An Optimist's Commentary on Fall Crowds at Disneyland Resort and Walt Disney World

by Fred Hazelton, contributing writer
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Wait times at Disney parks are up this fall—way up. We have seen wait times that rival those during Thanksgiving, Easter, and July 4, all during a period when crowds have historically been light to moderate.

Theories about what has caused the increased wait times are plentiful but it is difficult to know the real cause. Here are some of the theories we have heard from readers at Touringplans.com.

  • Changes to school schedules
  • An increased percentage of home schooled children
  • Jewish holidays
  • Cheaper gas and airfare
  • Lower unemployment
  • The “cat out of the bag” theory – fall has been recommended as a great time to go, and now people are listening

There is an interesting fault with all of these theories however. They all rely on the premise that more people are in the parks. The increase in standby wait times this fall translates to an increase in park attendance in the range of 10,000 to 15,000 people per day, which is a huge number—too huge to be true.

We know that attendance is certainly up but it is more in the range of a single digit percentage (six to seven percent increase), not the 25 percent increase needed to explain the lengthening wait times. Furthermore, we know that hotel occupancy has remained comparable to what we see every fall. If ten thousand more people than usual were in a park, hotel occupancy would be higher. Also, we don't see the same increase in wait times at other properties like Universal.

Some feel that Fastpass+ may be the culprit, but that doesn't explain the increase in wait times we have seen at Disneyland.

When you compile all the information it seems to lead us to the rides themselves. Could the increase in standby times be attributable to a change in the capacity of the attractions? It is possible that the number of people processed per hour at Disney attractions has gone down. If that were the case, it would explain why we have seen dramatic increases in standby wait time without seeing dramatic increases in attendance.


A sign at Seven Dwarfs Mine Train shows the stand-by wait time for the attraction. Photo by Alan S. Dalinka.

There is some precedence for tinkering with park operations during the off-season. In 2009, Disney's Hollywood Studios changed its Fantasmic! schedule from daily to semi-daily. That brought an influx of guests on Fantasmic days and kept the parks near empty on off days. Then in 2010 we saw Toy Story Midway Mania change its Fastpass distribution rate, which caused a surge in wait times throughout much of October.

So here comes the good news…

If the increase in wait times we have seen in Fall 2015 is due to some operational changes at Disney attractions, then it is likely that the increase will be short-lived. If you are running a theme park and need to test new procedures it makes sense to do so in the off-season when the impact will be minimized. That is what we have seen before with other experiments but when they end the wait times return to normal.

Let's hope that our theory is correct and the experiment will end as we approach the end of fall season. But, it is just a theory…

 

Comments

  1. By jms1969

    I'm 100% with the theory that FastPass + is to blame at WDW. FastPass + has created significant lines at attractions that never had them in the past, all because the standby line is held up for FastPass + users. Examples of this (among many) include lines at Journey Into Imagination and SpaceShip Earth, which have increased dramatically since FastPass + was started. As a general example, if a ride can take 1000 people per hour, it remains a walk on until the crowd walking in goes over that number. However, if you add 400 fastpasses an hour, the ride develops a standby line anytime the crowd is large enough that more than 600 people are getting into line per hour. Whatever the exact numbers are, I think this is what has happened in the less crowded months - walk-on capacity is being exceeded where it wasn't in the past.

    There also may be an issue involving the FassPass Plus's that are being issued. They drive attendance to certain areas of the park, which become very crowded. With the old FastPasses, people would choose what area of the park to go to, often based on crowds, then obtain their FastPasses and ride the attractions accordingly. Now, Disney is determining where traffic goes in advance, based upon FastPass + availability. Again, it doesn't take a lot to tip a ride that was formerly a walk-on for everyone into a 15-20 minute line.

    I do think the management at WDW has made a conscious choice to make as many FastPass + reservations available as possible, and has probably gone too far. Their theory is likely that people will be more upset about not being able to get the reservation in advance that they want than they will be about a "slight" increase in standby times. This is the "easy" management fix that could be made to solve the stand-by time issue, but it hasn't been done yet and won't be until attendance is impacted by the increased waits.

    The fact that the same issue is coming up at DL is puzzling, but it doesn't change the reason at WDW.

  2. By GusMan

    Liked the article....
    Here is the interesting thing that Ive noticed... that one day you will see pictures of an empty park. Other days - its super crowded during a time where it normally isnt.
    I dont think there is any real surprise that Disney can control lines quite well, but that control may also mean the lines going slower than usual because of operational differences.

    I mean, we know that sometimes a ride is only running at 1/2 its actual capacity due to maintenance or demand. Soarin, Mission:Space, Space Mountain, Primeval Whirl are just a few rides that allow such flexibility.

    I think an issue is that people are expecting the off season to be very light and they are finding that it may not be. Perception and reality collide.

  3. By akabillg

    Had to create an account just to comment on this, as our group of friends here in South Florida was just talking about it. We've been FL Season Pass (or whatever it's called now) holders for about 8 years now, and the crowd level has been steadily rising during off-peak times for at least the last 4, maybe 5. This is more than anecdotal -- dining reservations have consistently become MUCH harder to get, and on-property hotels have become much more expensive and less available. All of this points to a supply-and-demand issue (which also explains the frequent ticket price increases we've seen over the last several years as well).

