Pent-Up Demand at Disney World: Scorching Summer or Full Fall?

For years, this site has focused on the intersection of attendance and discounts at Walt Disney World. It’s fun to compare deals and discuss when crowd patterns might necessitate special offers to incentivize visits. (We take pride in our historical predictions and rumors of Free Dining drop day, although that now feels like the ancient past!)

Long term predictions have been another story, with our track record being spottier. Last March shortly after the parks closed, we addressed the question of whether Walt Disney World would offer aggressive discounts after reopening. While there have been some strong targeted deals–like over half off hotels–those haven’t been available to the general public. I’d say we got that one wrong.

Later in the year, we discussed “Revenge Travel” at Walt Disney World in 2021. You’ve probably seen a mention and link to this in another post (or 20). That’s because I think it’s a really fascinating topic that could have significant implications for crowds, attendance, and pricing at Walt Disney World later this year. I’ll admit that I was first skeptical of the supposed phenomenon, but that is no longer the case, whatsoever…

One of the finance experts I read recently remarked that “this summer’s overpriced hotels, flights and Airbnb’s will be brought to you by Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna. (I cannot wait to overpay for a vacation).” In a March investor note, Morgan Stanley put an even finer point on it, saying “the recession is effectively over.”

This got me thinking, and wanting to revisit the topic of pent-up travel demand as it relates to Walt Disney World.

One year ago, we were seeing the stock market dive, businesses close, and unemployment numbers soar by record weekly numbers. It looked like we were entering a recession or worse, and the future seemed bleak.

In countless ways, I still cannot believe how the past year has unfolded. One of those is how the United States economy has roared back to life, with growth set to defy even the most optimistic expectations. The Atlanta Federal Reserve is forecasting GDP growth by as much as 10% for the first quarter of 2021. On a household level, personal income jumped by 10% to start the year, which is a record.

The personal savings rate has also surged by over 20% to start 2021, and has been high throughout the last year as many Americans have been stuck at home and saving money in the process. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis, Americans had a record $3.9 trillion in savings as of this January, which is up from $1.38 trillion in February of last year. That already high number continues to grow!

Then there’s the forthcoming $1.9 trillion stimulus. The headline grabber with this is the $1,400 checks, but that’s only part of the story. The average middle class family of 4 will receive roughly $12,000 in benefit between the direct payments and more generous child tax credit. As the Washington Post illustrates, some individuals and families will receive much more in cumulative aid.

These bills aren’t perfect–no legislation is. There are legitimate fears of inflation. Some households and small businesses will receive an unneeded windfall, others won’t get all of the help they need. The same goes for the recession itself, which has created winners and losers.

Frankly, it’s very difficult for me to wrap my head around some of this while sitting in Central Florida and seeing firsthand how the hospitality industry has been ravaged over the last year. Right now, things are not looking so rosy here. This commentary is not to diminish any of the real pain people are suffering while facing still sky-high levels of unemployment and economic setbacks. All of that is a bit beyond the scope of this post, however.

The practical reality is that even as many people are struggling, many have saved money in the last year–and are poised to receive even more soon. Unlike some past stimulus packages that have disproportionately favored big businesses, the main beneficiaries of this will be the middle class families, which is Walt Disney World’s core demographic.

This alone would seem to answer the question of whether Walt Disney World is going to see skyrocketing attendance thanks to pent-up demand in Summer 2021 and beyond. But there’s more to it than that…

I don’t doubt for a second that the travel and tourism sector as a whole is going to surge this summer. We’ve already heard numerous reports of all-inclusive resorts being totally sold out for the second half of 2021 and seen firsthand the popularity of bookings in beach cities. However, Walt Disney World has its own unique wrinkles.

There’s a dramatically reduced slate of shows and entertainment, nighttime spectaculars are still on hiatus, reduced restaurant lineup, scaled back menus, and temporary suspension of many offerings–like FastPass+ and the Disney Dining Plan–that many Walt Disney World fans have come to love. In a nutshell, the normal experience is compromised. By and large, that’s not the case at other popular vacation destinations.

At Walt Disney World, there’s also the divisive temporary health safety protocol. For months, I’ve been bullish about Walt Disney World’s timeline for relaxing physical distancing and face mask rules. Not to the degree some of you would like to hear, but more than other commentators or timelines from public health officials. Even as Walt Disney World has enacted some stricter rules for the near-term, I stand by all of those predictions.

Physical distancing and attendance caps are Walt Disney World’s biggest impediment to profitability–the parks are not profitable at 35% of capacity, they’re just losing less money than they would if closed. Disney will want to drop these protocol and rules as soon as practical. (That’ll likely be later than most businesses as Disney needs to err on the side of caution and its reputation for safety.)

We’re already seeing some states ditch their rules, and more will undoubtedly follow suit if the early-movers are “vindicated” by numbers that continue to decline. Based solely on seasonality, current trajectory, and vaccination rates, that seems likely. Moreover, public tolerance of face masks, especially once vaccines are widely available, is going to plummet.

