Is Attendance Rising at Walt Disney World?

September 24, 2020, 4:56 PM · So just how busy is it at the Orlando theme parks these days?

I've been watching the wait times on the official park apps from my home in Southern California, while Theme Park Insider readers have been keeping me posted with photos and reports from inside the park. And it seems that weekday attendance at Disney's theme parks seems to be increasing, perhaps as Disney ups the capacity limits in its parks.

Check out the line for Slinky Dog Dash at Disney's Hollywood Studios yesterday afternoon. It's all the way out of Toy Story Land.

Slinky Dog Dash line

Granted, you can't compare line lengths to pre-Covid periods, as Disney is now spacing its queue to allow for safe social distancing. But our reader reported a 70-minute wait for Slinky Dog Dash, plus another 70 minutes for Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run and a 90-minute wait for Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway.

Crowds inside Star Wars: Galaxy's EdgeInside Disney World's Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge land

Those aren't the easy-breezy waits that enticed some Disney fans to strap on their masks and get out to the parks this summer. Disney leaders always said that the resort's return would be a phased reopening, with the parks increasing the entrance capacity limits over time. Dates that once appeared yellow on the resort's advance reservation availability calendar now sometimes reappear as green.

Florida's governor has given the state's theme parks a green light to raise their capacities, and crowds on weekends — especially at Universal Orlando, which is running an aggressive Florida resident discount — have reminded some fans of life before March.

But now it appears that the weekday crowd levels are beginning to creep upward as well. Which should be encouraging to the parks' accountants, as September typically sees the beginning of a downward trend in daily park attendance due to the return of so many kids to school.

This summer's attendance was well off a typical summer's crowd level. But if this fall recovers to attract a higher percentage of normal guest load than the late summer months did, that could be a welcome financial success for the parks.

But would it be good for the community? Our readers have reported that physical distancing outside the queues and attractions is getting tougher to maintain as the crowd levels grow.

Disney's Hollywood Studios at opening
Disney's Hollywood Studios at opening

Local officials and park leaders have been crowing that there's not been any confirmed outbreaks of Covid-19 in the parks. But low crowd levels and easy physical distancing may have been contributing factors to limiting exposure in the parks. Take those away, and does the risk to visitors increase?

Disney continues to demand that guests wear masks while visiting and it has installed plastic barriers throughout its parks to help stop the spread of the virus. So substantial health and safety procedures remain in place. But while those serve to help convince potential visitors that it is safe to visit the Walt Disney World Resort, short wait times also helped make that case after the parks reopened in July.

Disney obviously wants attendance at the Walt Disney World theme parks to increase. But will there come a point where Disney becomes a victim of its success and larger crowds start dissuading other potential guests from visiting?

That never really happened before Covid shut down the world. But the Sars-CoV-2 virus is an additional variable that was not in play back when Disney's theme parks filled to the brim with tourists on a daily basis.

If you live in or have visited the Orlando area, what are you seeing in the parks? For everyone else, are crowd levels affecting your decision whether to visit the Florida theme parks anytime soon?

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Replies (17)

September 24, 2020 at 5:14 PM

There has to be a peak point. Yes WDW can increase capacity a little at a time, but there has to be a point where they just can't handle the amount of guests for the limited capacity on the attractions or else it'll be extremely packed. Some ride's capacity are better than others, but others like Pirates seem to be at less than 50%. Let's say that all attractions are at 50% capacity, but attendance for the day has hit its 50% capacity, then that means that wait times are no different from a day with 100% capacity attendance with 100% capacity on attractions (my math is correct right? someone tell me if I'm wrong lol). I saw that ROTR has implemented a barrier between the two rows on the vehicles, which is a good start. Disney can do what Universal did and on their coasters and just fill in every row. At the beginning of reopening, it looked promising. I was okay with wearing a mask all day if it meant 5-20 min waits on everything. However with wait times shooting up over an hour, it is gonna be more difficult to make that decision.

