Winter Is Not Off-Season at Disney World
During our visits to Walt Disney World thus far in Winter 2022, we’ve encountered moderate to high crowds and wait times. This has been the case across the board at Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and especially Epcot for Festival of the Arts. This post will take a look at these “off-season” attendance trends and attempt to explain some of what’s happening.
For starters, we’ve heard a lot of frustration from returning Walt Disney World visitors in the last month, many of whom shared sentiment along the lines of “crowds were way worse than anyone predicted,” “winter used to be off-season, but not anymore,” or “we’ve gone every year in January/February and have never seen anything this bad. It’s worse than the holidays.”
Some of this is accurate, some is hyperbole, and some reflects the continued chasm between congestion or “feels like” crowds and wait times, which are the standard measurement used for crowd calendars. Fair warning: if you’ve been following our reports, predictions, or crowd calendars from the last couple months, a lot of this is going to be redundant…
To that point, we did predict exactly what is happening right now. From our 2022 Epcot Festival of Arts Dates, Details & Crowd Predictions, published on October 22, 2021:
“It might seem like an eternity ago now, but [crowds] were pretty bad for the first three months of last year before everything fell apart and Walt Disney World closed. (For a refresher, read Peak Crowds in Winter “Off-Season” at Walt Disney World.)
When the 2021 Epcot Festival of the Arts was announced last October, we predicted that those crowds would not materialize. That prediction ended up being incredibly accurate, which we mention here not so much as a victory lap, but because we’re anticipating the opposite of that once again for the 2022 Epcot Festival of the Arts.
It’s likely that 2022 will be a very different story. As discussed in Reopening of International Travel’s Impact on Walt Disney World Crowds, there’s likely to be a lag between the November lifting of the border closure and significant international travel. I would expect that to start in January and February, with a significant spike in the number of foreign visitors to the parks.
Additionally, runDisney is back with races in January and February. Conventions and youth sporting events are both returning. On top of that, there are domestic guests who haven’t been able to book hotel reservations or score discounts for the first three months of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary. Others might remember how attractive January and February were this year, and expect a repeat of that without considering why 2022 will probably be different.
Crowds have been notoriously unpredictable for the last year-plus, but all signs point to January and February 2022 being a reversion to normal at best, and an exaggerated version of early last year at worst. If I had to bet on crowds being bad or good at this point–with no ‘in between’ option or additional nuance–I’d choose bad.”
Not many people read that post (apparently Festival of the Arts isn’t an exciting topic around Halloween!), so it’s understandable if you missed it. That also predated the Omicron variant throwing a monkey wrench into things, so forecasts could’ve changed following that. However, ours did not.
I’m not going to copy and paste the whole thing, but our 2022 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars (updated January 1, 2022) explained why Omicron was unlikely to put a dent in crowds, which would still be elevated as compared to a normal winter. We also adjusted individual crowd calendars upwards for January, February, and March 2022, while warning in a number of other posts that this winter could be bad and catch many fans by surprise.
Beyond this, it’s fair to point out that the only quiet winter in the last several years was last year–an anomaly driven by the holiday surge and just less travel in general in the months following reopening. Even in our post assessing winter crowds back in February 2020, we wrote the following:
“This is hardly a new development. January and February have seen steadily increasing crowds for the last few years, with a pronounced spike two years ago. At that point, data showed wait times were up over 20% year over year, which was due to a variety of factors. It’s safe to say that January and February 2020 have been up once again.
It’s also true that Walt Disney World’s annual visitor numbers have increased for the last decade by 1% to 5% per year. While it’s impossible to say in which months the largest increases are occurring, it’s pretty safe to surmise that summer is actually decreasing. This means that other months are picking up the slack, and then some. Chief among those months are undoubtedly the winter, which used to see off-season lows but now feel closer to peak season.”
In other words, current crowds and wait times were all foreseeable to at least some degree unless your expectations were based on last year’s anomaly or pre-2018 data. In normal times, there has not been an actual winter “off-season” at Walt Disney World since 2017.
