Demand Drops at Disney World as COVID Cases Rise in Florida

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When Disney World reopened in July of 2020, nobody was surprised that demand might be lower than usual. International borders were closed, interstate travel was laden with quarantine rules, and within the parks so much was closed that “Hey, for that much money let’s wait it out until it’s normal again” was a perfectly reasonable position. It was hard to tell how much personal risk thresholds might be affecting demand.

A year later, a lot has changed. Many overt signs of physical distancing such as plexiglass dividers on the rides and spacing markers in the queues are gone.  Most dining venues have reopened and buffets have started to return.  Although many of the logistical barriers of last year are gone, we’re still seeing signs that the pandemic can impact demand for Disney vacations.

Crowd Levels

TouringPlans crowd levels are based on posted standby wait times, which means that they’re sensitive to operational changes. When trying to assess demand, it’s difficult to meaningfully compare crowd levels between, say, February 2021 and August 2021.  That’s because increases in park capacity, ride capacity, and the number of open attractions in each park during that 6 month period have changed the relationship between the wait times and the number of people in each park. Comparisons of 2021 with 2019 are similarly problematic because FastPass was in use in 2019 and it isn’t now.

Although it’s difficult to directly compare the numbers, we can still assess trends. It’s only the middle of August, and recent wait time posts on this blog have featured headlines like

  • Magic Kingdom has one of slowest days of past year (8/14)
  • One of the slowest days of past year (8/15)
  • A slow start to the week (8/16)
  • Another day of low crowds! (8/17)

On August 16th, waits were so low that Rise of the Resistance went to a standby line with two hours left until park closing.

https://twitter.com/ScottGustin/status/1427069382040113154

Some of this could be from capacity constraints boosting wait times (and therefore crowd levels) earlier in the year.  Some of it could be the beginning of the school year in Southern states.  But in the August and September Crowd Calendar Update, Steve noted that the late summer drop-off this year seemed to begin earlier than we are used to seeing.  With two more weeks of data under our belts, that trend has only continued and crowd levels appear to have plateaued at the bottom.

Crowd levels for individual Disney World Parks, July 25 to Aug 21. The line shows the 7-day moving average.

Is it only Disney World?  We can’t compare crowd levels at Universal Orlando directly to Disney World, but again we can look at the trends.

Crowd levels for Universal Orlando parks, July 25 to Aug 21

It’s kind of hard to tell what’s happening there, especially because Universal Studios is pegged at a 10 in late July and early August. There’s definitely a drop-off, but it looks a bit more like it doesn’t really get going the week of August 8th, where the Disney World drop begins at least a week earlier around August 1.  This could mean that falling crowd levels at the World are influenced partly by Disney’s announcement on July 28th that masks would be required indoors regardless of vaccination status.

Cancellations and Other Intent to Visit Markers

You can see that when we look at crowd levels, there can be lot of squinting and trying to compare small differences in trends. When we see a change in demand, it’s difficult to tell how much is people changing their plans (cancellations) vs. people simply not planning to be there from the get-go (times of lower attendance).

Some data that tells us more directly about changes in intent to visit over the next several months includes the frequency of new TouringPlans subscriptions, and page views on this blog. Some readers are happy to keep up with us whether they’ve got a vacation in the works or not, but many check the blog more carefully when they’re planning a trip. Both new subscriptions and pageviews fell about 30% between July 28th and July 31st.

Cancellations is one of the clearest indicators of a change in intent to visit; there’s not really any way to interpret a cancellation outside of “I was going to visit, and then something made me change my mind”.

Of course, cancellations happen all the time for lots of reasons.  Just this week I cancelled a reservation because we decided that we were going on a different weekend to accommodate family schedules.  When you have more than the usual number of cancellations all at once though, that’s telling.  In the week after Disney World announced the resumption of indoor masking, the TouringPlans Travel Agency had over $100K worth of cancellations.  Not all of those trips were to Disney World, but many of those cancelling at Disney cited the mask policy as their reason.

