Why Disney World is so empty this summer

The park recently saw its slowest July Fourth weekend in nearly a decade

Cars wait to enter the Magic Kingdom at Disney World in 2022
Walt Disney World has been missing something recently — people
(Image credit: AaronP / Bauer-Griffin / GC Images)

The most iconic theme park in the U.S. — and probably the world — is undoubtedly Walt Disney World. However, while the park typically sees millions of visitors every year, summer 2023 is a decisively different story, as Disney is struggling to bring parkgoers through its turnstiles.

Disney's flagship Orlando, Florida, theme park is seeing "shockingly low crowds" this summer, according to an attendance analysis from travel company Touring Plans. The analysis noted that the attendance levels over the July Fourth weekend "looked more like September crowds" and were the lowest in nearly a decade. This is despite the holiday traditionally being one of the busiest times for Disney World.

This is a stark change for The Walt Disney Company, which has seen skyrocketing attendance at its attractions post Covid-19 and in recent months "has made headlines for long wait times and frequently crowded parks," CinemaBlend reported. However, the data leaves no doubt that attendance at Disney World and other Disney parks is seeing continued dips, at a time when they are typically the most crowded.

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What does the data show?

Day-to-day attendance can generally be tracked by ride wait times posted on the Disney park mobile apps. At Disney World's Magic Kingdom, described by Orlando's tourism board as the "world's most famous theme park," the average wait time this Fourth of July was 27 minutes, according to Touring Plans. This was down from 31 minutes in 2021 and 47 minutes in 2019.

Another star attraction, Disney World's Animal Kingdom, saw Independence Day wait times of just 25 minutes, Touring Plans said, nearly 10 minutes shorter than the 34-minute wait times seen last year. However, the biggest drop was seen at the park's Hollywood Studios, which had an average July Fourth wait time of 18 minutes. This was a massive plunge from 2022, according to Touring Plans, when wait times at the park averaged 44 minutes.

All in all, this Fourth of July was the third-slowest day at Disney World in the past year, Touring Plans reported. The day before that, July 3, was even worse, as "7% of all capacity at [Walt Disney World] was lost due to unexpected downtime."

These figures are "something that nobody would have predicted — just unfathomable," Len Testa, a computer scientist and the head of Touring Plans, told The Wall Street Journal.

Why is attendance down?

It's likely due to several variables. One factor is that people may be less interested in theme parks. "From what we're seeing with our bookings, that pent-up demand has somewhat transitioned to cruises and Europe," Greg Antonelle, the co-owner of Florida travel agency MickeyTravels, told the Journal. Bookings show that cruises have indeed become extremely popular post-pandemic, and cruise companies Carnival and Royal Caribbean are "two of the five biggest-gaining stocks on the S&P 500 this year," Forbes reported.

The more meaningful reason, though, is likely because parkgoers have "loudly complained in recent years about Disney raising admission prices and eliminating free amenities," the Journal reported. In December 2022, Disney raised its prices on most ticket types. This came after the company "already hiked up ticket prices [that] February, making this the second time in a calendar year that entry into the 'most magical place on Earth' has become more expensive," CNN reported. Disney's website currently shows a four-day ticket for all four of Disney World's parks starting at $396. Single-day tickets are also available for $109.

Stephanie Oprea, the marketing director at Pixie Travel, told the Journal that people who may normally want to visit Disney World "might be a little bit fatigued with price increases based on the economy at the moment" and choose an alternate vacation instead.

What is Disney doing about this?

The Mouse House has begun looking to the near future for a fix. The company has "rolled out promotions, including discounts for return visits and savings of up to 40% on rooms at some Disney World hotels for annual pass holders on certain days in December near Christmas," the Journal reported. There are also plans, the Journal added, to bring back "dining plans that allow visitors to prepay for meals next year" after they were suspended in 2020 due to Covid-19.

These efforts will also help Disney World compete with other Orlando-area attractions such as Universal Studios and SeaWorld, the Journal noted. Both of these locales have begun offering a number of promotions, which will likely force Disney to keep innovating to bring in people. But the front office itself doesn't seem to take much umbrage in the lowered attendance, as The Walt Disney Company recently signed its CEO, Bob Iger, to a two-year contract extension.

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Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.