturday crowd.
Seriously ? We were in all parks mon- thurs the past week and was very crowded . Hour , 90 min , 120 min more !! Wall to wall . Sighh
We stayed at Animal Kingdom Lodge this past January. I don’t do crowds well. I did 1 park and did not enjoy myself so we concentrated on hotel activities and loved it. The lodge had so much to do and we were always a lone. Everyone was at the parks. It was great lol.
I’m planning on staying at animal kingdom too and don’t love crowds myself. What kinds of things did you do at the lodge, and what did you enjoy most?
Everyone says not to go Christmas week, but for me, the cooler weather coupled with greatly increased park hours means that we get several hours of completely crowd-free touring every morning and can then take a break back at the resort, which is decorated for the season and feels festive. Annual Passholders aren’t allowed in which also helps with crowds. The longest line we waited on this past trip was for Millennium Falcon, and we waited about 40 minutes after getting in line at 5pm. I greatly prefer Christmas week to October, which was once slow-season before Halloween parties were scheduled nearly every day of the week at Magic Kingdom.
Interesting. As a AP I’m not blocked out from going Christmas week. Maybe the FL one is. We tend not to go Christmas week. A week in Feb. A week in Sept. Sometimes a the week after Thanksgiving.
My thoughts on what is happening is this, if you go on facebook, or any disney blog, look at the conversations going on regarding visiting the parks, every person who is planning a trip asks “when is the best time to go?” Everyone of them is being told to go from “run disney” week onward to the end of February. We just completed a disney vacation that started boxing day, and ended Jan 20th 2020. My husband and I were in the Dopey Challenge (whole other nightmare story, vacation was gobbled up by the flu, the stomach flu (for all 5 of us on different days), trip to the hospital for stitches in 5yr olds lip, broken down 2019 car on I75…….Lots of fun) We noticed a huge drop in the park attendance come Sunday Jan 5th, and then they increased at epcot at the beginning of the arts festival. We have been going for the run disney week for a few years and agree the secret is out, and more people are attending that not so quiet time anymore. Still better than the crowds we encountered around new years though disney springs alone was a nightmare.
We just returned from a one-day visit to Magic Kingdom on Sunday, February 16th. So disappointing. By 10 a.m. the park was crowded and the wait times all day were very long, too long for young children. Our fast passes were canceled by Disney three times and the other choices we were offered had us ping-ponging all over Magic Kingdom which was a huge waste of time. Tried to have lunch at 3:00 p.m. at the huge restaurant in Tomorrowland and there were no available tables. People were eating on the steps. Watched as frantic parents stared at their cell phones all day checking wait times. Magic Kingdom has lost its magic for me, and my grandsons both stated they liked Legoland better. Wow.