June 25, 2024

Monkey Wrenches Disrupting & Increasing Crowds at Disney World in 2024

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It's been a weird year for Walt Disney World crowds. Wait times have been increasing year-over-year in 2024, reversing monthly declines for the first time since January 2023. This post takes a look at potential

It’s been a weird year for Walt Disney World crowds. Wait times have been increasing year-over-year in 2024, reversing monthly declines for the first time since January 2023. This post takes a look at potential factors why this winter and now early Spring Break season have been busier than the same dates last year.

This is something we started discussing recently in Re-Revenge Travel at Walt Disney World in 2024. As of that crowd report, average year-to-date wait times for 2024 were tied with 2022 (41 minutes) and up considerably as compared to last year (37 minutes). With Spring Break getting off to a shockingly strong start, 2024 could soon pull into the lead as the #1 worst year ever at Walt Disney World for wait time levels/crowds.

That honestly was not what we expected. Our forecast was for pent-up demand to continue exhausting itself, a process that had not yet fully played out as of the end of last year. As such, we expected crowd levels to drop slightly through at least the first half of 2024. Instead, the opposite is happening. We’ve already theorized about the why of that, but this offers more possibilities, discusses them in greater detail, and attempts to address the likelihood that crowds will continue to increase in 2024…

To start, there are several factors for the bounceback that pertain to the economy and aren’t really unique to Walt Disney World. I don’t want to gloss over these since they’re probably among the best predictors of theme park attendance. But at the same time, I know this is going to be long and we’ve already discussed all of these things.

In a nutshell, fears of a recession are diminishing, inflation is easing, real wages are increasing, consumer confidence is improving, and the stock market is up year-to-date and has reached new record highs. It’s probably not profound insight to say that people are more likely to visit Walt Disney World if they feel good about their financial circumstances and their portfolios are looking good.

It was a similar story, to some extent, a couple years ago when markets were booming. And who knows, maybe there’s overlap between Nvidia enthusiasts, Bitcoin maximalists, and Walt Disney World fandom. That would explain some of the exuberance and attendance!

Another previously-discussed possibility is that 2024 crowds might be a slight ‘reverberation’ after the pent-up demand of 2022. That 2023 was the ‘break’ year for families that visit Walt Disney World semi-frequently, and they’re returning in 2024. Think of it like a ripple or the accordion effect in traffic jams.

This is worth mentioning because, when it comes to crowds at Walt Disney World, the big story in the last few years has been pent-up demand. First the arrival of it, then the exhaustion of it. Now, it would seem, a new ‘wave’ of it. These factors above and below may be fueling “re-revenge travel,” a term we made up that has a certain understated stupidity to it.

We can speculate and theorize about the causes, but it’s fairly undeniable that this is happening. For one, the wait times data reflects as much. While it’s possible to explain this away to some extent with possibilities such as more ride downtime or stronger Genie+ sales, I’m skeptical either of those (or similar) factors differ today versus one year ago. And that’s what we’re looking at.

Beyond that, there are other stats that reflect similar trends. According to Orlando International Airport, passenger traffic increased by 6.5% for January (the last month for which there’s data), with domestic passenger traffic up 5.2% and international traffic up 15.8%. Visit Orlando has reported that hotel bookings for the first quarter of 2024 are outpacing last year by over 5%, and advance airline ticket sales into Orlando are also up in the first quarter of 2024 by roughly 10%.

Visit Orlando forecasts hotel bookings to be up 4% for the full year, with further increases in 2025. That would put both years ahead of 2022, the peak of pent-up demand. The organization expects this to be fueled in large part by international travel, which is projected to return to 2019 levels for the first time. This is all notable as last year was down across the board, with decreases in revenue and occupancy due to ~2 million fewer out-of-state visitors to Florida.

As it relates to Walt Disney World, here are some monkey wrenches that have been thrown into the mix that could account for the year-to-date increases in crowds…

International Tourists & Groups – Winter is the ‘summer’ vacation season for South America, and there was a time when it felt like Brazilian tour groups were the dominant demographic during the first few months of the year. This was especially pronounced coming out of the Great Recession up until 2014 (before the Brazilian economic crisis), when crowds were lower as a whole making South American crowds proportionally greater. And like cheerleaders, guests are more likely to notice groups of people who stick out for whatever reason.