Masks are a hot button topic, but before you get all excited about this as evidence to support your position on them (whatever it is), cool your jets.  Cancelling because of the mask policy could mean anything from “I was watching those numbers nervously and this is the last straw, it must be bad down there” to “I got a vaccine so I wouldn’t have to wear a mask, dagnabbit I’m not going if I can’t be mask free” to “I waited until Disney got rid of the mask policy to book my trip and now that they’ve put it back I’m not going”.  Our Twitter poll clearly shows that no matter what people think about masks, there’s plenty of concern about the risk of getting sick.

Outside the Disney World Bubble

On Disney’s August 12th quarterly earnings call, it was announced that the US parks had been profitable in the 3rd quarter and that capacity would be 100% everywhere in the World by the end of year.  Yet here I am writing about signals that demand is way down. Are there reasons to believe that this isn’t just a self-inflicted wound on Disney’s part, brought on by reinstating an indoor mask policy?  Or that it isn’t simply an even earlier and slower version of the usual slow season in September, as people wait to visit during the 50th Anniversary? The answer is yes.

There’s been no change in mask policy on Disney cruises departing from Florida; after all they only just restarted on August 9.  Members of our team are in a few Facebook cruise groups, and cruisers who are backing out (in large numbers) are mostly reporting that it’s concerns about the Delta variant and the COVID case rates in Florida that are driving them.

Airlines are another travel sector that is seeing a sharp drop in bookings and an increase in cancellations. On August 2, media outlets were reporting that air travel was hitting new pandemic highs and airlines were scrambling to keep up. Just 9 days later there were stories of Southwest warning about increased close-in cancellations and a downward demand trend as COVID cases surge across the country.  As with cruise ships, these changes aren’t the result of policy shifts since airline COVID policies have been consistent over the last several months.

What to Take Away

Early in the pandemic, there were a lot of conflicting opinions on the economic impact of lockdowns and capacity restrictions.  A year and a half in Disney is open and most restrictions are gone, but rebounding demand has made a sharp turnaround in the face of rising case rates. Lockdown or no, it seems that pandemics are just really bad for business.

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Jennifer Heymont

Jennifer Heymont has a background in math and biology, but since she couldn't pick between the two she ended up in Data Science where she gets to do both. She lives just north of Boston with her husband, kids, and assorted animal members of the family. Although it took three visits for the Disney bug to "take", she now really wishes she lived a lot closer to the Parks.

27 thoughts on “Demand Drops at Disney World as COVID Cases Rise in Florida

  • August 23, 2021 at 6:22 pm
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    My family is right now at WDW and we are walking right onto many rides. Yesterday, we did 11 rides in a little over 5 hours in the Kingdom. Soarin was walk right on this morning. We’re all vaccinated and masked, so this has been the best and most relaxing visit to WDW.

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    • August 23, 2021 at 6:43 pm
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      Yes, this is definitely the upside if you’re comfortable visiting now! I have a trip coming soon and I’m selfishly hoping the lines don’t pick up again before I get there.

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  • August 23, 2021 at 6:23 pm
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    Thank you for this thoughtful analysis. We visited WDW in October 2020 when case numbers were relatively low and Disney had its maximum Covid protections in place. We wanted to visit again this fall, but despite full vaccination are very hesitant given Delta and Florida’s poor Covid policies overall. If we do visit, we will certainly wear masks during the entire visit, not just indoors as required; we will not eat indoors; and we will do our best to ourselves maintain a minimum 6-foot distance from others. If we come.

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    • August 23, 2021 at 6:46 pm
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      Yes, I have a trip coming soon and I’ve had a lot of the same uncertainties. I decided not to cancel as everyone in my household is vaccinated and low risk, but there are things I thought I’d be willing to do when I booked this trip (like indoor dining and Magical Express) that I’ve changed my mind about.

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  • August 23, 2021 at 8:49 pm
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    We were there August 15 – 21. We had concerns because we had an 11-yo along. But plans and promises had been made so we exercised a lot of caution, masks inside, and outside when distancing was hard. Crowds were low and a lot of rides had short lines: FoP, Space Mountain, Tower of Terror (rode twice in a short time). It only got busy in MK the evening they had the after party. Which we didn’t attend. I don’t think I would do it again because, well, Florida. Mask wearing was not frequent the one time I went outside the parks.

