Like clockwork, there’s been another September slowdown at Walt Disney World. Low off-season crowds after school went back into session meant the first three weeks of the month were the 3 least busy weeks of this year…again! This wait times report covers data for the month at Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. We also have forward-looking fall break predictions and thoughts on why this Slowtember was unexpectedly busy (in relative terms).
These low crowds are not a new development–neither in the last few weeks nor in recent years. Excluding the post-reopening period, the window between when schools go back into session in mid-August until October has been the slowest stretch of the year at Walt Disney World for many years running. This headline is hardly breaking news or some unprecedented event–September crowds simply confirm what we long have known and expected.
If anything, this September has been unexpected busy for reasons we’ll discuss in the commentary below. Not busy in absolute terms, obviously, as September has had the 3 least-crowded weeks of the year thus far. But as other weeks and months in the last several years have defied expectations, in ways good and bad, September continues to be one of the few consistent and predictably slow months of the year…
This continues the trend that began last month, right as schools went back into session and the 2023 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party began. It began when we covered Magic Kingdom’s Third Slowest Day of 2023! The title pretty much says it all, but notably, that would be revised to ‘Magic Kingdom’s 12th Slowest Day of 2023!’ if written today, as the park has had several slower days since mid-August. More of those days are on the horizon, albeit not to the same degree as their late August or September counterparts–see Least Crowded Late 2023 Days at Magic Kingdom for dates that we recommend doing MK.
Jumping forward, I’m going to forgo all of the normal caveats about the limitations of crowd reports and wait time data for Walt Disney World. Suffice to say, there are a lot of asterisks attached to the wait times data below–I’ll be going over those in the commentary, and don’t want to overwhelm with prefatory text causing you to not read that.
So let’s dig into the data and look at Walt Disney World wait times. As always, all graphs and stats are courtesy of Thrill-Data.com:
We’ll start with the monthly numbers for Walt Disney World as a whole.
After peaking in June, crowds have decreased for the last three straight months at Walt Disney World. Throw out May, and numbers have been trending down for pretty much the entire year. That will all change soon, as this should be the last month of falling crowds for a while. For now, the September 2023 average for wait times is 29 minutes, which is a 1/10 crowd level.
Next is the weekly numbers for Walt Disney World as a whole. This shows a lot more nuance and, as you can see, crowds have not been on a straight downtrend over the course of the last year.
Unsurprisingly, wait times bottomed out during the first two weeks of September. The same thing happened last year, with the only difference being that the first week of September was slower this year, and by 2 minutes. The second week was identical to last year’s data.
The daily wait times data shows the “why” of that, which is that Labor Day weekend was really slow. It’s never a busy holiday, but it was even quieter than last year. This might’ve been unexpected to some, but no one here. (See Why Labor Day Will Be ‘Dead’ at Walt Disney World.)
That first week of September 2023 would’ve been slower than last year regardless, but barely. That one weekend is the big difference, and the main reason for that was overly aggressive ticket blockouts. That’s something we probably won’t see again for the rest of the year–but more on that in a bit.
Regardless, it’s been an objectively slow September. Averaging wait times across all of Walt Disney World, no date has hit a 4/10 on the crowd calendar. Individual parks are a different story, though…
For park by park analysis, we’ll start with Magic Kingdom.
Every single day of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party at Magic Kingdom has been 1/10 or 2/10 on the crowd calendar. Every single non-MNSSHP day has been busier than the party days before or after it. Nothing even remotely surprising or unprecedented about this. Once again, we highly recommend doing Magic Kingdom during the day before MNSSHP, bouncing elsewhere by ~4 pm if you have Park Hopper tickets. If you don’t, it’s a much tougher decision.
Amusingly (as long as you weren’t there), the park had its busiest day since Easter this week! On Country Bear Appreciation Day at Magic Kingdom, folks really turned out to celebrate CBJ. They closed half the park for half the day as tribute to the Country Bears (or something of that nature), pushing wait times through the roof everywhere else. Attendance would’ve been elevated regardless since it was a Monday and non-party day, but not like that.
It’s unlikely Magic Kingdom will celebrate Bearday again soon (we can always hope!), but one thing of which you should be mindful is increasing crowds on Saturdays. Weekends have been slower all year at Walt Disney World, but we enter the heart of Party Season, that appears to be changing at Magic Kingdom. That will likely only get worse as the weekly frequency of parties increases–and as seasonal crowds increase.
