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Image: David Vega

A lot has changed at Disney’s Hollywood Studios in the last month…

Labor Day weekend proved a major turning point for attendance at Walt Disney World. Previous to the early-September holiday weekend, guests across all four parks reported historically low crowds, to the point that “empty park” pictures were commonplace and most rides offered walk-on access. Even at the resort’s most popular park, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, guests enjoyed reasonable crowds compared to the gate-busting hordes that became a regular occurrence after Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance opened in December 2019.

Since Labor Day weekend, Walt Disney World has seen a steady increase in crowds across all four parks. This week, Magic Kingdom finally saw a jump in attendance following the arrival of Halloween festivities, and we even experienced increased crowds at Epcot in the final week of September. While the Most Magical Place on Earth continues to operate at lower capacity, the window is slowly closing on this historically quiet season.

Vi (the Spy) Moradi behind barrier in Black Spire Outpost garage
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Our last update on the current state of Disney’s Hollywood Studios was based on a trip that took place shortly before Labor Day weekend. While a good amount of information from that report that still holds true (such as the tips regarding the necessity of a smartphone, navigating distanced character encounters, and taking advantage of the amazing relaxation zone at Star Wars Launch Bay), enough has changed that it is definitely time for a fresh look at this increasingly popular park.

Our latest visit took place on Friday, September 25th--a convenient day that offers a good data point for both weekdays and weekends. If you are planning on visiting on a Saturday or Sunday in the future, expect any references to wait times or crowds to be increased. Vice versa, if you’ll be visiting on a Monday-Thursday, you may luck out and enjoy slightly lower crowds.

So what all has changed inside Disney’s Hollywood Studios as we head into October?

1. Plan extra time for parking or resort transportation

Cars waiting to get into Disney's Hollywood Studios
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

On our previous trip, we attempted an unusual strategy by only hitting the park for the second half of the day (from the 2:00 PM ROTR Boarding Pass call on). This tactic previously proved an attractive option for Passholders since lines tended to peak around 1-2 PM then gradually taper off throughout the rest of the day.

Our September 25th trip proved a little different. We were celebrating our anniversary, so we opted to stay on property in a villa at Bay Lake Tower. With the factor of a multi-hour morning commute eliminated, we decided we wanted to be in the park by rope drop to try for an early Rise of the Resistance boarding pass.

We covered this in our update about what the Walt Disney World resort hotels are like right now, but Disney resorts are currently encouraging guests to take personal vehicles to the parks when possible, reserving bus transportation for trips to Disney Springs. The reason for this is that resort transportation is currently limited, to the point that some guests have reported problems getting to Disney’s Hollywood Studios in time for the morning boarding pass call.

Distanced crowds walking to Disney's Hollywood Studios gate
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

With this is mind, we decided to take our own car. We pulled up to the parking gates at 9:30 and immediately regretted cutting it so close. We feared we’d chosen poorly when we spotted huge lines of cars waiting to be let into the parking lot. We managed to pick the slowest parking gate lane (doesn’t it always feel that way?) and barely made it into a parking spot by around 9:45. We were definitely concerned we wouldn’t make it into the park on time, especially considering the crowds who all seemed to have the same idea. Fortunately, we made it through temperature checks and even a bag search without issue and stepped into the park by 9:53. Phew!

This reinforced something I suspected since our last visit: if you want to try for a Rise of the Resistance boarding pass, aim for a 9:15-9:20 arrival time. The best way to reduce the hassle is to stay at an Epcot resort or have breakfast in the Epcot resort area. Your chances aren’t shot if you arrive at the parking gates at 9:30 AM like we did, but you’ll save yourself some stress by getting there earlier. If you have no choice but to take resort transportation, give yourself a full hour to be on the safe side.

2. Crowds are definitely increasing

Somewhat-distanced crowds on Hollywood Boulevard at Walt Disney World
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Disney’s Hollywood Studios has remained the resort’s busiest park since reopening, but the days of empty parks may be nearing their close. Since the Labor Day holiday, crowds have definitely increased, leading to more congestion in the parks, though attendance is still low overall compared to normal levels for this time of year.

Similar to the situation in Epcot, part of the reason Disney’s Hollywood Studios feels crowded is due to the park’s layout—it’s a small park, and there are definitely spots where guests might feel a little bottlenecked. DHS also has the unique phenomenon of still drawing large crowds right at rope drop thanks to the Rise of the Resistance boarding pass distribution—while the 2:00 PM call helps thin crowds a little bit and gives guests some semblance of hope for a second chance to get onto the ride, most fans are still arriving at rope drop.

I will give Disney’s Hollywood Studios one credit that we did not give Epcotpeople seem to be better behaved when it comes to masks and social distancing.

Sabaac cards with Batuu empty street in background
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Did we see some weird behavior and mask flubs? Sure, though I’d say less than on the average trip to the grocery store. Were there some cases where social distancing was difficult? Yes, there are portions of the park where you’ll be thankful everyone has masks on, particularly in busy sections of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. Were there some cases of bizarre behavior where guests just wouldn’t social distance even when there was space? Yes, but this seemed to happen far less than on our visit to Epcot.

