June 22, 2024

Winter (Still) Is Not Off-Season at Disney World

0

Winter is no longer off-season at Walt Disney World, at least not across the board with weeks of wait times on par with August and September. Nevertheless, 2024 attendance has dropped from holiday highs that

Winter is no longer off-season at Walt Disney World, at least not across the board with weeks of wait times on par with August and September. Nevertheless, 2024 attendance has dropped from holiday highs that lasted through the first week of January. This crowd report shares recent data, our on the ground observations, plus surprises we’re seeing so far and how we expect to be wrong.

Since around 2017-2018, winter has (mostly) been a ‘tale of two seasons’ at Walt Disney World. There are peaks and valleys, with really high highs and relatively low lows. Obviously, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are peak weeks–everyone knows that. However, it’s not simply slow after then until Spring Break, and hasn’t been for several years.

Our most recent report pointed out how Colossal Crowds Continue in Early 2024 at Walt Disney World, and explained that this was primarily due to Central Florida school districts being on break coupled with the end of AP blockouts, and not the Walt Disney World Marathon (although that certainly is a contributing factor). Now that we’re a couple of weeks removed from that, we’ve seen the latest trends in crowds emerge…

Another thing worth pointing out is that January and February are not even consistent from year-to-year. Again, this trend has been emerging since 2017, but it became really pronounced in Winter 2020. Those are still some of the worst crowds we’ve seen, probably for a range of reasons including the debut of Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance the previous month. (For a refresher, read Peak Crowds in Winter “Off-Season” at Walt Disney World.) I’ve mentioned it before, but I remain convinced that 2020 would’ve been a blockbuster year for Walt Disney World crowds had the whole “closure” thing not happened.

Then came Winter 2021, which was the exact opposite–the terms ‘dead’ and ‘ghost towns’ would be perfectly apt and only slight hyperbole. Probably a number of explanations for that, but the biggest would undoubtedly be the holiday COVID wave causing a lot of cancellations. After climbing in late 2020, crowds those two months were the lowest they’d been since the month or so after reopening.

Winter 2022 was bonkers. We warned that this would likely be the case in Reopening of International Travel’s Impact on Walt Disney World Crowds. In addition to that, pent-up demand was still heating up, runDisney was back, as were youth sporting events. Plus, plenty of people still had yet to experience Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary, which was only a few months old.

Last year was fairly uneventful, mostly marking a return to the (new) normal of winter crowds at Walt Disney World. Down year-over-year or as compared to 2020, but up considerably as compared to the lows of 2021. Pent-up demand had mostly run its course and weeks that were previously lulls once again reemerged; busier break weeks/long weekends were as crowded as expected. Knowing that it wasn’t opening until Spring Break, perhaps some WDW diehards were waiting for TRON Lightcycle Run; I’m honestly not sure.

All of which is a long-winded preface that brings us to Winter 2024 at Walt Disney World…

As always, what’s covered in these “crowd” reports is actually posted wait time data that’s pulled from My Disney Experience and compiled into graphs for tracking and comparing various days, weeks, months, and years. A lot can be gleaned from posted wait times, but it’s not necessarily conclusive of in-park congestion or crowds.

There are several other variables that can impact “feels like” crowds, from festivals at EPCOT to weather to guest demographics to ride breakdowns to operational efficiency to time of day or day of the week. (Literally everything on that list would be relevant in January 2024 thus far!) Yada yada yada…that’s just a partial list! Beyond that, wait times are often inflated, inaccurate, or otherwise manipulated by Walt Disney World.

In short, wait times are an imperfect measure of Walt Disney World’s raw attendance or crowds–which have increased by several million people over the course of the last decade-plus. With that out of the way, let’s dig into the data and look at Walt Disney World wait times. As always, all graphs and stats are courtesy of thrill-data.com:

We’ll start with a high-level look at the monthly numbers for Walt Disney World as a whole.

This is most interesting if you compare the most recent December and this January to the same months from the prior-year. Notice December 2022 was much busier but that January 2024, thus far, is much busier–almost as bad as last month?! Before drawing any premature conclusions, take a look at the next graph…

If we break this down by week, the differences should be easier to spot. The week between Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve was off the charts–slightly busier than the same week year-over-year. The following week that encompasses winter break was still really bad, but not quite as bad as last year. The month averages reflect January not yet being over–it’ll drop further, but probably not a ton–and December also including a few truly slow weeks.