Animal Kingdom has seen up and down crowd levels in the past couple of weeks, but its off-season lows are likely a thing of the past.
Once you get past the Pandora attractions, individual ride wait times still aren’t bad. For the entire month, the attractions in Pandora – World of Avatar are the only two that have averaged wait times over an hour. Our Animal Kingdom Afternoon Arrival Strategy is once again the ideal approach for this park. We even more strongly recommend that approach starting in November, as Animal Kingdom will be open after dark again this holiday season. Just make sure you arrive in time to catch the last performances of Merry Menagerie.!
Early Entry or rope drop also work really well. It’s so easy to beat the crowds at Animal Kingdom that Genie+ is a waste of money unless you’re arriving after 9:30 am and leaving before 3 pm…which is exactly what most people are doing. (Don’t be like everyone else!)
Over at EPCOT, it’s a similar story. The low-lows with 1/10 crowd levels are over; crowd levels have been as high as 7/10 in the last couple of weeks, with several 5/10 days.
Regardless of what happens with wait times–and they probably will increase–feels like crowds are only going to worsen at EPCOT. Starting September 22, the Disney100 celebration kicks off and the heart of EPCOT Food & Wine Festival season begins. Only a couple of days later, AP and DVC previews for Moana’s Journey of Water begin. After all that wraps up, it’s fall break and there’s more on the horizon at EPCOT.
Suffice to say, I wouldn’t expect many more truly “slow” days at EPCOT for the rest of the year. There will be days with lower wait times, but that never tells the full story of EPCOT crowds.
Finally, there’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Daily crowds have had their ups and downs, but the overall trajectory is similar to Walt Disney World as a whole. It’s likely that these crowd levels will continue to trend up, especially as Magic Kingdom enters the peak Party Season, which also impact the dynamic at DHS.
As a reminder, individual park crowd levels are relative to other dates at the same park. Disney’s Hollywood Studios has the highest averages in all of Walt Disney World, due to its top-heavy ride roster (plus shows that don’t post wait times). Consequently, a 2/10 at DHS is an average wait time of 39 or 40 minutes, whereas 2/10 at Magic Kingdom is 27 or 28 minutes. That’s a pretty big difference in aggregate over the course of the day.
Over at Universal Orlando, it’s a very similar story. The exhaustion of pent-up demand has meant lower wait times pretty much all year long, with the exception of holiday weeks.
However, the very big asterisk is that this doesn’t take into account Halloween Horror Nights, which is doing absolutely bonkers numbers this year. There are probably a lot of reasons for the success of both HHN and Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, including more lagged pent-up demand and some locals changing their visiting patterns. Regardless, both Halloween events should demonstrate that the demand for theme parks is still strong, just in different ways than we saw during the period of revenge travel.
Turning to commentary, let’s start by reiterating that crowds have been down at Walt Disney World year-over-year. Disney CEO Bob Iger recently confirmed both lower attendance and hotel occupancy at Walt Disney World. Parks & Resorts is still overperforming, but that’s due to the international parks, Disneyland, and Disney Cruise Line. Those are all up year-over-year, whereas Walt Disney World has been down.
The company has repeatedly said precisely this. What’s interesting and worth stressing is the explanation, which is the earlier exhaustion of “revenge travel” and pent-up demand. Since Florida reopened before pretty much anywhere, people began vacationing at Walt Disney World. By comparison, travel to Disneyland or Disney Cruise Line resumed later, so revenge travel has lagged. Basically, both DLR and DCL are a year behind Walt Disney World in terms of attendance and demand trends.
This is also relevant from the perspective of crowds at Walt Disney World. The wait times data above is all relative to the previous year, including months when pent-up demand was still running hot. So it should be of little surprise that attendance and crowd levels are down–the comparison was really tough!
It’s like climbing Mount Everest and then being halfway down the descent; you’re way below your prior altitude when you were on top of the world, but still higher than the peak of any mountain in the entire United States. It’s a very similar idea here with Walt Disney World crowds–coming down from the record highs of the last 18 months, but still higher than almost any prior year.
Frankly, I think there’s probably more to the story than that. Although I cannot support this with actual data–since all we have are posted wait times–I’d go out on a limb and postulate that attendance has actually slightly increased for September 2023 as compared to last September at Walt Disney World.
