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 (itisn’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.
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.
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!