“When will Walt Disney World stop requiring Park Pass reservations?” is a common question among guests frustrated about the extra step to visit Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, Epcot, and Animal Kingdom–or with problems when fully booked. This post addresses the issues with reservations, including the newly-filed lawsuit by passholders, reasons for reservations, and crowd control goals. (Updated January 17, 2023.)
Disney Park Pass is the advance theme park reservations system for booking entry to Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom. It offers three separate “buckets” for reservations: single or multi-day ticket holders, on-site resort guests, and Annual Passholders. In actuality, those first two buckets now pull from the same pool (and thus have the same availability or lack thereof) and APs are further broken down by tier.
Walt Disney World’s reservation system was originally introduced due to the parks operating at significantly reduced capacity when the parks reopened two years ago. At that time, attendance was capped at ~20% of normal levels, a number that gradually increased to 35% the following spring. With health safety protocol now gone entirely, many fans wonder when the Disney Park Pass reservation system will also be retired.
January 17, 2023 Update: Already in the last two months, the Disney Park Pass system has changed significantly. Back in December, Walt Disney World eliminated reservations for single-day tickets. There’s a very good chance that something similar will occur before Summer 2023 for multi-day tickets. After that point, it’s likely reservations are only an issue for Cast Members and Annual Passholders without an on-site resort stay.
Speaking of Annual Passholders, just last week the company announced 3 BIG Changes at Walt Disney World to Improve Guest Experience & Value. One of those is that Annual Passholders will soon be allowed to enter the theme parks after 2 pm without needing to make a reservation. There are some exceptions to that, and a start date has not yet been announced, but it’s a pretty big deal–especially for APs who previously enjoyed being able to do a spontaneous afternoon or evening visit after work.
This follows newly-returning CEO Bob Iger being asked about the future of the Disney Park Pass reservation system by Cast Members during a company-wide Town Hall meeting. During that, Iger noted that he has “read about it,” and that “a lot has been said, and not all of it positive.” Iger indicated that he would discuss the system with Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro before committing to any changes.
More recently, Josh D’Amaro shared during an interview that more changes are on the horizon that will make visiting the parks easier and more flexible. While he declined to share specifics, he did crouch his statement, suggesting that Park Pass–in some form–is here to stay.
D’Amaro drew a comparison to hotels, stating that Walt Disney World would not operate its resorts on a first-come, first-served basis. He claimed that this would be a problem because there would be too many people and the guest experience would be ruined for all. This actually is not the first time we’ve heard reasoning like this.
Prior to his unceremonious “departure,” former CEO Bob Chapek said during an infamous Wall Street Journal interview: “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.”
With that in mind, he explained that the the park reservation system was developed to make things predictable. He indicated that this was done in a way similar to other businesses around the world, including airlines.
These analogies to airlines and hotels are off-base. Theme parks currently require the purchase of admission and the making of reservations. If hotels required you to buy a booking and then separately reserve a room, that would be comparable. Or if airlines required a separate seat reservation to be booked after airfare is purchased that would be analogous. (There’s also the fact that airlines routinely overbook flights and bump passengers, so that’s a bad example in two regards.)
Both have stated repeatedly that the park reservation systems exist to protect the guest experience to guarantee admission on busy days and ensure that the parks are not too crowded. This script probably sounds familiar to anyone who has read our post, Disney Doesn’t Want Lower Crowds.In fact, much of the commentary there could serve as a direct rebuttal to these contentions, which are untrue.
If you’re wondering how to reconcile all of this, the most likely scenario is that Disney Park Pass is here to stay for Cast Members and Annual Passholders in some capacity, but will be eliminated entirely or at least integrated into tickets for everyone else. Josh D’Amaro was at Disneyland when the Flex Pass debuted there, and was reportedly an advocate for the reservation system for Cast Members.
Retaining reservations for APs and CMs gives Disney control over the attendance mix, and allows the company to prioritize tourists who spend more per visit on average. Although Disney wants Annual Passholders and Cast Members to visit–and spend money–when there’s excess capacity, the circumstances are different when the parks are busier.
It thus makes sense that Walt Disney World would want to prioritize resort guests and other tourists and not fill the parks with Annual Passholders at the expense of more lucrative vacationers during busier dates. Hence the compromise of no reservations after 2 pm most days for APs. That’s also why we do not expect park reservations to be retired for Annual Passes in 2023. (Perhaps a super-expensive ‘no-reservations’ AP will be introduced, but even that is doubtful.)
