Planning a trip to Disneyland? Here's what recent changes will mean

August 4, 2016, 4:31 PM · Why on Earth would Disney close Paint the Night?

That's the question that many Disneyland fans are asking, having moved from anger to a sort of mental bargaining as they work through the stages of fan grief after Disneyland's announcement earlier this week that the beloved new nighttime parade would close Sept. 5, along with the rest of the shows that debuted for the park's 60th anniversary Diamond Celebration.

While most fans seem happy to see World of Color Celebrate go, and to welcome the return of the latest version of the "regular" World of Color show, many fans had hoped that the Disneyland Forever fireworks and Paint the Night would endure as 60th birthday presents to fans — continuing to play for years to come. Instead, they're "glowing away," to be replaced by the old, much shorter and much less impressive, Fantasy in the Sky fireworks and... well, who knows what will replace Paint the Night?

One thing's for sure. Disney's not going to waste the millions of dollars it spent on this parade by sending it to a scrap heap somewhere. Some Disney park is getting this parade. The question is... which one?

Why not just keep it running at Disneyland? Allow us to take a visit into the realm of speculation, and, for many of you, into the far more chilling realm of mathematics.

It's no secret that attendance hasn't been exactly great at theme parks this summer. Southern California is doing better than Orlando, as it tends to do when the dollar is strong and the economy isn't — as millions of Southern Californians stay close to home rather than vacationing elsewhere. But while Universal Studios Hollywood's attendance seems to be up significantly over last summer, following the opening of the Wizarding World of Harry Potter, Disneyland's recent attendance seems to be flat compared with the same period last year. Big price increases for annual passes seem to have led to many fans downgrading or dropping their APs, lowering the number of high-level passholders eligible to visit during the July blockout periods. The Rivers of America attractions are closed. Big Thunder Trail is blocked by Star Wars Land construction, creating nasty bottlenecks in the park during the parades and fireworks. Season of the Force has been running for months. And the Diamond Celebration has been running for more than a year now. There's just not much new to bring fans to Disneyland.

HalloweenTime starts Sept. 9, with the Christmas holiday season following almost immediately after, so Disneyland should be set for the final four months of the year, as those popular holiday celebrations always seem to draw fans to the park. But what about August? How could Disney juice attendance for this month, in an attempt to make the year-end numbers look respectable next to USH's expected big gain, not to mention an expected decline from its sibling parks at Walt Disney World?

Well, if Disney can't boost attendance by adding a new attraction at this late date, it can try to do that by taking something away.

With fans now knowing that Sept. 5 is their last chance to see Paint the Night and Disneyland Forever, expect them to make a Disneyland visit a priority between now and then. The largest tier of annual passholders — those holding the lowest-priced Southern California Select AP — come off the summer blockouts on Aug. 22. Expect park attendance to soar on that date and for attendance to remain near capacity levels for the weekdays between then and Sept. 5.

Yes, the final day for the Diamond Celebration is open to all tiers of annual passholders, and it's a federal holiday (Labor Day), to boot. Expect Christmas week-type crowds (more on that in a bit) on that day, as most everyone with an AP looks to send off these shows at their final performances.

If you want to see Disneyland Forever and Paint the Night before they close, we'd suggest going before Aug. 22, if you can. If you must visit on a weekday after that, go on Friday, Aug. 26, which is the one weekday at the end of August when the SoCal Select passholders are blocked out. But the best time to visit will be on the two days before the farewell — Sept. 3-4. All levels of APs save for the Signature Plus, Signature and the few remaining Premium passes are blocked out on those two days.

Of course, if people knew that Paint the Night and maybe even the fireworks would continue indefinitely, they wouldn't have this incentive to come out to the parks so much, would they? Disney's evil genius shows. ;^)

Oh, about these "Christmas-week-type" crowds. That's another big change that Disneyland fans are facing this year. Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year's has been the busiest of the year at the resort, with Disneyland often closing its gates to new admissions in the early afternoon each day. That means Disney is leaving money on the table, as people who want to get into the park and spend their money, can't.

