Why Is Disneyland's Reservation System So Difficult?

December 20, 2021, 4:27 PM · Many Disneyland fans this month have been going on a ride that few of them ever wanted. Long before anyone can get on Space Mountain or Haunted Mansion, Disneyland fans must buckle up for a trip through Disneyland's availability calendar.

December began with the entire month apparently "sold out," with reservations to visit Disneyland and Disney California Adventure unavailable to anyone - including daily ticket buyers as well as Magic Key annual passholders. But availability has opened and closed on various dates throughout the month, leading some fans to check Disneyland's app and website obsessively, looking to pounce on the first available dates to book with their tickets or passes.

Why is this happening? Let's dive into what factors drive availability for Disneyland park reservations.

Disneyland implements its park reservation system when it reopened last April. The initial idea was to limit the number of people visiting the park while it operated under state-mandated capacity restrictions. Those restrictions are gone now, but Disneyland has kept its reservation system as a way to control both the number of and type of ticket-holders visiting its theme parks.

The Disneyland Resort maintains separate availability calendars for its Magic Key holders, Park Hopper ticket holders and one park per day ticket holders. That suggests that Disneyland is limiting the number of each type of ticket holder being admitted to the park on any given date, beyond limiting the total number of visitors. The effect seems to have been to reduce the number of passholders in the park in favor of creating space for more single and multi-day ticket buyers. In fact, Disneyland is getting sued now over that.

But how is Disneyland deciding how many of each ticket class to allow into the parks? And how is that affecting the ever-changing availability that fans are seeing on the calendars?

Disneyland has to start with its overall park capacities, and those can vary by day, depending upon park operating hours and what attractions, restaurants, and facilities are - or are not - open. If a major attraction suffers an unexpected extended downtime, that's going to reduce capacity and force Disneyland to cut availability. On the flip side, if the resort decides to extend park hours, or a big ride comes back from refurb, that would expand availability.

Disney also needs to consider when people are likely to enter the park and how long they are likely to stay when estimating how many reservations spots it can make available on any given dates. And that's the thing. Disneyland is estimating availability on every date of that calendar. Like a restaurant manager trying to guess how long parties will stay at their tables, Disneyland has to use its experience to estimate how many people will leave the park during the day, creating space for new visitors.

Park hopping also complicates that equation. That's part of the reason why Disney chose to prohibit park hopping in the mornings, as it's trying to make its crowd forecasting less complicated. That's also part of the reason why Park Hopper ticket holders pull from a different reservation pool than other types of Disneyland ticket holders.

Perhaps the biggest trick Disneyland must pull off with its reservation system is properly balancing those reservation pools. How many slots does each type of ticket holder get each day? Disneyland wants to maximize its daily ticket revenue, so it must start by estimating how many single and multi-day tickets it can sell for use on any given date. It can then assign any remaining capacity to Magic Key holders.

Yet Disneyland can't just use Magic Key holders as filler. Given the number of Magic Keys the resort has sold, it needs to ensure enough availability to allow those passholders to be able to make their allotted number of reservations within a given month. Otherwise, Disneyland could be facing an even more enormous and unwanted backlash, not to mention more lawsuits. Disneyland's decision to stop selling certain types of Magic Key passes reduces some of that pressure, as Disneyland no longer needs to account for future growth in the number of those Magic Key holders when estimating the availability it must reserve for passholders.

But the whole availability forecast starts with projected daily ticket sales. Disneyland has decades of sales data to guide that estimate, but the past several months have scrambled business forecasts throughout the economy, especially in the travel and entertainment businesses. Since the ultimate goal of a reservation system is to prevent having to turn away guests at the gate, it's understandable that Disneyland would rather start low with the number of reservations available, especially for Magic Key holders. If daily ticket sales do not meet forecasts, then Disneyland can add Magic Key availability.

Cancellations also open available spots. Since Disneyland can restrict reservations for frequent no-shows, most Magic Key holders try to cancel if they decide not to use their reservation on a given date. Since Southern Californians also traditionally hate going out in the rain, a wet forecast can open up availability, as we have seen this week and next. Really want to see Disneyland for the holidays this year, even in the rain? Check availability Wednesday night, because if Thursday's forecast holds, a bunch of passholders will be canceling.

