Should Theme Parks Require Advance Reservations?

April 3, 2021, 4:18 PM · Spring break continues across America as we head into Easter weekend, with Universal Orlando again closing its theme parks for capacity temporarily each day this week. Legoland Florida also closed briefly for capacity on Saturday, as families enjoying the week off from school filled the parks.

Meanwhile, at the Walt Disney World Resort, thousands of fans also filled the parks - but Disney did close its gates physically the way that Universal did. And that's the difference between theme parks with advance reservations and those without. If you weren't going to get into a Disney theme park for spring break, you found that out weeks ago when you tried to make a reservation, instead of on-site when you tried to enter the park.

The pandemic forced theme parks and other venues to control capacity in order to support safe physical distancing. Even though the state of Florida has given up on capacity limits for businesses, the state's major theme parks have maintained their own capacity limits in order to keep their visitors and employees safe while the virus continues to spread throughout state and nation.

Personally, as a potential visitor from outside the state, I prefer Disney's approach. An advance reservation essentially saves me a spot in the park on the day I want to visit. I would hate to pay for a trip to Orlando only to find that I can't get into the park I came all that way to see. Now it's true that parks, such as Disney's, that require advance reservations also reserve the right to close their gates should everyone with a reservation show up at the same time, instead of throughout the day as the park anticipated. But that's rare - happening far less often than the now-daily gate closures at Universal.

On the flip side, as a local I would see the appeal of Universal's first-come, first-served system, which allows me a chance to get into the parks without having to plans weeks in advance. Universal's system also supports maximum usage of its parks, rather than keeping potential guests outside to save space for people who might show up later... or not at all.

Universal will be requiring advance reservations at Universal Studios Hollywood when it reopens, in compliance with California regulations. And Disney's not the only theme park company implementing a reservation policy nationwide - Six Flags has done the same.

It will be interesting to see if some parks keep their advance reservation requirements after this pandemic is over. After years of trying to manage crowd levels through variable pricing and pass blockout dates, the pandemic has allowed theme parks to implement advance reservation systems that pretty much solve their day-to-day crowd leveling problem, and to do it without the customer pushback that parks feared before the pandemic hit.

While I see the appeal of keeping advance reservation requirement indefinitely (especially if parks use them to keep crowd levels from ever again reaching the suffocating levels that they did in many parks on holiday weekends), I also understand that a reservation system would become unnecessary for most parks on most days of operation, once capacities safely can return closer to pre-pandemic levels. Why then make fans go through an extra step to visit?

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Replies (18)

April 3, 2021 at 4:39 PM

I would love for parks to keep them. It makes it easier, especially during the busy holiday season.

The first come, first serve is an awful model that forces everyone to come super early and cause massive crowding problems by the entrance and a high chance of not being allowed in(Thus making it a total waste of time).

April 3, 2021 at 8:02 PM

I'm a foreign visitor, holding (which are really on hold lol) 3-day tickets to Disneyland. I'm looking forward to make the trip, without reservation I couldn't even imagine to make a 15 hour flight risking not to get in.

April 3, 2021 at 8:02 PM

I'm a foreign visitor, holding (which are really on hold lol) 3-day tickets to Disneyland. I'm looking forward to make the trip, without reservation I couldn't even imagine to make a 15 hour flight risking not to get in.

April 3, 2021 at 9:02 PM

While I wouldn't object to reservations remaining mandatory, I don't see it as a necessity once parks are able to operate at full capacity. Even on peak days, most parks only hit around 2/3 of their maximum capacity, and it's only a handful of times each year that parks must close their gates. That said, I am in favor of a voluntary reservation system remaining in place as long as there is no additional cost to use the service. This would allow individuals to guarantee entry on busier days, particularly if they're traveling a long distance, and would also allow locals to visit on the spur of the moment provided capacity allows.

April 4, 2021 at 2:52 AM

I voted 'first come first served' because in normal times I hate the prescription of being unable to park-hop, to change my plans or 'go with the flow'. I understand that given current restrictions reservations are best so if there was an option for 'current' and 'long term' I'd have voted different for each as reservations are ideal when capacity is so limited. But as the new norm? No thank you.

April 4, 2021 at 5:32 AM

First come first served is great for parks that don't want people outside the local area, as Mdcholakian said above, not risking a long flight to not get in.
For the big destination parks, (Disney Universal) then perhaps a long time solutions is a combination of the two... 50% of capacity is for reserved times 50% is first come... that way those who have to travel a long distance and may never get back to the park can book, while more local people can just rock up

April 4, 2021 at 5:46 AM

First come, first serve. Arrive early, stay late.

April 4, 2021 at 10:27 AM

Exactly, TH. As a long time rope-dropper, first come, first served fits my plans best. The early bird gets the worm and the shorter queues.

April 4, 2021 at 11:06 AM

I voted "keep it for now, but I want it to go away when it is safe to do so."

But in reading the comments, I like the idea of a hybrid approach. Disney and Universal parks shouldn't require reservations in February, a consistently slower time. Even during the summer months, most parks can handle the crowds that arrive (post-COVID, assuming we eventually get to a "post-COVID" world).

But 4th of July, spring break, Thanksgiving-New Years Eve (especially that week after Christmas when everyone tells their kids that Santa brought them tickets to the park), and other historically ultra-busy times? Park reservations make sense. I remember before Disneyland had an "official" capacity, the fire marshall, as a favor, asked Disneyland to close its gates on the day the Electrical Parade "glowed away for the 'last' time" (each indoor location had a maximum capacity, but not the outdoor areas). So even special events like that should qualify.

