Walt Disney World crowds are historically low, but ride wait times grow, expert says

Gabrielle Russon
Orlando Sentinel

Orlando, Fla. -- Gone are those days in July when it was just you and Cinderella Castle at Disney World -- and hardly anybody else.

The parks felt eerily empty when turnstiles began turning again in July after shutting down because of the coronavirus pandemic. Nearly three months later, the parks are more crowded since the initial reopening, but attendance is still at a historical low, said Len Testa, an expert on lines at theme parks.

"You're never going to see crowds this low again," said Testa, who runs a website and app called Touring Plans that closely follows ride wait times to help people plan their vacations.

On a recent weekend at Magic Kingdom, daily attendance was similar to a special ticketed event, such as Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween, with about 19,000 people a day at the park instead of the typical 60,000, he said. And Hollywood Studios is attracting about 11,000 customers, or about a third of normal, he said.

A guest dons an inflated pumpkin costume on Main Street, U.S.A., in front of Cinderella Castle in the Magic Kingdom.

Disney, which closely guards its attendance figures, declined to comment.

For Disney, the reopening has been an unprecedented balancing act as it tries to rebound financially while the company limits crowds and maintains social distancing as health concerns persist about large gatherings and no vaccine is available yet.

In an acknowledgment of their struggle, Walt Disney Co. said it would lay off 28,000 U.S. employees in its theme park and cruise ship division, including at least 6,700 in Orlando.

"This is the only feasible option we have in light of the prolonged impact of COVID-19 on our business, including limited capacity due to physical distancing requirements and the continued uncertainty regarding the duration of the pandemic," Josh D'Amaro, the division's chairman, wrote in a letter to employees that was released to the media.

The theme parks also are navigating Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' decision to lift coronavirus restrictions on businesses, so bars and restaurants can operate at full capacity.

At Central Florida's theme parks, however, Disney, Universal, SeaWorld and Legoland officials said their policies _ mask requirements and social distancing _ are not immediately changing.

"We will review the governor's executive order and continue to work closely with local health officials," Universal spokesman Tom Schroder said in a statement that other parks, including Disney World, echoed. "In the meantime, we will continue to follow our enhanced health and safety protocols and keep the health and safety of our guests and team members our top priority."

For vacationers, it sometimes gets confusing, said David Dollar, an Alabama-based travel planner with Upon a Star Travel & Concierge, who is noticing an uptick in the past month since losing half his business from the pandemic.

"I feel bad for Disney," Dollar said. "I can't blame Disney for the messaging. They just reacted as best they could."

The Main Street Philharmonic marching band performs in the Magic Kingdom on Sept. 30. That day, Walt Disney Co. announced they are laying off 28,000 employees in the U.S. due to the downturn in visitors to their parks and resorts caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

As people consider booking trips, one asked, "Isn't Disney going back to normal?" No, Dollar corrected him. The masks aren't going away anytime soon.

Others wonder that since Disney World is limiting crowds, can't I just walk up directly onto the rides without any wait?

"That's not going to happen," said Dollar, who visited Disney World himself in late September and was surprised by the long, socially distanced lines with wait times of an hour or more.

Despite the smaller crowds, wait times aren't diminishing, Testa said.

He points to the reduced capacity on the rides themselves as Disney limits how many people can be together at a time and the time spent cleaning the attractions. In addition, some Disney park entertainment, such as the Indiana Jones stunt show, which can draw 3,000 people at a time, haven't returned yet, leading people to stand in lines for rides since there isn't as much to do, Testa said.

At noon on a recent Monday in late September, Testa found the line about an hour long at Hollywood Studios for the Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railroad. It's the newest attraction at Disney World.

Making matters worse, the lines extended outside the Chinese Theatre to give everyone 6 feet of space, Testa said.

"That makes it feel more crowded than it is," Testa said.

The new procedures also have unintended consequences of wildly inaccurate posted ride wait times.

What was really a 62-minute wait was posted as a 105-minute wait that day, Testa said.

"They're not doing it on purpose," Testa said of Disney. "This is their best estimate."

The problem is that Disney can no longer use the sensors built into the ride queues that track MagicBands many visitors wear to determine the wait times as it did before the pandemic because the socially distanced lines extend out so much farther, Testa said.

Disney employees must visually estimate the wait time now, something that hasn't been done with socially distanced queues, he added.

Disney annual passholder Melody Rivero and her family have returned regularly since the theme parks reopened and noticed the growing crowds. It doesn't bother them, she said.

Even now, the rides that were once notoriously tough to snag a FastPass for such as Magic Kingdom's Seven Dwarfs Mine Train coaster had a recent 30-minute wait time, brief enough for the Kissimmee family to handle.

"We still have those moments of Disney magic," Rivero said.