May 30, 2024

Sharp Slowdown for Shoulder Season 2023 at Disney World

With the peak of spring break in the rearview mirror and Summer 2023 still another month-plus away, we’re now entering “Shoulder Season” at Walt Disney World. This crowd report shares wait times data, which dates ended up being the worst of the season, thoughts on what’s likely to happen next with attendance levels in May and June 2023, and more.

We’ll start by taking a look back at the last month-plus of spring break season at Walt Disney World. Specifically, we’ll look at what our Spring Break 2023 Crowd Calendar for Walt Disney World got right and wrong with its predictions, and just how bad Easter ended up being.

For those who haven’t been following along closely, we predicted that the week of spring break for Osceola and Orange County school districts in mid-March would be the worst week, and it ended up being not quite as terrible as anticipated. To be sure, it was very busy–but it won’t go down as one of the top 10 weeks of the year by crowd level.

One of the reasons that the week we predicted to be the worst of spring break wasn’t as bad as expected was because of the weekend drop-off. During the middle of the week, crowd levels were 10/10 and wait times were 54-60 minutes on average. Over the weekend, wait times bottomed out at 31-34 minutes on average, for 3/10 and 2/10 crowd levels.

Once that week ended up being less crowded than anticipated, we revised our spring break forecast back in March to predict that the week leading up to Easter would easily surpass Central Florida’s spring break as the #1 worst week of Spring Break 2023. Hardly a bold prediction at that point, as those were the only weeks really in the running, and once Central Florida’s spring break underperformed, Easter became the odds-on favorite…unless it somehow, similarly underperformed.

As always, what’s covered in these “crowd” reports is actually posted wait time data that’s pulled from My Disney Experience and compiled into graphs for tracking and comparing various days, weeks, months, and years. A lot can be gleaned from posted wait times, but it’s not necessarily conclusive of in-park congestion or crowds. However, wait times are not the same as “feels like” crowds or congestion.

In short, wait times are an imperfect measure of Walt Disney World’s raw attendance or crowds–which have increased by several million people over the course of the last decade-plus. With that out of the way, let’s dig into the data and look at Walt Disney World wait times. As always, all graphs and stats are courtesy of Thrill-Data.com:

We’ll start with the monthly numbers for Walt Disney World as a whole.

With an average wait time of 47 minutes, April 2023 is edging out all other months as the busiest ever (by 1 minute) at Walt Disney World. For those who are curious, this year is also the busiest ever (also by 1 minute). So far, at least.

However, the story changes when zooming in and looking at the weekly numbers.

Here, it becomes clear that Easter week was not just the busiest of spring break season (by +6 minutes as compared to Central Florida spring break, which is actually a lot), but also tied for the busiest week of 2023, with the beginning of the year (Christmas/NYE school breaks).

I’m guessing that is not what is catching your eye, though…

Zooming in more, we come to the resort-wide daily numbers for Walt Disney World.

This shows a drop-off post-Easter, but more significantly, it shows a downright plummet starting on Saturday. Sunday and today (so far) are the slowest days of 2023 (so far) at Walt Disney World. In fact, we have to go back to last August before we find two consecutive days with wait times this low.

At Magic Kingdom, the numbers aren’t quite as bad–there have been slower days this year–but the last 3 days have still been 1/10 or 2/10 crowd levels with wait times about half of what they were during the peak of spring break.

Now in fairness, Florida has been experiencing some severe weather over the last several days. Without question, these storms have impacted turnout at Walt Disney World among locals. However, weather does not move the needle that much unless it’s closing the parks. Tourists who already paid for their tickets, hotels, and airfare visit regardless. The weather-related dimension is, at best, a contributing factor that accounts for one or two bars on the crowd level.

EPCOT is the park most impacted by turnout among locals, and unsurprisingly, it’s seeing its lowest levels of the year.

Not really as shocking looking at this chart, though, as EPCOT has had plenty of slow days thus far in 2023. Lots of high highs and low lows.

At the complete opposite end of the spectrum, there’s Disney’s Hollywood Studios. The last two days have been the slowest at DHS since October 2021.

That’s right, 2021. When Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary kicked off and was centered around Magic Kingdom and EPCOT, and also the COVID comeback was cancelling travel plans. It’s exceedingly rare when DHS doesn’t have a single attraction–not even Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance or Slinky Dog Dash–average a wait time of over an hour. And yet, that’s exactly what has happened here.

Although not nearly as “bad” as DHS, Animal Kingdom also saw its slowest day of 2023 and its least-busy day since September of last year. As we often point out, Animal Kingdom is the park of the biggest extremes. Its peak of 80 minutes is almost 4 times the average wait today.