So should Disneyland just ditch its reservation system and go back to its first-come, first-served free for all? I hope not. Disneyland was just too crowded too often before the pandemic closed the parks. Even as crowded as the parks have felt at times in the past month, they have not approached that pre-pandemic level of discomfort. If Disneyland makes a change in its ticketing system, I would rather see it do away with Magic Key passes than drop reservations. (I think that might actually lead to Disneyland eventually dropping prices on some regular tickets, as it looks to fill the parks in the absence of annual passholders.)

As time passes, Disneyland will gather more data and build more experience forecasting availability. So the roller coaster thrill ride we saw with December availability this year might smooth out to a more pleasant experience.

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Replies (7)

December 20, 2021 at 6:19 PM

Reservations were not necessary pre-Covid, and they are not necessary now for guest satisfaction. Keeping the reservation system is for Disney’s benefit, plain and simple. It lets them know what their staffing needs are for the day, and likely more importantly to their bottom line, is forcing Key holders to buy higher priced day passes if they want to visit.

If Disney was really worried about being too crowded, they would reinstitute phased closures just like they did pre-Covid.

December 20, 2021 at 7:30 PM

Phased closures were the devil, because they made planning a visit risky, especially if you didn't leave nearby. And park hopping sometimes became difficult, if not impossible under phased closures. I am thrilled to see phased closures become a thing of the past.

And from a guest education perspective, it is very difficult to maintain a reservation system that's open some of the time, but not others. Better to train everyone to expect to have to make reservations, whenever they visit.

December 20, 2021 at 9:28 PM

But yet the only times that we had to be concerned with phased closures were when we knew the parks were going to be packed, usually around the Christmas and New Years holidays. Now we have to worry about not getting a park reservation on nearly every day of the year, albeit less so if willing to pay for higher priced daily and multi-day passes.

December 21, 2021 at 11:09 AM

It took 50+ years but Disney has figured out that people paying all that money just go to a park that is so crowded you can barely even move isn't the best idea. The amount of times you would go to Disneyland or WDW and hear "they oversold this place," "they shouldn't sell so many tickets," "they are greedy/money hungry/etc for selling so many tickets." I think it makes perfect sense for Disney to operate with a lower capacity and have a reservation system.

That being said of course you can't beat the ole supply and demand curve, with reduced supply you're going to get an increase in price. Everyone, in every industry, is now fully onboard with dynamic pricing. For places like Six Flags it doesn't matter as much because they will only reach capacity a few days a year, but for Disney, where millions and millions of people all over the world want to visit, they have the power to be very very expensive. And as we've seen they have no qualms using that power lol. Ultimately what we've seen where Disneyland/World is becoming increasingly for the rich (which has been getting truer and truer every year for decades) is going to continue I don't see any way that trend will get reversed.

December 21, 2021 at 1:43 PM

Next Disney will start offering a paid priority access feature on park reservations…It’s clearly the next logical step…

December 22, 2021 at 12:54 AM

Great article. The former AP system was severely broken and made things miserable for everyone. Disney will prevail in the frivolous law suit, as they have for many years against other baseless claims. The Magic Key program is perfectly fair and easy for getting reservations by planning ahead and being flexible.

It's well worth giving up extreme spontaneous visits to manage crowds. Last weekend, in Christmas crowds, I walked onto Pirates, waited 5 mins for Buzz, 10 mins for Soarin, and 5 mins for the Festival booths.

I pray the reservations are here for good!

Merry Christmas!

December 26, 2021 at 1:26 PM

I think Disney will win the lawsuit, based on the phrase “Park reservations are subject to availability and are not guaranteed for any specific dates or park” on the page where they were selling Magic Keys.

There are no blackout dates, but you do need to be other people to the reservation.

I think there is going to be a learning curve, both for Disney and for guests, and changes made as things move forward. It's a pandemic making things uncertain, not Disney.

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