First off, let’s talk about what it means for a park to be crowded. It’s a very subjective topic that we try to quantify for RideRouter using the average wait time. This doesn’t tell you how many people are walking around the park, sitting in restaurants, or watching a parade. But since Disney doesn’t release daily attendance numbers, it’s the most direct way we can represent numerically what is happening in the park. One step in our process for making wait time predictions in Ride Router is to build crowd calendar on a scale of 1 to 10, and then look at what each ride will do for a given crowd rating. But its important to remember how the crowds on low capacity days are different than on high capacity days.
This number really doesn’t tell you how many people are in the park. If Disney only runs two trains on Thunder Mountain, they may be able to get 800 people through the ride in an hour. If Disney runs three trains, they could get 1200 people through in an hour. You can only fit so many trains on the ride at a time – they have to be spaced out due to load times and safety concerns – but the number of trains on the track makes a huge difference.
So, if you walk up to Thunder Mountain, and the posted wait time is half an hour, how many people are in line? Without knowing how many trains are running, it’s hard to say for sure. The half hour could mean that there are 400 people in front of you, and two trains or running. Or it could mean 600 people are in front of you, and three trains are running. So a “crowded” day could mean that Disney has a few extra ride vehicles down for maintenance, or it could mean that there are a lot of people. On the busiest of days, Disney will typically run their maximum number of trains. So high crowd ratings will typically mean lots of people, while low crowd ratings are more ambiguous.
Some rides have an hourly throughput that doesn’t change this same way. Omnimovers like the Haunted Mansion and spinners like the Mad Tea Party or Astro Orbiter have basically the same number of vehicles running each ride through (the exception is if a vehicle is roped off). If crowds are low, these rides just run with empty seats. But just by looking at wait times, it’s hard to know if the wait time is how long you wait for your turn, or how long you wait for the next ride cycle to start. So, again, high crowd ratings mean lots of people, but lower ratings don’t give quite as much data about how many people are in the park.
What this means is that wait times tell you more about busy days than they do about slow days. Since theme park operators, including Disney, are limiting daily attendance in order to encourage social distancing, crowds will be low. But that won’t necessarily translate to low wait times. Disney will have to adapt to a new way of operating. Do you have to leave every other row empty? Every other seat? This could drastically change the hourly capacities. Disney is likely going to adjust the number of vehicles in operation as well. Running more vehicles adds an extra cost, which may not be justified with the lower attendance.
Virtual queues (including FastPass) are one way that Disney has cut down on the number of people in stand-by lines. It means people are free to wander the park, go shopping, sit down for a nice meal, or enjoy a parade while waiting in line. Since Disney World has announced that they will not be using FastPass+ when the parks reopen, more people will be waiting in the stand-by lines. Without a FastPass queue, the stand-by will move faster, but there will be more people in it. This will help to keep walk ways clear of extra crowds.
With Disney World opening soon and limiting capacity, many people expect the wait times are going to be very low. Attendance will likely hover around a 2. However, with fewer seats being filled and fewer ride vehicles operating, we expect the crowds to feel more like a 3 or 4 out of 10. As parks reopen, we’ll adapt our models to improve our predictions. But generally, there likely will be more people in lines and fewer people walking around the park. This also makes sense because it is easier to encourage social distancing in lines where they can mark 6 foot gaps rather than have people just wandering around the park. We expect the early days of the reopening to be a great time to get pictures that aren’t filled with photo-bombers.