Equally as interesting are the weeks since winter break ended. Crowd levels in January 2024 dropped sharply as school went back into session, which happened more gradually last year. The other difference for this year is that winter crowd levels are already starting to trend upwards. (Don’t give too much weight to that last line above–that “week” is only 1 day old.)

Above is a look at the daily numbers over the course of the last 6 months.

This offers a more granular look at the post-break drop-off, followed by the gradual increase in crowds since. The two higher lines mid-month are the MLK Day holiday weekend, which is also the start of EPCOT’s Festival of the Arts. Although it’s not a truly busy holiday weekend, it is a popular time for Walt Disney World fans from the Midwest and Northeast to take quick getaways to escape the cold.

Also interesting is that the last several days have seen crowds more or less on par with last year’s fall break and much busier than the lulls during November or December. While it’s probably too early to call this a trend (even though we think it probably is), it’s been busier than we’d expect this time of year to be.

We’ll start the park-by-park data with Magic Kingdom, where crowd levels continue to be somewhat of a roller coaster in January 2024. Normally, they’d normalize this time of year after several consecutive months of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party dates. That hasn’t really happened–they’ve been all over the place.

Our best guess is that this is a matter of ride refurbishments & breakdowns, weather, and the changes to park reservations and hopping rules. This was pretty much my experience with Magic Kingdom over the last several days, with lots of downtime (both planned and unplanned) plus weather causing even more unpredictability than normal. We’d still expect a normalization pretty soon.

We also want to (again) draw your attention to something discussed in Walt Disney World Extends Hours in Winter 2024, which is the early closing on January 29, 2024. Once more, we’d highly recommend doing Magic Kingdom on that day and not on January 28.

This same schedule quirk has occurred for the last several years, and if history repeats itself (and it will!), January 28 will see a fairly significant spike whereas January 29 will be one of the 5 slowest days of the year at Magic Kingdom. If at all possible, we’d recommend avoiding January 30 at MK, too. If you want or need a second day in the park, aim for January 26-27 or 31–those are also more favorable from the perspective of park hours.

In any case, light crowds in Magic Kingdom on January 29, 2024 is one of the safest “can’t miss” predictions we can possibly make. Attendance will be low that day, to the point that you won’t need Genie+ (especially if you take advantage of the extra-early Early Entry!). Don’t overthink this, questioning whether “too many” people will follow our advice and thinking it might be busy as a result. It will not be. This prediction is as sure as it gets when it comes to WDW crowds.

Animal Kingdom is coming off its holiday highs, when wait times were absolutely off-the-charts. If crowd levels weren’t capped at 10/10, those dates between Christmas and New Year’s Eve would’ve been like 15/10–they were that much higher than the normal 10/10 range.

Wait times were manageable post-winter break, but there was a spike for the Martin Luther King Jr. Day holiday weekend; still not nearly as bad as Christmas break, though. After a quieter couple of weeks, wait times are trending up again. The last several days have been in the 9/10 range, which is interesting and a bit surprising.

I was in Animal Kingdom for two of those 9/10 days, and they were bad. Not in the typical ways you might expect, such as the Pandora rides registering triple digit waits. They did, but not really all that shocking numbers. More in long waits for other things that often are easier to accomplish, such as the stage shows having actual lines and Lightning Lanes being valuable at them. Same story with Dinosaur and Kilimanjaro Safaris, which had overflow queues spilling far out their attraction entrances along with triple-digit waits.

Then there’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. After colossal crowds throughout the holiday season, it’s now averaging moderate crowd levels (in the 4/10 to 6/10 range). Downright delightful by comparison!

It’s doubtful that any first-timers to the park would agree with that assessment. Hollywood Studios is unpleasant when wait times are “only” moderate–it’s downright miserable at 10/10. DHS simply cannot absorb crowds with its current lineup, and “feels like” crowds can be pretty bad once the crowd level is at 6/10 or above.