Disneyland made the big change to its annual pass program last year in large part to help ensure that never happens again. The resort eliminated its $779 Premium AP, which was good every day of the year, and effectively replaced it with two new APs: an $849 Signature AP and a $1,049 Signature Plus AP. The big difference between the two? The Signature is blocked out from Dec. 19-Jan. 2 and the Signature Plus isn't. Anecdotal reports suggest that most Premium annual passholders either opted for the Signature or downgraded to the Deluxe AP... or else let their AP lapse entirely. Disney's sold significantly fewer Signature Plus APs compared to the number of Premium APs held by fans at Christmastime last year.

I suppose it's possible that some passholders will upgrade to get into the park when Christmas arrives. But it's far more likely that, as happened over the past Fourth of July, many fans who would have come to the parks on those dates in the past, just will stay home instead. That will leave the park to the tourists on one-day and multi-day tickets — the types of visitors that Disney really, really doesn't want to turn away at the gate.

And there will be fewer of them than annual passholders, as there almost always is at the Disneyland Resort. With no new holiday attractions this season, either, we're expecting the lightest Christmas week crowds at Disneyland in years. Of course, that means those remaining annual passholders who can't get in during Christmas week will make doubly sure to visit in the weeks leading up to the holidays, meaning heavier-than-normal crowds during that period.

After the holidays? Remember Disney's addition-by-subtraction plan for boosting attendance? With the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror closing in January, Disney should be able to squeeze some higher attendance as fans come back for a last ride on that attraction. But Disney's facing a tight schedule to get that ride converted into Guardians of the Galaxy Mission Breakout by summer, so it won't be able to milk that nostalgia for long after the holidays end.

Once the Tower is closed, Disneyland should settle into is normal attendance pattern for the late winter and spring... keeping in mind that another annual pass hike could be coming this fall. If it's at all aggressive, expect the number of AP holders at the Deluxe and above levels to decline, and with nothing new on the horizon until next summer, attendance might continue to soften at the resort. If that's the case, look for Disney to make some short-term moves to boost sales, such as expanding the Food & Wine Festival at Disney California Adventure (which already is in the works), and adding more in-park entertainment.

Might that also include a return of Paint the Night? That's the big question at the moment, though it seems a bit cynical even for cynics like me to envision Disneyland reviving the parade so quickly after this week's announcement. Remember, Disneyland didn't say the parade was going on hiatus or taking a break. It said the parade would close. That leads me to suspect that it will be on its way to another Disney theme park resort soon, most likely either Paris or Orlando. (Hong Kong already has it; Shanghai doesn't need a new attraction yet, and Tokyo tends to do its own thing instead of taking hand-me-downs from other Disney parks.)

Whatever happens, next summer will bring Guardians of the Galaxy to Disney California Adventure and the return of the Rivers of America (including Fantasmic!) to Disneyland... and the crowds likely will follow. Until then, we hope that this little thought exercise helps you to plan the best visit to the Disneyland Resort possible over the next 12 months.

Replies (14)

August 4, 2016 at 5:51 PM · I sort of expected a hyperlink on the phrase "stages of fan grief". This would be a great column for your insights!

In relation to Labor Day weekend, remember also that's the Disneyland Half Marathon, and the park will be full of runners all weekend as well. Your description is making me kinda sorta dread it but not enough not to catch the parade at least once while I am there.

August 4, 2016 at 6:24 PM · All sorts of comments/rumors are flying toward me through non-public channels: That Tower will be closing on Sept. 5, too, instead of in early 2017; that Paint the Night will come back in November, and that Disneyland Forever could be back once a better launch platform is built during Star Wars Land construction.

I'm not convinced of any of them, but I have said before and will say again now: Someone should start a betting market on Disney theme park rumors, so we can see what the market favorites are.

August 4, 2016 at 11:33 PM · I think Disney is committing a kind of suicide by closing Paint the Night. That was the one truly new, hugely popular attraction that was drawing heavy crowds every evening. But with it gone, I can see a drop in Annual Passes until Star Wars Land opens. IMO Soarin, Frozen Live and Guardians of the Galaxy are not going to motivate AP sales like Paint the Night can.

I think Disney was also very shortsighted in not building the third park. Huge crowds are going to descend when Star Wars Land opens, and the small bottleneck which is Main Street won't be able to support it.

