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Business News/ Special Report / Disney World Hasn’t Felt This Empty in Years
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Disney World Hasn’t Felt This Empty in Years

wsj

Shorter wait times for rides and more discount offers are signs of thinning crowds at the theme parks

The U.S. Air Force conducting a special Independence Day flyover of Magic Kingdom Park on July 4.Premium
The U.S. Air Force conducting a special Independence Day flyover of Magic Kingdom Park on July 4.

Visitors to Disney theme parks this summer are encountering something they haven’t seen in a while: elbow room.

Travel analysts and advisers say traffic to Disney’s U.S. parks, and some rival parks, has slowed this summer. Data from a travel company that tracks line-waiting time at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla., shows that the Independence Day weekend was one of the slowest in nearly a decade.

Disney executives have said they have expected weaker earnings from their U.S. parks this year. The Orlando-area resort is even offering hotel discounts around Christmas, typically a peak period.

Travel advisers and industry analysts say the slowdown is the latest sign that Disney’s recent price hikes and changes to park operations have soured some families on visiting the Most Magical Place on Earth.

Disney faces a unique set of challenges right now, from streaming losses to executive succession to a political and legal fight with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. Revenue from its parks division has long been a bright spot for the company, buoying overall earnings. Disney declined to comment on recent attendance.

A faster ride

Park visitors in recent weeks have had significantly lower wait times to get on rides, according to data from Touring Plans, a company that tracks wait times at major amusement parks, including Disney World and Disneyland in California. Industry analysts say shorter wait times generally correlate with smaller crowds.

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios theme park in Central Florida, home to the blockbuster Star Wars attractions, July 4 was the third-slowest day in the past year, according to Touring Plans, which analyzed the wait times that Disney parks post on their mobile apps.

The average posted wait time at the Magic Kingdom park in Florida—which has a special fireworks display on July 4—was 27 minutes this year for the holiday, down from 31 minutes in 2022 and 47 minutes in 2019, the Touring Plans analysis shows.

“It’s something that nobody would have predicted—just unfathomable," says Len Testa, a computer scientist who runs Touring Plans. Testa says wait times rose in the following days.

Disney and other theme-park companies can adjust posted wait times for rides to steer visitors toward or away from areas within parks. Longer wait times can also reflect operational issues like broken-down rides.

Speaking during the company’s May earnings call, former Disney finance chief Christine McCarthy said the company anticipated lower demand for the U.S. parks in the second half of the year, partly due to the end of Disney World’s 50th anniversary celebration.

Room to move

Jaime Brown, a speech pathologist and Walt Disney World annual pass holder who lives in Celebration, Fla., visited the resort three times during the Independence Day week, hitting all four of the resort’s parks.

When Brown visited Disney’s Epcot theme park during that stretch, she says she walked onto the Spaceship Earth attraction without waiting. On another day, she scored a last-minute breakfast reservation at Topolino’s Terrace in Disney’s Riviera Resort, which typically books out weeks in advance.

“I couldn’t believe how light the crowds were," Brown says, adding that the parks felt busier during a 2021 summertime visit.

Florida’s summer heat, humidity and heavy rains make summer a relatively quiet season at the state’s theme parks. The heat index exceeded 100 degrees on several days in early July.

Disney has also intentionally thinned crowds at parks, aiming to improve the park experience for a smaller number of visitors who will spend more money.

Still, the July 4 lull signals that tourists have cooled somewhat on theme-park vacations, travel professionals say.

“From what we’re seeing with our bookings, that pent-up demand has somewhat transitioned to cruises and Europe," says Greg Antonelle, co-owner of MickeyTravels, a travel agency based in Windermere, Fla.

The slower period at parks could extend beyond summer, says A.J. Wolfe, the owner of Disney Food Blog, a website focused on the company’s theme parks. Disney doesn’t have major new U.S. attractions opening soon, apart from a reimagination of the Splash Mountain ride at its Florida and California parks. Attractions based on “Frozen" are being built in Disney’s Paris and Hong Kong resorts, and a “Zootopia" attraction is due to open soon at Disney’s park in Shanghai.

Given that vacationers often visit both Disney World and the nearby Universal theme parks, Testa says some families may be holding off on visiting Central Florida in anticipation of a third theme park expected to open in 2025 at Universal Orlando Resort.

Crowds are relatively light at Universal Orlando too, travel analysts say. The average wait time with the Universal Studios Florida theme park was 28 minutes on July 4, down from 38 minutes in 2022 but in line with 2019’s levels. (Universal Orlando Resort declined to comment.)

The number of people who visited Universal’s two Florida theme parks in 2022 combined exceeded the level set in 2019, according to a report from the Themed Entertainment Association, an industry trade group. Attendance at Walt Disney World’s theme parks was lower in 2022 than in 2019, partly because Disney has limited capacity at its parks through a reservation system it implemented in 2020.

Fan fatigue

Theme-park fans have loudly complained in recent years about Disney raising admission prices and eliminating free amenities.

Stephanie Oprea, an Atlanta-based senior planner and director of marketing for Pixie Travel, an agency specializing in Disney vacations, says costs are giving travelers pause.

“People might be a little bit fatigued with price increases based on the economy at the moment," Oprea says, noting that some clients have considered cruise or beach vacations rather than returning to Disney’s parks due to recent price increases.

At Disneyland, the company increased the cost of multiday tickets by 9% or more in October, with the price of a two-day ticket rising from $255 per adult to $285.

To attract more visitors to Main Street U.S.A., Disney has rolled out promotions, including discounts for return visits and savings of up to 40% on rooms at some Disney World hotels for annual passholders on certain days in December near Christmas, which is typically one of the busiest and most expensive times to visit. (Disney has offered discounts to passholders during that time period in the past.)

The company also announced it would bring back dining plans that allow visitors to prepay for meals next year. The plans, popular with Disney die-hards, were suspended in 2020.

Other Orlando-area theme parks, including Universal Studios and SeaWorld, have also started offering discounts and promotions for later this year.

The recent flood of promotions suggests that greater savings could be on the horizon for next year. “If I were going to Disney World, I would probably hold off until 2024," Wolfe says.

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