One of the biggest perks of staying on property at Walt Disney World is the Extra Magic Hours program, which allows hotel guests staying at a Disney resort (or selected partner hotel) to exclusively experience attractions at a specific park during a one or two-hour window of time reserved only for on-property guests either before the park opens or after it closes.
Though this system has been in use for many years, it has gone through a number of revisions over the years, with 2013 bringing the most significant change when the number of evening Extra Magic Hours was reduced from three to two, and then in 2018 and 2019, when Disney opened the program up to additional partner hotels.
However, as Disney reduces the number of Extra Magic Hours available and opens the program up to more guests, something else has been going on as well: the expansion of upcharge events like Early Morning Magic and Disney After Hours. These paid-for programs have expanded to almost every single Disney Park (only Epcot doesn't have them), and are more popular than ever, with Disney After Hours frequently selling out at the Magic Kingdom and Disney's Animal Kingdom and Early Morning Magic drawing big crowds at both Magic Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios.
And though it is possible that the devaluation of Extra Magic Hours and the expansion of upcharge events are unrelated events, we're starting to think maybe they're not. And here's why:
Disney has been testing out monetized Extra Magic Hours for a long time
Disney After Hours and Early Morning Magic didn't just appear out of nowhere. Disney has been offering "after hours" events like Mickey's Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party for more than two decades, and though the selling point of these two events has typically been special entertainment like shows, parades, and fireworks displays, there have always been some guests who attend these events in order to experience attractions with lower wait times thanks (in part) to lighter crowd levels.
With this guest behavior in mind, Disney created the Disney After Hours event in 2016. And though this event was initially a flop, it has gained traction in recent years thanks to a lower price point as well as an expansion to other parks. Similarly, the Early Morning Magic event started off fairly soft in popularity, but eventually became a huge success, most recently at Disney's Hollywood Studios, where guests have been flocking to this event to experience Toy Story Land with minimal wait time.
Though guests could stay at a Disney resort and wait until each park's Extra Magic Hours are offered to experience rides with lower waits, with more guests taking advantage of this program than ever and fewer mornings and evenings to select from, going with an upcharge experience to ensure you get a ride on the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Slinky Dog Dash, or Avatar: Flight of Passage seems like a much better value, even when compared with the "free" option. Which brings us to our next point...