As someone who has been around the block with awful attendance at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, I was fairly unfazed by recent experiences there. Even with Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster closed and the obligatory breakdowns at other attractions, the park as a whole was not terrible. With that said, “not terrible” is relative to the DHS baseline, which is almost always a varying degree of bad. Early Entry or nighttime remain the easiest ways to “beat” DHS, followed by (or alongside) Lightning Lanes.

Continuing to EPCOT, where crowd levels are officially above-average to hit (6/10 to 8/10).

This is pretty high for winter at EPCOT, but even now, there’s a chasm between crowd levels as represented by ride wait times and crowd levels as represented by congestion or, say, the average length of a line for a Food Studio at Festival of the Arts. I would say 6/10 to 8/10 is about accurate for the former Future World, which is noticeably busy but not bonkers.

World Showcase is arguably much worse. I waited close to 30 minutes for a grilled cheese sandwich and equally as long for some bone marrow. There were a few occasions when I couldn’t even find an open blogger’s buffet bar (also known as a trash can table top) because it was so busy. Wait times for Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure were often “only” around 60-90 minutes (bad but not truly awful), even as the walkways were really congested.

Not exactly a huge surprise there, and owing to the ever-increasing popularity of the EPCOT International Festival of the Arts. As a reminder, nothing at EPCOT’s festivals has a posted wait time, so this congestion is not “picked up” by crowd levels. Meaning that locals showing up, wandering around, grazing the food booths, enjoying art and entertainment, but NOT doing a single attraction contribute to congestion but not to crowd levels.

Paradoxically, these people are probably worse for crowdedness, as they’re pretty much always in walkways and not in standby lines. Call it the “EPCOT Effect” or whatever, but it’s noticeable at this park more than any of the others.

Ultimately, it’s been a moderate winter “off-season” so far at Walt Disney World. When looking at the weekly averages, there aren’t really any major differences from last year–so this could be construed as an uneventful crowd report and yet further evidence that trends are returning to normal. However, I’m reluctant to draw that conclusion for a couple of reasons.

First, because last year’s crowd levels from mid-April through late December were down pretty significantly as compared with the same dates in 2022. The week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was the biggest exception, which was actually up. That has continued into January 2024, which could be the start of a trend, meaning that Walt Disney World is reversing last year’s slight slowdown.

This is itself noteworthy, as we’ve been anticipating a further exhaustion of pent-up demand over the course of 2024. What if, instead, this marks a rebound for Walt Disney World? That 2023 was the ‘off’ year for families that visit semi-frequently, and they’re returning in 2024. That fears of a recession are diminishing, consumer confidence is improving, and all of this is going to result in a bounce-back year for Walt Disney World. Or that the company is doing what’s necessary to incentivize fans to return, pulling the correct “levers,” etc.

We’re not yet suggesting that any of these things are occurring–yet. What we are conceding is that we previously failed to even account for these possibilities, and instead assumed that the trend line for Walt Disney World crowds would continue downward as revenge travel continued to exhaust itself. That may still be true in the long run of 2024, but we know suspect that it could be wrong.

Crowd levels have started trending upward within January at a time when they’d normally continue dropping or, at minimum, plateau at below-average levels. It’s entirely possible that this is a temporary blip, and that later this week or next a further slowdown will occur. For the reasons above (and more), we’re now skeptical of that; our suspicion is that the next couple months are going to resemble something more like a repeat of Winter 2020.

If so, our current crowd forecasts are going to underestimate attendance and wait times until Mardi Gras and Presidents’ Day. We’ll have more on the ‘why’ of this very soon–I want to see a bit more before making any bold assertions. (I also don’t want to “bury” potential changes to crowd trends at the end of a crowd report where they’re easy to miss.)

For now, I wanted to give those of you visiting Walt Disney World the rest of this month or in February 2024 that it might be worse than you’re expecting. The weather and park hours extensions still make the winter, off-season or not, a great time to visit–so don’t fret too much. Of course, all bets are off once Mardi Gras, Presidents’ Day, and Princess Half Marathon Weekend roll around. (See Avoid Ski Week Crowds at Disney for more.) We aren’t predicting the second half of February 2024 to be the off-season at Walt Disney World, but then again, we never were.

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!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What has your experience been with crowds at Walt Disney World thus far in Winter 2024? Have you been surprised by the “off-season” attendance this month? 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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *