Those of you who drop by the site and tend to read what I share here know that I don’t really like to speculate because I don’t claim to have any insider information or hidden knowledge of the parks. However, I’m making an exception for this article because I do believe it’s important to think about what could feasibly happen as we start into 2021 (that in and of itself is a little mind blowing).

In many ways this year has forced those of us in the Dinsey space to be speculative to an extent. At the same time, there’s a big difference between speculation and spreading misinformation. I plan on doing my best to share my genuine thoughts here today. That’s the kicker to all of this. These are simply my thoughts.

This idea came to me after two great friends started asking me questions about upcoming travel and I quickly realized that there’s a lot of unknown among many guest that are looking to travel in 2021 either as returning guests to the parks or even as first time visitors to the parks. Both types of guests that are non-local face a lot of confusion in the Disney space right now and that’s what I hope to share more about today.

Let’s be 100% honest, I could be totally wrong on many of these things but speaking from quite a bit of experience and upwards of five years of watching the parks on a near daily basis (on top of 20+ years touring the parks), this is what I predict and why.

Will The Crowds Grow and Park Capacity Grow at WDW in the New Year?

So, this is a multifaceted question because in all reality the days of empty crowds at WDW are pretty much over. While the crowds we are seeing this week at the parks are more or less just like a normal day (compared to the usual peak crowds of the week after Christmas), this is a far cry from what we were seeing back in July and August. The “walk ons” are mostly non existent with a few exceptions early in the morning or late in the evening, but in the grand scheme of things expect to wait in lines between 25 minutes and 60 minutes on average.

On the upside, many of the posted “wait times” are actually fairly inflated compared to how long you will actually end up waiting. In my opinion I’d say the real wait time is roughly 20% less than the posted time on average.

Going back to the original question, I don’t foresee crowds increasing substantially in the park until around March when some spring break traffic starts to roll in with colleges and elementary/high schools (or at least those that get break this year) on break. January and February I predict will stay fairly status quo compared to what we are seeing in the parks around Christmas.

Disney has been increasing things slowly and while you will see some operational differences unfolding like restaurants reopening, attractions filling more rows that had been previously used to spread out guests, and a steady increase in crowd capacity/park pass reservation availability, my guess is it won’t happen all at once. However, it is inevitably going to increase.

Starting the New Year – What’s January 2021 Going to Look Like?

January 2021 will likely look quite similar to December of 2020 if I had to guess. I know that claim may surprise some folks as late January on into February are characteristically lower attendance timeframes. However, if we think back to this time last year, January and February weren’t that way. They were actually incredibly crowded to a level that many did not expect. As a result, while crowd levels may not increase, I bet they won’t decrease either. Disney will still be filling to the reduced capacity. Unless that capacity is increased drastically or something odd happens with this global situation I think it’s a safe bet.

Additionally, after speaking with some travel planners, it appears that many folks deferred their fall/Christmas vacations to early 2021 in hopes that much of this would have blown over by now. With travel confidence at perhaps the highest it’s been since March (even if that may not be a good thing), I highly doubt we’ll see a fall off in crowds in early 2021. If we do, my guess is that it will happen at Epcot or Hollywood Studios as they have seen notoriously lower crowds since the parks reopened.

Will There Be a Free Dining Promotion in 2021? – Why I Think It’s Likely

My thoughts on this could go both ways and I’ll tell you why. It is very likely that later this year, if we reach a sense of normalcy midway through this year, that Disney will be pushing hard to get people in the parks as fast as possible and at the highest volume they can do so in a reasonably safe manner. A “free dining” offer is the best way to do that without losing a substantial amount of money.

Especially if you consider the reality that many “free dining” offers that WDW puts out actually aren’t that great of deals to begin with. Often, you’re better off buying a discounted room when they are available and adding free dining as it ends up costing you less. Try it next time and you’ll likely be surprised.

On the other side of things, this reality of a “free dining” offer hinges on dining locations being open and having enough capacity to meet the increased demand of those booking the offer. Right now, WDW will have to open more restaurants to make that happen effectively or they’ll face a lot of backlash from guests who bought free dining and can’t get in some of their favorite restaurants. Also, the Dining Plan as a whole has to return before any of this is possible. If it returns at all.

Why I Think Disney World Discounts Will Be Prevalent

Mark my words on this, this could be a year of big discounts from the resorts, especially if this rebuilding of confidence in travel is a long term process rather than a short term one. If that’s the case, look for deep discounts to entice guests to return. We’re already seeing discounts of up to 40% for annual pass holders on into Spring of 2021.

On the other hand… because there’s always a devils advocate with this type of thing… If crowds return quickly and in vast numbers and can do so safely, there is a chance this all bounces back to previous crowd levels aggressively. Is it likely? I don’t think so. Is it possible? 100%. However, while it is possible, we have to realize that many are facing financial hardships during all of this (very few are exempt from that), and will be recovering. A Disney trip won’t likely be in the budget.

At the same time, if you look at the parks this month, it’s obvious that some people are willing and able to spend the money, and if that happens quickly you may see discounts fall off as Disney pushes to get every dollar they can with the supply/demand equation as it plays out. If they’re filling or meeting their capacity, there’s no point in offering discounts. There’s actually an incentive to increase prices instead of decrease them to shrink demand while increasing revenue. As much as we all hate to hear that.

How Long Should Your Disney Vacation Be?

My typical “go-to” answer for this would be 5-7 days. I don’t think that’s going to change in 2021 but I do have to mention that there are less things open so theoretically you won’t need as much time as usual to do the same amount of things as you usually would. It does kind of end up being a wash though as transportation takes longer right now, there are no fast passes, and ultimately there are some lines for things that would otherwise not have them (World of Disney, Quick Service Restaurants, etc.).

The Best Time to Visit Disney World in the New Year?

If someone asked me this question today, my genuine answer would be that unless you are a guest that tours the parks multiple times per year, wait until at least late spring/summer dates for your trip. The logic behind that is simple. The Disney experience as a whole is improving day by day and hopefully the rest of the issues surrounding us will as well. January and February will be kind of status quo, spring will be a bit of a toss up, and summer on into next fall would likely be my recommendation for booking. That is the most realistic timeline for some sense of normalcy in the parks as best as I can guesstimate.

I know if Disney is reading this that’s not the answer they want to hear, but it is true. Don’t get me wrong, the current experience is great. At the same time though, if you are planning your one big yearly trip to the parks or a first time trip to the parks with your family, it’s not the experience I’d want you to have. No matter how hard Disney is working to make the experience as amazing as they can and they’re doing quite well, better opportunities to go are on the horizon. That’s the realistic answer.

What’s My Travel Recommendation Going into the New Year?

Three things are important to note about this…

Don’t Book Anything That Can’t Be Canceled/Modified

Do not book anything that can’t be canceled or moved. Be very cognizant of rebooking fees or getting trapped into an allotted dollar amount with a given company. Even Delta right now, a company I’ve put a lot of faith in this year and raved about in depth, has a stipulation that if you change a flight you’re issued a flight credit. I don’t believe a refund is an option. Don’t quote me on that but let’s just say I ended up with some flight credits after June re-bookings.

The discount travel sites are notorious for this kind of stuff. They throw out a rate of 60%+ off of rack rates and then require no cancellation. Things are changing rapidly right now. Don’t get caught in that stipulation. Also be wary of some points based stays with credit card points. Many of those are “no cancellation” rates. I will say that Hilton Honors has always been really good about offering free cancellation outside of a certain window (24-48 hours out) and they’re not asking me to say that (I wish they were lol).

Be Flexible

Flexibility with Disney and travel in general right now is key. It sounds obvious but please realize that this is all still very new to everyone and changing every day. Disney is still testing new menus at some locations (some good… some… well… not so good). Be flexible within reason and realize that the cast member you’re interacting with is likely just a person happy to have a job after the company cut so many positions.

Morale as a whole is a tough thing for any employer right now and Disney is certainly no exception. What many guests may not realize is that there are eyes watching this cast and the leaders making decisions closer than they have likely ever faced. One wrong step and it will be plastered on the news or likely used against them in trying to get the west coast parks back open. Unfortunately that’s the reality of the situation. So when a meal arrives, a line is long, or an experience isn’t quite as magical as it once was, be kind to the cast member, make your frustrations known, and then be kind to the cast member again. They are people at the end of the day and some of them people I’m happy to call friends.

Manage Expectations

Last but certainly not least, manage the expectations you have. Realize that no matter how good Disney is, they’re also a company trying to make ends meet and generate dollars at the end of the day. Don’t roll into your resort expecting things to be exactly as they were. It just can’t be that way and it’s easy for us to get frustrated by simple things they aren’t doing and simple things that they are doing. The value of the experience hinges on managing what you expect out of the opportunity to be there.

As I like to say, caring about people matters, and there’s no better example than spending time with those you care the most about at Walt Disney World and the Disney Parks. The people make our dreams and best memories in life a reality. Nothing can ever change that.

Looking to Travel at the Moment?

If you want or simply need a little bit of planning help to make your Disney vacation dream a reality, check out the quote request form below this article from our friends over at Destinations to Travel. They’ll let you do as much or as little of the planning as you’d like and may even save you some money along the way! As always, thanks for supporting those who support us. As an added bonus, they will work with you when unexpected things arise during your trip or before your journey to the parks. That help can be invaluable when booking or if a flight gets canceled or other oddity pops up. 

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