Being fully vaccinated is effectively the end of this for most people, and they’ll want to behave accordingly. No matter how people might feel about masks right now, the vast majority won’t want to continue having to wear them long after they’ve been vaccinated, especially on vacation.

Not to go off on too much of a tangent, but after months of “massaging” the message, telling people what they thought they needed to hear, or flat-out obfuscating, I was heartened by the CDC’s new guidelines for fully vaccinated individuals. There’s still a long way to go, but this is a big step that reflects a shift in messaging and better balance, which is necessary if the CDC wants its advice to remain relevant to real world behavior.

In pertinent part, the CDC said that “if grandparents have been vaccinated, they can visit their daughter and her family, even if they have not been vaccinated so long as the daughter and her family are not at risk for severe disease.” My from perspective, it also could be a precursor to how the CDC will handle bigger picture guidance given that most kids likely will not be vaccinated in 2021. It’s still a ways off, but it’s easy to extrapolate from that quote. Again, very relevant to Walt Disney World’s face mask and physical distancing rules given its core demographics.

With all of that said, there’s also the reality that many potential Walt Disney World guests won’t start booking trips until there’s more clarity about the aforementioned limitations, cutbacks, etc. Beyond the return of Festival of the Lion King, Walt Disney World has said very little about what guests can expect to be back this summer. No offense to that show, but it’s not going to cut it in terms of luring a large number of visitors.

Those stimulus checks will likely go out within the next week, and many will be spent immediately on summer vacations. It’s difficult to fathom Walt Disney World announcing the return of entertainment, debut of new attractions, restoration of popular perks & amenities, reopening of more hotels, and relaxation of rules in that time.

Quite simply, many will assess the situation in the next few weeks, and book summer travel elsewhere. As we’ve said before, think of Walt Disney World like an ocean liner: you turn the wheel slowly, and the big ship pivots gradually. Everything takes time from decision to implementation, and it’s premature to make most of these decisions right now.

Walt Disney World is undoubtedly cognizant of vacation booking timelines, and has already decided to look past summer and towards fall. (The just-announced opening date of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure reinforces this notion.) That won’t stop Walt Disney World from making a concerted marketing push and scoring some summer bookings. However, advertisements alone aren’t going to be enough for a scorching summer at Walt Disney World.

Then there’s youth events, international visitors, and conventions. These have been significant growth areas for Walt Disney World in the last decade, to the point that several venues–like Gran Destino Tower and expansions to the ESPN Wide World of Sports–were purpose-built for them and multiple hotels are dependent upon them.

While I suspect a portion of this business is gone forever and will never fully recover, that’s another topic for another day. At the very least, this is all going to be much slower to return than domestic leisure travel and most of it won’t be back before 2022.

This puts Walt Disney World in an interesting and somewhat unique position. At some point later this year, there will likely be more demand than normal from American tourists, but overall resort bookings might still be softer than normal.

How Walt Disney World will handle this is anyone’s guess. They might keep some hotels shuttered until 2022 to constrain supply and keep prices high. They might accelerate plans to reopen the Port Orleans and All Star Resorts, and use more aggressive discounts to fill the rooms that are inevitably unsold. (Some room categories are already selling out for October and beyond, so my guess would be the latter.)

On the plus side, we’d anticipate there continuing to be opportunities to score deals on hotels at Walt Disney World between now and September 2021 as Walt Disney World continues to fall well short of its past occupancy levels through Summer 2021. Conversely, crowds are likely to increase as more people get vaccinated and are comfortable traveling, at least so long as that capacity cap is in place. (Summer “feels like” crowds are thus entirely dependent upon when physical distancing rules are relaxed and attraction capacity is restored.)

At some point late this summer or in early fall, there will almost certainly be a “sweet spot” where most people are holding off on vacations until the start of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary and when attendance caps are lifted, offerings are reinstated and/or expanded, and soft openings of new stuff begin. When that’ll start to occur is impossible to predict, but I’d be feeling pretty good about an early to mid September 2021 vacation to Walt Disney World right about now…

Ultimately, it’s difficult to predict with certainty how “revenge travel” will play out at Walt Disney World. However, it’s almost certainly a matter of when–not if–at this point. As we’re starting to see with spring break dates, demand is already exceeding supply–but that’s when attendance is capped at an unsustainable 35% and only a portion of the hotels and restaurants are open.

Walt Disney World could capitalize on what is sure to be a busy and lucrative summer for the tourism industry. Given the vaccine timeline, Walt Disney World’s conservative approach to the phased reopening, and lag time between bookings and travel dates, that seems unlikely. Unless something changes dramatically in the very near future, the most plausible scenario is that Disney uses the summer to scale up, setting the stage for the 50th Anniversary and what should be a big holiday season building into an even bigger 2022.

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

Do you think Walt Disney World’s crowds will rise significantly come Summer 2021, or will people hold off until October 2021? Do you think they’ll be worse than normal due to pent-up demand or below average due to the economy and/or other factors? Planning any “revenge travel” of your own? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? 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!

103 Responses to “Pent-Up Demand at Disney World: Scorching Summer or Full Fall?”
  1. Abigail Broughton March 20, 2021
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