June 24, 2024

What Went Wrong During Spring Break at Disney World

My days at Walt Disney World during the peak week of spring break went surprisingly well. As covered in the first installment of this two-part series, I was pleasantly surprised by the overall experience and how much I was able to accomplish despite 9/10 or 10/10 crowd levels on many days.

With that said, it was not all perfect and magical. Some of these things have been or will be recurring issues during busier dates throughout 2023 at Walt Disney World, so I want to address them here so you can plan accordingly. As always, being prepared for a particular problem before it arises can lead to much better outcomes in the parks.

That’s particularly true here, as many of the issues I encountered could be avoided or minimized–it just took recognizing them and pivoting to different strategy. This meant doing things at different times of day, changing course, or even not spending extra money on methods for beating the crowds. Anyway, let’s dig in and take a look at how things went “wrong” during my spring break at Walt Disney World…

Weekday Daytime Crowds – Again, this visit was during spring break for Central Florida and other school districts around the country. Our Spring Break 2023 Crowd Calendar for Walt Disney World forecast this to be the worst week of March or April 2023 at Walt Disney World. Although that caught some fans by surprise who expect Easter to be worse, this was backed by precedent. Last year, crowd levels were 10/10 and the average wait time was 51 minutes during this same week.

Accordingly, it’s not entirely fair to say that crowd levels were something going “wrong.” To the contrary, this went almost exactly as expected, it just was not ideal. I knew what I was getting myself into, as did just about anyone else who opted to do Walt Disney World during this particular week. If anything, overall crowds were better than expected, with an average wait time of “only” 48 minutes and level of 9/10. That’s better than last year!

However, those numbers are skewed. The early morning and late night wait times were actually much lower than expected, as were Saturday and Sunday. Honestly, it’s hard to complain about either of those things–especially given that my plan all along was to go hard during the beginning and end of each day, and knock out “easier” attractions during the middle of the day. Nevertheless, some of the very long daytime lines and high wait times were a bit jarring. I’m just happy that I didn’t have to wait in them, for the most part.

Dining Lines & Seating – The exception to “for that most part” frequently came at restaurants. This is nothing new, but it’s still notable for infrequent visitors. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing Mobile Order, either. Many counter service restaurants in parks that aren’t EPCOT have long lines at both the cash registers and for Mobile Order pickup. And perhaps this is just my personal impression, but this is arguably worse than attractions since this isn’t neatly organized into queues–it’s more of an anxiety-inducing free for all.

It’s often not much better once you have your food, as finding a table can be incredibly difficult. (Probably less of a problem for larger parties, as you can send someone to grab one–I didn’t have that luxury.) At Magic Kingdom, I spotted tons of guests awkwardly eating on steps, balancing trays on planters, or doing garbage can dining. And they weren’t even bloggers! 

All of this is exacerbated by the crowds. When standby lines are longer, people are more likely to give up and seek out a place to get off their feet and crash. You see a lot of people without food, and their heads on tables or playing on their phones. The initial impulse, if you’re wandering aimlessly with a tray of hot-ish food that’s cooling by the second, is to be frustrated at your fellow guests for selfishly hoarding tables despite having no food.

This impulse is incorrect. It’s like getting mad at other passengers on a flight for “hogging” overhead bin space, reclining seats, or rushing to board. In both cases, it’s the company that created this problem and has the means to solve it. Being mad at your fellow guests is misplaced–you’re both dealing with different symptoms of the same underlying problem.

As has been the case for a while, Disney needs to open more restaurants and add more seating. There’s absolutely no excuse for Tomorrowland Terrace and Aunt Polly’s being closed right now, or Be Our Guest Restaurant not doing its more efficient lunch and breakfast services. Animal Kingdom should have all of its kiosks open, and Disney’s Hollywood Studios should have built 3 new dining venues in the time it took to construct Toy Story Roundup Rodeo BBQ.

Lightning Lane Lines – A couple months ago, I started noticing improved Lightning Lane availability at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. (Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom were good to begin with, so no changes there.) Initially, I wrote this off as occurring during the slower winter off-season months.

When it continued during Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras, there had to be some other explanation. It couldn’t have been that fewer people were purchasing the Genie+ service because this happened even on days it sold out. Only Yogi Berra can explain something being both in lower and higher demand simultaneously, so that wasn’t it. My other theory was that Walt Disney World had improved capacity and the various tweaks made to Genie+ were finally paying off.

That charitable assumption now seems naive. Throughout my days both using Genie+ and standby lines, I experienced and observed the most likely culprit: longer Lightning Lanes. The returns for many attractions had overflow queues and Cast Members outside with “Lightning Lane Starts Here” signs. To be sure, this has occurred in the past. But I’ve never seen it at this many attractions or with this degree of regularity.

