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What's Behind Decreased Footfalls at Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando?

Central Florida's tourism industry is facing increased competition from other destinations as more states reopen post-pandemic.
Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Mark Ashman
Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Mark Ashman

Long lines and crowded theme parks have been the norm during summer months in Central Florida, but visitors to Walt Disney World and Universal Orlando may find some relief this season. Analysts tracking theme park attendance have observed shorter wait times for rides and attractions, and social media videos capture park attendees commenting on thinner crowds. While the exact reasons behind this slowdown are difficult to pinpoint, experts suggest factors such as extreme weather, a waning post-pandemic travel boom, and a tense political climate in Florida may be contributing to the change, per CNN.

Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Jacqueline Nell
Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Jacqueline Nell

The scorching Florida heatwave, with temperatures exceeding 100 degrees, is likely contributing to the decline in theme park attendance. As one visitor expressed, "The extreme heat made it difficult to enjoy the parks and endure long wait times." Locals and tourists may be deterred from visiting the parks due to extreme weather conditions. Moreover, Central Florida's tourism industry is facing increased competition from other destinations as more states reopen post-pandemic, providing alternative options for travelers, reports CNN.

This has resulted in reduced demand for Florida as the sole tourist destination. Concerning the political climate, a representative from the NAACP stated, "We have issued a travel advisory due to concerns about the conservative policies of Governor Ron DeSantis, which have prompted hesitation among certain groups." These factors, including extreme weather, tourism competition, and the political climate, collectively contribute to the current slump in theme park attendance.

Disney CEO Bob Iger attributes the recent decline in wait times at Disney World to a general slump in Central Florida tourism. He noted that in 2022, Florida was the only major tourist destination open, creating significant demand. "Florida opened up early during Covid and created huge demand, and didn’t have competition because there were a number of other places, states, that were not open yet," said Iger in an interview with CNBC. However, the current landscape has changed, with more competition from other states and destinations.


While Iger remains optimistic about Disney's theme parks, he acknowledges the increased competition faced by the company. Bob Iger also explains that the decline in wait times can be attributed to a broader slump in Central Florida tourism. "If you look at the numbers in Florida in 2023 versus 2022, where not as much was open and Florida was the only game in town, there is a lot more competition today," he said in the CNBC interview. Iger remains optimistic about Disney's theme parks, stating that he does not have "long-term concerns."

Disney's Florida parks have experienced shorter average wait times for rides and attractions compared to the previous year, according to Thrill Data, a site that tracks theme park wait information. The site reveals that since February, Universal's Florida parks have also seen lower average wait times since March. Typically, longer wait times are associated with larger crowds at theme parks. This year, July's average wait time at Disney World is reported to be 33 minutes, compared to last year's average of 41 minutes for July. The decrease in wait times is accompanied by steeper discounts and open reservations, offering visitors a more convenient and cost-effective experience compared to the previous year.

Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Joe Raedle
Image Source: Getty Images | Photo by Joe Raedle

Don Munsil, president of MouseSavers, a guide to discounts and deals at Disney and Universal parks, confirms the slowdown in attendance, particularly noting a significant drop-off beginning in July. "For a year and a half after Covid, any time was a busy time," said Don Munsil, president of MouseSavers. "Don't get me wrong, people are still coming, but it's not anywhere near where it was." Touring Plans, a company specializing in trip planning for Disney and Universal parks, supports this observation, showing shorter wait times on July Fourth at all of Disney's Florida parks compared to 2022 and 2019. Universal's parks also experienced decreased wait times on the same holiday.

Kayla Pareti, a content creator focusing on Disney-themed content and a travel agent, visited Disney's Hollywood Studios in early July and noticed a significant decrease in crowd size. She recalls a Saturday before the Fourth of July, traditionally a busy time, where she observed unexpectedly low attendance and even empty streets in certain areas of the park. "Usually when you walk into the park, they have Hollywood Boulevard, which is like the main thoroughfare and it's usually packed with people," she said. Pareti's experience aligns with the data suggesting a decline in park attendance during the summer season.

While tensions in Florida's political climate have prompted travel warnings from some groups, experts do not see a clear correlation between theme park attendance and political factors. "I don't think the evidence is there for that because that would imply that Universal would be seeing huge numbers and Disney seeing less. I don't think we're seeing that," said Don Munsil.

If friction between Disney and the state's governor, Ron DeSantis, were a primary reason for decreased attendance, it would likely manifest in the data as a significant contrast between Disney and Universal's attendance numbers. However, this is not the case, suggesting other factors are primarily responsible for the decline.

The decline in theme park attendance aligns with a broader trend of slowing tourism in Central Florida. Orange County, which includes Orlando, reported a 6.7% decrease in tourist development tax collection for May 2023 compared to May 2022. This decline indicates a shift in tourist behavior, with potential visitors diverting their spending away from theme parks and toward other options, such as cruising.