At this point, the only parks that are regularly running out of reservations are Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. This has been occurring on many days regardless of wait times, with both parks unavailable on occasion with 5/10 or lower crowd levels.
This means that Walt Disney World is now using reservations to redistribute attendance on those days. By and large, the system is not being used to cap capacity (except on the handful of busiest days per year), reduce staffing levels, or as an important source of data for resource allocation.
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.
However, there are also downsides to this approach for Disney. If someone is traveling to Florida and wants their kids to experience Walt Disney World, they probablywill 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.)
Prior to this latest update, two anonymous Annual Passholders sued Disney over the Park Pass reservation system. The plaintiffs contend the reservation system effectively blocked its highest tiers of passholders on certain days, despite Disney formerly advertising the premium passes as allowing unlimited access. The APs allege that Walt Disney World is “unfairly favoring” visitors with single and multi-day tickets over Annual Passholders “in order to make a larger profit.”
They contend that on some days, reservation slots are full for Annual Passholders while Walt Disney World continues to sell single-day tickets and offer reservations to other guests. (This is true–there are different buckets of reservations for different categories of customers.) They further contend that Disney is engaging in predatory business practices with the reservations system.
Disney spokesman Avery Maehrer released the following statement in response: “Annual Passholders continue to be some of our biggest fans and most loyal guests. We’ve been upfront with Passholders about the updates we’ve made, and we offered them the flexibility to opt in or opt out of the program early in the pandemic, including refunds if they desired. This lawsuit mischaracterizes the program and its history, and we will respond further in court.”
This follows a similar Annual Passholder (Magic Key) lawsuit filed against Disney in the Central District of California last year. That makes almost identical allegations–and as such, that lawsuit is instructive as to outcomes at Walt Disney World. Even as that California litigation advanced, Disney has maintained park reservations and continued selling Annual Passes. While it survived a motion to dismiss, it’s unlikely to result in substantive changes to Annual Passes or park reservations.
Disney could easily avoid future legal liability by clearly defining blockout dates and how those function in relation to reservations. Since the passes originally went on sale last fall, additional verbiage has been added to its marketing doing exactly that. When Disneyland began Magic Key renewals, even more was added to make it abundantly clear that “it may be difficult or not possible” to get park reservations. That addresses this issue going forward, meaning there’s no legal exposure for future Annual Pass sales or reservation requirements.
Accordingly, it’s our view that this will have no impact on the reservations system at Walt Disney World. To whatever extent there were deficiencies with marketing Annual Passes and the Disney Park Pass reservation system, those have been remedied by additional language clarifying the limitations and restrictions in making park reservations.
Beyond that, there is nothing inherently “unfair” (as a matter of law) about favoring one category of customers over another. If it were illegal to favor customers who spend more money “in order to make a larger profit” just about every business in America would have legal exposure. That’s not quite the claim the plaintiffs seem to think it is.
Even once reservations are eventually retired or minimized for customers who purchase single and multi-day tickets, it’s highly likely the Disney Park Pass system will stick around for Annual Passholders (for the reasons discussed below). This lawsuit does not change that. If anything, it will derail or delay planned changes expected to roll out in 2023.
Again, there have been rumors for months that Walt Disney World intends to make changes to its reservation system in 2023. What we’ve heard is that reservations for regular and resort guests will be rolled into the ticket buying flow or eliminated entirely at some point in the not too distant future. This is precisely what already occurred last December for single-day tickets, and apparently that’s simply the first step–a number of other changes are on the horizon.
However, we’ve been hearing variations of this rumor for almost a year, and initially expected the former (integration with the purchase process) to debut on January of last year. Obviously, that did not occur. You thus might want to take the entirety of this/these rumors with a grain of salt. Plans could always change or even be abandoned entirely. With Walt Disney World, nothing is certain until it happens…and even then, tweaks occur after initial rollouts.
Beyond this, Walt Disney World continues to operate at a somewhat reduced capacity, although that improves with each passing month. This might come as a surprise to anyone who has visited in the last several months, especially on dates when wait times hit their highest levels in two years.
However, the larger crowds are a byproduct of staffing shortages, plus less to do and less time to do it, which consolidates crowds. In a nutshell, if certain entertainment and experiences are missing or the parks are unable to operate for as many hours as normal, overall park capacity decreases. Wait times are longer even though overall attendance is (significantly) lower because more guests are consolidated into fewer options.