The point is that we’ve seen this before and will see it again in the winter months that once were off-season. As Walt Disney World becomes increasingly savvy at spreading attendance across the calendar, about the only month that’s safe (for now?!) is September. For a variety of factors, we actually expect that to remain true for the foreseeable future, unless or until Disney gets really clever with crowd redistribution.
Anyway, let’s take a look at the January 2022 data…
We’ll start with a high level look at weekly wait time averages across the entirety of Walt Disney World. (As always, all graphs and wait time stats courtesy of Thrill-Data.com.)
The highest crowds on the right side are the weeks of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. After that, there’s a gradual drop-off with the last three weeks of January 2022 (minus MLK Day Weekend) having crowds averaging out to 7/10 on the crowd calendar. However, that’s not the full story…
Breaking crowd levels down by park, we’ll start with Magic Kingdom. Wait times have been more of a roller coaster the last few weeks, with January 24 actually being the worst/busiest day in the last year, surpassing previous peaks in summer and the holiday season. The reason for this is simple: Magic Kingdom closed at 4:30 pm the following day.
Whenever that happens, the days before and after are markedly busier. For years, this is why we’ve encouraged you to do Magic Kingdom during the day on Halloween and Christmas party nights rather than their off days when hours are longer. (Saturday is always a big red flag during party season.)
Warning: Magic Kingdom closes at 4:30 pm again on February 8, 2022. Go to MK on that day and NOT on February 7 or February 9, 2022.
You will have a better experience and get more done with the 4:30 pm closing, and that’s even if you cannot Park Hop elsewhere after Magic Kingdom closes. If you can, starting the day at MK on February 8 is a no-brainer. (Looking forward a bit further, the same goes for DHS on April 6, 2022.)
Above is a look at Magic Kingdom average daily wait times by attraction for the entire month of January 2022. Here are the specific numbers for the most popular attractions:
- Seven Dwarfs Mine Train: 95 minutes
- Peter Pan’s Flight: 81 minutes
- Jungle Cruise: 73 minutes
- Splash Mountain: 60 minutes*
- Space Mountain: 58 minutes
- Big Thunder Mountain Railroad: 52 minutes
- Haunted Mansion: 51 minutes
*Splash Mountain closed for refurbishment right after the peak holiday crowds ended, distorting its average relative to other attractions. Were it open for the current cold weather, there’s no way it’d even crack the top 10.
Animal Kingdom wait times paint a different picture–one of a more laid back landscape, if you will–with wait times having fallen off significantly since January 9.
There are still some 7/10 and 8/10 crowd levels, but also several 4/10 to 6/10 days. Animal Kingdom definitely felt a lot “sleepier” than the other parks during our January visits.
Then there’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. After colossal crowds throughout the holiday season, it’s now “only” averaging 7/10 to 9/10 crowd levels. Downright delightful by comparison!
It’s doubtful that anyone in the park would agree with that assessment. Hollywood Studios is unpleasant when wait times are 8/10–it’s downright miserable at 10/10. DHS simply cannot absorb crowds with its current lineup, and “feels like” crowds are pretty bad once the crowd level is at 6/10 or above.
The return of Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular hasn’t really moved the needle on this, but mostly because it doesn’t post a wait time. What should help is the return of Fantasmic, which we think will be coming back before Easter.
The reason Fantasmic will make a bigger difference is because it’ll spread crowds throughout the day at DHS. As we’ve noted on several occasions, wait times peak earlier at Disney’s Hollywood Studios than any other park at Walt Disney World, and the last few hours can be blissful. Selfishly, we’d like for this to continue as we often pop-in to DHS at the end of the evening. However, we’d far prefer a better park experience for all–and Fantasmic’s reopening will most likely be the turning point on that.
Continuing to Epcot, which is a bit misleading. You’ll notice these bottom out in the 3/10 crowd level range right after the Walt Disney World Marathon. In part, this is because schools went go back into session and Festival of the Arts hadn’t yet started, so locals weren’t visiting Epcot in as large of numbers. As we’ve seen in the past, the behavior of Floridians has a disproportionate impact on Epcot.
