“When will Walt Disney World stop requiring theme park reservations?” and “will the Park Pass system end early?” have been common questions in response to our park reports for Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom. This post tries to answer that question, touching upon similar systems in use elsewhere and long-term goals. (Updated February 16, 2021.)
As you’re undoubtedly aware, Disney Park Pass is the advance theme park reservations system for booking entry to all four parks. It offers three separate “buckets” for reservations: single or multi-day ticket holders, on-site resort guests, and Annual Passholders. Only the AP bucket books up with any degree of regularity, and often just at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The calendar is almost entirely green for ticket holders and hotel guests.
When Walt Disney World debuted the Park Pass system, a reservation was originally required through September 26, 2021. That was then extended to January 14, 2022 with the release of 2021 vacation packages and extended again to January 14, 2023 with the release of 2022 Walt Disney World vacation packages. However, this does not necessarily mean that the Disney Park Pass system will be around until 2023…or even September 2021.
During interviews about the reopening of Walt Disney World, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro mentioned how Walt Disney World is “choreographing” the guest experience, pushing technology in a way that Disney has wanted to for a long time. He pointed to the Disney Park Pass reservation system, as well as Mobile Order, contactless payment, and various virtual queues.
D’Amaro noted that these technologies are leading to a better Cast Member and guest experience, and said many are probably here to stay. D’Amaro did not say with any specificity which components will stick around–it was not a direct reference to the Disney Park Pass system. His comment was more to suggest that Walt Disney World would like to continue using these types of technologies going forward.
This should not come as a surprise. The multi-billion dollar NextGen initiative–including My Disney Experience, FastPass+, MagicBands, and interactive queues–was envisioned as a way for Walt Disney World to operate more efficiently. There were grandiose plans for how the project would offer Disney the data necessary to streamline operations, deploy on-demand entertainment, manage staffing, and effectively utilize other resources.
Aside from the guest-facing components like FastPass+ and MagicBands, almost none of the big goals that justified the colossal investment were realized. In large part, this is why My Disney Experience wasn’t ported to other parks around the globe; instead those parks cherry-picked various aspects of the system to build their own, stripped-down incarnations. (See “The Messy Business of Reinventing Happiness” and “Behind the Scenes at Disney As it Purged a Favorite Son” if you’re interested in more on the trials and tribulations of NextGen.)
The lesson to be learned from the goals of NextGen as imagined versus what came to fruition is that Disney’s plans don’t always come true. While executives salivate at the prospect of leveraging big data and analytics to achieve more efficient operations, all of this only works to the extent that there’s guest buy-in. (Not to mention the tech “playing nice” with Walt Disney World’s legacy IT–something that still hasn’t totally happened with the NextGen additions.)
Quite simply, Walt Disney World cannot unilaterally push through more stringent and regimented planning “resources” without regard for the guest experience and satisfaction. While FastPass+ was initially met with skepticism by long-time fans (something true of literally any change at Walt Disney World), it was eventually embraced by guests. Some still criticized it or expressed a preference for paper FastPasses or no virtual queues at all, but it was sufficiently popular.
It’s also worth emphasizing that My Disney Experience rolled out at a time when Walt Disney World’s attendance had started to soar, giving the company some latitude in making decisions not warmly embraced by guests. The climate is very different right now, and Walt Disney World will face considerable headwinds for the next few years. This hasn’t stopped Disney from aggressively alienating guests thus far…but it probably should at some point.
It’s hard to imagine a scenario where Disney Park Pass is enjoying any degree of popularity or embrace among guests. Unlike FastPass+, it does not offer any advantage as compared to its predecessor (nothing). Disney Park Pass is purely an impediment and another reservation to make. As a practical reality, it’s not a huge obstacle for resort guests or theme park ticket holders given the ease of reservations, but it still creates uncertainty and headaches.
Among Annual Passholders, the Disney Park Pass reservation system is downright unpopular. It has resulted in APs being shut out of parks when they’re ghost towns, reduced the value of their Annual Passes, and been an all-around frustrating process. In the grand scheme of Walt Disney World “approval ratings,” Park Pass falls somewhere between Stitch Ate the Page! and Stitch’s Great Escape.
Nevertheless, Walt Disney World would make the calculated decision to plow forward in using the theme park reservation system if their gains outweigh the reduced guest satisfaction and complaints. So…do they?
Let’s start with tourists. There’s likely less dissatisfaction among this guest demographic, but also less to be gained by Disney. Park Pass reservations for these guests are seldom fully booking when the parks are operating at a reduced capacity; it stands to reason the same will hold true when shifting to full capacity parks. Meaning the system is not particularly useful at redistributing attendance.
From an efficiency and resource allocation perspective, Walt Disney World should already be able to pretty accurately forecast tourist attendance thanks to both hotel occupancy rates and the date-based theme park ticket system. In fact, it’s likely that the latter system could be tweaked slightly to offer Disney exactly the info it would like without introducing even more friction and unnecessary hoops to the process.
A Walt Disney World vacation is already needlessly complicated and convoluted (even if many fans enjoy the planning, that’s not true of casual guests who find it overwhelming), so it behooves Disney to simplify the process where possible. In short, it’s entirely possible to achieve the same gains among tourists without Park Pass.