I’ve done dozens of Genie+ tests since it launched, and the only attraction where this previously happened with regularity was Peter Pan’s Flight. It was an occasional occurrence elsewhere, particularly on busy days or as rides returned from downtime. During spring break, I would estimate that between half and three-quarters of Lightning Lanes for popular attractions (the only ones for which I use Genie+) had non-negligible lines outside their return tapstiles.

For the most part, this did not result in significant delays with the Lightning Lane. On average, my waits were only 5-10 minutes from arrival at the Lightning Lane to the merge point. Some attractions were a tad longer, with a few reaching 15-20 minutes. On attractions with triple-digit posted standby wait times, this is still a considerable time savings. So what’s the issue?

In large part, the problem is the cause of the backup, which is more Lightning Lanes being distributed. If Genie+ is offering more Lightning Lane selections, that leads to a minor logjam at the return tapstiles and, more importantly, a major one at the merge point. To alleviate this, the ratio of Lightning Lane to standby guests (which is always variable, and has been since the FastPass days) necessarily changes to accommodate more Lightning Lane guests.

The brunt of this is borne by standby guests, who wait in longer and/or slower moving lines in order to keep the Lightning Lanes moving at an “acceptable” pace. This is how you get a posted wait time of 120 minutes for Peter Pan’s Flight with only a small portion of the standby queue in use and very few people entering the line.

As someone who prides myself on leveraging savvy strategy, I also found this put a significant damper on the value I derived from Lightning Lanes. This will not be an issue for the average Genie+ buyer, as they will use paid FastPass during the heart of park operating hours and, without a doubt, come out ahead as compared to waiting in long standby lines.

However, a big part of my research is to determine what’s objectively the best method for saving time in each park, whether that be Lightning Lanes, Early Entry, Extended Evening Hours, rope drop, or last few hours, park closing, etc. With this, I can recognize that I’m most definitely an outlier as compared to the average guest…but so are you if you’re following the advice here!

Point being, there were exceedingly few scenarios where Genie+ was the best method for minimizing wait times. With almost every attraction that I tested, there was a superior strategy. About the only exceptions that come to mind are Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, and I’m simply making assumptions with those since I did not (and will not) purchase Individual Lightning Lanes. Even then, I waited less than 30 minutes for both via standby or virtual queue on multiple occasions.

With Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Peter Pan’s Flight, Frozen Ever After, Slinky Dog Dash, Jungle Cruise, and plenty of others, there were alternative approaches with approximately the same wait (or less). Granted, those required being up early or out late, but it’s always been the case that the early bird and night owl gets the worm (or mice, ironically, in the case of owls) at Walt Disney World.

This actually returns to a theory mentioned in the first installment of this spring break report. Genie+ and Lightning Lanes have simultaneously created a false sense of security among guests who use them, and a defeatist attitude among those who don’t. It’s as if paid line-skipping is viewed as the silver bullet for beating wait times. That’s simply not true, but people assume it’s the best, and many don’t bother with alternative tactics as a result. What is accurate is that Genie+ is best for beating crowds during the heart of the day, making it an ideal option for those visiting the parks between (roughly) the hours of 10 am and 6 pm.

The Mandalorian – For a site that prides itself in photography, this blog has a disturbing lack of Mandalorian and Baby Yoda photos. That’s because conditions have never been “perfect” when we’ve seen them at Disneyland. In an ideal world, I’d use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens from a great distance, or a longer prime lenses capable of buttery bokeh. These lenses are heavy, and as I get older, I’m usually too lazy to carry them. Even if I did have them, there are usually a few people around the characters, so I’ll just get good photos later, I tell myself.

Well, that “later” certainly did not arrive on any of my days in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. I thought I’d have a competitive advantage because I knew where the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda appear on stage, but I was very wrong. The crowds camped out even 15 minutes before Mando and Grogu show up made anything I’ve ever encountered seem like small potatoes. The Batuu East version of these characters have Swifties-caliber fan followings, making their California counterparts look like Smash Mouth groupies.

The duo were consistently mobbed by hordes of guests, effectively preventing the characters from actually wandering more than 20 feet into Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It was pure chaos, and not at all the organic encounters I’ve come to expect from free-roaming characters (including the Star Wars ones) at Disneyland.

But you know what? Guests absolutely love it. The comments I overheard were a far cry from my curmudgeonly internal monologue. Everyone in my vicinity was visibly and audibly excited to even get a peek at the Mandalorian and Grogu. The sentiment was overwhelmingly and unanimously positive. I haven’t heard one way or the other, but I’d imagine guest satisfaction for this character encounter is absolutely off the charts.

