Why Does Disney Really Use Park Reservations?

Company leaders have spoken extensively about the benefits of park reservations at Walt Disney World and Disneyland, making big claims about the upside for guest experience, managing crowds, balancing demand and attendance throughout the year. (Updated December 17, 2022.)

Let’s start with an update, as a lot has changed in the month-plus. There are several signs that the Disney Park Pass reservation system is on the way out, or will become more of a formality. The dominos started with the firing of CEO Bob Chapek, who had been a champion of park reservations and praised the system on countless occasions. He was replaced by returning CEO Bob Iger, who immediately started calling Chapek’s theme park strategies into question. Iger also said he was “alarmed” by price increases, layoffs, and more at Walt Disney World and Disneyland.

Then came a company-wide Cast Member Town Hall, during which Iger was asked about the future of the Disney Park Pass reservation system. Iger said that he has read about it, and that “not all of it positive.” He added that he needs to discuss the system with Josh D’Amaro who runs the parks business and can provide Iger with better perspective about its purpose. Following that, a previously-announced decision to eliminate reservations for 1-day tickets was implemented.

Now, we’re seeing Walt Disney World starting to open up even more reservation availability for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve. Due to the timing of both holidays, this will almost certainly be the busiest week of the entire year. (Normally, the lead-up to Christmas would also be busy, but with that falling on a Sunday, it’s likely the following week will see the bulk of the crowds.)

In fact, thanks to a reservation refill, every single park is available December 23-30, 2022. The only unavailable park on New Year’s Eve is EPCOT, and prior to that, it’s mostly just Magic Kingdom and occasionally DHS that are booked up.

The added availability is not an indication that attendance will be low that week. It absolutely will not! Rather, it should be construed as a signal that Walt Disney World is pivoting from its approach to redistribute crowds and normalize attendance among all 4 parks. This is something we’ve explained in the past, but here’s a quick refresher…

Walt Disney World is using park reservations to redistribute attendance by limiting availability at Magic Kingdom–and thus pushing people towards Animal Kingdom and EPCOT to increase the utilization of those parks and normalize numbers across all four parks. This is an instance of the infamous “yield management” being discussed by executives on earnings calls and in interviews. There actually are benefits to this approach, including making for a more pleasant guest experience and easing staffing shortages.

As we’ve previously noted, there are major downsides to this approach for Disney. If someone is traveling to Florida and wants their kids to experience Walt Disney World, they probably will not going to be satisfied if only EPCOT or Animal Kingdom are available. Rather than make reservations to those two parks, some guests will choose not to buy tickets at all and simply not visit Disney if they cannot do Magic Kingdom. For many causal visitors, Magic Kingdom is synonymous with Disney; EPCOT and the rest are not a comparable substitute.

All in all, several signs that the downsides are starting to exceed the upsides of the Disney Park Pass system, coupled with its biggest champion being gone. It’s likely the system will be minimized or dismantled in the coming weeks and months. For now, here’s the supposed reason v. reality of Disney Park Pass and why some at the company support the system…

Prior to all of this (and before he was unceremoniously fired), Chapek was interviewed at a Wall Street Journal tech conference and claimed that park reservations “protect the guest experience so that when you get into the park, you can have confidence it’s not going to be overcrowded.” He contended that Walt Disney World and Disneyland want to “guarantee a great guest experience no matter when people come.”

“In a world where we don’t control demand, we’re left with one of two situations. You either let way too many people into the park, where they don’t have a great experience, or you manage it by turning people away at the gate.” He explained that the reservation system was developed to make things predictable for “families from Seattle” that might have previously visited Disneyland on Thanksgiving at 10 am and been turned away without reservations.

He likened park reservations at Walt Disney World and Disneyland to what other hospitality businesses like hotels and airlines do. (For a company that once touted the “Disney Difference,” comparisons to Delta or Marriott miss the mark for us–even though we like both of those businesses.)