This is because my on-the-ground experiences with ‘feels like’ crowds at Walt Disney World in both August and September have been in conflict with the wait times data. Now, I know better than extrapolating too much from firsthand reports–as always, the plural of anecdote is not data. However, I spend enough time in the parks and know what to look for, and have developed a pretty good feel or intuition for crowds.
In support of this, I think it makes sense to look at how guest demographics could possibly be different. In a previous post, I mentioned how the increased number of international guests stuck out like a sore thumb. I’ve never heard as many British accents (as a percentage of all guests) at Walt Disney World as in the last couple of months.
Again, this makes complete sense–just like with Disneyland or Disney Cruise Line, it’s a matter of lagged pent-up demand. Although Florida reopened earlier and felt revenge travel sooner, that wasn’t with international visitors because they couldn’t enter the United States. International revenge travel has been the big ‘thing’ this year, both with Americans heading abroad and vice-versa.
The other presumptive demographics shift is more Annual Passholders in the parks. Given that most tiers of APs were not available to purchase last year at this time (and for a long time before that), there were a lot of locals, Disney Vacation Club Members, and diehard fans sitting on the sidelines or making the most of multi-day tickets. The day-long virtual queue when APs went back on sale should provide all the support necessary for this assertion.
Differing demographics is relevant because they experience the parks differently than average American tourists with 4-5 days to visit. People from the United Kingdom don’t travel, they holiday. This isn’t just one of those weird British language quirks (like adding “u” to words), it’s a whole vibe. Visitors from the United Kingdom spend like 21 days at Walt Disney World; with that amount of time to kill, they simply do not have the same sense of urgency as American tourists on tighter timeframes.
Same goes for Annual Passholders. The stakes just aren’t same, and the priorities are different. Ironically enough, these locals and very much non-locals from across the pond do Walt Disney World somewhat similarly to one another. Less of an emphasis on maxing out their rides per day, and more on wandering around, dining, or doing whatever.
This is significant because, again, wait times are used as a proxy for crowd levels since they’re the only thing that’s measurable. But if you have a bunch of guests that aren’t doing as much of that measurable thing, they essentially are being undercounted as compared to other guests. Despite this, they’re still in the walkways, contributing to congestion, and so forth. This is the whole reason crowd levels are almost meaningless at EPCOT during the peak of festival season and on weekends…but currently happening at scale across all of Walt Disney World!
Another big reason is what’s being counted in wait times data each year and what isn’t. Several offerings that post wait times have reopened in the last year or so, including the Walt Disney World Railroad, Enchanted Tales with Belle, Ariel’s Grotto, Pete’s Silly Sideshow, other character encounters, and entertainment. In addition to this, capacity has improved at meet & greet locations due to lessening staffing shortages, especially in Magic Kingdom.
This does two things. The first is that everything on the above list has an average wait time that is lower (in some cases significantly so) than the parks as a whole. Adding those lower numbers to the mix decreases the overall average, even if only slightly. The second is that when there’s more to absorb crowds, there are fewer people waiting in line at each attraction, which lowers those wait times, too.
To be clear, I’m not claiming that Walt Disney World is busier than ever or the crowd levels are actually 9/10 or 10/10. It isn’t and they’re not! All of the above is offered as an explanation as to why ‘feels like’ crowds could be higher than September last year, and why even the wait times data is an incomplete and imperfect comparison to last year. (It’s always incomplete and imperfect, but the last few years have been especially brutal on that front.)
At best, this could explain a slight discrepancy–crowds being inaccurate by 1-2 levels (or maybe 2-3 in Magic Kingdom). Not much more than that, though. September 2023 is still the slowest month of this year at Walt Disney World. No amount of over-explanation, caveats, or whatever will change that. The question isn’t whether September 2023 is secretly really busy? It is not.
The question is whether September 2023 has higher attendance than last September? It might. I think it probably does by a little bit, which would represent a bit of a turning point and indicate the “levers” the company’s been pulling have worked. But what do I know.
One thing I do know for sure is that choosing the right day of the week is extremely important, and will continue to be, for the remainder of the year. We’d highly recommend consulting our recently updated Best & Worst Days to Do All Parks at Walt Disney World in 2023. That offers regular advice, how it changes for Party Season, and the recent trends with slower weekends.
If you did a good job picking days of the week–especially Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios–your perception might be that this September slowdown is significant. If you chose poorly and aren’t used to visiting during actual peak seasons, you might conclude that this September is the busiest Walt Disney World has been in a while.
