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!
One sleeper factor I don’t be seeing discussed is the release of Disney Plus in 2019. I was one of those who was planning to wait til my small kids were older but watching a bunch of classics from my youth with them and seeing how much they love all the characters inspired me to book for March 2020
I was there last day of January to Feb. 8th. I could’t believe how crowded it was! I kept trying to change my hopping strategies, without success. I’ve never been when it’s this crowded, even two years ago at Thanksgiving was better. It seriously makes me feel that I may not go again for some time, when I’ve been a yearly visitor. In fact, I’m not sure I’ll go back for another 5 years. I’m exploring other types of vacations at this point. Sad.
I was pretty shocked by the crowds last Feb as well. We went the first week of February. Epcot was fairly quiet the first hour it was open, but the other three parks were wall to wall people from the word go. Magic Kingdom was absolutely the worst. There were cheer or maybe dance teams there that week, but that seemed to account for less than 5% of the crowds.
With as expensive as things are, and as long as the lines are, I can’t believe they can still pack the crowds in like they can.
Always go the park that had EMH the night before. Everyone crams in for EMH and gets their fill so the next day it’s dead. (Ex. Wednesday’s at Epcot)
I think there is also increased word of mouth of how miserable the summer weather is getting. Seriously, Floridians are probably some of the only people who would even tolerate those temperatures so to most people it feels like the surface of the sun! What’s even crazier is I’ve seen little attempts to increase shade especially at Epcot where it would help tremendously in the summer. This combined with some of the seasonal blackout dates for Florida residents in the summer mean lots more people are going to visit the rest of the year.
As a passholder the crowds are getting ridiculous but the part I’m most upset by are the crowds during Halloween. The Halloween party last year was awful. The magic of that event was ruined by oppressive crowds for what used to be a limited entry event and now feels like peak season but with a tiny bit of candy. It’s a huge shame since my daughter loves dressing up and going to Disney but it doesn’t feel worth the upcharge anymore and is a far cry for what it used to be.
The excitement for me recently is all driven by the new attractions and skyliner (which I love) but the crowds make everything much more difficult. My point is that if you can make investments in making the park more reasonable to visit in the summer you might be able to even out some of the crowds again and increase satisfaction overall. We were there at Thanksgiving and the beautiful weather was the driver of our satisfaction despite peak crowds. Compared to our not so scary Halloween weekend in September that was oppressively hot it was night and day. One trip we enjoyed, the other we did not despite similar large crowds.
I agree with other contributors. Our visit was the third week of January 2020. What a disappointment. I felt tickets should have been sharply discounted at Epcot as it was really just a maze of construction walls.
It was our first visit for festival of the Arts too, which I thought was a dud. There were some chalk drawings on the sidewalk and a selfy picture wall of butterfly wings by The Land. Yet other than that, and some musical offerings, everything was just more pitches to spend money on food or over priced “art.”
We have had better luck with reduced crowds in May. I agree that their are no more slow days at Disney anymore. If you do go, don’t stay very long. A few days I’d enough, enjoy the beautiful resorts and spend a day or two at Universal. When at Disney, I recommend buying park hopper tickets and planning your day around crowds by returning to your resort at mid-day.
Overall, I can’t imagine doing Disney with little kids and strollers. The crowds just are oppressive! The cast seems over worked, less prone to smile, and many of the impromptu street acts are gone. The Disney App didn’t work to open my resort room door and it frequently froze in areas of the park too.
Anyway,I still like Disney, even though it might not sound like it if you read this review. The skyliner is a nice touch. It was fun to ride and the gondolas are attractive.
I beat the crowds by doing Disney after hours at the magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom this week. Walked right on most rides Pandora was a 10 minute wait. Well worth buying the extra tickets. I did not buy extra daily tickets. I spent my time at Disney Springs, the Boardwalk and enjoying walking around and eating in different hotels on Disney property.
We were totally surprised by the huge crowds! We were there the last week of January, and the crowds were unbelievable! I was there the same week several years ago and had little to no wait at any ride. I remember the worst being Soarin and it was 30 minutes. We figured for our son’s first trip, this was a great time to go so we’d have the short wait times. Boy were we ever wrong! The only attractions with fewer than 30 minute waits were the shows. We waited at least 60 minutes for every ride that we didn’t have a fast pass for! The trip was amazing, and Galaxy’s Edge definitely made the trip worth it, but the crowds were definitely a surprise!
We just returned from the parks. We were there feb 6 through the 10th. The crowds were the worst I have seen since going at thanksgiving in 2018. Sunday we went to magic kingdom and it was ridiculous. Wait times for everything was at least and hour. The park seemed dirty and the cast members were not as friendly as usual. I felt like alot of things were shut down and rides seemed to be breaking. Seems like there is no good time to go anymore.
Well, all of this Is quite discouraging, as an OverCrowded Disney Quite Literally Sucks, pardon my abruptness, but it’s True! Not only are long attraction waits the pits, but massive overcrowding serverly taxes Cast and Restaurant Staff to the point of Diminished Overall Guest Satisfaction, which by these reports, must be running pretty Low! However, I believe what is occurring is The Lemming Effect, in which the Hoards Rush Blindly Over the Cliff, Leading to A Large Population Reduction Next Season, Coupled with Disneys Money Grubbing Price Increases in there Blatent Attempt to Maximize Profit, A Crash In Attendance is Shure to Follow, with Discounts and Free Dinning Promotions to Follow. It Is Simpley a Matter of Cause and Effect, Critical Mass is Not Far Off! We All Reep What We Sow!
