“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 November 29, 2022.)
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.
November 29, 2022 Update: On his first day back this week at the Walt Disney Company’s corporate headquarters in Burbank, California, newly-returning CEO Bob Iger took questions from employees and Cast Members during a company-wide virtual and in-person Town Hall meeting. He was asked a wide range of questions, including about the future of the Disney Park Pass reservation system.
In response, Iger noted that he has not used it, but that he has “read about it,” and that “a lot has been said, and not all of it positive.” Iger indicated that he needed to learn more about the theme park reservation before commenting further. He added that he needs to discuss the system with Josh D’Amaro who runs the parks business and can provide Iger with better perspective about its purpose.
This might seem like a non-answer, and it could be exactly that. During the Town Hall, Iger was asked about a range of different topics, and his response was mostly (paraphrasing): ‘I haven’t been brought up to speed on that yet, but I’ll look into it.’ There were only a few notable exceptions where he really went beyond that, and the park reservations system was one of them.
It should be noted that Iger chooses his words carefully (unlike Chapek) and it’s unlikely he would’ve conceded hearing negative things about the reservations system if he thought it was truly “here to stay,” as Josh D’Amaro said in a past interview. To the contrary, this seems like the kind of non-committal answer that Iger would give if changes are planned, but Iger is unsure of scope, scale, or specifics–or if those things have not yet been decided upon.
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 probably will 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.)
This is precisely why Walt Disney World is eliminating reservations for single-day tickets on December 8, 2022. It’s also why there’s a good chance the same will happen for multi-day tickets sooner rather than later. There has been a chorus of credible rumors that big changes are planned for early 2023, likely in January. After that point, it’s likely reservations are only an issue for Annual Passholders without an on-site resort stay.
Prior to this latest update, two anonymous Annual Passholders sued Disney over the Park Pass reservation system in late October. 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 January 2023.
Speaking of which, there have been rumors for months that Walt Disney World intends to make changes to its reservation system in early 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’s happening on December 8 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 1 of this 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 two most recent earnings calls in 2022, former CEO Bob Chapek indicated that this is exactly what’s happening. According to Chapek, 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.”
During the second quarter earnings call, both Chapek and CFO Christine McCarthy spoke to the park reservation system once again. McCarthy said that “there were many days in the quarter, where we saw demand exceed 2019 levels; however, we are continuing to control attendance, through our reservation system, with an eye on delivering a quality guest experience.”
When asked about higher demand and attendance, McCarthy indicated that numbers could be higher, but that Disney is “choosing to limit attendance using the reservation system, which goes back to trying to balance demand, and attendance throughout the year. Not have days when consumers in the parks when guests aren’t enjoying the experience. So, attendance is something that we’re controlling, but we’re doing it to have a better consumer experience.”
Chapek 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, said Chapek.
While we can’t speak to whether there’s actually “no end in sight” to Walt Disney World’s strong pent-up demand, Chapek and McCarthy are right about many dates in the last quarter when demand exceeded supply. For much of the year, there has been no Disney Park Pass availability even a couple weeks in advance.
Looking forward, it’s likely to be a similar story for the remainder of 2022. Although the peak weeks of Christmas and New Year’s Eve still have good availability as of right now, that will likely change to some degree as those dates draw nearer. Last year, these were the two busiest months of the year–and that isn’t likely to change. Our expectation is heavy crowds through January 8, 2023.
As for the why of this, there are a few reasons beyond what Chapek and McCarthy have said during earnings calls. During several interviews about the future of the theme parks over the course of the last two years, Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro has 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 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.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, D’Amaro specifically said that reservations are here to stay: “One way to manage the returning crowds…will be to continue requiring that ticket holders also book a reservation for the day they want to use their tickets.”
However, it’s worth noting that interview primarily concerned Disneyland, which has had issues with Annual Passholders overcrowding the parks for years. In fact, the Disney Flex Pass actually debuted a reservation system for Annual Passholders over a year before the closure. Requiring reservations for APs is thus unsurprising, and was likely a long-term goal even pre-closure.
Disney’s desire to better leverage technology also 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–we’ve been discussing “revenge travel” at Walt Disney World for two years at this point. While pent-up demand is still going strong (even seeing a second wind with the resumption of international travel), it will eventually subside.
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 purely 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.
With demand still exceeding reduced capacity at Walt Disney World as of Late 2022, it doesn’t seem like the Disney Park Pass system will be retired anytime soon. Even if Disney is able to address its labor shortage in the coming months (doubtful, as this problem has persisted for over a year), the company clearly likes the theme park reservation system.
Executives like talking it up on corporate earnings calls, presenting it as an asset to “balance demand” or improve the “consumer experience” (among other things) while not really speaking to its continued necessity due to staffing shortages and other operational woes. Even when asked directly about staffing, McCarthy pivoted to talking points about “managing attendance” and other purported benefits.
It seems very unlikely that Disney will want to give that up anytime soon. That is, unless the staffing shortages are addressed or demand dies down to the extent that the Disney Park Pass calendar is a sea of green. At which point, the benefits the reservation system serves will be minimal, and it won’t need to be touted on earnings calls to gloss over operational challenges facing Walt Disney World.
Our hope and expectation is that the tides are starting to turn, and that Walt Disney World will keep the Park Pass system for the Halloween and Christmas season “just in case.” It would also make sense for a clean break as the calendar turns to 2023.
Ultimately, our expectation is that reservations will be dropped sometime in January 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. 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.
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 couple of 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 January 2023 does make sense.
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!