I can’t explain it, but we personally noticed a marked difference between the parks—people at Disney’s Hollywood Studios just seemed to have a better handle on social distancing. While I wouldn’t recommend anyone with high risk factors for COVID visit a theme park right now, our experience with safety measures at Disney’s Hollywood Studios continues to be positive despite increasing crowds.

3. Rise of the Resistance seems to be running at higher capacity

Rise of the Resistance X-Wing
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

As mentioned, we scanned into the park at around 9:53 AM (seven minutes before opening). This gave us plenty of time to find a comfortable place to sit to get ready to try for Rise of the Resistance boarding passes.

Unlike the repeated failures we experienced when the ride first opened, we have had fairly good luck getting boarding passes since the system moved to something more like a lottery. The tips that have worked for us are the same we’ve recommended since January:

1) Don’t use park Wi-Fi (mobile data is more reliable)

2) Use multiple devices with the My Disney Experience app if possible

3) Have the app open on the Rise of the Resistance boarding pass screen early and start refreshing it by repeatedly scrolling down around 9:59 AM / 1:59 PM.

4) When the option to grab passes for your party pulls up, move quickly and make sure your whole party is selected.

My husband seems to have a particular penchant for getting passes, possibly because of his speedy Samsung Galaxy S10. As a matter of fact, the Force must have been particularly strong with him on the day of our visit, because he managed to pull off something I’d never seen before…

Rise of the Resistance Boarding Group 1
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega (from My Disney Experience App)

He got us into Boarding Group 1. Woot-woot!

We headed straight to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and got right into the line without any issues. Starting the day on Rise of the Resistance definitely made for a new experience—our last visit played out opposite since we’d been part of a backup group that was called at the end of the day. Doing Rise early in the day plays very interesting from a story/lore standpoint since the concept of the ride surrounds the Resistance hurriedly attempting to evacuate new recruits off-planet to escape the First Order, resulting in the surprisingly-important Battle of Batuu.

BB-8 and screens
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

The first thing I noticed was that our trip through the queue was much shorter than usual—we were actually guided through a shorter route that skipped some portions of the queue (you may have to scan those crates next time, Star Wars Datapad fans). We could tell immediately that cast members were in go-mode—everything seemed to move at light speed, from ushering people into the pre-show to boarding the transports. Hilariously, we got tucked into the dreaded spot #6 in the corner again (where you can’t see either viewport very well—no worries).

Rise of the Resistance group marker 6 (or 9?)
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

This trend carried to the Star Destroyer sequence where the First Order officers hurried guests along rather than letting people linger for picture taking. The escape sequence passed very quickly, and before we knew it, we were in our vehicles. We did still have our own transport and did not see any use of the new rumored plexiglass dividers some guests have reported.

As for the ride, everything seemed to run smoothly without any bugs or evidence of B-Mode. We did learn that you can’t guarantee which car you’ll end up in—we thought perhaps we finally got in a vehicle to see the second viewpoint (which sees the side of the AT-AT sequence) since we were placed in the rear instead of the front transport, but the viewpoint ended up being the same as our last two rides. We have yet to unravel the riddle of figuring out which vehicle is which.

Rise of the Resistance Boarding sign at night for groups 110-112
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Overall, it appears that Rise of the Resistance operated at nearly full capacity throughout the day. We spotted one temporary breakdown around 2:30 PM, but by the end of the day, they’d reached Boarding Groups 110-112, well into the backup groups. If this trend carries on, guests who are placed in backup boarding groups may continue to have a good chance of getting onto the ride.

4. Problems with Mobile Order, credit cards, and gift cards may be a problem

Mobile Order outage warning message
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega (from My Disney Experience App)

We did run into one unusual problem that put a damper on our day, and apparently, we’re not the only ones who’ve experienced this issue recently…

During our visit, Disney experienced company-wide technical issues with Mobile Order, gift cards, and even some credit card processing systems. Walt Disney World has been relying heavily on the My Disney Experience Mobile Order feature to encourage social distancing and keep lines from forming at counter service restaurants. Some locations (like the Milk Stand) have even moved exclusively to Mobile Order. Needless to say, this outage kind of threw all of that out the window.

The morning of our visit, Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge had already drawn relatively heavy crowds. While many people drifted into lines for Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, the Droid Depot, or Dok Ondar’s Den of Antiquities, the Mobile Order outage led to the formation of long social-distanced lines outside both Ronto Roasters and the Milk Stand, further congesting thoroughfares. On top of this, the outage seemingly also knocked out Disney’s ability to process gift cards, meaning that guests looking to pick up a Batuu Spira credit chip (more on that later) were out of luck. Credit cards could still be entered manually, but this increased wait times at all dining and retail locations.

This may sound like a one-off issue, but according to some Galaxy’s Edge regulars we checked with, this situation has happened several times recently, and it has even affected the ShopDisney website. Fortunately, the problem was resolved by around 3:00 PM, but it definitely changed some of our plans for the morning and led to extra congestion in the park.

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