But I can already picture someone arguing that with this type of hybrid approach, some would plan their trips for when reservations are not required -- making those busier times, which could then potentially have to move to a "reservation-only" tier. And I would have no answer to such an argument, even if it's just one I had in my own head.

And this is why I don't make the big bucks as a theme park operational planner. Because I may have opinions, but I definitely don't have the answers.

April 4, 2021 at 7:28 PM

I can imagine that this question makes sense to some people but not to me. Disneyland gets very unpleasant as it gets within spitting distance of capacity. I guess I'm a grumpy old guy but I don't enjoy bumping up against people, painfully long lines for rides, fully booked restaurants, and the occasional stroller smack in the ankle. My solution is to avoid crowded times. For these, as observed by others, there is no problem for reservations to solve.

April 4, 2021 at 10:15 PM

The trouble with requiring reservations at some times of the year but not others is that policy can confuse many customers. Let's say you always visit in early May and never learn to make reservations. Then you're caught out when you try to roll up in early August one year, just like you would in May. Visiting Disney (especially) can confuse the heck out of your typical guest. Disney does not want to add to that confusion by operating with multiple sets of reservation rules. That's why I didn't include a "use it sometimes and not others" option in the vote.

April 5, 2021 at 2:44 AM

It's "First Come, First Served" for the Plums. Spontaneity is the key to enjoyment.

April 5, 2021 at 7:34 AM

here's what happened to me at universal with their first-come-first-served system...had dinner reservations for valentine's day at lombard's. had totally slipped my mind that it was president's day weekend and since we didn't plan to get to the park until around 2pm, imagine our surprise when we pulled up to the "theme parks at capacity" signs. it didn't matter we had a restaurant reservation when we couldn't even get into the park. off to i-drive we went.

April 5, 2021 at 8:38 AM

I think we're in a unique time right now, and using a reservation system is needed because of severely limited capacity at most theme parks. When guests are going through all of the trouble and hoops needed to enter theme parks today, the least parks can do is guarantee that they can get in the gates without having to wait for an hour or more in a crowd for in-park guests to leave.

However, once park operations start going back to normal, I think parks should eliminate reservation systems. First, once the pandemic is over, gathering in a crowd outside of park gates will no longer represent the hazard it is right now. If guests arrive too late on a capacity day to enter the gates, they can wait outside until in-park guests leave to make room. Second, parks risk alienating guests by maintaining online reservations systems that ultimately favor the rich and tech-savvy. Additionally, with little parks can do to punish no-shows, the consequences of guests no arriving for their reservations is shouldered by the parks, who now have zero reservations available but a park that is not completely full. I'm not sure what the no-show rate is for guests under current park conditions, but I wouldn't be surprised if it was as high as 25%. Imagine a park with a 60,000 person capacity and 15,000 guests simply not showing up on a day when the park was expecting a full crowd. If reservation systems become permanent, I would expect no-show rates to be even higher.

Waking up early and waiting in lines is part of ANY vacation, and if you're traveling a long distance to visit a theme park that frequently reached capacity, you will know to wake up early and make sure to get in the park before the gates are closed for capacity. For those that sleep in, or take a more casual approach to the "first come first served" policy take the chance that the park has reached capacity. However, there's nothing stopping those guests from waiting outside (usually no longer than an hour or 2) until park capacity is made available by departing guests. If you have a reservation at an in-park restaurant, you should be arriving at least an hour or 2 before that reservation, so even if the gates are closed for capacity when you arrive, the likelihood is that they will eventually reopen in time for you to make your reservation.

April 5, 2021 at 11:17 AM

I voted for keeping reservations but a mix and match. You can't have reservations for only busy times and not have them on other days since it would indeed confuse the general public. The best would be to have reservations year round but if they don't "sell out" on certain days you can also just show up.

That way you could see in advance if a very busy day is "sold out" and locals could just log into the app and see if there's space or not. If the park fills up with non reserved guest then they could close that day on the app and anyone else would see it right away that today is full.

I'm really hoping to go to HHN this year once I get my vaccine in June but was worried about not being able to reserve at Universal. Since I'm coming from Canada I originally wasn't going to risk going but then I learned we can stay on site and it guarantees us entry so all good :) :)

April 5, 2021 at 12:35 PM

i voted going back to no reservations but that they are needed now. i agree with the notion that reservations during peak times could be a disaster due to communicating with guests when they are needed vs when they are not.

April 5, 2021 at 1:31 PM

Let’s not forget that WDW has already said that reservations will be required thru 2022, so they obviously see it as a viable option going forward. With FP+, in one form or another, due back as well, it’ll be interesting to see how it all pans out over the next 12-15 months. People freak out when they see the MDE app showing all grey for a time period they plan to visit, but it’s not that bad. Day of reservations are relatively easy to get with a bit of app tapping, and the night before is also a good time to snag a reservation. DHS is the hardest, but it’s possible with a little bit of persistence. Getting a boarding group for ROTR is a lot trickier .... LOL.

Despite parks reaching capacity; once in there it’s not bad at all. Over the past week I’ve been at Universal twice when it reached capacity, and really the only lines that I would call ‘crazy’ are the ones for food. Rides are the typical wait times for spring break and Easter.

I must admit I’m looking forward to a quiet time again up until the summer break, after this week is over, so it’s keep the reservations choice for me.

April 5, 2021 at 3:37 PM

Not only should reservations be kept but the potential guest should be able to see reserved vs capacity to eliminate the ridiculous idea of rope drop entry and to allow guests to better plan the timing of their trip

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