Los Angeles CNN --
Summer months are notorious for long lines and crowded crowds at Central Florida's famous theme parks. But this year, Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando may have a respite.
According to analysts who monitor theme park attendance, the wait times for rides and other attractions have decreased at both resorts. Social media videos also show park visitors mentioning the thinner crowds.
Travel experts have pointed to a number of factors that may be contributing to the decline in travel, including extreme heat and weather in Florida, a declining post-pandemic boom, and a tense climate on the political front in Florida.
Disney CEO Bob Iger attributes the recent decrease in Disney World's wait times to a general slump in Central Florida tourism.
In an interview on Thursday with CNBC, he stated that 'Florida was the first state to open during Covid, creating a huge demand. There wasn't any competition, because other states were still not open.
He added, 'If you compare the numbers for Florida in 2023... to 2022 when not as many were open and Florida was all that was available, there's a lot of competition today.
Iger told CNBC that he had no 'long-term concern' about Disney's parks. Disney declined to make a comment to CNN regarding park attendance.
Rides and attractions are now more accessible.
There is some debate about the cause, but the result is that there are more reservations available for park entry. Discounts have also been increased and the lines of visitors have moved faster compared to the previous year.
Disney's Florida theme parks have seen shorter wait times on average for rides and attractions since February compared to the previous year. This is according to Thrill Data - a website that tracks wait time information at theme parks. According to the website, Universal's Florida park has experienced lower wait times every month since March. According to experts, longer wait times at theme parks are usually associated with more crowds.
Thrill Data reports that Disney World's average wait time is 33 minutes. This is the shortest month in the park's history, dating back to January 2022. It is also during the high season, which is usually the busiest for the park. In July of last year, the average wait time at Disney's Florida Parks was 41 minutes.
Don Munsil is the president of MouseSavers - a guide for discounts and deals in Disney and Universal parks. He said that he has noticed a slight slowdown, but the decline beginning in July had been'remarkable'.
Munsil's observations are supported by data from Touring Plans. This company helps people plan trips to Disney parks and Universal Parks. The company found that the wait time for rides was shorter at Disney's Florida Parks on the Fourth of July compared to 2019 and 2022. In Disney's Animal Kingdom, for example, the average waiting time was 34 minutes in 2020 and 37 minutes in 2019. Touring Plans reported that the average wait time for this year was 25 minutes.
According to Touring Plans, wait times at Universal's two theme parks, Universal Studios Florida, and Island of Adventure have also decreased from last year. Island of Adventure's wait times dropped to 25 minutes on July 4th, down from 30 minutes the previous year and 28 in 2019.
Universal Studios Florida on the 17th of June in the afternoon. The DIS
Munsil stated that a slowdown for a vacation is "unusual", especially in the summer when school children are not present. I think it was the Fourth of July weekend that really hit hard. Many people were shocked.
No one was there
According to Touring Plans, July 4th was the third slowest day in the past 12 months for Disney's Hollywood Studios.
Kayla Pareti is a Disney-themed content creator and travel agent with Mickey Travels. She visited Disney's Hollywood Studios on the first weekend in July. She was surprised by the lack of people that she saw. Mickey Travels is independent of the Walt Disney Company.
It was the Saturday before the Fourth of July which is a big holiday. She told CNN that she was surprised by the lack of people.
She said that Hollywood Boulevard is the main thoroughfare in the park and it is usually busy. Around noon, when I turned around, there was no one on the street. She said it was a strange thing to see.
Iger cited heat as the reason for the holiday slowdown.
Pareti says she visits Disney parks four to six times a week and also Universal. She noted a decline in attendance over the summer.
She said that for a year-and-a-half after Covid, every time was busy. Don't get me mistaken, people still come, but they are nowhere near as many as before.
Walt Disney World Resorts and Universal Orlando Resorts have offered discounts that are far greater than those of last year. Munsil suggested that the discounts could be a reflection of a return to demand levels prior to the pandemic. Disney, for instance, has listed special offers that include up to 25 percent off rooms in some Disney hotels during the summer.
The discounts are the same as they were in 2019. He said that in 2022, they were very stingy when it came to discounts.
After-pandemic cooling demand
Disney's and Universal's Florida park all shut down during the pandemic for several months. Since reopening their parks and resorts in mid-2020 Disney and Comcast owned Universal have enjoyed a boom in revenue.
As demand levels start to drop, this year's parks will face difficult comparisons. UBS Evidence Lab discovered that foot traffic in Disney's US Parks is declining at an accelerated rate. It fell 23% in Disney’s third fiscal quarter through June 24, a sharp drop compared with the 5% decline in the second quarter.
The Magic Kingdom Park at Walt Disney World Resort, Bay Lake, Florida in the early afternoon of June 12. The DIS
Universal declined to comment on the request, but Comcast reported record earnings in its parks division for the first quarter. Comcast, however, noted that the majority of growth in that quarter was driven by international parks.
Iger stated that Disney had reduced capacity deliberately during the holiday season in December, which 'improved the guests' experience' and allowed the company to maintain profit - not just profitability, but a very successful bottom line.
Disney implemented a reservation system for its parks to control daily attendance since reopening in 2020. Disney World's website for reservations showed that as of the time of publication, all four Disney theme parks in Florida were not operating at full capacity on any given day during the remainder of the year. This is a stark contrast from the past two years when parkgoers had to make reservations weeks in advance.
What's the cause of this slowdown?
Munsil said that the extreme heat may have kept some locals away from visiting this year, resulting in a drop in attendance. Florida and much of the South were hit by a heat wave that lasted for several days in late June. Temperatures reached over 100 degrees. The state is currently experiencing another record-breaking, brutal heat wave.
Many feared that the tense political atmosphere in the state would harm tourism. Disney and Ron DeSantis (the Republican governor of the state and presidential candidate) have been involved in a public feud.
Some groups have warned against traveling to Florida because of DeSantis conservative policies. The NAACP and Human Rights Campaign, as well as the League of United Latin American Citizens have all issued travel advisories citing DeSantis’ political agenda.
Munsil did say that the data would indicate if Disney park visitors were skipping Disney because of DeSantis' friction with the company.
I don't believe there is any evidence for this, as that would mean that Universal would see huge numbers while Disney would see less. He said: 'I don't believe we're experiencing that'.
Iger said that the company has seen 'no signs' of slowing down due to its battle with DeSantis.
Overall, however, there are signs that tourism is slowing in Central Florida. Orange County, including Orlando, collected 6,7% less in tourist development taxes this May compared to last May, according to the Orange County Comptroller’s Office. Florida's tourism development tax is levied on short-term rental income, which includes hotel revenue.
Pete Werner, co-owner of Dreams Unlimited Travel and owner of The DIS – a Disney fan site and guide – said he is seeing people shift their money from theme parks to cruising.
In May, during Disney's second quarter earnings call, CFO Christine McCarthy emphasized the strength of the cruise business. She said that, even though the business was the last to reopen following pandemic closings, the 'business' had recovered incredibly well over the past year -- or last fiscal year.
Werner believes that the cruise industry is now a better deal for Disney fans.
Even among the most ardent Disney fans, Walt Disney World has lost its shine. Werner stated that it was just too costly. Disney Cruise is owned and operated by the same company. They're doing well.