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    • August 24, 2021 at 4:49 pm
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      Glad to hear you had a good trip, even if a nervous one. Stay safe!

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      • August 28, 2021 at 9:15 pm
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        I was watching the diminishing wait times and decided to go on Wednesday 8/25. I am vaccinated and wore my mask at all indoor locations and on the rides. Yesterday 8/27, I started to get a sore throat and aches. Today I tested positive for COVID. Delta variant is a tough bug!

  • August 24, 2021 at 3:49 am
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    I think that the second half of August is traditionally when a lot of Brits go to WDW, as the school vacation in Britain continues until the start of September.

    However, this year we are not allowed to fly to the US, so WDW is missing all this attendance. The UK is fine for us to go; the US doesn’t want to receive us.

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    • August 24, 2021 at 4:46 pm
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      Yes, my family typically goes the latter half of August (schools in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic regions typically start around Labor Day at the beginning of September, more similar to the UK timeline), and we usually see several groups from the UK as well as from our neck of the woods.

      Hope you guys are able to visit again soon!

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  • August 24, 2021 at 7:27 am
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    School. Schools are back in session, wouldn’t be surprised if many changed school start a bit to make sure longer break between semesters as well. And the week before school starting is hectic, especially if not been in person for a year. That along with ever increasing prices makes one wonder if families are looking at other options to get kore value for money. Could easily spend a week at all inclusive in Mexico for price of 5 Disney days. Plus I’d also bet you have a percentage who are holding off until 50th starts, along with no very few foreign visitors.

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    • August 24, 2021 at 4:49 pm
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      The drop off we are seeing is more than we would expect school starts to account for. After all, in many areas schools don’t begin until closer to Labor Day — my own kids don’t go back until next week.

      Reply
  • August 24, 2021 at 9:28 am
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    Any info on the FLU rates there? I’m trying to decide whether to get my flu shot 2 weeks before my late-Sept trip to WDW, or get it in late October as usual (as the Maryland Flu Season tends towards Spring.)

    Thanks!

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  • August 24, 2021 at 1:26 pm
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    We were supposed to go the third week in August but canceled last minute as covid rates started rising. We are vaccinated but our kids are not as they are all too young. It was a very difficult decision to cancel as I had spent endless hours planning each day and securing some of the most in-demand dining reservations, but with the skyrocketing case numbers in FL and Orlando, it seemed like an unnecessary risk to take right before the kids went back to school 🙁 We had all been looking forward to this trip for months but it just didn’t seem safe to go. Already looking ahead to booking next summer!

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    • August 24, 2021 at 4:52 pm
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      Aww, sorry to hear you had to cancel but I agree it’s important to feel safe. We ended up doing the same kind of last-minute ditch on all our vacations last year. Crossing my fingers for you to have a great trip next summer!

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  • August 27, 2021 at 12:57 am
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    We’re at WDW now. Consider us shocked and saddened that Boma is operating normally. We turned around and left when we saw no distancing and guests manhandling the utensils at the buffet per usual. Come on Disney! “Safety” is supposed to be one of your five keys!
    Talk about an about-face. We came in January and felt totally safe. Now, it’s a joke. The almighty dollar has won out at Disney… again.

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    • September 15, 2021 at 2:51 pm
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      Yes I agree. I am not sure if I should go at 60, vaccinated and diabetic. Had planned a trip with kids who will be very sad if I cancel. They are 20 somethings and vaccinated and healthy. Hospitals are full so if someone has an accident it seems there will be no where to go. I wish Disney would put safety ahead of making a buck. I wish everyone would.

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  • September 4, 2021 at 7:25 am
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    We are planning a trip to Disney next week? Starting to think if it is going to be safe or not. Cases seem to be rising in Florida. Wondering how many covid cases have been in Disney recently. How are the lines and how crowded is it?

