During our visit to Walt Disney World last summer, one thing stuck out: the complete and utter lack of crowds. At the time, we assumed it was an anomaly, but wait time trends suggested otherwise. Even then, we assumed it was a one-off for last summer. However, if June was any indication, last summer’s decline was not a one-off or anomaly: it’s the new normal in terms of Walt Disney World crowds.
This is good news for those of you planning summer trips to Walt Disney World, as you should expect noticeably lighter crowds than what you would’ve experienced 3 years ago. It’s bad news for literally anyone else, as the decrease in summer attendance does not exist in a vacuum–it’s likely a redistribution of summer crowds to other months of the year, particularly fall.
As we’ve been watching this trend emerge last summer and now the beginning of this summer, we’ve been wondering why it’s occurring. In this post, we share a few theories to explain this trend. The most likely explanation for the precipitous drop off in summer crowds? Dynamic pricing of 1-day tickets.
It may come as a surprise to people reading this blog, as most of you would probably never purchase a single-day ticket. However, these represent a large percentage of all tickets sold at Walt Disney World. (Last I heard, they were the best-selling tickets, but that info is a couple of years old.)
And while the average visitor to Walt Disney World does not do much planning (another potential surprise to those reading this!), most likely do look at pricing to determine whether a visit fits in their budget. When they do, they are met with the following calendar on DisneyWorld.com:
For some people, it does not matter. Summer is the most convenient time for them to visit due to school breaks, so that’s when they go. This is the rationale for summer season being peak season in the first place, a distinction that has, historically, been true.
For others, the $20/day price difference between July 20 and August 20 is a significant one; that’s a $100 price difference for a family of 5, and enough to justify postponing a visit for many people. If you’re a Florida resident, or even living within driving distance in the South, it’s pretty easy to delay your visit until the late summer or on a weekend during the fall if price is an issue.
Even if you don’t live in the South, you may be considering an impulse-visit to Magic Kingdom or Epcot on an already-planned vacation to Florida. Then, upon seeing the dynamic pricing, you might decide to wait until “next time” when prices are better.
There are doubtlessly other scenarios, but the point is that this 1-day dynamic pricing has a significant impact on ticket sales, and is redistributing crowds. This was part of the intent of the pricing scheme, but I’d contend this is an overcorrection.
Although they represent a much smaller piece of the pie, Annual Passholder trends also could explain some of the shift in crowds. As Annual Passes have rapidly escalated in price, no doubt some people have dropped them entirely. Others might instead move to a lower tier, particularly the Weekday Select and Silver passes, both of which are blocked out for almost the entire months of June and July.
Things are not looking much better this summer. Florida’s numbers haven’t been as bad as the heat wave in the Southwest, but the last two weeks have seen highs in the 90s, with “feels like” temperatures above 100º. In that kind of heat, you can bet that some Annual Passholders opt to skip their weekend day trip.
Stretches of poor weather are not something that impact tourism numbers, as tourists cannot really plan for it. They know the summer is hot and it rains during storm season, but not when a heat wave is going to occur. However, it’s a safe assumption that those tourists who are on vacation during a heat wave are spending more time at the hotel pool and less time in the parks.
Another explanation is that international visitation is down, particularly from Brazil, Canada, and the United Kingdom, and these foreign visitors would be most likely to come during the summer months.
Numbers have not yet been released for last summer, but the summer before, Brazilian tourism to Florida was down by 10%. With Brazil’s economy still worsening, it’s hard to fathom that those numbers are trending upwards. Canada’s economy is starting to rebound, but the exchange rate is still unfavorable. With their purchasing power diminished, Canadians are less inclined to travel to the United States.
In the aftermath of the Brexit, the United Kingdom faces a lot of economic uncertainty (and a weak pound), which has no doubt caused a decline in attendance year-over-year. This is after years of the dollar being weak against the pound, which led to UK guests being Walt Disney World’s “whales” for many years, with 21-day ticket purchases and more.
Other explanations are possible, but less likely. The first is that higher price ‘seasons’ for hotels and airfare are to blame. Historically, summer has been one of Walt Disney World’s more expensive times of the year for hotels. However, that is not necessarily the case anymore. In reviewing several rate charts, there are many resorts that have average to below average pricing during the summer months.
Even still, high prices during the summer months would be nothing new for Disney’s hotels. If it didn’t discourage guests from visiting for the last two decades, it seems unlikely to be the cause of a sudden, precipitous drop in attendance.
Same goes for airfare. In looking at general trends via airfarewatchdog.com, it appears to me that summer flights into and out of MCO are below average. Now, that’s somewhat anecdotal as it does not reflect all flight paths or a complete range of prices a few months ago when most people would’ve been booking flights, but I see nothing out of the ordinary.
More schools shifting to year-round calendars with longer breaks throughout the year is another explanation, but this is not a sudden occurrence that began last summer. School calendars have been trending this way for a decade or more.
Then there’s the common explanation cited by irate commenters on this blog whenever attendance gets busier: we “let the secret out!” and “everyone started going during ____ week because of you!” Except in this case, less people are attending, and the “secret” would be that it’s unbearably hot and humid during the summer in Florida (shhh…don’t tell anyone, it’s a secret!) and our advice was to avoid early June through early September.
I know we live in the information age and more people than ever have instant access to helpful resources that can improve their lives. That’s the utopian internet dream, right? Unfortunately, “educating ourselves” is not really how most people use the internet.
While there are a lot of Disney blogs (not just this one) offering trip planning advice that likely includes recommendations as to when to visit, the vast majority of Walt Disney World visitors either do not or cannot follow this advice. Just like “we” did not cause the first week of December to become busier (you can thank Disney’s more aggressive discounting for that), we are not a primary cause of a decline in summer visits.
It’d sure be neat if everyone followed our advice (and frankly, anyone who doesn’t is dead to me), but the practical reality is that most visitors to Walt Disney World do very little research and do not have the time to pore over Disney blogs for hours. On the plus side, a lack of critical mass is why a lot of tips you’ll find on Disney blogs work in the first place.
There are likely other variables I’m overlooking that could help explain why summer attendance has been down the last two years. Epcot’s growing ‘festival seasons’ have probably drawn guests to every month of the year except June through August. Gas prices might play a role. However, my bet is that the noticeable decrease is caused by the confluence of Peak Season pricing for tickets and the economic uncertainty of Brazil, Canada, and the U.K. The heat is likely a secondary explanation, especially for locals. Other factors might be at play, and in aggregate may have a noticeable impact, but I think those variables would be something visitors wouldn’t notice if it weren’t for the changes in ticket pricing, international visitation trends, and the weather.
Do you agree or disagree with our assessment as to why summer crowds at Walt Disney World have been noticeably below-average the last two years? Or, do you disagree entirely, and think it’s been as busy–or busier–than normal? Any observations about attendance trends during the fall months that follow this summer dip? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!