September 24, 2020 at 5:57 PM

Former attractions worker here at both major Orlando parks, so my take may be biased, but I don't think attraction wait times are the best indicator of attendance, nor is guest perception on how crowded the park "feels." The reason for this is that having fewer attractions staff creates bottlenecks and increased wait times on their own, even before you add COVID measures like distancing and skipping rows on ride vehicles. As Postcott notes above, the precise impact may vary by type of attraction. But I don't think it's a coincidence that the last round of extended furloughs happened in late August, and waits have (generally) trended upward since that time. You can't deny there have been more weekend days where capacity has been met, but I think attendance is getting too much credit for the increased perception of park busyness.

There's a psychological aspect too. If guests come to WDW expecting low waits only to find longer waits (especially passholders with nothing to lose), they will skip waiting in line to experience something else in the park like shopping, snacks, or the newly reintroduced parade floats. Think of a day at MK when 2-3 major rides are down simultaneously. The park may "feel" more crowded, but it's the same attendance number, just that the people who normally would have been invisibly waiting in a queue are out mingling. So maybe they are raising the attendance cap, but I think these other factors are having a bigger impact than most are able to recognize.

September 24, 2020 at 6:02 PM

There aren’t any Covid documented cases because once you leave the park it’s hard to know where a case may have originated 5 days later.

September 24, 2020 at 8:02 PM

I went to DAK today (24th) and there were plenty of people around, but nothing like what you would expect on a typical Disney day in September. The crowds were more evenly spread at DAK when compared to Epcot last week, but even so I could easily keep the 6ft social distancing space around me. If it looked as if I was hitting a 'group' I'd step up the pace and move on thru. I did one slow lap between 11 & 1, and Everest was at 20mins, FofP, 45mins & Navi RR was 50min. Sure the lines are long, but as Robert mentioned, they are maintaining the 6ft distancing, so they look far worse than they really are.

I'd heard from friends at work, that DHS was getting 'busy', but the only reason I go is to walk, (well, shop as well ... LOL ... :) )and in my mind, DHS is the least walkable-friendly park of them all, so I don't see myself going back there anytime soon. It's more of a draw when I can park-hop .... do a lap at DHS, hop on the skyliner, do a lap round Epcot, have fish 'n chips, go back to DHS, and head for home.

I never felt unsafe at all today. Everybody is wearing masks, and as I mentioned, it's so easy to maintain the social distancing doing what I do.

MK next week, and then back to Epcot, so I'm well into visiting the parks again. And if I really want it deserted, then I can always go to Seaworld in midweek .... :)

September 24, 2020 at 11:45 PM

@Makorider: Good luck. I'm torn, would love to go and seems a good time with crowds still low but also worried still risks. Yet can understand folks wanting to enjoy it and so far Disney doing okay but worries on another wave this fall.

September 25, 2020 at 5:39 AM

We were planning to visit US Orlando Thanksgiving week staying onsite at the HR. Our numbers in Palm Beach County have been near the worst of Florida’s 67 counties. No politics here, but opening everything back up (bars etc.) on October 5 will mean another spike heading into (with also flu season approaching) by mid-November. We just got kids back in school in person. Stay safe everyone.

September 25, 2020 at 8:09 AM

@MIkeW …… It took me a while to make that decision to go back to the parks, but after 2 visits, I’m glad I did. Admittedly I wouldn’t want to go at the weekend, but being able to go mid-week has helped me ease back into the park-life again. And I’m enjoying every minute of it :)

As I say many times, at the moment I only walk and shop, so I have no idea what the lines are like for any of the rides, or how busy any of the eateries are. I might get a better idea of how all of that is working-out next week at the MK. I’m going with my friend, and she’s a big monorail fan. Now that’s a risk I’m unwilling to take, so I’ll take the fresh air trip on the boat and meet her in the park.

