“When will Walt Disney World stop requiring theme park reservations?” for Annual Passholders and regular guests is a common question among guests frustrated about the extra step to visit Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT, and Animal Kingdom. This post discusses the end of reservations, reasons for restrictions, and crowd control goals. (Updated January 9, 2024.)
Let’s start with the very good news, which is that the vast majority of regular guests no longer need theme park reservations when visiting Walt Disney World. Starting with visits on January 9, 2024, theme park reservations are no longer be required for date-based tickets. A date-based ticket requires you to choose a start date when you purchase. For other admission types, theme park reservations may be required.
If you’re a regular tourist who isn’t an Annual Passholder, there’s about a 98% chance you will not need park reservations for Walt Disney World anymore. Pretty much all vacation packages booked through DisneyWorld.com or travel agents include date-based tickets, with the only notable exclusions being student groups, tour groups, convention guests, youth sport event guests, military tickets, and (again) Annual Passes. The rest of this post is irrelevant to you–stop reading, because the answer for you to the titular question is RIGHT NOW.
If you’re not an Annual Passholder or part of one of those excluded groups, you also may want to stop reading, because you may not like what we have to say about the future of the Disney Park Pass theme park reservation system for booking entry to Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Hollywood Studios, and Animal Kingdom.
As you’re no doubt aware, this system was originally introduced due to the parks operating at significantly reduced capacity when the parks reopened. At that time, attendance was capped at ~20% of normal levels, a number that gradually increased to 35% the following spring.
Health safety protocol are now gone entirely and have been for a while, staffing shortages are mostly a thing of the past, and many Annual Passholders and other ticket types are wondering when the reservation system will also be retired for them. That’s what this post addresses…
When it comes to the U.S. Military Salute and other aforementioned regular ticket types (youth teams doing events at ESPN Wide World of Sports, Disney Meetings & Events, tour groups, and other bulk tickets), our expectation is that theme park reservations will stick around for the remainder of 2024.
That’s partly a matter of Walt Disney World signaling as much with the current reservations calendar running through January 18, 2025. It’s also partly a matter of assessing crowd dynamics and demand absent the Park Pass system for all other regular ticket types. Once park management knows it’s not going to be a problem to drop reservations for the rest of these groups, they’ll do so.
There’s actually an incentive for them to do so, as the Disney Park Pass infrastructure for regular ticket types differs slightly from the system for Annual Passholders. So keeping it around incurs maintenance and support costs, and ends up being a hassle that takes time for Cast Members when there are inevitably issues. If there’s no need for these groups to have reservations, keeping the system around is counterproductive. It could certainly happen before that January 18, 2025 date–but we’ve seen how cautious and slow Walt Disney World has been in undoing post reopening changes.
As for Annual Passholders, let’s start with the good news, which is that Walt Disney World is introducing “good-to-go days” for Annual Passholders and Cast Members. On these “good-to-go days,” Annual Passholders and Cast Members may visit theme parks without needing a park reservation.
The theme park reservation calendar, Annual Passholder admissions calendar and My Disney Experience app will show days that are good-to-go. The first good-to-go days will be added to the calendars starting January 11, 2024. Good-to-go days will take the place of bonus reservations, and like bonus reservations, they will be added periodically and may be released days or weeks in advance.
If an Annual Passholder has an upcoming theme park reservation that becomes a good-to-go day, the reservation will be removed and no longer count against their maximum reservation hold, but they will still be able to view their previous reservation in the My Plans section in My Disney Experience.
Our expectation is that a majority of dates in 2024 end up being good-to-go at Walt Disney World. In all likelihood, Walt Disney World will start slowly and scale up, adding a handful of winter off-season dates on January 11, 2024 and seeing how that goes. If the parks are not inundated and overwhelmed by reservationless APs (and they won’t be), they will add more and more good-to-go dates to the calendar.
We’d be willing to bet that by the time late April 2024 rolls around, at least half the dates in early summer will be good-to-go for Annual Passholders. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising if every single day is good-to-go for Animal Kingdom and EPCOT, and reservations are only necessary for Magic Kingdom and Disney’s Hollywood Studios. By late summer/early fall, it wouldn’t be surprising if between 75% and all dates are good-to-go for all parks.
During the second half of the year, it’ll probably be easier to list the dates that are not good-to-go rather than the ones that are. For that, our preliminary prediction would be that reservations will be required for only (roughly) the ‘worst’ dates in our list of the 10 Best and 10 Worst Weeks to Visit Walt Disney World in 2024 & 2025.
In addition to this, Annual Passholders are able to enter the theme parks after 2 p.m. without needing to make a reservation, regardless of whether or not it’s a good-to-go day. The exceptions to that is Magic Kingdom on weekends, but it’s still a pretty big deal–especially for APs who previously enjoyed being able to do a spontaneous afternoon or evening visit after work. Suffice to say, a lot of the normal use cases for local Walt Disney World Annual Passholders will not require reservations in 2024.
