On the Fourth of July at Walt Disney World in Central Florida—a day when crowds are usually shoulder to shoulder—the pathways were shockingly clear. Wait times for most rides were 30 minutes or less.
Because the clickbait press never saw carrion it didn't want to pick over, recent news articles about the resort have been soaring with hyperbole. "Disney World Empties Out," one website crowed. "Walt Disney World a Ghost Town," exclaimed another.
No, not quite. But it is less busy than usual.
Disney doesn't release attendance numbers, but yes, crowds were observably thinner earlier in July. The shift isn't apocalyptic—if anything, the walkways have looked as uncluttered as they were in the early 1990s, before Disney-owned synergy conquered the media and overstuffed the parks. This week, waits for popular rides like Space Mountain and Avatar Flight of Passage have bounced back to more typical lengths.
But there are many reasons to suspect the recent drop in attendance is about a change in guest vacation patterns, and there's very little evidence that we're seeing a cultural rejection of Disney.
Obviously, it's hard to know precisely the reason people aren't going to Disney World if they're not there to explain themselves. So for that perspective, we turn to travel agents, who hear what their customers want.
WOGX, the Fox affiliate in Gainesville, Florida, asked Disney travel specialist Jennifer McCormack why people are suddenly staying away from Disney World. McCormack, a travel agent based in the town next door to the Magic Kingdom, pointed out Central Florida has been recording record-breaking heat in July, and many people simply want to avoid being outdoors in the unpleasant weather.
McCormack said many of her clients would rather go somewhere else, such as on the year-old Disney Cruise Line ship the Disney Wish (our full review is here).
She also told WOGX that although thinner crowds in July are a new phenomenon, that doesn't mean customers have given up on the Mouse. Bookings for Walt Disney World at other times of year remain as robust as ever, McCormack said, noting that her agency's June numbers broke in-house records, and that Disney resort reservations for the upcoming school holiday periods of November 2023 and February 2024 are already hard to come by. So far the light crowds, she said, seemed to manifest only in the dead of summer.
Although certain people on the political spectrum would like to claim responsibility for the downturn, you'll find, if you listen carefully, those commentators don't present much proof to bolster the claim.
Yes, a wide swath of society has been warned to avoid Florida, from people of color to LGBTQ guests. But many of those warnings came out in May, and, for a variety of reasons, many Disney vacation packages are reserved much farther in advance.
Also, last February, Magic Kingdom was so packed that it sold out of Genie+ ride reservation slots—something that happens only on extremely rare occasions. And that was long after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis declared ideological war on the company.
So the signs do not convincingly point to a widespread political boycott.(The Tree of Life at Disney's Animal Kingdom | Credit: Disney Parks)
Why is Walt Disney World attendance down?
I've been going to Disney World since the early 1970s, and have written the award-winning Frommer's guidebook on the resort since 2006. I have also been a steady critic of the way the company has chosen to overcharge families and rest on its laurels in recent years.
While partisans claim to have drawn blood with their personal beefs, I see cogent economic reasons why Disney World is facing serious headwinds right now, and the causes are well-documented and growing in number.
• Interest rates are higher. A survey in late 2022 by LendingTree found that nearly a fifth of Disney visitors (18%) said they took on debt to pay for their vacations. That's a huge proportion of guests who are negatively impacted by rate hikes. As interest penalties rise, more guests will be forced to choose more affordable vacations.
• Universal Orlando is eating into Disney's market share. Since 2020, Disney's main theme park competition in Florida has opened the award-winning Jurassic World VelociCoaster ride and two massive new budget hotels with 2,800 rooms, many of them priced lower than the lowest option in Walt Disney World. Universal's investments are pulling Disney down. Before Covid-19, Universal's two Orlando theme parks ranked lower than Disney's four parks when it came to attendance; now, for the first time ever, Universal's parks are neck and neck with three of Disney's parks. It's about to get much worse for Disney: Universal is rapidly building a third Florida theme park that is slated to open in 2025.
• Student loan payments came due. During the worst of the pandemic, the U.S. government granted relief from making student loan payments, but that forgiveness has run its course. It might be no accident that Disney's sudden downturn happened just weeks before September 1, when interest kicks back in on those loans, and October 1, when payments must restart.
• Inflation. When guests are spending more for their daily needs, they have less to budget on vacation, and a luxury-priced Disney holiday becomes out of reach. When times were good, Disney made the mistake of raising prices far beyond the rate of inflation in order to milk cash from unquestioning fans. Now the tide is turning.
• High gas prices. Since the opening of Walt Disney World in 1971, the health of the resort has been strongly affected by fuel prices, which have an impact on everything from operating costs to the ability of families to travel to the parks. During the Nixon years, an international oil crisis forced Disney to abandon its announced plans to expand the campus. As tourism cratered, the company axed new resorts themed to Venice and Persia, and pulled the plug on planned rides such as the Western River Expedition. It took the better part of a decade to get back on track with the opening of EPCOT.
• People find Disney frustrating. Setting its exorbitant prices aside, a Disney vacation has become infamous for creating frustrations. From its reviled park reservations system and advance-booking miseries to charging guests for things that were previously free to its cumbersome Genie+ ride reservation surcharge, Disney Parks have been governed by an oblivious arrogance for the customer experience. The CEO of the Walt Disney Company was fired last November, but the cumulative effects of the missteps continue to be felt by guests.
Add to that the fact that international visitors, a significant market in Orlando, have not fully bounced back.
So at best, the DeSantis-fed culture war is but one contributing factor in a great confluence of forces pushing Disney customers to choose something else.
Even the conservative publication National Review admits the downturn probably isn't because of DeSantis' political weaponization of state government against the Walt Disney Company: "It’s as likely that the exorbitant admission prices to the parks—which has risen considerably faster than the rate of inflation over the past four decades—are having a comparable or larger deterrent effect."
It's an E ticket day when the National Review and I agree on something, but here it is: "Disney’s theme-park business has quietly and subtly become a luxury brand." And fewer of us can afford that.
Walt Disney World discounts
We might be seeing a realignment of the attendance calendar at Walt Disney World. That happens now and then—20 years ago, Frommer's recommended early December and September as the best times to go for thin crowds, but over the last decade that stopped being the case as crowds were spread out year-round. It's possible that we're about to see people avoid the peak humidity of Disney World in July for the foreseeable future.
Fortunately, you can use this moment to your advantage. Disney World is unleashing a barrage of deals and discounts to entice bookings during lean months.
Right now, Walt Disney World is offering some decent bargains in the pursuit of guests, including slashing 25% off hotel rooms on some dates and selling tickets for under $100 a day for 4-day stays.
Though suspended when Covid-19 arrived, the Disney Dining Plan returns in January 2024. At first, you'll have to pay extra for the meal plan, but Disney has been known to make it free to attract business during low periods, so the dining plan's reinstatement will give the company another tool in its arsenal to raise attendance.
Yes, the times are changing for Disney, as they are for all of us. But after years of raising prices seemingly without consequence, the Mouse was bound to fall to earth eventually. For vacationers, the deals are likely to get even better from here.