He said although the reservation system is “heresy” to some Disney fans, it’s more important to ensure everyone who is able to enter the park has a magical experience and makes memories that last a lifetime. Chapek also said Disney’s demand-based approach is good for investors and for guests. He steadfastly stuck to the script that would sound familiar to anyone who read our recent post, Disney Doesn’t Want Lower Crowds. 

There’s a lot to unpack here. One of the salient points of that post about Disney not wanting lower crowds is: you shouldn’t believe everything Disney tells you. We illustrated that by offering a timeline of quotes from company leadership as contrasted to what was actually happening in the parks. We will spare you a rehashing of all that here.

Instead, we’ll simply say that Disney leadership has repeatedly contended the reservation system is ensuring the parks aren’t too crowded and guaranteeing a great guest experience. Anyone who claims the parks aren’t too crowded right now clearly hasn’t seen how things are going this month. Anyone who thinks the guest experience is going great hasn’t visited in the last year. (If Disney wanted to be transparent about this, they’d release guest satisfaction scores from this summer as compared to last summer!)

Although the claim is facially invalid, it likely holds psychological appeal for many in Disney’s core demographic who are most likely to hear the message. The idea of spending thousands of dollars and traveling from across country to Walt Disney World or Disneyland only to be denied at the gate is terrifying. It’s an effective way of preying on emotions, especially the FUD factor.

And at least to some extent, Chapek is right. There were previously a handful of days per year when Magic Kingdom and Disneyland have had capacity closures. This happens in phases, with certain categories of guests blocked from entering the park for periods of time. To the best of my recollection, neither coast has been subject to a capacity closure for on-site guests since 2015. (If one did occur, it lasted less than a few hours.)

By contrast, I have personally overheard multiple guests (presumably of the hotel, although I didn’t butt in to inquire!) at the front desks of the Grand Californian, Contemporary, and Coronado Springs all pleading their case for reservations when the parks have been fully booked. In multiple instances (including the Grand Californian at a time when rack rates were over $1,000/night), there was nothing the Cast Members could do.

If anecdotal reports on social media are indicative of anything, this occurs on a regular basis. Now, the unsympathetic among you might claim that this is their own fault for not doing the research or ignoring the many warnings about theme park reservations being required. That’s neither here nor there.

My point is that–if the concern is families traveling long distances being shut out of the parks–that’s still happening. The park reservation system doesn’t solve this, it just shifts the risk to different parties. Even when it comes to an appeal to emotion, the park reservation system still causes problems for those out-of-state families Disney claims to care about. In short, that’s not the real reason for reservations. So let’s discuss some of the alternative explanations for park reservations…

Some fans have contended that Disney uses park reservations in order to reduce staffing levels. In theory, this would allow Walt Disney World or Disneyland to schedule shifts, hire fewer Cast Members, or cut hours for existing employees.

There’s even some “evidence” in support of this perspective, which comes via parents of College Program participants and Cast Members who have been scheduled for fewer hours per week. That is difficult to rebut or explain away, except by saying that Walt Disney World scheduling has always been scattershot and inexplicable. For everyone saying they can’t get enough shifts, there are a half-dozen other Cast Members who will tell you their departments are short-staffed and they’re being scheduled for 6 days per week.

As a general matter, I do not believe Walt Disney World is using the park reservations system to reduce staffing. I do believe that there are some Cast Members who aren’t getting as many shifts as they want, and I also believe that such a system could be used for the purpose of “right-sizing” staffing levels at some point. It would not surprise me if exactly that happens in 2023 or beyond.

I just don’t think that’s what is happening here, today, in 2022. For a number of positions, Walt Disney World and Disneyland are both facing acute staffing shortages and have been for over a year. (In some cases–like bus drivers and housekeepers–those actually predate March 2020.)