During the Walt Disney Company’s earnings calls last year, former CEO Bob Chapek indicated that this is exactly what’s happening. He claimed that Walt Disney World’s “capacity constraints are self-imposed capacity constraints and are really a function of our food and beverage mitigation…because people spend a long time in our parks and resorts, the food and beverage component is a big one.”
Company leaders have repeatedly credited the “balanced reservation system” that helps the company manage price per day and yield management, which has structurally allowed the company to increase per capita spending meaningfully without having to rely solely on raising ticket prices. “We don’t see any end in sight” to the sky-high demand and strong spending numbers at Walt Disney World, Disney has stated on earnings calls.
During several interviews about the future of the theme parks over the course of the last two years, Josh D’Amaro has shared a similar perspective, indicating that 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 has noted that these technologies are leading to better Cast Member and guest experiences, and has said that many are probably here to stay. In past interviews, D’Amaro has not said with any specificity which components will stick around. His comments have been more to tout Walt Disney World’s use of technology, and indicate they’ll continue to do so going forward. Which should be obvious.
Disney’s desire to better leverage technology 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 decrease staffing and 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 circumstances are very similar at this particular moment in time. In his interviews, D’Amaro acknowledges that Disney is benefitting from pent-up demand. While pent-up demand is still going strong, it will eventually subside. When it does, the company will need to be more responsive to the guest experience and satisfaction.
A ton of travel destinations that normally wouldn’t started requiring reservations last summer due to overwhelming and unprecedented demand. That doesn’t mean they’ll continue to do so when demand drops and things revert to normal. In fact, several of our favorite U.S. National Parks have already dropped their reservations systems, indicating they were no longer necessary to moderate demand.
Disney Park Pass is viewed as an impediment and another reservation to make. It creates uncertainty, headaches, and many guests blame the reservation system for planning problems or rigidity in their vacations. Some have been shut out of visiting entirely due to Park Pass, and have an unfavorable opinion of it as a result.
Among Annual Passholders, the Disney Park Pass reservation system is likewise unpopular. It has 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, where there’s honestly not a ton to be gained by Walt Disney World in keeping the reservation system around once supply and demand normalize.
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, this has been exacerbated.
As such, it’s our strong belief that Disney Park Pass is here to stay for Annual Passholders–at least in the near and medium term. Things could change in the long-term, but we have no doubts whatsoever that Annual Passholders will still be making theme park reservations in 2024.
The reservation system was baked into the soft relaunch of Walt Disney World APs last year, with pretty much every tweak to the program (aside from pricing) revolving around reservations. One of the “perks” of higher tiers of Annual Passes is holding more simultaneous reservations, and the way the blockout calendars now work in tandem with Park Pass gives Disney a lot of control over AP attendance.
Speaking of which, since debuting the Park Pass system, Walt Disney World has quietly extended the reservation calendar on a number of occasions. It was originally going to end the week before Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. That was undoubtedly strategic, as that was the company’s target date for operational normalcy back when the parks reopened.
Obviously, that did not happen. With the subsequent release of 2023 Walt Disney World vacation packages, the Park Pass calendar was extended again. Currently, it runs until January 18, 2024. This doesn’t mean it’ll continue until then, nor does it mean it’ll stop then. Our expectation is that it’ll be in use for Annual Passes long after that date, and will end for guests using regular tickets well before then.
Ultimately, our expectation is that reservations will be dropped sometime in 2023 for regular ticket holders or the system will be rolled into the process of purchasing tickets. As things continue returning to normal, there will be less need from a capacity perspective for Disney Park Pass for regular multi-day tickets. From a resource allocation perspective, the reservation system already offers little advantage over what already exists–it’s just extra friction in an already complicated vacation planning process.
By contrast, there’s no end date in sight for Annual Passholders needing to make reservations. Personally, as an AP, I’m expecting to be required to make reservations for the rest of my days visiting Walt Disney World. At the very best, maybe the protocol will be relaxed, with less stringent policies for late arrivals or something of that sort. (We hesitate to say reservations will be “permanent” for APs because a recession or economic downturn could result in Disney dropping the reservation system for all in an attempt to lure back APs who hate park reservations.)
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 last few years than we would’ve expected. With more guest feedback and increased staffing to facilitate more reopening, 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 after Spring Break 2023 does make sense.
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!