With Brazil’s economy once again improving, it seems like these tour groups are once again appearing in higher volume. This isn’t a new-for-2024 trend. I first noticed tour groups returning in full force last winter. But it feels like they’re back in even fuller force this year, with more vibrant bags, flags, and shirts.

Lagging pent-up demand for international travel is one element of this, but probably not the full story. I would add that Walt Disney World is doing more to entice international travelers to return with ticket and other deals. It’s also possible that international visitors from countries with weak currency (relative to the strong dollar) have now gotten used to this as the ‘new normal’ and are no longer postponing visits.

Of course, these are just theories. Whatever the actual reasons for an increase in international tourists, it’s happening. Even though Walt Disney World doesn’t release visitor demographics (or any statistics), the airport does–and those show international traffic up significantly. It’s safe to say MCO numbers are a good proxy for WDW.

Conventions Return – The conventioneer can usually be observed traveling in herds, typically consisting of middle-aged men dressed in attire ranging from country club to funeral-casual. Their monotone wardrobe is sometimes punctuated by Patagonia vests, and of course, the obligatory lanyard.

I’ve already logged two stays at Coronado Springs in 2024 and on both of those occasions, the resort was hosting conventions. This isn’t out of the ordinary–hosting these individuals and their events is the whole reason Gran Destino Tower was built! Business travel will regain 95% of its 2019 level in 2024, up from 89% last year, the U.S. Travel Association forecasts. The group also notes that this will vary by sector based on views of the economy–with the markets near all-time highs, the number could climb higher. (For international travel, volume is projected to be at 98% of 2019 levels this year, up from 84% last year.)

Honestly, I have never gotten a good read on how conventioneers do or don’t impact attendance at Walt Disney World. As discussed recently in Why Are Walt Disney World Resorts Sold Out in 2024?, there are scenarios, in theory, where certain demographics occupying hotel rooms could decrease crowds if those guests are less-inclined to visit the parks and effectively ‘block’ others from booking. Of course, that is theoretical and assumes the room would’ve been booked by someone else rather than sitting empty. It also assumes that the alternative occupant wouldn’t have stayed off-site.

What’s also tricky about conventioneers is that, while they are easy to spot, their families are not. It’s entirely possible that a good percentage of these business travelers are bringing their spouses and children, and they are visiting the parks while the conventioneer learns business stuff. Entirely anecdotal, but this would track to some extent, as I noticed surprisingly busy buses at Coronado Springs even as the resort hosted conventions.

One final thing that’s not theoretical is the conventioneers’ impact on EPCOT. Not only is this the park they’re most inclined to visit (both individually and as part of group activities), but I’ve noticed several evenings where my favorite fireworks spots were blocked off for private events. This could be things other than conventions, but whatever the reason, it’s happening more frequently and in more locations. This alone makes me confident in saying that Disney Meetings & Events is seeing a rebound and groups are a greater contributor to crowds in at least some parks, on some dates.

Youth Sporting Groups – This is like conventions, but for children. By that, I mean that events hosted at the ESPN Wide World of Sports have a similar dynamic–outsized impact on certain hotels, but possibly far less on crowds since the participants are there for a purpose other than parks.

The difference is that kids, generally speaking, like Walt Disney World more than 40-something businessmen. So it’s probably safe to assume youth sporting events do impact crowds more than conventions. With that said, my perspective is that the degree to which the cheer, dance, and other sports contribute to crowding is massively exaggerated. Anyone who has ever been in line for Haunted Mansion behind a few dozen tween cheerleaders probably vehemently disagrees, but that’s precisely the point. That type of experience sticks in memories (trust me, been there!) and is anecdotally overweighted as a result.

Regardless of all that, I also don’t really think youth sporting events are making much of a difference on 2024 crowd levels versus last year. The ESPN Wide World of Sports calendar was jam-packed last winter and spring, too. I don’t really think there’s much lagged pent-up demand here–certainly not as much as conventions. Meaning that, even if we disagree about how much these groups cause more crowding, we can presumably agree that the impact was roughly equal both this year and last.