    I agree that we probably haven't seen a 25% overall increase in crowd levels over the last year or two, but if we've seen only a 3-5% increase year over year for the past 5-7 years, which seems reasonable, then we may simply have hit a tipping point where the new crowd levels are overwhelming existing Disney infrastructure -- not just hotels and buses, but also crowd control programs and queue designs. Thus the big, new infrastructure initiatives like FastPass+ (a big "meh" for me), and the Main Street USA bypass exits.

    Most large organizational systems get progressively less efficient the closer they are to operating at their theoretical maximums. I think that's what we're seeing. As a frequent park guest, I hope the powers that be have some big answers to these problems up their sorcerer's sleeves.

  4. By stan4d_steph

    Dining reservations is a separate problem created by the introduction of the Disney Dining Plan and free dining incentives. More people have the Plan, and in order to get their money's worth, they are eating at table service more often than they might without the plan. The Dining Plan is creating a change in behavior.

  5. By akabillg

    It's likely part and parcel of the same phenomenon, though. Disney parks are all about utilization ratios -- the higher the ratio, the more efficiently their services are being utilized (which ought to translate into less confusion and delay, though that's not always the case). At very high utilization ratios -- those that approach the total carrying capacity of the system -- things become extremely *inefficient* for anyone who isn't included in the system. Right now attendance is increasing, but overall capacity hasn't changed much. So that means the number of people experiencing "peak efficiency" is just about at its max and relatively unchanged, but a larger number of people are experiencing less-than-optimal is increasing.

  6. By DisneyGator

    I can say FP+ is a reason for attendance/crowd index rising, but not for the reason you might think. We had already planned a DL trip when WDW implemented FP+. I really love WDW resort, but I couldn't get myself to spend the money to go out there anymore once I started thinking about planning rides on top of hotels and restaurants. That may have something to do with DL's rise in attendance. People just want to relax more on what's an already hectic type of vacation.

    As for WDW, when we went in 2002, there were 4 parks, 2 water parks, and 4 moderate resorts. Today, there's the exact same. No increased capacity for middle of the road travelers. Outside of Fantasyland, Soarin', and MissionSpace, no real addition to park capacity. At some point, WDW needs to think more about a 5th gate. Adding Star Wars Land to DHS will only make capacity issues worse and people will hate it. They'll enjoy the SW experience and then never want to come back because of the madness of the crowds year round. That can said for DL as well. Star Wars Land will just make things more insane and increase the days of capacity crowds.

  7. By jmorgan

    My last trip this September was the most crowded I have experienced in the last eight years (I go either the second or third weekend of September). I am hoping that the increase in crowds is due to some part on the 60th anniversary. Several people I know that have not been to the park in years picked this year to go specifically for the 60th. One positive is that next year crowds should be a bit down due to the construction at Disneyland.

  8. By olegc

    I have been a passholder at Disneyland for 16 years now. Seen it all. To me - this recent uptick is definitely a combination of more guests (during price increase earlier in year folks actually upgraded) as well as operational. Last night at the halloween party the Matterhorn had to add 1 more train per side right out of nowhere. The line was relatively short at 1030pm and then right behind us a large group of about 100 people (not all connected) showed up and the CM said "OMG our line just got really busy". It seemed like out of nowhere.

    It got me thinking - is the park trying to practice "just in time" ride management? for those rides where you can swap out cars or trains - are they doing this to manage capacity so as not to send empty trains, or boats, or whatever? I don't have analytical data but it was an interesting premise. If that is the case, then of course lines get longer. As ell I think more guests are staying longer in order to catch shows, special opportunities (photo ops, food, etc.) so there is less movement. I have noticed longer waits at Disneyland but not so much at DCA, but that's just me. Last night in the 2 hours before and 1 after the start of the Halloween Party it felt like Christmas Week. You could not walk quickly down Main St. at all. You had to stop and wait.

  9. By akabillg

    I don't think that even a handful of rides practicing just-in-time capacity changes could make the parks feel as crowded as they have been lately, but it's an interesting thought. However, I wonder what the benefit of not running empty cars/trains would be? Empty cars on a ride might encourage me to actually get on line, and if it's crowded enough it seems like the short delay caused by skipping the occasional (rare) empty car should be negligible. And I'm no theme park ride engineer (though I'd like to be when I grow up), I doubt there's any meaningful electricity/maintenance savings for a car that has had it utilization rate reduced by, say, 10%.

  10. By olegc

    Quote Originally Posted by akabillg View Post
    I don't think that even a handful of rides practicing just-in-time capacity changes could make the parks feel as crowded as they have been lately, but it's an interesting thought. However, I wonder what the benefit of not running empty cars/trains would be? Empty cars on a ride might encourage me to actually get on line, and if it's crowded enough it seems like the short delay caused by skipping the occasional (rare) empty car should be negligible. And I'm no theme park ride engineer (though I'd like to be when I grow up), I doubt there's any meaningful electricity/maintenance savings for a car that has had it utilization rate reduced by, say, 10%.

    yeah - like I implied - its not logical. Though that whole program they had about closing rides so they would not have to perform maintenance or fill shifts (during the pressler era) seemed illogical too but McKinsey told Disney they could make more profit this way. as I said - its a combination but definitely more people are in there more often for longer.

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