With that said, DAK is always the easiest park from a strategy perspective–just arrive early or late. I was able to do every single ride in the park even on a busy day by 10:30 am. The biggest difference right now is that you could do every ride in the span of a couple hours in the middle of the day, too!

As covered in Genie+ Price Plummets Post-Peak of Spring Break at Walt Disney World, prices dropped by $10 overnight on Saturday. The cost fell by another $5 on Sunday to $20 per person, where it stands today.

The point of our commentary in that (which seems to have been missed by many on social media who shouted about demand), was that prices stayed at $35 for too long and the drop was too little. At least, when compared to historical prices at various crowd levels. Hopefully, that explanation makes more sense with the side-by-side context of wait times over the last few days.

It’ll be interesting to see whether there’s simply lag in getting Genie+ prices back to $15, or if $20 is the new minimum. It probably goes without saying, but the last two days should have been $15 dollar ones based on historical data. What’s possible is that Walt Disney World isn’t seeing a material difference in sales between the price points, and will stick with $20 as a result. In which case, $35 is not the ceiling for prices.

And in Disney’s defense (but not really), Genie+ is a waste of money at either $15 or $20 on a day like today with the possible exception of maybe Magic Kingdom. Even then, that’s highly questionable. It’s even less necessary at Disney’s Hollywood Studios or Animal Kingdom. Genie+ would be downright counterproductive at EPCOT on a day like today, as the time saved by Lightning Lanes would be more than offset by the added walking time.

For those wondering how Walt Disney World’s wait times compare to Universal Orlando, the trend is about the same for the last couple weeks. In general, Universal has seen a more pronounced slowdown on off-peak dates than Walt Disney World this year.

Nevertheless, Orange County’s spring break in mid-March outperformed at Universal Orlando relative to Easter. That’s almost certainly attributable to the resident ticket deal not having blockout dates, meaning that more locals could choose Universal as a staycation option for their own spring break.

Looking forward, Walt Disney World is now out of the woods with the worst of spring break (technically, it’s not totally over–some straggler school districts have breaks this week, but few in the grand scheme of things and relative to the last month-plus). In fact, as covered in the most recent update to our 2023 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars, there are very few ‘red flag’ dates after this week, aside from a few dates at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.

The good news is that between now and the start of summer season–so until mid-June 2023–it’s shoulder season. For those unfamiliar with the term, “shoulder season” is the period between two peak seasons. I guess that’s because the shoulders are below the “peak” of the body, or the head. In which case, perhaps we should start referring to September as butt-season? It has a certain understated stupidity to it.

Anyway, Walt Disney World’s attendance patterns are largely dictated by school breaks, as you are undoubtedly aware. As a result of this, far fewer guests in Disney’s core demo visit shortly after or before a major break. One major break just occurred, and another doesn’t start for another month-plus.

We see similar scenarios other times of year, but Walt Disney World has done a good job of filling the calendar with attendance-boosting events or otherwise attracting alternative audiences during those windows. The biggest exception to this is mid-August through late September and, to a much lesser extent, the month of May leading up to Memorial Day.

Unlike the early fall off-season, May 2023 is not an inherently undesirable time to visit Florida. While starting to warm, the weather is not something that actively discourages travelers. From that perspective, it’s not the same as storm or hurricane season. May 2023 also comes after shorter school breaks, versus the lengthy summer vacation that’ll lead up to August/September 2023.

However, May is similar in other ways. Walt Disney World’s big public event is EPCOT’s Flower & Garden Festival, and that’s old news by the time May 2023 rolls around. It’s also arguably less of a draw than the early end of Halloween season and EPCOT’s Food & Wine Festival in August and September.

Then there are the non-public events. Although shoulder season essentially starts now, it’s coming as the last runDisney race for the season concluded (the next one isn’t for another 6 months). It’s also coming as there are still a half-dozen (literally) cheer or dance competitions scheduled at the ESPN Wide World of Sports over the next few weeks, only one of which is in May 2023.

Conventions and group events are another factor, and there tend to be more of those in late April and May than in August or September. Again, it’s a more desirable time of year for all of these things, and Central Florida’s weather is the big factor.

As a general matter, these events have minimal impact on overall crowd levels. They might push a borderline 5/10 to 6/10, or something along those lines, but there simply are not enough attendees in aggregate to meaningfully impact wait times throughout all 4 parks.