Snowbirds – These guests were especially easy to spot back in January, as the volume of Kansas City Chiefs and Buffalo Bills team apparel was impossible to miss. There were also a startling number of hilarious, highly intelligent and attractive people in the parks, and all of them were wearing Detroit Lions gear.

None of this is really anything new; Chiefs and Bills fans–plus Saints during Mardi Gras–always dominate. (The same used to be true of the Bears and Giants when they were good; I assume it was also the case for the Jets…back when Joe Namath played.) However, it seemed more common than any year since 2020.

Walt Disney World and Florida as a whole being popular with snowbirds also isn’t a 2024 development. It’s possible that visitors from Northern and Midwestern states with the freedom to travel during off-peak months are choosing the winter and upcoming shoulder season over late summer and early fall as a result of last year’s brutally high heat and humidity. It’s also entirely possible that I simply noticed more guests from these states. At most, this probably is a minor contributing factor and not a major cause of crowding.

South Florida – Similar scenario as snowbirds, except coming from the opposite direction and in-state. One thing we noticed during at the start of the post-reopening period was a high percentage of guests at both Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando coming from South Florida. (They’re somewhat easy to spot for the same reason as snowbirds and more.) At the time, I assumed that was due to discounts, convenience, and a comparative absence of travelers from other regions.

To whatever extent this is happening in 2024, I couldn’t explain it. Maybe more marketing–television and radio ads–aimed at South Florida? Ticket deals do now include weekends, which definitely is more conducive to quick trips to Central Florida.

Ticket Deals – Walt Disney World has released more ticket deals thus far in 2024 than up to this same point last year. While technically true, that’s slightly misleading. One of those is a water park ticket deal and two of the other ones just came out this week and aren’t valid until April.

The more salient point, at least for Walt Disney World crowds through the first two and a half months of the year, is that the annual winter and early spring discount for Floridians included weekends in 2024 but was weekdays-only last year. That’s a big difference for those with 9 to 5 jobs or school schedules.

I’d be willing to bet that Walt Disney World sold significantly more Florida resident tickets in 2024 as a result. This is also a big reason why Saturday and Sundays are no longer the least-busy days of the week at Walt Disney World, which is was a trend that started last year.

Looking forward, there’s a new Florida resident ticket as well as the Multi-day ‘Magic’ Ticket for the general public, both of which are valid from April through late September 2024. These ticket deals are not unprecedented–both were also offered last year. But there’s another key distinction, just like there was for the first Floridian ticket deal of the year: they’re valid over a month earlier than last year, and were announced almost a month before that.

This most obvious outcome is this increasing late Spring Break and shoulder season crowds, as the ticket deals will be valid for these dates whereas they weren’t last year. Additionally, they could increase crowds across the board, as the earlier advance notice allows people to plan around these tickets (especially true with out-of-state tourists and the Magic ticket) and take trips when they otherwise wouldn’t have done so.

The Magic ticket was incredibly popular last year, but from what we saw, that was with people who already had vacations planned. The longer lead time and eligibility window increases the likelihood that people will take trips due to this year’s version of the same–meaning it’ll induce more demand.

2019 Discount Playbook – Since late last year, we’ve noticed that Walt Disney World has been pulling from what we call the “2019 discount playbook.” The special offers released since then have been strikingly similar to those from 2019, which was the year of the pre-Star Wars Slump. In fact, some of the percentages have been slightly superior to what was offered in 2019–and far better than any year since then.

This has noticeably been the case with the room-only offers, but it extends far beyond that. Even more obscure ones like PIN Codes and Bouncebacks and now Priceline Express Deals are all resembling what was offered in 2019. Then there’s fan-favorite Free Dining, which made its triumphant return for the first time since 2019–when the discount was offered in three waves.

The extent to which all of this has had or will have an impact on crowd levels in the theme parks is debatable. For one thing, the majority of Walt Disney World park guests come from off-site. For another thing, these discounts are not offered out of generosity, but to prevent a drop in resort occupancy–they’re essentially an offset, or aimed at maintaining the status quo. While low occupancy would likely signal low crowds in the parks, the opposite isn’t necessarily true–we’d need to know what the numbers are like at third party hotels around Central Florida (among other things).