It’s all down to what you do, and not what others are doing. Too many bloggers are bitching and moaning that people weren’t doing this or not doing that, but at the end of the day it ultimately boils down to what you do. I control my environment when I’m at the park. I’m fully aware of my surroundings, and I alone ensure I maintain the social distancing requirements to keep me as safe as I can be. If I’m watching, let’s say, the gibbons at DAK, and someone comes up within 6ft, I’ll move. It’s as simple as that. I won’t frown or ask them to back off, it’s not worth the hassle. As my son says, if we catch Covid-19 doing what we are doing at the parks, then it already had our name on it, and there was nothing we could have done to avoid it.

DAK on a busy day will generate bottle necks that will make you almost come to a stop, and the only way thru is a slow push and shove to get to the other side. At no time did the crowds even come close to that. I maintained a steady pace all the way round, and avoiding people was very easy. I had my usual ice-cream sitting at the rivers of light stadium, and it was empty. I have never seen it like that. There’s always been people sitting and relaxing, but yesterday I think there was 3 of us, so that alone told me just how quiet DAK really was …. Oh, and the fact FofP was only a 45min wait :)

September 25, 2020 at 8:27 AM

from my experience, those wait times are very deceptive. all of the rides in all disney parks so far have heavily padded their wait times, and in most cases by nearly 100%. i was at MK this past tuesday and whereas it was more crowded than i've seen it yet, i still had short waits despite what was posted outside. for instance, thunder mountain posted an 80 minute wait. i could tell by my previous experience it would not be that long so decided to give it a go and sure enough, i used my stop watch and it was 17:34 when i got on board. i questioned the ride tech and she said it was due to their continuous cleaning schedule and less than 100% ride capacity which makes perfect sense. space mountain posted a 25 minute wait time and when i finally got to where i had to actually queue, it was in that final "hallway" before the loading platform. i didn't time it but it was no where near 25 minutes and most of my time was walking to that point. not saying there aren't some long waits. mickey and minnie's railway had a 90 minute posted wait and my wait was right about an hour. slinky dog also posted an 80 minute wait but was closer to 40. i have yet to make it on rise and am not a fan of smuggler's run so i can't speak on either of those. TOT and rock n roller coaster were also very short waits that had posted times at twice as long. i am planning to do animal kingdom next week but last time i went flight of passage was posted at 20 minutes and was about that due to how long that queue is even walking through, which i was able to do all the way to the load queue. so keep these "padded" times in good check and don't let them scare you from coming.

September 25, 2020 at 9:16 AM

There is a lot of empirical evidence to suggest that wait times are extremely inaccurate right now. With social distancing measures in the queues and adjusted ride capacities, it's really difficult for CMs to gauge wait times with any level of accuracy, so most are providing conservative estimates so guests are pleasantly surprised when a 60-minute posted wait only takes 45 minutes. Also, with no FP+ operating right now, previous gauges used by CMs to estimate wait times are worthless since the only merging occurring with the standby line is DAS, which is completely unpredictable. Disney cannot even use the old "red cards" anymore (or at least I assume they're not using them right now), which were the best way to gauge wait times, because of the hazards of handing a guest something to hold onto in the queue and turn back in when they reach the loading platform. You would think that Disney could come up with a way to have guests tap their MagicBand/ticket at the entrance and at the FP+ merge, and use those data to calculate wait times even though FP+ is not operating right now, but that doesn't appear to be happening.

It does sound like from many reports that crowds are starting to return to WDW, but nothing close to what it would be like during pre-pandemic times. Some of the "crowding" people are reporting is most due to families/groups actively working to maintain space from others. Also, a lot of the photos being posted on social media are "gotcha"-style photos trying to infer that Disney/Universal/Sea World are not doing a good job enforcing social distancing in the parks. These rare observations appear to be the exception to the rule, and while many attractions are seeing wait times approaching pre-pandemic levels, those waits are more due to reduced ride capacities and staffing than it is to significantly increased crowds.

September 25, 2020 at 10:14 AM

Russell, "Empirical evidence" gets my vote as best phrase of the week! I need to slot that into a meeting next week to help me stand out "from the crowd."

