Summer crowds have been low at Walt Disney World the last few years, which bucks conventional wisdom that it’s peak tourist season in Florida. Summer 2020 is likely to be the least-busy stretch of the year at WDW, even though Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge is now open and both Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure and Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway will be open by then. (Updated February 14, 2020.)
The first time we experienced these low summer crowds, we assumed it was an anomaly. Wait time trends suggested otherwise. Even then, we assumed it was a one-off for that summer. However, the last couple of years have demonstrated that low to moderate crowds from late May through September are 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 4 years ago. It’s bad news for literally anyone else, as the decrease in summer attendance does not exist in a vacuum–it’s a redistribution of summer crowds to other months of the year. For proof of this, look no further than our new Peak Crowds in Winter 2020 “Off-Season” at Walt Disney World post…
As we discuss in our 2020 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendar: When to Go & Avoid post, we are not expecting this to change in Summer 2020. This is despite Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure debuting in the France pavilion at Epcot this summer, and even though Star Wars: Rise fo the Resistance is still new.
The reality is that the excitement and hype over these new things is not enough to overcome the undesirability of a summer visit due to pricing and weather, and other factors we’ll discuss below…
The first reason for lower crowds during the summer is pricing. For both tickets and hotel rooms, summer pricing tends to be the highest of the year. To be sure, there are brief windows that see room rates and ticket prices spike higher, particularly around holidays and spring break. However, no other multi-month period has the same sustained level of higher prices as you’ll find in June and July.
While the average visitor to Walt Disney World does not do much planning, most do look at pricing to determine whether a visit fits in their budget. When they do, they are met with a price calendar on DisneyWorld.com showing significantly higher prices for the summer months:
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. For decades, summer has been peak season in just about every tourist destination, including Walt Disney World, for that very reason.
For many visitors, the elevated prices in June and July are significant. Between hotels and park tickets, the surcharge for a summer vacation could be over $1,000 for a family of 5, and that’s enough to justify postponing a visit for many people. Even a 1-day summer visit could cost an extra $100 or so for a family.
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 Disney’s Hollywood Studios to experience Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance on an already-planned vacation to Florida.
That is, until you see the premium pricing. At which point, you might decide to wait until off-season, when prices are better. For as long as we can remember, this has been the case with rack rates on hotel rooms. However, seasonal ticket pricing is a relatively recent addition, rolling out for 1-day tickets only a few years ago, and for multi-day tickets last year. Redistribution of crowds 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 summer crowds at Walt Disney World. 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. These blockouts coupled with the lack of festivals largely explains why Epcot feels like a ghost town in the summer.
Another thing that would cause guests to stay home, Floridians in particular, is the weather. It’s no news that summer is unbearably hot and humid in Central Florida.
However, the last couple summers have been especially brutal, and as more people avail themselves of online planning resources, tourists become more cognizant of just how hot and humid summers are in Florida.
Things were pretty bad last summer. Florida’s numbers haven’t been as bad as the heat wave in the Southwest, but the Orlando area saw highs consistently 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 Europe and the United Kingdom, and these foreign visitors would be most likely to come during the summer months. (Meanwhile, tourism from South America has actually rebounded in the last couple of years–but they’re visiting disproportionately in the winter months, which is summer in Brazil, Argentina, etc.)
Despite Florida greeting a record number visitors last year, which have been increasing by about 3-5% every year for the last several years, the number of international tourists has been dropping for the last few years. Two years ago, just under 11 million international tourists visited Florida, which was a 1% drop. This follows two consecutive years of 2% drops. (We don’t have final numbers for last year, but tentative results show overseas tourism to Florida is down another ~3%.)
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 in the last few years. School calendars have been trending this way for a decade or more.
Then there’s the common explanation cited by 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).
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. It’d sure be neat if everyone followed our advice, 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 higher seasonal pricing, decline in international tourism, and pre-Star Wars slump. 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!