However, it’s also because Thrill-Data didn’t catch the change of Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure from a virtual queue to standby line, so its (high) wait times aren’t included at all. Once those started being tracked, and Epcot’s Festival of the Arts started, crowd levels rose back to the 7/10 to 8/10 range.
As always, “feels like” crowds at Epcot–especially in World Showcase–are always worse on weekends and evenings. We spent a ton of time at Epcot in January and it almost always felt more congested than crowd calendars reflect. (Except on weekday mornings.) We’ve said it before, but wait time data simply does not tell the full story–or even the best story–when it comes to Epcot. There are simply too few rides and too many other reasons why people visit Epcot.
Generally speaking, wait times are not conclusive of attendance. There are several other variables that can impact “feels like” crowds, from festivals at Epcot to weather to ride breakdowns to operational efficiency to staffing shortages to not everything being open. Across the board, “feels like” crowds right now tend to be worse than wait times (and even wait times are elevated above raw attendance, since the parks aren’t ‘soaking up’ guests as well as normal).
It’s probably worth taking a look at ride data for Epcot, since we now have it for Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure.
Unsurprisingly, that’s the longest wait time in the park–but not that much worse than Frozen Ever After. For January, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure averaged 81 minutes, Frozen Ever After averaged a 74 minute wait, Test Track was at 56 minutes, and Soarin’ Around the World averaged a 36 minute posted wait time. Everything else was under 20 minutes, on average. As we’ve mentioned before, Future World becomes a ghost town after 8 pm and ~95% of the guests in Epcot all cram into World Showcase.
Ultimately, the last three weeks at Walt Disney World were 7/10, 7/10, and 8/10 on the crowd calendar, respectively. January 2022 as a whole was an 8/10, owing largely to the first week of the month and MLK Day Weekend. That’s better than both last November and December, but far worse than August through October.
Our expectation is for February 2022 is more of the same. It’ll likely continue the trend of the last few weeks, with the Presidents’ Day holiday weekend (and to a lesser extent, that entire week) plus Princess Half Marathon Weekend and the lead-up to Mardi Gras all seeing spikes similar to last month’s MLK Day Weekend. For more predictions, see our February 2022 Crowd Calendar.) The bottom line is that we aren’t predicting February 2022 to be the off-season at Walt Disney World, but then again, we never were. Ditto February 2023.
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What has your experience been with crowds at Walt Disney World thus far in Winter 2022? Have you been surprised by the “off-season” attendance the last two months? Have you encountered ‘dead’ days during this time? Do you agree or disagree with our take on the crowds? If you visited WDW during January or February 2018-2020, what was your experience with wait times then? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
Currently here at Disney World and I will say it’s definitely packed! Crowds are up and so are prices! Good luck trying to book a room anywhere, unless you do it 6 months in advance.
I need some guidance . I will be visiting WDW the week of Easter… not optimal but by nephew going with school orchestra and we’re making it a “Griswold Family” goes to Disney… All 9 of us visiting for the first time . my grandson’s big must do is making a lightsaber and droid.. with the crowds and everything we want to do and see, should I not take a planned day off during the trip and make reservations for another trip to Hollywood Studios to accomplish that? Thank you so much… I’m dedicated to your blog.. you knowledge and advice so appreciated!!!
We had season passes from 2000-2016 and cancelled that year because there was no longer an off-season that I enjoyed attending all the time so it was no longer worth dealing with the large crowds all the time. The cast members would always say, “there is no longer an off-season”. The last two years were obviously unrealistic with Covid.
I wish you would make your graphs able to be enlarged. I can’t tell what they are referring to. Am I doing it wrong?
Tom: thoughts on how busy the end of February will be. Will the trends of large crowds continue for 2/24 thru 2/28? Coming down for my daughter’s 18th birthday. This will be our 18th trip to WDW, but never in February.