September 25, 2020 at 10:43 AM

@makorider: Thanks for insight, I get how some folks have different wishes for park experience than others (I'm more a rides guy but do appreciate walking around to take in sights). My one quibble is how read so many folks who talk of how they took all the precautions they could...and caught Covid anyway from being around folks who acted like it was no big deal. You can do all you can yet that risk remains which is a factor.

Getting back on topic, I do like the vids I see of folks at parks lately, emphasizing the safety stuff and Disney serious about maintaining it. The fact they are doing their best is helpful (see Sea World's rough response) and glad you enjoyed your time.

September 25, 2020 at 10:56 AM

Russell is correct. From AndrewL's discussion board post: "Wait times- At first glance the posted wait times were intimidating. Certainly not what we had been hearing or expected when we decided to make the trip. As the week went on we soon realized that most posted times by Disney were greatly exaggerated. A 30 minute wait usually ended up being 15-20 and so on. When we rode Mine Train it was posted at 50 minutes and the queue wrapped all the way around the outside of the mountain. We were on in about 30 though."

September 25, 2020 at 11:03 AM

@MIkeW .... the over riding thing for me is being able to do all of this outdoors. The article Robert featured early on about exposure time vs risk of contracting the virus, was/is a big factor in my decision to return. Also the study out of China, I think ??, that concluded less than 1% of cases could be traced back to outdoor activities is another interesting take on the true nature of the transmissability of this virus.

I still haven't had my hair cut, so that tells you how wary I am of Covid-19. Maybe if they could do it outside on the sidewalk I'd go and get a trim ... LOL .. :)

September 25, 2020 at 11:24 AM

I have been watching the parking lots to see how much they are increasing capacity along with actual wait times.
A few weeks ago a capacity day at Magic Kingdom was the first 2 lots completely full. This week they are now filling the next 3 parking lots (villains and heros) to 50% or more. This means within the last week they have more than doubled car parking. The same has taken place at DHS. Epcot and AK have seen additional increases, but at a lower rate. I expect EPCOTs lot will double today with its new closing time moving back to 9.

Between the parking lots and the doubling/tripling of wait times over the last few weeks, they have easily increased capacity by 50%.

While I still think Disney is doing the best on safety protocols I have seen a noticeable increase (within the last few weeks- as crowds grow) of more guest wearing their mask below their nose and walking around with no mask on at all (with a water bottle in their hand). While this is against parks rules I have seen less and less effort to enforce the rules in the parks.

September 25, 2020 at 1:56 PM

The parking lots can be a little deceptive. At Epcot last week, they were parking each vehicle with one space between them. Yesterday at DAK, they were filling in those in-between spaces when I arrived.

When I left both Epcot and DAK, it was noticeable that many of the lots still had that empty space between cars. My lot at Epcot was still spaced, yet more cars had arrived after me.

I see DeSantis has just declared Florida is in phase 3 of opening, so the knock-on effect of that for the parks will be something I'll be very wary of as time goes by.

September 25, 2020 at 1:58 PM

Our family of 4 visited MK and DHS mid-August, and the wait times were showing as lower than they are showing now, and just about every ride was a walk on back then. We ago for the rides, and did everything at least once in both parks. We felt very safe, as we were able to distance most of the time. We did witness the bottlenecks in DHS, but everybody was moving, so it was quick to go through.

September 25, 2020 at 2:20 PM

@Makorider: Wow, even I go for haircuts and a bite out now and then.Keep in mind, Illinois has been Stage 4 for a few months following an over two-month long shutdown to get it under better control (and still risks out there) so I get how tricky it can be. Did a drive through Indiana (which has no mask mandate) for family place in Michigan (which hasn't opened movie theaters) on Labor Day weekend and my brother-in-law refusing to even stop for gas in Indiana as worried they took it too lightly. So can get the risks.

Seriously, I do worry about Disney and Universal trying to maintain the numbers as you can imagine how ugly it can be if some folks show up to be told "sorry, we're at our capacity" and such. Again, they've been handling it well but the real challenge comes with larger crowds to really test those safety guidelines.

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