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Image: Disney (Cinderella in front of castle)

It’s really easy to focus on the negatives right now, particularly when it comes to Disney parks.

There’s no question this year, we’ve seen some twists at Walt Disney World we never saw coming: no fireworks, character distancing, mask and reservation requirements, lower entertainment options, no cultural representatives in World Showcase, all in the midst of a historic pandemic… these are significant issues, and it’s totally understandable why many families are hesitant about a Disney trip these days.

Despite these issues, however, there is something kind of amazing about visiting Walt Disney World right now…

There are some real benefits to visiting the Most Magical Place on Earth this season, largely thanks to lower capacity across all four parks. A majority of guests who have ventured to the parks have reported being pleasantly surprised by lower crowds, historically low queues, and even the return of “empty park” photos in some cases. While the Disney parks experience has been simplified, that isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the tumultuous times in which we live.

Why are guests continuing to brave Walt Disney World in ever-increasing numbers? Here are some of the benefits that stood out the most to us…

1. Getting into the parks is way more streamlined

Girl with Minnie Ears and mask gets temperature check
Image: Disney

This is a basic one, but it has a major effect on kicking off your Disney day on the right foot: the process of getting into parks at Walt Disney World has become somewhat less stressful.

To reduce crowd congestion, Disney took some important steps to streamline entry into the parks. Security checks have been simplified by the introduction of scanners that allow guards to direct less people towards bag check. Temperature checks go quickly, and bottlenecks at the turnstiles have been reduced by eliminating fingerprint checks. Most significantly, it seems like fewer guests are showing at opening gate, further reducing congestion. Parking attendants are also closing their posts earlier in the day, meaning if you arrive a little later, you might get free parking on some days.

It’s not that there aren’t still some hassles getting into Disney parks. Particularly at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom, you may still need to navigate some parking lines, some socially-distanced queues, and in the case of Magic Kingdom, the Transportation and Ticket Center (aka the DMV of Walt Disney World). Resort transportation is also running slow right now, so plan extra time for that.

Despite these snags, however, it has been really pleasant to start out Disney days lately with a little less stress.

2. Lower crowds mean less street congestion

Spaceship Earth with construction barriers
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

At the time of this writing, Disney has capped capacity for their theme parks at 35%. While we are seeing parks reach that mark more often on weekends and holidays, this low cap has meant historically low crowds, particularly during the pre-holiday season.

Don’t get me wrong—the parks are no longer “empty” like we were seeing previously to Labor Day. However, on most days Disney’s parks are not reaching capacity mark. Even when they are, 35% is still significantly lower than standard attendance levels for this time of year. We expected this to be Disney’s busiest December ever—instead, guests are able to enjoy a lot more elbow room than normal.

The combination of lower capacity and the return of stand-by lines has produced less congestion throughout the parks. While Disney’s stand-by-only policy for queues may have seemed like a step backwards, it was actually a very smart move. Stand-by lines are basically “crowd sponges” that reduce congestion in shops, thoroughfares, and other areas of the park. This congestion problem was actually one of the biggest issues with Fastpass+. By moving guests into lines, the parks feel much more spacious, and social distancing is much easier.

The main places we’ve noticed guests having trouble distancing is in bottlenecked thoroughfares like some of the pathways in Epcot. Even on days where the parks do near that 35% mark, because there are no fireworks, most guests are not staying in the parks all day. By sunset, the parks have been feeling quite empty, which is really lovely if you prefer a calmer Disney experience.

3. Higher likelihood to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance

  Video: YouTube, @MyKingdomForAMouse (Jett Farrell-Vega)

There’s another major benefit for guests visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios—lower park capacity means guests have better odds to get to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. For those unfamiliar, guests can only experience this popular attraction by securing a Boarding Group in the ride’s virtual queue. The system is essentially a lottery, though Disney has made some improvements by now allowing guests to try for a boarding group at 7 AM without having to be inside the park (which opens at 10), as well as adding a 2 PM group distribution time. You can read details about how the system works, as well as how to improve your chances of getting a pass in our FAQ for Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge.

Why are your chances better right now for getting onto Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance? It all comes back to that 35% capacity cap. The cap means that even if Disney’s Hollywood Studios is at full capacity, there are still up to 65% less people in the park than normal. That means less competition to procure a boarding group, meaning a higher percentage of people visiting the park get to ride.

Disney also recently installed plexiglass dividers throughout the ride, which has increased overall capacity on the ride while pandemic safety measure stay in place. We took an in-depth look into how this affects the experience in our update on that park (with plenty of shameless plexiglass-puns), but the overall consensus is that the temporary addition is a good thing since more people get to ride. While the attraction still has low capacity days due to breakdowns, lower park capacity is definitely working in guests’ favor. Unless Disney pulls out some magic to increase the ride’s max daily capacity for the long term, we aren’t likely to see odds these good again once park attendance goes back to normal.

4. Shorter queue waits (if you use some strategy)

Example of unusually low queue times at Epcot (From end of September 2020)
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega (from My Disney Experience App, September 24th 2020)

In some ways, we have entered uncharted territory for navigating crowds at Walt Disney World. Long-established crowd trends had already started shifting the past few years (particularly after the openings of the World of Pandora and Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance), but the elimination of Fastpass+ following Walt Disney World’s reopening upended most traditional wisdom for avoiding crowds. This is a world where queue times overall are lower than usual, but unlike previous years, the times you would expect lines to be shortest are actually when we are seeing the longest waits.

The good news is that while it is possible to get stuck in a long line at Walt Disney World right now, your chances of enjoying historically short queues are very good.

At the time of this writing, it is a Friday in mid-December at noon. The longest wait anywhere in Walt Disney World is the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 85 minutes. Frozen Ever After clocks in right after that with 80 minutes, followed by Soarin’ and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad at 65 minutes. Other E-Tickets like Na’vi River Journey, Mission: SPACE (that one is surprising), and even Avatar: Flight of Passage only have a 60 minute wait… at lunch time on a Friday in December.

Oh, and Disney’s newest attraction, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway? At the time of this writing, the wait is only 40 minutes since Disney recently installed plexiglass dividers to increase capacity in that attraction too. That wait time will be cut in half by the end of the day. Those are some pretty good wait times, particularly since Disney has been slightly padding estimates for queue times (like they used to do in the 90’s).

Video: YouTube, @MyKingdomForAMouse (Jett Farrell-Vega)

During this season, often, the longest lines of the day form within the first two hours after opening. Times fluctuate throughout the day but seem to slowly drop for most attractions, with pockets here and there of unusually low wait times (like 20 minute waits for Soarin’ or Frozen Ever After). Coaster attractions are the exception since Disney has been limited in ways to safely increase capacity for these rides. The last two hours before park closing have proved especially nice for catching unusually short queues.

If you plan smart and keep up with crowd trends, you can see a lot of attractions with very little wait right nowespecially if you can visit on a weekday. Even when the parks reach full 35% capacity (which we are likely to see during the Christmas to New Years’ rush), waits will still remain low compared to the normal mega-queues we’ve come to expect around the holidays.

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