Long lines and jam-packed crowds tend to go hand in hand at Central Florida’s world-famous theme parks during the summer months, but Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando parkgoers may be in for a reprieve this season.
Wait times for rides and attractions at both resorts have shortened, according to analysts who track theme park attendance. Videos on social media also show park attendees remarking on thinner crowds.
The reasons behind the slowdown are hard to pin down, but travel experts point to extreme weather and heat in Florida, a waning post-pandemic travel boom and a tense political climate in Florida that has prompted travel warnings from some groups.
Disney CEO Bob Iger attributed Disney World’s recent decline in wait times to an overall slump in Central Florida tourism.
“Florida opened up early during Covid and created huge demand, and didn’t have competition because there were a number of other places, states, that weren’t open yet,” he said Thursday in an interview with CNBC.
“If you look at the numbers in Florida in 2023 … versus 2022, where not as much was open and Florida was the only game in town, there is a lot more competition today,” he added.
Iger told CNBC he did not have “long-term concerns” about Disney’s theme parks. Disney declined to comment to CNN about park attendance.
While there’s some debate over the causes, the results are more open reservations for park entry, steeper discounts and faster lines for visitors compared to last year.
Since February, Disney’s Florida parks have experienced shorter average wait times for rides and attractions compared to last year, according to Thrill Data, a site that tracks theme park wait information. For Universal’s Florida parks, every month since March has seen lower average wait times, according to the site. Experts say longer wait times are generally associated with larger crowds at theme parks.
So far this month, Thrill Data has reported that the average wait time at Disney World is 33 minutes — one of the shortest of any month since January 2022, and during what is typically high season for the parks. Last year, July’s wait time for Disney’s Florida parks averaged 41 minutes.
Don Munsil, president of MouseSavers, a guide to discounts and deals at Disney and Universal parks, said that while he’s noticed a slowdown at the parks, the drop-off beginning in July was “remarkable.”
Data from Touring Plans, a company that helps plan trips to Disney and Universal parks, supports Munsil’s observation. It found that wait times for rides were shorter on July Fourth at all of Disney’s Florida parks compared to 2022 and 2019. For example, the average wait time for Disney’s Animal Kingdom was 37 minutes in 2019 and 34 minutes in 2022. This year, the average dropped to 25 minutes, Touring Plans said.
Universal’s two parks, Universal Studios Florida and Island of Adventure, saw wait times dip from last year, as well, according to Touring Plans. Wait times at Island of Adventure dipped to 25 minutes this July Fourth, compared to 30 minutes last year and 28 minutes in 2019.
A slowdown is “unusual” for a holiday, especially during the summer, when children are away from school, Munsil said. “I think the July Fourth weekend is when it really hit strongly. A lot of people were surprised.”
Some of Disney’s parks have been hit particularly hard: July Fourth was the third-slowest day of the last 12 months at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in Florida, according to Touring Plans.
Kayla Pareti, a content creator who focuses on Disney-themed content and a travel agent for Mickey Travels, visited Disney’s Hollywood Studios the first weekend of July and was shocked by how few people she saw in the park. (Mickey Travels is not associated with the Walt Disney Company.)
“It was a Saturday before the Fourth of July, which is a major holiday. You’re expecting a lot of crowds, and it was just crazy that nobody was there,” she told CNN.
“Usually when you walk into the park, they have Hollywood Boulevard, which is like the main thoroughfare and it’s usually packed with people,” she said. “At one point around noon, I turned around and no one was on the street. It was just a strange sight to see,” he said.
Iger pointed to heat as a reason behind the slowdown over the July Fourth holiday.
Pareti said she spends between four and six days per week at Disney’s parks and visits Universal parks, as well. She said she’s noticed a drop in attending this summer.
“For a year and a half after Covid, any time was a busy time,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, people are still coming, but it’s not anywhere near where it was.”
Recent discounts offered by Walt Disney World Resort and Universal Orlando Resort far exceed those offered last year, as well. Munsil said the discounts may reflect a return to pre-pandemic demand levels. On a recent list of special offers, for example, Disney lists savings of up to 25% on rooms at some Disney hotels this summer.
“There are essentially the same discounts they are offered back in 2019. In 2022 they were stingy with the discounts,” he said.
Disney’s and Universal’s Florida parks all shut down for several months during the pandemic; since re-opening in mid-2020, Disney and Comcast-owned Universal enjoyed a surge in revenue from their park and resort businesses amid an outpouring of demand to visit -— and spend.
This year, the parks face tough comparisons as demand levels begin to cool. UBS’ Evidence Lab found that declines in foot traffic at Disney’s US parks are accelerating, falling 23% in Disney’s third fiscal quarter (through June 24), a steep drop compared to the 5% reduction in the second quarter.
Universal did not respond to a request for comment, but in Comcast’s first-quarter results, the company reported record earnings for its parks division. However, Comcast noted that international parks had driven most of the growth that quarter.
In February, during Disney’s first-quarter earnings call, Iger said the company had deliberately reduced capacity during the December holiday season, and it “improved guests’ experience, and we’re able to maintain profit — not just profitability but a very, very successful or robust bottom line.”
Since reopening its parks in 2020, Disney has implemented a park reservation system to manage daily attendance. But efforts to curb crowds at its parks don’t tell the whole story for the recent foot traffic decline; as of press time, Disney World’s reservation website showed that all four of Disney’s Florida theme parks were not at maximum capacity for any day through the rest of the year. That’s a sharp contrast to the previous two years, when hopeful parkgoers would often have to book weeks in advance to secure a park reservation.
Munsil noted that extreme heat this year may be keeping some locals from visiting, pushing down attendance numbers. In late June, Florida, along with much of the South, was hit with a multi-day heat wave, bringing temperatures to over 100 degrees. This week, the state is contending with yet another brutal, record-breaking heat wave.
The slump in park attendance also comes amid a tense political climate in the state, which many believe would hurt tourism. Disney and the state’s Republican governor and presidential hopeful, Ron DeSantis, have been locked in a high-profile feud.
In recent months, some groups worried about DeSantis’ conservative policies have cautioned against travel to Florida altogether. Groups including the NAACP, the Human Rights Campaign and the League of United Latin American Citizens, have issued “travel advisories,” citing DeSantis’ political agenda.
However, Munsil said that if potential park attendees were skipping out on Disney specifically as a result of the company’s friction with DeSantis, it would show up in the data.
“I don’t think the evidence is there for that, because that would imply that Universal would be seeing huge numbers and Disney seeing less. I don’t think we’re seeing that,” he said.
Iger said Thursday the company saw “no sign” of a slowdown due to its fight with DeSantis.
Overall, though, signs point to slowing tourism in Central Florida. Orange County, which includes Orlando, collected 6.7% less from its tourist development tax this May, compared to May 2022, according to the Orange County Comptroller’s office. Florida’s tourist development tax is collected on income received from short-term rentals, including hotels.
Pete Werner, owner of The DIS, a Disney fan website and guide, and co-owner of the travel agency Dreams Unlimited Travel, said he sees people shifting their money away from theme parks and towards cruising.
During Disney’s second-quarter earnings call in May, then-CFO Christine McCarthy specifically called out strength in the company’s cruise business, saying that even though it was the last business to reopen after pandemic closures, “business has come back incredibly strongly over the last year — or the last fiscal year.”
Werner said he believes the cruise business is now the better value for many Disney fans.
“The bloom is off the rose with Walt Disney World, even among hardcore fans. It’s just too expensive,” Werner said. “Disney Cruise is owned by the same company, and they’re doing gangbusters.”