What do you guys think of this plan?
• Up to 50% capacity tickets would be sold for each of three 8-hour windows: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
• These hours would be uniform across all parks, Extra Magic Hours would be eliminated, and special events would take the place of one of the windows
• Full capacity could be reached only during the 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. overlap window
• Morning and evening windows get 4 hours in park at half capacity
• On-site stays would get first shot at window reservations
• Park hopper tickets would allow access to unlimited parks but only one window per park
• Upgrades for additional windows could be offered if under 50% capacity
I remember 15 or so years ago reading in a Disney tour book that said if you want to avoid crowds go there anytime from the week after Thanksgiving to the weekend before Christmas. We did this back then and I was surprised at the lack of crowds. You could ride Tower of Terror, walk back around and get right back on. I do not recall any attraction that had more than maybe a 5 minute wait.
We tried this strategy once again this past December, arriving on 12/08/2019 and stayed for a week. We quickly learned that times have changed…a LOT. No more lull between the holidays. Well, at least we got to be one of the first to experience the new Star Wars ROTR. I thought it was worth it.
We went the last week in January. I couldn’t believe the crowds. From what I encountered the crowds were due to a high number of tourist from South America. It’s summer for them now. Touring plans said it would be between 2-6 for our week. In reality it was 7-10. Now got to figure out a better time to go.
We have always gone in the fall, generally the week after labor day, or the week after that. I can remember in 2006- extra magic hours at MK were until 2 AM!!! We walked on so many rides. The buses were on time, not super packed- it was magical. About 3 years ago, I noticed a drastic change. Never again in my life will i believe fall is the quiet season. I remember standing in AK, with my double stroller, trying to walk through Asia to get to Everest, and I wanted to cry. It was like I was a salmon swimming upstream. I thought, how am I ever going to get through this? We went on spring break the next year, and it was so much more manageable. It was crazy- spring break at WDW was better and less crowded than it was that random second week of september. Last year, we went the first week of June, and it was very doable. Still less crowded than that september. Hotter than the sun, but much less crowded than the fall.
I think you must’ve gotten unlucky with that random week in September. In our experience, that month is still far and away the best time to visit Walt Disney World. (In terms of crowds, not weather!)
We went at the end of September and it was packed we didn’t realize Monday was a holiday. We just went two weeks ago and crowds and wait times were reasonable. To me the best time is still Thanksgiving through first week of December as far as wait times, weather and ambiance. Summertime is definitely when you see the lowest crowds.
I go every year in sept for my birthday. It is the second week. It has changed drastically in regard to crowds. No more walking onto rides with little to no wait.
We were there the last week of January. Usually we go the last week of September and I was a little sad we hadn’t done that this fall and waited. The upside was we got to experience Rise and the Festival of the Arts. The downside was that it definitely felt WAY more crowded than what we’ve experienced in years. I think good planning – and being a little flexible – allowed us to still have a really great trip, but it was a noticeable difference.
We were there that week as well and I was disappointed by the high crowds but the beautiful weather made up for it definitely! Love the Skyliner, Rise and Slinky!
wow, far cry from our family trips growing up when january was a guaranteed ghost town.
I was just there from 2/6-2/10 and could not believe how busy it was. When I saw wait times for “Dinosaur” were over an hour I knew something was up.
We got home late last night. It was great weather, accept the day after the Tornado north of us. Anyway, the first half of the week the crowds weren’t too bad, but by Friday the parks were pretty congested. Yes, I’ve noticed each year that our quiet week is getting less so.
We visited just last week (February 1st – 6th) and I was surprised at how busy it was. Most days Touring Plans indicated crowd levels of 4 or 5 out of 10; I cannot imagine what busier days would be like as I have not been to Disney in over a decade.
Wait times for most rides were 45 to 60 minutes with popular rides at 90-120 minutes from open to closing. We visited Hollywood Studios to do Rise of the Resistance; arrived at 7:30 for an 8 am opening and there were thousands of people there. We managed to snag boarding group 8 but due to ride breakdowns (including two while on line) we ended up waiting on line for 90 minutes.
Lot of cheerleader groups and we heard from some local folks that they have noticed a significant uptick in south american visitors as described in the article.
We still had a good time but like I said, were somewhat surprised by the crowds, especially mid-week.
To clarify, Touring Plans was estimating crowd sizes of 4 or 5 out of 10; I just looked and the actual crowd sizes ranged from 6 to 9 while we were there which feels more accurate. For example, we visited MK on Tuesday, TP had predicted to be a 5 and it was actually a 7. On the same day, TP predicted HS to be a 3 and it ended up being an 6! Understanding these are estimates…folks should realize things might be changing (that or there is no such thing as non-busy days anymore).
Thanks for at least the warning Tom, the surprise and shock of recent winter crowds upon arrival is probably worse than at least being tipped off ahead of time! Our family has always chosen late February for our WDW vacation week for three main reasons in no specific order…the start of great weather with warm enough temps for the pools at the resort, that same comfortable weather in the 70’s and low 80’s to really enjoy the parks and the fact that February always seemed to be less crowded than the peak times. We have picked the same February week for years and two years ago we did notice an uptick and part of that was Mardi Gras week and a ton of Louisiana folks being off from work. I’ve always liked entering the parks in the morning for a bit and then coming back to our Disney resort during the day and enjoying the amenities at the hotel and pool during that peak crowd times at the park and then going back at night. Nobody loves crowds when you cannot move but you have to try and be creative with your plan of attack to try and lessen the blow when the parks are busting at the seams.