Disney has had terrible issues with employee turnover and morale. A big part of that problem is caused by the staffing shortages putting a strain on other employees. In that sense, it has become something of a vicious cycle. (We’ve heard several readers complain about employee and guest ‘attitudes’ recently; while beyond the scope of this post, we’ll simply say…you don’t even know the half of it.)

If anything, the case could be made that the reservations system is being used to prevent staffing shortages and turnover from worsening. Higher attendance and congestion leads to greater guest frustration, causing more confrontations between consumers and Cast Members, which results in more morale and turnover troubles. Again, vicious cycle.

The theory that Disney is using the reservations system to slash staffing also doesn’t pass the smell test because, quite simply, it’s not something a rational business would do at this moment in time. Although labor costs have unquestionably increased in the last several years, the expense of employees is far lower than the revenue generated from increasing capacity and accommodating more guests.

That’s almost certainly true even when the mix becomes less favorable thanks to more Annual Passholders. Although APs don’t generate additional ticket revenue with each visit, they do spend money on merchandise and food & beverage. This is especially true at EPCOT, which is essentially the local’s park at Walt Disney World. Purposefully reducing staffing would be a good example of stepping over dollars to pick up pennies. Think what you will of Disney’s current leadership, but they know better than to do that.

This does not mean every single position is understaffed–that’s definitely not the case–but Disney simply is not currently in a position to be cutting Cast Members in order to reduce costs. In fact, it’s the opposite. There are some positions Disney cannot fill, from characters (do you really think the company wants only one meal at Akershus per day?!) to behind-the-scenes roles.

Walt Disney World not having enough Cast Members for certain key roles is one of the reasons why the company continues to lean on the park reservations systems and limit attendance below pre-closure levels. This is actually something Disney executives have conceded in the past.

During the Walt Disney Company’s first two earnings calls of the year, executives indicated that this is exactly what’s happening. During the first quarter call, when asked about attendance caps, he stated that hospitality staffing has been “difficult” with hotels and restaurants having staffing shortages. Specifically, they said that capacity constraints are self-imposed as a form of “mitigation…because people spend a long time in our parks and resorts.”

In other words, the parks and resorts have limited attendance at least in part due to dining capacity. This isn’t the type of thing executives would proactively bring up on an earnings call–leaving money on the table doesn’t exactly make Disney look good–unless it was a significant headwind. There’s thus every reason to take this statement at face value. (Or just look at woes with Advance Dining Reservation availability, which tell pretty much the same story.)

However, I also do not think this is the primary impetus for the park reservation system at this point.

That statement was made earlier in the year, and it was probably true then when pent-up demand was peaking and there were a lot of ‘grey days’ on the Disney Park Pass calendar. For long periods between Presidents’ Day and Easter, every single park ran out of reservations on a near-daily basis. While that has happened from time to time since then, it’s not occuring with the same consistency.

In the last few months, the only parks that are running out of reservations with regularity are Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. This has been occurring on many days regardless of wait times, with both parks going unavailable on occasion with 5/10 or lower crowd levels.

This suggests to us that Walt Disney World is now using reservations not out of necessity, but to manipulate attendance dynamics on many days. They’re doing this by capping reservations at Magic Kingdom and pushing people towards Animal Kingdom and EPCOT to increase the utilization of those parks and normalize numbers across all four parks. There are a number of benefits to this approach, including making for a more pleasant guest experience, easing burdens on Cast Members, and allocating resources within and across the resort.

Of course, there are downsides and potentially ulterior motives, as well. For example, if EPCOT has higher food & beverage spending–which it almost certainly does–management might have an incentive to funnel guests there. The counter to that is it could backfire–if only EPCOT is available for regular ticket reservations, some guests might choose not to buy tickets at all. It’s a delicate needle to thread. (Consumer behavior is also the ultimate ‘check & balance’ on corporate behavior like this and could prevent this whole approach from being viable once pent-up demand has exhausted itself.)

