The Curious Case of January Wait Times at Walt Disney World

Last year, we spent a considerable amount of time examining wait time trends in January and February. The main question we were trying to answer was, “Is There an Off-Season at Walt Disney World?” Historically, WDW has seen some of its lowest crowds of the year during much of the first two months. There are exceptions, of course. The first week in January is typically busy with lingering holiday crowds. There’s a bump during the Marathon Weekend that follows and Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend is typically busy as well. An increase is also seen around Mardi Gras. But the period between MLK day in the middle of January and the Wednesday or Thursday before Presidents Day Weekend in February, was, for many years, one of the least crowded four-ish week periods of the year. As we’ve learned from the previous studies, this is now much less the case.

Nowhere have wait times increased with more intensity than Animal Kingdom. The following chart shows the combined average wait in the month of January at five Animal Kingdom attractions in each of the last five years:

The five attractions included in the calculations are DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Primeval Whirl, and TriceraTop Spin. Each attraction was open for the entirety of January each of the last five years. The numbers do not include Flight of Passage or Na’vi River Journey because the high wait times there would skew the numbers much higher in 2018 and 2019. Obviously, the 26.9% rise in average wait time from January 2017 to January 2018 could probably be attributed to Pandora, a new Land that has been incredibly successful since it debuted in May 2017. On the other hand, we also saw a jump of 13.8% from 2015 to 2016 and 18.2% between 2016 and 2017, all before Pandora opened. From 2018 to 2019, the first year that Pandora was open during both Januaries, we see another 21.8% jump. Overall, average wait times at Animal Kingdom in January have increased over 108% in just four years. That’s pretty wild.

Unlike at Magic Kingdom, where we’ve seen a reduction in the average number of hours that the Park is open each day, Animal Kingdom has actually seen an increase.

A large part of that is due to the introduction of the nighttime entertainment – Jungle Book: Alive with Magic debuted in May of 2016, followed by Rivers of Light in February of 2017. But no matter the reason, it’s important to keep in mind that Animal Kingdom wait times continue to increase even as the number of operating hours increase alongside them.

You can find the following attendance chart on Wikipedia, based on the Themed Entertainment Association’s annual report, found here:

Larger: Here.

At Animal Kingdom, we saw a 13.8% increase in January wait times from 2015 to 2016, despite the fact that attendance was actually down year-over-year. Animal Kingdom attendance went up 15.2% from 2016 to 2017 with Pandora only open for the second half of 2017. During that same time, January wait times went up 18.2%, an even greater amount. It’s a popular opinion that attendance will be down this summer because people are putting off their vacations until after Star Wars opens in fall; it doesn’t appear like vacationers gave Pandora’s opening the same respect as they visited in droves in the months leading up to the summer 2017 opening of the alien landscape.

We’ll move over to Magic Kingdom to see if the trends that we saw at Animal Kingdom are similar.

The answer is…not really. While wait times at Animal Kingdom are up every January from 2015 to 2019, Magic Kingdom’s average actually drops twice, from 2015 to 2016 and again from 2018 to 2019. You might remember that at Animal Kingdom, January wait times are up 20.3 minutes, or 108%. At Magic Kingdom, they’re up 9.5 minutes, or just 31.8%, over the same period from 2015 to 2019.

The January wait time distribution at Magic Kingdom makes more sense given the fact that attendance was basically flat from 2015 to 2016 to 2017. According to the Themed Entertainment Association, about 42,000 fewer people visited Magic Kingdom in 2017 than 2015.

So what’s the deal with Animal Kingdom’s rising wait times, particularly considering the fact that they’re not rising as much or as fast at the other Parks? I think there’s two main culprits.

The first is increased FastPass+ utilization.

If you’re staying on-site, you should receive the following email 60 days before your arrival date, inviting you to book your FastPass+ experiences in advance:

This sort of correspondence isn’t new, but Disney’s communication about FastPass+ has ramped up significantly in recent years. All of the wait times in our discussion are during the FastPass+ era, which is important since certain attractions weren’t on the legacy paper FASTPASS system or paper FASTPASSes wouldn’t be distributed unless crowds were expected to be particularly high. Within a month of the deployment of MyMagic+ in early 2014, Disney saw a 40% increase in FastPass+ utilization over legacy paper FASTPASS. Still, less than half of the people that visited a Disney theme park had booked FastPass+ in advance throughout 2015. Now, more than 90% of visitors staying on-site have booked FastPass+ in advance of their visit across what will be 30,000+ on-site resort rooms by the end of this year. Back in 2015, less than a quarter of day guests had booked FastPass+ in advance. Now, that number is well over half.

As we know, between 50% and 80% of an attraction’s capacity goes to those with FastPass+ priority. The more FastPass+ returners there are, the longer the wait time will be, even if the same number of people are waiting in standby. With more people than ever using FastPass+, virtually every experience at every ride will be secured by guests in advance. If you have theme park tickets attached to your account, pull up what FastPass+ are available for the following day.

As I type this up this post at 4pm on Sunday February 24th, here’s what isn’t available at Animal Kingdom for four people the following day, on February 25th:

A couple of these aren’t surprising. Flight of Passage, with its limited capacity and incredible popularity, is typically unavailable fewer than 60 days out. But there is “literally” no availability for DINOSAUR or Kilimanjaro Safaris, two attractions with monster capacities.

