“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 tries to answer that question, covering official statements, reasons for reservations, and crowd control goals. (Updated May 13, 2022.)
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. 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 in Summer 2020. 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.
Even though health safety concerns are no longer driving the attendance, Walt Disney World still has not gone back to full capacity. This might come as a surprise to anyone who visited during spring break, when wait times hit their highest levels in two years.
The reason the parks are not at full capacity is entirely driven by staffing shortages and many venues still being closed (a byproduct of Disney’s labor woes), which reduces the total number of guests the parks can accommodate. 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.
This is not just idle speculation on our part. During the Walt Disney Company’s two most recent earnings calls in 2022, CEO Bob Chapek indicated that this is exactly what’s happening. During the first quarter call, Chapek stated: “domestic parks and experiences are generally operating without significant mandatory COVID-19-related capacity restrictions.” Mandatory is the operative word there–Disney is now self-limiting capacity at the parks and resorts for a different reason: staffing shortages.
Chapek addressed the staffing issues directly later in the call when asked about attendance caps. He stated that operating all of the hotels has been particularly difficult, as has restaurants due to a shortage of all sorts of cooks. According to Chapek, “the 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, weare continuing to control attendance, through ourreservation 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 limitattendance using the reservation system, which goes back to trying to balancedemand, and attendance throughout the year.Not have days when consumers in the parks when guestsaren’t enjoying the experience.So, attendance is something that we’recontrolling, but we’re doing it to have a betterconsumer 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 March and April, there was no Disney Park Pass availability even a couple weeks in advance.
This was a change from the beginning of the year, when dates were seldom fully booked in January through early February. The shift really started to occur around Presidents’ Day weekend, and still has not let up.
While there haven’t been many fully booked dates since the end of spring break, most days this month have been partially booked. Looking forward, it’s a similar story for June 2022. Given that July is the peak summer season, we’re expecting the same scenario then.
About the only thing that could change that is an economic slowdown. Pent-up demand among domestic visitors could fizzle out, inflation on necessities might result in reductions to discretionary spending, and the same could also happen due to depleted household savings and stimulus money. Inflationary pressures and the rising cost of travel due to oil prices could bring the party to a premature end, too.
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, 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 almost 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.
To that point, Disney Park Pass is massively unpopular with 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. 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 2022 Walt Disney World vacation packages, the Park Pass calendar was extended again. It has since been extended once more, until January 18, 2024. This doesn’t mean it’ll run 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 Summer 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 turn by early Fall 2022, with Walt Disney World keeping 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 by 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.
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!