Now let’s turn to Annual Passholders, where dissatisfaction is considerably higher. However, so too are the benefits to Walt Disney World in continuing such a park reservation system. Even with blockout dates and a range of tiers, Annual Passholders can throw a monkey wrench into Walt Disney World operations.
We’ve witnessed this firsthand. On days when weather is unseasonably nice, a new special event begins, something debuts, or there’s some other unexpected draw, Annual Passholder visitation can spike. This can result in long lines at the parking toll booths, bag check, the turnstiles, and (obviously) higher crowds within the park. As Central Florida’s population has exploded (something that may cease to be true going forward), this has been exacerbated.
This still pales in comparison to the situation at Disneyland, which has a huge fanbase in Orange and Los Angeles Counties. In fact, this has become such a concern for the California parks that Disneyland discontinued its Annual Pass program in 2021.
While new Annual Passes are not available to purchase right now at Walt Disney World, the same thing is unlikely to happen in Florida due to a mix of demographics and double the parks. Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from how Disneyland managed its AP-base pre-closure. Namely, the Disney Flex Pass, which was the Disneyland Annual Passport with both open admission dates (less popular days when no pre-booking is required) and reservation-only days (more popular times to visit, like weekends).
The Disney Flex Pass was released in California a couple of years ago and was immediately popular. It worked really well for locals, offers good value for money, flexibility in attending, and also gives Disney crucial insights into attendance forecasting. Among locals, the feedback for the Flex AP has been incredibly positive–many of our friends have actually downgraded to this Annual Pass. The Flex Pass is truly a win-win.
Basically, Park Pass is to Flex Pass what FastPass+ is to MaxPass. That might only make sense if you’ve been to Disneyland, but the short version is that both Flex Pass and MaxPass are the superior and pared-down versions of their Walt Disney World counterparts.
That doesn’t mean Walt Disney World will eventually shift from Park Pass to something in the style of Flex Pass, but they should. Pushing at least some Annual Passholders to such a pass offers the same efficiencies and forecasting without inconveniencing tourists and other APs who opt to purchase a higher tier for totally unlimited access. That’s the easy and proven answer.
With all of that background out of the way, we finally get to the titular question of when will Walt Disney World eliminate the Park Pass reservation system?
As noted above, the Disney Park Pass system is currently in place for all dates through January 14, 2023–but that’s only because vacation packages have been released for next year, with rolling arrival dates 500 days in the future and checkouts 14 days after that (meaning that 2022 vacation packages will eventually run through that date). If people are able to book trips, they want to be able to book park reservations.
When the parks initially reopened, Walt Disney World was treating September 27, 2021 as the date when everything goes back to normal. This date is not insignificant–it’s the Monday when guests arriving for Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary (on October 1, 2021) are most likely to check-in.
However, it’s still an arbitrary date. Walt Disney World isn’t just going to flip a switch on that day with everything going back to normal. It’s going to be an ongoing process that hopefully will begin well before then. There already has been progress on that front, with Park Hopping now back at Walt Disney World as of 2021. However, currently the Disney Dining Plan and FastPass+ still are unavailable, and it’s unclear whether either will return at all in 2021.
As for the Disney Park Pass system, our expectation is that it’ll evolve and be eroded over time before being eliminated entirely–like with the return of Park Hopping, as mentioned above. This final step likely won’t happen until capacity at Walt Disney World’s four theme parks is back at or near 100%.
Right now, theme park capacity is around 35%, up from 25% last fall. With the increased capacity limit, Park Pass reservations sometimes–but seldom–run out completely. It’s likely that once Walt Disney World can get to 50% capacity, there won’t be many ‘unavailable’ dates. The question is: when will that be able to happen? At this point, we don’t know what next month looks like, let alone late this year or January 2023.
It seems that Walt Disney World will gradually increase capacity after cases fall throughout the United States. Restoration of full capacity won’t be until widespread distribution of a vaccine, and receiving the all-clear from health officials and experts. Even on the most optimistic timeline, that probably isn’t happening before late Summer 2021.
In last week’s earnings call, CEO Bob Chapek was questioned about how Walt Disney World could increase attendance and profitability. He called Dr. Fauci’s April 2021 vaccination timeline a “game-changer” and said Disney would relax physical distancing and face mask rules based upon vaccine rates. He further predicted that things would be very different in terms of current practices by 2022.
Ultimately, that’s how we expect this to play out. Walt Disney World leadership and decision-makers will likely monitor crowd patterns and guest feedback, and make adjustments to the Park Pass system as attendance and satisfaction levels dictate. Even with park capacity increased to 35%, Disney Park Pass reservations do run out on busy holidays. However, once physical distancing can be relaxed and capacity increased to 50% or so, that might no longer be the case.
In concluding, we’ll once again offer the caveat that this is entirely speculative and we could be totally wrong. Walt Disney World has been way more conservative during the reopening than we would’ve expected. With more guest feedback and observing Universal’s comparative success, we can’t help but wonder if that approach changes. What Disney has done thus far has achieved mixed results, but staying the current course until September 2021 does make sense–even if it means writing off the entirety of the current fiscal year.
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!
Do you expect the Disney Park Pass reservation system to be retired at some point, or continue forever? Think Walt Disney World regrets requiring resort guests and theme park ticket holders to use Park Pass? 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!