Multiple executives, including Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro, have implicitly indicated that this is more or less occurring. When discussing the park reservations systems, they routinely mention yield management–or maximizing revenue by anticipating and influencing consumer behavior. Disney CFO Christine McCarthy has also indicated that the company pivoted with the Disney Park Pass system from limiting capacity due to local mandates to using it to “better balance load” attendance. This is something we’ve seen with Disney attempting to manage Lightning Lane inventory, and load balancing is also occurring with park reservations.

Another comment we’ve been hearing from readers is that the parks are busier than ever, which supposedly proves that the Disney Park Pass system is not working. These fans have a point—Walt Disney World posted wait times are high by historical standards. (The “busier than ever” assertion is technically untrue—this year has yet to surpass 2019, but it’s getting closer.)

However, these comments presuppose that the parks would not be even busier without reservations. Frankly, that is a bold—and probably inaccurate—assumption. The fact is that we don’t know what crowds would be like in the current environment if organic demand were allowed to play out unfettered because that’s not the world we inhabit. (Perhaps there’s still a Sacred Timeline out there with free FastPass, Magical Express, EMH, DDP, ETC!) 

For one thing, crowds were on pace for a record-setting year through early March 2020. Had the parks not closed and attendance continued on the trajectory it was on, it would’ve absolutely blown 2019 out of the water. (Annual Passholders likely would’ve been subject to reservations at some point prior to this year, regardless—they had already debuted at Disneyland.)

As we’ve pointed out elsewhere, Walt Disney World’s annual attendance has consistently grown since the Great Recession. Anyone comparing today’s crowds to 2018 or earlier is making a fundamental mistake and ignoring the clear trend lines. (There are a number of reasons why the 2020s were likely to be busier than the 2010s–from demographics to expansion to the 50th to social media–all of which are beyond the scope of this post.)

For another thing, pent-up demand has very much been “a thing” the last year-plus. You don’t need us to rehash this, as it’s been discussed ad nauseam. It’s also been evident at tourist hotspots all around the country. A multitude of vacation destinations have introduced reservations, time entry, or lotto—ones that had no such issue with crowding pre-pandemic. 

We also don’t need to fixate how capacity is impacted by the aforementioned staffing shortages, missing entertainment, shorter park hours, increased attraction downtime, and more. Suffice to say, all of this has increased congestion and perceived crowds. That means that a given daily attendance number has a much higher “feels like” crowd level than the exact same attendance total would’ve in 2019.

The easy and “popular” conclusion here would be that dealing with Disney Park Pass reservations sucks (it does!), exacerbating crowds while providing no upside for guests and only being beneficial to the beancounters. That the real reason is corporate greed and nothing more. There would be no way to definitively debunk such an assertion—and it’d clearly be a “crowd pleaser” with fans who want to feel vindicated in their anger and outrage.

Unfortunately (?), that is not our conclusion. We strongly dislike dealing with reservations and think it’s another point of friction in an already over-complicated process. We also think current management has gotten greedy and we worry that they’re doing irreparable brand damage. But the reservation system likely does have upside for guests. If left unchecked, crowds would likely be significantly worse much of the year, strain on Cast Members would be worse, and overall tensions would be higher. 

Just because crowds feel unprecedentedly bad now does not mean they couldn’t be worse. (If you’ve learned anything from Disney’s dubious decisions over the last two years, it should be that things can always get worse!) It’s also likely that Disney leadership does have ulterior motives for reservations down the road, with yield management and load balancing being ways to maximize revenue while minimizing resources. Two things can be true at the same time: the reservations system can have ‘invisible’ upside for guests and visible downsides, both near and long-term.

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

What do you think about the purported purpose of park reservations to “protect the guest experience” from overcrowding and “guarantee a great guest experience no matter when people come”? Do you think Disney is being dishonest about the true motivations for reservations? Think he’s oblivious to how things are on-the-ground for average guests at Walt Disney World and Disneyland? Agree or disagree with our take that crowds could be worse without Park Pass? Any other considerations we failed to take into account or details we missed? 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!

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