In this regard, past precedent with Free Dining is instructive. This promotion has historically been offered during the off-season, and has done a tremendous job helping Walt Disney World fill hotel rooms. Even as it increased occupancy and made Advance Dining Reservations much more difficult to score, low crowd levels persisted. That should go to show that on-site hotel and sit-down dining capacity is a subset of park capacity.

While I think Walt Disney World got caught a bit flat-footed last year, scrambled to pull levers (including discounts) to entice people to visit and was general behind the curve, I still don’t think this year’s more aggressive hotel-centric discounts will contribute much to crowding. Now the aforementioned ticket deals are another story entirely.

Park Policy Changes – At the beginning of 2024, Walt Disney World mostly eliminated theme park reservations, brought back the Disney Dining Plan, and resumed unlimited all-day Park Hopping. Next up is pre-arrival Lightning Lane ride reservations, a system that should closely resemble FastPass+ (but paid), which is looking more like a summer launch at this point.

Every one of these things was important to certain fans. The absence of which was a ‘deal-breaker’ without which they wouldn’t return. We know this because plenty of people told us as much. While I won’t fall into the trap of over-representing readers of sites like this one in the park-going population as a whole, there were at least some fans still sitting on the sidelines until these things returned.

In terms of general crowd dynamics, the biggest change is the return of all-day Park Hopping. This is entirely anecdotal (again), but I’ve done a few Early Entry and rope drop mornings at Animal Kingdom and left before noon…and noticed lines at the bus stops for other parks. So I know I’m not the only person finishing DAK early and bouncing to other parks, because I’ve literally seen it.

EPCOT Overhaul Ends – The park seeing the largest year-over-year increase in wait times data in 2024 has been EPCOT, which ended its busiest 6-week stretch in the last year–and one of its worst stretches since 2022–in late February. If wait times data through the first week of Spring Break season is any indication, EPCOT just started another stretch of high crowds. EPCOT is outperforming all other parks at Walt Disney World right now (relative to 2023–not in absolute terms).

It’s honestly kind of wild. EPCOT debuted Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Harmonious, Beacons of Magic, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind–not to mention a bunch of smaller-scale stuff (Connections, Club Cool, Creations Shop, etc.) in late 2021 and throughout 2022.

None of that moved the needle as much as simply filling in the Giant EPCOT Dirt Pit™️ and presenting a new nighttime spectacular that wasn’t bad/hideous. That’s very reductionist, obviously, but that’s undoubtedly the big driver. And it makes me feel vindicated in repeatedly saying that Walt Disney World was leaving money on the table by dragging its feet on the Central Spine redesign.

In any case, wait times are up year-over-year at EPCOT and (anecdotally) feels like crowds are even worse. It’s difficult to say how long it’ll sustain this momentum, but my guess is for a while. EPCOT is the local’s park and it still has more to unveil throughout this year. If CommuniCore Hall debuts, brings more substance back to events, and a new summer festival debuts…EPCOT could conceivably surpass its 2022 popularity.

This is arguably the story for Walt Disney World as a whole. While fans are bemoaning the dearth of brand-new additions, this year marks the end of a development cycle and a time when “all” of the new stuff is finally open and construction is finished. For people who visit infrequently every few years or once-ever (the majority of guests!), that could make 2024 a more attractive time to visit than the last few years. Walt Disney World pulling “levers” to entice fans to return undoubtedly adds to that, meaning it could be a year that a wide variety of groups will visit. Or, who knows, the wheels could fall off after Spring Break and the rest of the year could be even slower. We were wrong about winter, so there’s nothing to say we won’t be wrong about summer and beyond.

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

Surprised or unsurprised that 2024 has been as busy or busier than last year? Think this is going to be the year of re-revenge travel at Walt Disney World? If so, what do you think are the main causes? What has your experience been with crowds at Walt Disney World thus far in 2024? Surprised by the wait times or congestion in the first few months of the year? Do you agree or disagree with our take on the crowds? 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!

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