However, individual perceptions can vary from this, sometimes significantly. If you’re staying at one of the same resorts as participants (typically Coronado or the All Stars, but I’ve heard of other locations) and get stuck waiting in line behind a large group at the bus stop, or your room is located next to them, you might have a dramatically different experience. Or if you find your family stuck in line behind big groups for multiple attractions, in the same Haunted Mansion Stretching Room, waiting in line to order at Cosmic Ray’s, etc. We speak from experience on all of this.

With all of this in mind, we have some forward-looking predictions for the remainder of this month, as well as May and June 2023. If historical precedent is any indication, this week will end up being the busiest of shoulder season. That’s honestly kind of hard to believe given the absurdly low wait times we’re seeing so far, but it has been true the last two years, and was also the case prior to 2020.

It’s supported by the reality that there are still some school districts out on spring break this week, and there are several simultaneous events scheduled for the ESPN Wide World of Sports. As a result, the smart bet would be that crowd levels will start showing signs of life later this week. But who knows!

In a normal year, crowd levels would drop further in the last week of April as spring break fully came to its conclusion.

Following that, the first week of May 2023 should be even lower. The second week of the month is typically when crowd levels bottom out, with wait times starting to rise again in the third week of May. However, there’s some variability to all of this in the historical data, and the first 3 weeks of May are close enough together that things like weather or attraction downtime are enough to move the needle. Generally speaking, all of these weeks are good, with low-to-moderate crowd levels on average. (On average, there’s a 1-2 minute difference in wait times those first 3 weeks. It’s almost statistically insignificant.)

It’s similar for the following week, which is the lead-up to Memorial Day weekend. Although this is the unofficial start of the summer season, Memorial Day typically is not among the worst holidays at Walt Disney World for crowds. It’s a lot like Labor Day, which is the unofficial end of summer.

Both milestones see higher crowd levels than the weeks adjacent to them, but they’re still not on par with holidays like Presidents’ Day, Columbus Day, or Veterans Day. Those holidays are arguably “lower profile” but end up being bigger attendance boosters.

Instead, summer vacation crowds typically build and decline gradually, with the peak usually occurring in July. This means that even early June 2023 should not see the worst of summer vacation crowd levels. In a normal year, June would be higher than May, but lower than July 2023.

With that said, Walt Disney World hasn’t experienced a “normal” summer in several years. Last year, the second week of June ended up being the peak, which was almost certainly the result of rising oil/gas prices. Before that, the resumption of normalcy followed by the COVID-comeback threw a monkey wrench into late summer crowds. While I certainly would not expect the latter scenario in Summer 2023, I’m already bracing myself for gas prices to be a big wildcard again this year.

Suffice to say, I’m much more confident in the crowd forecast through May 2023 than I am in picking the best & worst weeks in Summer 2023. (On a positive note, it seems more likely to me that crowds will surprise on the downside than on the upside. Meaning that if forecasts are off for Summer 2023, it’ll be because they overestimate wait times. My hunch is that this summer is going to be less-crowded than anticipated, but we shall see.)

Ultimately, a pretty interesting Walt Disney World crowd report and forecast, all things considered. Even though we knew this weekend would see a drop due to the conclusion of spring break, wait times have plummeted far more than expected. Weather is a contributing factor, but cannot conceivably account for all or even most of that.

It’s too early to draw any “sky is falling” conclusions from wait times in the last few days, but it certainly bodes well for the shoulder season at Walt Disney World. To that point, historical precedent strongly suggests that wait times and crowd levels will only continue dropping from here. Conversely, common sense tells us that cannot happen, as there’s only so much lower they can go.

On balance, our immediate expectation is that numbers bounce back later this week. Not to anywhere near their mid-March through Easter levels–those are definitely done. But rather, to more reasonable crowd levels for this time of year. Following that, it’s safe to assume shoulder season will play out in familiar fashion, with low-to-moderate crowds throughout May 2023.

However, there is a small part of us that wonders whether Walt Disney World wait times and crowd levels will stay lower for longer. Perhaps this is what the exhaustion of pent-up demand really looks like; maybe consumers are finally changing their spending habits; it’s possible rising prices on everything have finally done their damage. Any or all of this could result in more of a summer slump. We’ve heard unsubstantiated rumblings suggesting that might be the case over the months to come, but nothing to conclude that crowds will stay this low. We shall see–it’ll be interesting to watch!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Are you visiting Walt Disney World during shoulder season between spring break and Summer 2023? Have you visited in the past during the month of May? Were you in the parks over the weekend or this week so far? What did you think of the crowds? Any parks, times of day, or days of the week noticeably better or worse than the others? Did you find Saturday and Sunday to be better than the ‘heart’ of the week? If you’ve visited in past weeks following spring break, did you notice a big difference in crowd levels? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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