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Forecasting Walt Disney World attendance

Word is that Walt Disney World has two big new attractions ready to announce, Little Mermaid in the Magic Kingdom and a Monster’s Inc roller coaster at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. They’re also going to announced Star Tours 2.0, plus I’m told they have something huge in store to answer Harry Potter at Universal. So what’s holding them back? The schedule. Apparently WDW Management is nervous about the 9 month attendance projections. They’ve seen a huge drop off in reservations and don’t want to be building attractions for people who won’t be coming.

WDW Management needs to pick up the phone and ask Disneyland about how they do their attendance projections because friends, with recent changes in our economy, Walt Disney World has just tipped the balance into being more of a local’s park than one that is a vacation destination. That means more and more guests will be driving to WDW than flying.

Until the price of long distance transportation comes back down (either through alternate fuels, improved mass transit, or government intervention) Walt Disney World will have to get used to being a local’s park. If they’re lucky ‘local’ will include as far north as Southern Carolina (about 10 hours driving). Thankfully Florida is the fourth most populous state. Jacksonville is one of the largest cities on the east coast. So there is plenty to draw from even within the state.

One of the realities of being a local’s park is that you have families planning their vacations at the last minute, not 9-12 months out like WDW is used to, hence the weak 9 month forecast. Another reality is that you have to offer something amazing and new every year. Those themed parties MK has at night as a separate ticket; that won’t work. The local will expect to get that as part of the normal price of admission. They’ll also have to extend hours (although probably just one park a night) so locals see value in their vacation.

These are the adjustments Disneyland had to make when reality sunk in that 60% of their attendance was drawn from families in Southern California. Disneyland has done pretty well in the last 5 years or so with huge numbers to the point of having to close the gates multiple times. I’m sure someone from Anaheim will be willing to offer their little brother some advice.

14 thoughts on “Forecasting Walt Disney World attendance”

  1. I wonder how much the attendance numbers are impacted by the fact that until just a few weeks ago you couldn’t book vacations for WDW on the website past 12/31/08. I know lots of people who tried to plan a trip but got frustrated because the pricing wasn’t available and the website closed out at the end of the year.

    Was this year’s timing a normal thing? I can’t remember exactly when the 2009 dates opened up but I remember thinking it was very strange that they wouldn’t let people book a year out.

  2. disney recently said that bookings were flat to up the rest of the calendar year..what gives you confidence that it’s now down signifcantly (re: your comment about reservations on the books)?

    1. I report what I hear. I’ve heard from multiple sources that WDW Management is worried about a slow down in reservations at the 9 month forecast. That’s past the end of the calendar year.

  3. My sister-in-law lives about 30 minutes from Disneyland so they go at least once a week.

    The way she tells it, they hardly ever have hard ticketed events.

    But, she also says that there is hardly anything new there as well. Granted they got the Nemo Submarine ride and the Toy Story ride, but it’s not like there is something new and exciting every year for the locals to come and see. The people come because they love the park.

    I guess the old “build it and they will come” mentality of the resort of old is long gone. I would think if you built something that is a “must see” people might rethink the cost of getting there

    1. The new isn’t always an attraction. It may be a show, new fireworks, new promotion, or a new attraction. This year it’s new Monorails. Not a big deal to someone who only comes once every three years, but for someone who already spent $125 on seasonal tickets it will get them back to the park (any excuse for fun).


  4. “plus I’m told they have something huge in store to answer Harry Potter at Universal.”

    Oooh, I hope it’s the Western River Expedition, but there’s no way that would happen, right? I can always dream :)

  5. It would be interesting to look back at how reservations/attendance were impacted and to what degree by the recession in the early 90’s.

  6. I am sure reservations will flatten as consumers see rising costs of fuel and food, continued layoffs – especially in the North East. There is much uncertainty.

    In the Tourism sector, this typically results in a shorter-term planning window as families judge their ability to plan a trip such as this (will Mommy and Daddy still have a job in the coming months, what is our cost of living in the next few months?).

    Domestically this is a problem for Disney.

    However, the economic downturn in the States is a boon for International tourists who see a lot more value in the travelling to the US.

    For instance, I am a Canadian and recently went to WDW for 10 days – because of the weak US dollar, it was at a much lower cost than our 7 day trip just two years ago despite the increased airfare. In fact, in Canada we had about a $10 Billion tourism deficit last year as Canadians took advantage of the strong CDN dollar and flocked to outside destinations.

    With Disney’s ratio of locals to destination tourists completely opposite of the norm, I can’t see it ever being a local park – and quite frankly I don’t think it could survive as such.

    What I think Disney should do is look at emerging markets such as Mexico, China, India as well as traditional International tourists and we Snow Birds up here in Canada since the parks are actually a better value for these markets at the moment. As far as strictly domestic travellers, than yeah, driving distance is likely the low hanging fruit.

    1. I’m a Canadian too and have been many many times. Your 2008 trip was perfect timing because now it’s 2009 and the Canadian dollar has plunged and it’s expensive again.

  7. has anyone been able to find attendance data for the recession in the 1990’s? Granted, there were fewer attractions but I’m trying to figure out how this recession will affect attendance through 2010.

  8. Just to follow up on my last comment, businessweek is reporting that, “… That’s a 1.2 percent increase over the same period last year including an 8 percent growth in foreign visitors.

    It brings the total to 46 million visitors for the first half of 2008 — 2.7 percent more than in the first six months of last year …”

    Source Article Link

    So from these numbers I would surmise that domestic travel to Florida is down, however the 8% increase in foreign travelers has made up for it, and even increased tourism numbers overall.

  9. This is a global recession, I’m sure the 8% bump Disney experienced last year is a thing of the past. As a CO resident and 18 year season pass holder, I hope Disney learns many lessons from this downturn. With the incredibility strong economic picture of the past decade Disney, in my opinion, took visitors for granted on many levels. The overall experience has declined seriously the past several years. (a post for another day)
    As an out of state season pass holders, we are obviously big fans, but we are considering not renewing in April if this trend continues.

    1. Even with a recession, and the amount of times we go to Disney from Boston (roughly 5 times a year), the past two years have been even busier then ever! In October, you wouldn’t know that there was a recession! However they many were from Europe. December was just as crowded — but they weren’t from Europe! I don’t think Disney has a quiet time anymore.

      We’ve been season passholders for a long time and have enjoyed our Disney getaway, but each time we turn around, theres more perks that are gone for passholders and increasing prices specifically in the food and restaurants that just is over the top –that it will become a major factor come fall 09 if we renew our annual passes. We don’t wish to do the Dining Plan but feel that that is Disney’s plan for all. We miss the ‘best pricing’ for passholder rooms and being able to make reservations six months in advance. Arranging flights and time off on short notice just doesn’t work and is not very feasible. How can we take advantage of passholder room rates on such short notice! I wonder if the brilliant person who changed this system a couple of years ago knows the impact it has had and probably the ultimate reason we may not renew?

      If Disney is dropping off on reservations, I don’t think its the recession, global or not… so much as their making it unaffordable and not taking care of the ones who keep coming back — from out of town especially with Florida hurting so much. They need to take care of their ‘repeaters’ long and long distance, and remember that they always come, recession or not! I’m sure that the season passholders were the glue to success during bad times.

  10. Pingback: Is Disney acting like its in a recession? | The Disney Blog

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