Here’s a look at what is still available:

Expedition Everest sees availability, but not until well into the evening. Even the likes of Festival of the Lion King has distributed all of its FastPass+ experiences for its 10am, 11am, 12pm, 1pm, and 2pm shows. And from when these screenshots were taken, we’re still 19 hours away from the Park opening on the 25th, which means a lot more people are going to get on here and book the remaining experiences.

The second culprit behind the long wait times…and hear me out here…is the long wait times. I know. Just hold on a second.

As we know, Flight of Passage wait times take off immediately at Park open.

Larger: Here.

Here’s our Flight of Passage wait time chart from a few days ago, when we discussed rope drop strategies for those heading to Pandora first thing. At regular Park open, or 9am, the posted wait exceeds a two-hour average. An hour later, at 10am, the average wait exceeds three hours. While these wait times are probably exaggerated, even if we subtract 45 minutes from both, those getting in line for Flight of Passage right at regular Park open won’t be on their way to another attraction until after 10:45am. That represents an 82-minute wait and a 25-minute experience time. Those getting in line at 10am won’t be on their way until after 12pm. All of these people – literally thousands in number – will be standing inside Animal Kingdom at 11am and 12pm having “literally” done nothing outside of one ride in Pandora. If they want to ride Kilimanjaro Safaris, DINOSAUR, Expedition Everest, Primeval Whirl, TriceraTop Spin, etc. then they’re either going to have to join the longest standby lines of the day and make them even longer, or use FastPass+ and bypass those waiting in standby, increasing the wait times for everyone in the slow boat.

Prior to Pandora’s opening, someone that arrived at 9am might wait ten minutes for Safaris. After, they might wait 20 minutes for Everest, 20 minutes for DINOSAUR, 20 minutes for Primeval Whirl, and 10 minutes for TriceraTop Spin and be done with the majority of the rides at Animal Kingdom before lunch, without even using FastPass. Today, the person that waits two hours for Flight of Passage at Park open would wait 60 minutes for Safaris, 60 minutes for Everest, 60 minutes for DINOSAUR, 40 minutes for Primeval Whirl and…10 minutes for TriceraTop Spin because they’re arriving at these attractions later in the day when wait times have already peaked.

The above blurb is taken from a post back in December 2011 and notes how easy it was to get a DINOSAUR paper FASTPASS with the minimum lead time of 40 minutes.

Weren’t those the days?

Given what we know, why don’t we see such a large increase in posted waits at Magic Kingdom over the same time period? It may have something to do with the attractions that we have to work with. At Animal Kingdom, our numbers take into account:

  2. Expedition Everest
  3. Kilimanjaro Safaris
  4. Primeval Whirl
  5. TriceraTop Spin

At Magic Kingdom, we take the following into account:

  1. Big Thunder Mountain Railroad
  2. Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
  3. Dumbo the Flying Elephant
  4. Haunted Mansion
  5. It’s a small world
  6. Jungle Cruise
  7. Mad Tea Party
  8. Peter Pan’s Flight
  9. Pirates of the Caribbean
  10. Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
  11. Space Mountain
  12. Splash Mountain
  13. The Barnstormer
  14. The Magic Carpets of Aladdin
  15. The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  16. Tomorrowland Speedway
  17. Under the Sea ~ Journey of The Little Mermaid

Part of that is due to necessity. In 2015, Animal Kingdom didn’t have any other attractions that posted wait times other than It’s Tough To Be A Bug and the Adventurers Outpost Mickey and Minnie meet.

That brings us to our third probable culprit. Back in 2015, relatively few people would be booking Primeval Whirl and DINOSAUR FastPass+ given the fact that other, more-sought-after attractions remained available. Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris enjoy monster capacities, so they usually distribute over a thousand FastPass+ experiences per hour. With fewer people booking FastPass+, as they were back in 2015 and 2016, it was more likely that higher-priority attractions would be available and in turn, be booked by those looking. FastPass+ tends to have a trickle down effect. You might check FastPass+ availability at Hollywood Studios and look for Tower of Terror and Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster. If those aren’t available, you may settle for Star Tours and Toy Story Mania. If those aren’t available, you might move down to Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular and Fantasmic.

Back in 2015 and 2016, that trickle down effect caused fewer people to book what had been historically lower-priority attractions. People didn’t book FastPass+ for Primeval Whirl and DINOSAUR because Expedition Everest and Kilimanjaro Safaris were available. With fewer people using FP+, more capacity went to standby, and standby waits were lower.

At Magic Kingdom, our average wait takes into account 17 rides, a number of which are top tier attractions that would have distributed at or near the maximum number of FastPass+ even with fewer people booking. Attendance also comes into play as Magic Kingdom averaged just about twice as many guests as Animal Kingdom per day in 2015. So a ride like Big Thunder Mountain, even if it has the same hourly capacity as Expedition Everest, is going to distribute more Fastpass+ experiences given the fact that twice as many people are in the Park looking for FastPass+. If FastPass+ for Space Mountain were largely unavailable in 2015, then an increase in the number of people booking FastPass+ isn’t going to have as substantial of an effect. There’s still going to be no availability. With a similar number of people willing to get in line when the wait is posted at 120 minutes whether it’s 2015 or 2019, standby waits don’t have as much room to increase.

While we probably can’t explain the wait time increases at Animal Kingdom as thoroughly as we would like, the fact remains that they continue to be reality. It’s hard to imagine another 20% increase year-over-year, but that may be exactly what we see, particularly with Galaxy’s Edge opening later this year.

As always, we’ll do the best with what we’ve got.


The Curious Case of January Wait Times at Walt Disney World