Finally, there have been a lot of questions about Annual Passholders with resort reservations, which should be their own distinct category that has been favored up until now. Thus far in January 2024, there have been no changes for this group. Our guess is that this is an oversight–that APs with on-site resort reservations have been lost in the shuffle, for lack of a better term.
It’s also possible that there are backend IT limitations preventing Disney from dropping reservations for this group without doing manual overrides, since (as noted above) the systems are slightly different. We would like to think that Walt Disney World will quickly address this, and on-site resort guests who are also Annual Passholders won’t need theme park reservations in the very near future.
Honestly, though, we have no clue. It’s possible this would necessitate too much additional work for Disney IT or the good-to-go days plus extra reservations allotted to on-site Annual Passholders is deemed sufficient at addressing this. And for practical purposes, it probably is. This is one scenario where we wouldn’t be surprised if park reservations are dropped for on-site APs next week or never. Obviously two extremes, both of which are plausible from our perspective. Not very helpful, we know. Sorry.
As a general matter, theme park reservations are likely here to stay for Cast Members and Annual Passholders in some form or fashion. For what it’s worth, this has been our prediction since the system was implemented in 2020–that it would eventually be retired for tourists but stick around to some degree for CMs and APs. As it turns out, we were correct.
So our prediction now is that Cast Members and Annual Passholders will still be making theme park reservations in 2025 and probably 2026. Our past predictions weren’t exactly bold and neither is our current one. The basis for this is simple, and predates the 2020 closure.
Back in 2019, current Parks Chairman Josh D’Amaro was the head of Disneyland when the Flex Pass–an Annual Pass with some dates that required reservations–debuted there; D’Amaro was reportedly an advocate for the reservation system for Cast Members. The 2024 system of a blockout calendar paired with good-to-go dates is literally identical to the Flex Pass (right down to the “good-to-go” term!). Suffice to say, this is something that had been in the works at Disney for a while.
Given the introduction of the Flex Pass at Disneyland, overall increases in attendance in early 2020, and population explosion in Central Florida, theme park reservations were an inevitability for Walt Disney World APs and CMs. Even if the closure and everything else never happened, it’s highly likely that Cast Members and at least some tiers of Annual Passes would be required to make park reservations in 2024. It might not look like the current system, but it wouldn’t be like 2019, either.
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.
Even if there is a more pronounced winter off-season slowdown, the economy enters a recession, or pent-up demand exhausts itself, it’s still likely that the peak weeks around Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve will continue to be very busy. 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 on slower days or after 2 pm most days for APs (and still subject to blockouts–which includes much of the holiday season for all tiers but the Incredi-Pass). That’s also why we do not expect park reservations to be retired for Annual Passes in 2025 and probably not 2026.
What’s more likely than reservations being totally retired for all Annual Passholders is the introduction of a new top-tier of Annual Pass that doesn’t require reservations and has no blockout dates. The kind of AP that, if you’re wondering how much it would cost, is too expensive for you.
As for the why of this, leadership has been pretty clear. 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 has 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 were very similar when Disney Park Pass was first introduced…but not anymore. In his interviews during 2021-2022, D’Amaro acknowledged that Walt Disney World was benefitting from pent-up demand. That ceased to be the case about a year ago, and Disney is now seeing the backside of revenge travel. Accordingly, the company now needs to be more responsive to the guest experience and satisfaction.
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.
In the grand scheme of Walt Disney World “approval ratings,” theme park reservations fall somewhere between Stitch Ate the Page! and Stitch’s Great Escape. So it makes complete sense that, as pent-up demand is exhausted and the system has outlived its usefulness for tourists, Walt Disney World would remove this friction for most guests.
For those concerned that Walt Disney World won’t be able to accurately forecast attendance without park reservations, don’t be.
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.
Ultimately, that’s a long-winded explanation for why Disney Park Pass existed in the first place and why it has now been retired for most regular single and multi-day tickets. From a resource allocation perspective, the theme park 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 during weeks when crowd levels are forecast to be 8/10 or above for the rest of my days visiting Walt Disney World. Good-to-go days and no reservations after 2 p.m. are welcome relaxations, but we don’t expect anything beyond those changes. (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.)
Honestly, so long as you’re not an out-of-state Annual Passholder (whomp whomp) who visits during busier times of year, it’s tough to construe the current compromise approach as of 2024 as a negative. For regular tourists, this is a “best of both worlds” solution. By retaining park reservations to some extent for Annual Passholders and Cast Members, it gives the company control over crowd distribution, at least to a degree. So you’ll continue to benefit from that if visiting during busier seasons. By dropping reservations for everyone else, it restores spontaneity.
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!