Maybe they will open an exit at the northwest corner to go directly to the parking structure, but that is against Walt's original design. They should have built a smaller Star Wars presence based on the original trilogy in Disneyland, then a larger land in the third park based on all 9 films.

Maybe they are being cautious because the economy is still fragile, but with record attendance at Disneyland in recent years, it was no time to be timid.

August 4, 2016 at 8:53 PM · Hi Robert,
Wanted to say great article as always! I love the in depth stuff you do on the different operations, marketing, competition etc. Also I enjoy the register articles.
Continued success.


August 5, 2016 at 1:35 AM · I hope that the paint the night parade will be given to disneyland paris seeing as it is their 25th anniversary next year. Seeing as well that paris is updating big thunder mountain and star tours for next year, then it could help draw in the crowds more to the parks.
August 5, 2016 at 7:57 AM · Iger and Chapek are behaving like a couple of two-bit street hustlers. These jerks should be running Three Card Monte games, not Disneyland.

Disney will not get another dime of my money, so long as it's run by con artist types.

Keep up the good work, Knotts Berry Farm and Universal. The spirit of Walt is dead at Disneyland. Thankfully, we have alternatives.

August 5, 2016 at 8:41 AM · Advice please! I am in Anaheim 22nd - 27th September.
There are Halloween parties on the 23rd and 26th, I am planning (at the moment) to skip them.
My plan was to hit the parks on 24th and 25th seeing as there is no Halloween...what do you think? Crazy busy as its weekend or 'relatively' ok due to Halloween parties before and after?
August 5, 2016 at 11:09 AM · I'd have to agree with the general consensus here. I'm somewhat happy to see the original WOC return. It's not that "Celebrate" was bad, but to me, it felt too focused around NPH and wasn't really put together that well. Like instead of closing the show with a nostalgic ending, the closing of the show featured NPH asking Walt if he would do anything differently. To me, that ending left me quite disappointed. Furthermore, it's sad to see PTN leave, as that was probably one of the best parades that Disneyland has ever had. It's technologically advanced, immersive, and brings back a long missed quality nighttime parade ever since WDW stole our electrical parade. Hopefully it returns soon. Now, while I'm sad to see Disneyland Forerver leave, what makes me even more sad is the fact that they are replacing it with Fantasy In the Sky. If anything, Fantasy in the Sky is mediocre at best. What TDA should have done is bring back an updated version of Remember Dreams Come True. Easily the best firework show that Disneyland has ever put on.
August 5, 2016 at 11:40 AM · Have any of you people been to Disneyland this Summer its a mad house how can you say its not busy enough to keep paint the night and the fireworks eveytimw we went you have to camp out just to get a spor to see the parade and then the fireworks. Paint the night and the other things were only for a limited time if you got to see the magic good for you if not toy really missed out
August 5, 2016 at 2:48 PM · Anonymous at 8.41 was me - forgot I wasnt logged in. Sorry!
August 5, 2016 at 4:34 PM · Looking forward to next Spring, I see many attractions coming back just before Summer. The return of Fantasmic, Tom Sawyer Island, Tower of Terror, and likely, Paint the Night too.
August 6, 2016 at 8:31 AM · Hi Robert really enjoy your articles. Last year in September we travelled from Australia and spent ten days in wdw and then three days at Disneyland. We have done this Disney holiday many times. The time we spent at Disneyland was one of the most disappointing holiday experiences I have ever had. It's was at the beginning of a week and the crowds were shocking . We waited 45 minuties just to get a bowl of clam chowder in New Orleans square and missed on getting a good view of the parade or fireworks because we didn't get a position 2 hours before the shows. I'm a huge Disney fan but we will never again visit Disneyland until something is done in relations to the uncontrollable crowds.

Thanks keep up the great work Brent

August 6, 2016 at 10:31 AM · could we see PTN goto Orlando and the electrical parade come back?
August 7, 2016 at 10:26 AM · I wonder if Disneyland will bring back PTN during the gap between when Rivers of America re-opens and Star Wars land opens. Hopefully, they'd use the time to come up with a better way to manage the crowds around parade time. Also, what do they plan to do with the projection equipment installed for the 60th anniversary?

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