It thus might be “wrong” of me to categorize this as something going wrong. Nevertheless, I think there needs to be a better way to do crowd control for these characters. Reactions were resoundingly positive among those who got photos with them, but that’s at least in part due to selection bias. It’s also true that only a very small fraction of guests saw the duo because they never made it into the main arteries of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. While demand and crowds are high, putting the Mandalorian and Baby Yoda in a ground level area with some separation from guests would be perfect. Avengers Campus does this with certain characters, and it works well with allowing ‘clean’ selfies and interactions–but preventing the heroes from being overwhelmed.

Early Entry at Magic Kingdom – Being a blogger requires rolling with the punches, and taking the good with the bad for the sake of “research.” It may be absurd to even call it that (not like this is hard-hitting investigative journalism), or complain about visiting Magic Kingdom–but that’s exactly where I’m at with Early Entry at Magic Kingdom. I do not enjoy doing this, and would only continue to do so for the sake of sunrise photos if it weren’t a topic of interest to Walt Disney World vacation planners.

I’ve identified the problem with Early Entry at Magic Kingdom in the past. To recap, it starts too late and is, by far, the park people prioritize for Early Entry. This means it has the one-two punch of demand and accessibility. It also doesn’t help that only two lands are open, and there are only 3 really popular rides between the two lands.

I did Early Entry at Magic Kingdom on what ended up being the least busy day of the week, and it was still chaotic. Sensing somewhat lower crowds, I opted to do the SDMT Shuffle. This was against my better judgment, but again, this is for the sake of research and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train is the attraction most people want to do during Early Entry.

The couple behind me got into an argument about their “poor” place in line, which is notable not because adult meltdowns resulting from this are uncommon (they’re quite common), but because they were wrong. It was both a rousing success from the standpoint of line placement and the simple fact that Seven Dwarfs Mine Train didn’t have a delayed opening. Vibes-wise, they were absolutely right, but that would’ve been true almost any day during Early Entry at Magic Kingdom.

My Early Entry experiences at Animal Kingdom, EPCOT, and Hollywood Studios were all far superior. That goes both for the vibes and for the sense of accomplishment. Suffice to say, if you do Early Entry at Magic Kingdom first (as many people do) and have a negative experience (as many people do), don’t let that dissuade you from Early Entry at the other parks (as it does for many people).

Ride Downtime – These days, everyone seems to think they experienced atypically bad ride breakdowns. In reality, that’s because attraction downtime is far higher than its historical average. Disney disputes this, but it is well-documented (and true).

I’m honestly not sure whether that explanation makes it better or worse. Misery loves company, so perhaps you take solace knowing others are in the same boat. Or maybe you’re mad that Disney doesn’t address this known issue. (Honestly, I don’t know if it’s something they even can fully address. Remember how we warned of the loss of institutional knowledge with the furloughs and layoffs back in 2020? Well, look no further than this for the “fruits” of that short-sighted decision, as maintenance departments have been decimated and have far fewer years of tenure.)

Either way, this was a pronounced issue during the peak week of spring break. I can’t say conclusively that this was something that went “wrong” any worse than it did 2 weeks ago or 2 months ago, but it’s definitely noticeable relative to 2019 and earlier. Space Mountain has been closed for multiple hours per day with such regularity that part of me wonders whether its breakdowns were part of the motivation for TRON Lightcycle Run’s official soft opening.

Prices – Again, this isn’t so much something going “wrong” as me knowing what I was getting myself into and still voluntarily signing up for it. Still, prices are high during spring break, in ways big and small. While I was happy with my experience at All Star Sports, the main reason I booked that resort was because there were few deals to be found on anything else. (Also, Sarah would probably prefer I save the lavish stays for trips we do together. Just a guess, though!)

Beyond hotels and ticket prices being predictably high, there were also little ways costs add up. Uber and Lyft prices were significantly higher ($80+ between MCO and WDW!); Genie+ and Lightning Lanes were at their peak season prices, too. All of that adds up, especially on top of higher base prices for the core components of the package.

Ultimately, this is a relatively short list of issues I encountered during spring break at Walt Disney World, and very few of them came by surprise. So in reality, most of this isn’t “things going wrong” so much as it is “predictable problems.” Some of them did catch me by surprise, but probably shouldn’t have.

More importantly, now that you’re armed with this knowledge, you can make adjustments for your upcoming trip during spring break or summer, when the same type of issues with likely arise with regularity. That knowledge coupled with the tips from our ‘What Went Right During Spring Break at Walt Disney World‘ post and upcoming run-throughs of Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours (etc.), you should be able to easily strategize, beat the crowds, accomplish a lot, and have enjoyable experiences at Walt Disney World–even during peak season!

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

If you’ve already visited Walt Disney World during spring break this year, what was your experience? If you’ve visited this same week in prior years, how do you think this year compares? Thoughts about anything else covered here? If you’re a frequent visitor during this timeframe, what’s your take on crowds, wait times, seasonal spirit, weather, etc? Agree or disagree with my assessment of spring break? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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