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    • September 4, 2021 at 8:27 am
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      We were there last week and the lines were mostly less than 5 minutes. Space Mountain was a walk-on and my grandkids went on Everest 3 times on and off 2 hours after the park opened. If your vaccinated and where your mask when in crowds, you should be fine.

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    • September 4, 2021 at 10:18 am
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      I was there last week, and as Lou says, many things were walk-ons. Soarin’, Avatar — rides I never thought I would see with that low of a wait. Crowds were generally low when not waiting in line. That said, we did not treat it like a COVID-free environment; we are fully vaccinated and still wore masks many places that they were not required. My personal opinion, but I don’t think there is any way to make a visit to Florida a risk-free experience right now. And if you are flying, don’t forget to consider the time you will spend in airports.

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    • September 5, 2021 at 11:50 am
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      I think the disclaimer of “at your own risk” is appropriate. My husband had two unrelated employees go to Disney in the same week. They both wore masks and sanitized, both were vaccinated, and they both came back with COVID. We have our trip booked for December and I’m starting to prepare for Plan B. The increase capacity, the optional masks, etc. leave me more stressed than the trip itself. 3/5 of us are vaccinated and the other two are too young. If all of us were fully vaccinated, I’d say let’s just take that risk and do our part. But….still not sure

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    • September 15, 2021 at 2:56 pm
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      I am not sure if my family will make the trip in December. Disney has reported zero cases of Covid. I am pretty sure that is statistically impossible since so many of their employees have had it. I also read an article with employees reporting that Disney is covering up the cases to stay open. Not having the information makes it hard to make an informed decision.

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  • September 7, 2021 at 8:39 am
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    I’m wondering if crowd levels will rise on the 8th when APs go on sale. I think a lot of locals who let their passes lapse during the pandemic will come back all at once. They’re seeing amazingly low crowd levels and already live in Florida with the high Covid rates. Disney is probably one of the safest places they’ll go.

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    • September 7, 2021 at 12:20 pm
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      Hi Lynda, that’s an interesting point, and we might see an uptick of locals. I’m guessing it might not be that large though, as we’re now into what is typically the slow season anyway. It’s definitely true that if you live in Florida already then you’re probably going to see the same or less risk at Disney than you would out and about anywhere else.

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  • September 7, 2021 at 1:58 pm
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    Thank you for your insights! Do you have any opinions on what you think December will look like? We cancelled our trip for 9/18-25 and are debating pushing to May 2022 given that we have a one year old who obviously can’t be vaccinated yet. Hoping by then things will be better, but the hopeful part of me keeps wishing December will be safe enough to go (wishful thinking!)

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    • September 7, 2021 at 4:26 pm
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      Kristine, I hate to say it but I think the only insight I have is that the future is very unpredictable. Just thinking about how we all felt like the summer was going to go in May, and looking at how it turned out by August — I’d be so hesitant to try to make any recommendations. I think the only advice I can offer is that many travel and tourism providers, including Disney, are still offering more generous cancellation policies than they did in the past. It doesn’t feel as exciting to book something that you know in advance you might be likely to cancel, but that’s probably the way I would go right now — get it locked in, and then cancel if it doesn’t look good. Best of luck to you.

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  • September 7, 2021 at 2:56 pm
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    We went the week of Aug 8 when mask “mandate” was in effect. I cancelled all but one indoor dining reservation, we wore masks all day and everywhere (we were definitely in the minority) unless we were eating/drinking water. When I say everywhere, I mean everywhere – masks were on from the moment we left our room to the moment we came back. We ate in our hotel room for lunch and for dinner we ate outdoors and socially distant. In lines we tried as much as possible to maintain 3 ft distancing if we could. We were lucky and everyone came back healthy. If you are diligent and have good masks (ours were 3 layers), you can have a good trip.

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    • September 7, 2021 at 4:29 pm
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      Hi Anne, thanks for sharing your experience. I’m so glad you had a great trip and it’s lovely to know that it is possible to have a great trip while coming out of it safe.

      Reply

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