Looking forward, it’s pretty much a sure thing that the slowest stretch of the year at Walt Disney World is in the rearview mirror. As discussed in our list of the 10 Best and 10 Worst Weeks to Visit Walt Disney World in 2023 to 2025, September is the best month of the year to visit from a wait times perspective, but the tide starts to turn at the end of the month.
We’re in the early innings of seeing exactly that happen. It’ll become more obvious with the kickoff of Disney100 (so, tomorrow!) and the start of October. But even the next couple of weeks should be fairly mild as compared to what’s on the horizon. They’ll just be busier than late August and early September. Not exactly a high bar.
The true turning point should come with the days leading up to the Columbus Day/Indigenous Peoples’ Day holiday weekend. As discussed in the October 2023 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendar, this holiday always catches people by surprise, but it is busy at Walt Disney World during the lead-up to that long weekend and the dates thereafter.
This holiday coincides with fall break for many school districts, making it the most popular week for vacations to Walt Disney World since Spring Break. Seriously, it’s busier than all of summer–in large part because you have more vacations consolidated into less time, generally more attractive weather, and superior seasonal events.
Suffice to say, mid-October will be busy. There are several days and at least one week in there that will end up being the busiest since April. The bigger question mark is what happens after that. Going by past precedent, there will be a gradual decline after most school districts have had their fall breaks, before another spike in the lead-up to Veterans Day, another very busy holiday that catches Walt Disney World visitors by surprise.
So there are basically two possibilities here. The first is that attendance forecasts are anemic, and Walt Disney World is offering a Florida resident deal to help buoy crowds. Those who believe Walt Disney World is great at this sort of thing might be inclined to believe that.
The second is that Walt Disney World wants to boost revenue before the end of the fiscal year, increase crowds this Christmas–just really pad its stats. There could be a number of motivations for this, and regardless of attendance, it’s a near-certainty that revenue and their beloved per-guest spending are down for October through December. (Not offering general public resort discounts last year for that timeframe but releasing great ones for Oct-Dec. 2023 all but guarantees that.)
On top of that, there’s the possibility that executives are annoyed by headlines about how the parks were “ghost towns” or “dead” over Independence Day, which was a direct result of the last ticket deals having blockout dates that weekend. So the ‘solution’ is no blockout dates for these tickets, not even around Columbus Day, Veterans Day, or Thanksgiving. The result is packing parks those weeks, silencing the critics who have claimed that Disney is in a downward spiral.
I’m willing to accept that both of these scenarios are possibilities, or even a mix of both–that attendance forecasts are down as a whole due to the exhaustion of pent-up demand, but that those peak weeks will still be very, very busy. Regardless, this ticket deal is unprecedented for this time of year, and its impact on holiday crowd levels is truly unknown!
Ultimately, our expectation is that attendance starts creeping up for the last week or so of September and into early October 2023, but that the 1/10 and 2/10 crowd level days and weeks of Slowtember are already over. It was a good run while it lasted! We hope you took advantage of our advice and visited between mid-August and late September (or not, if you hate surface-of-the-sun temperatures!), because crowds will only go up from here for the rest of the year.
The big question marks are international tourists, Florida residents taking advantage of ticket deals, plus fall group events and convention crowds. There’s an outside chance that the last week of September sees an outsized spike due the arrival of these, plus early fall breaks for various school districts around the country and diehard WDW fans visiting for the start of Disney100 at EPCOT. There’s actually an off chance that the last week of September sees a sharp spike, and this month ends up being busier than this May or last September, as measured by average wait times.
Regardless, the crowds will return in mid-October 2023 and won’t let up–at least, not consistently–until after winter school breaks end in the second week of January 2024. October through December will likely be the busiest 3-month stretch of 2023 at Walt Disney World, in large part due to peak holiday weeks. There will be some pockets of moderate crowds between the holiday weeks, but we don’t expect those to show much of a year-over-year decrease. It’ll be interesting to see, though–there are a lot of competing variables at play. Any idiot can predict low crowds in September. (Just look at me, a true success story in that field!) It takes a lot more skill and luck to get the coming weeks within these busier months right!
Thoughts on the September slowdown at Walt Disney World? Predictions for when heavier crowd levels will return in October through December 2023? If you’ve visited within the last month, what did you think of wait times? Have you done Magic Kingdom during the day of a MNSSHP night? Noticed the roller coaster crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Magic Kingdom caused by Party Season? Do you agree or disagree with anything in our report? 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!