The Monthly Theme Park Thread Is All Full (Or Is It?)

You’re going to Disneyland!

That’s right, it’s vacation time! You’ve submitted your PTO request, found a petsitter, booked the hotel, got your plane tickets, and now you’re getting ready to purchase your park passes as well. Except that, halfway through the process, something pops up that you’ve never seen before. It looks like a calendar, with one of four different icons occupying the space below each individual date. And the weekend you had booked your trip around is populated with… three gray slashes. That seems ominous.

Trying to select those dates, you’re informed that there are no longer any ‘reservations’ available. Even though the day on which you’re requesting admission is still three weeks out, the park, it would appear, is full.

Oh, well… you WERE going to Disneyland.

The Disney Parks reservation system first went into effect in 2021, requiring guests to commit in advance to the dates on which they intend to visit their selected resort, as well as the specific park where they’ll first be scanning their ticket on each given day. While reservations can be made as part of the ticket-buying process, they are not required for purchase; it is entirely possible to be in possession of a Disney park ticket without having made a reservation, and it is therefore equally possible — albeit less likely — to arrive at a park’s front gate, bearing a ticket that you’ve already paid for, and still be denied entry.

The situation I described above is, I’ll admit, a somewhat fanciful scenario. In fact, as of Friday, Jan 13, when this column goes live, there isn’t a single sold-out day at any point in the foreseeable future for any of Disney’s six U.S. parks. But that isn’t always the case, as I can personally attest: in the lead-up to both of my two previous Disneyland trips in May and October of last year, things got dicey after one of my traveling companions dragged their feet a little too long and briefly appeared to have been shut out.

For people like me, who already have to make travel arrangements when visiting the parks, this new system is an added, arguably unnecessary source of stress, but not a dealbreaker. At Walt Disney World in particular, where I believe successfully planning a trip for more than two people automatically certifies you as a licensed travel agent, it’s just another thing to throw on the pile. But for California and Florida locals — and especially Annual Passholders, many of whom bought their Annual Passes precisely because they valued the ability to visit the parks on a whim — it can feel restrictive and insidious. In fact, Annual Passholders on both coasts have filed two different class-action lawsuits against Disney over aspects of the reservation system. In Florida, the grievance comes from the fact that reservations for single- or multi-day ticketholders tend to remain available much longer than they do on the AP reservation calendar. This suggests that Passholders, whose money Disney already has, are having their admission restricted more harshly than guests who are paying out-of-pocket. Meanwhile, the suit filed in California claims that Disney had illegally used this uneven distribution of reservations to deny entry to guests who had purchased a top-tier pass called the Dream Key, the main selling point of which was an unbroken, 365 day stretch of admission privileges.

Now, you may be asking yourself: if the reservation system has so many people this mad, why is Disney so committed to keeping it around? Disney leadership (and charitable fans) have offered a number of justifications for the reservation system over the last two years, usually relating to capacity management in some way. But the fact is, Disney parks can hold a LOT of people. Even in the Before Times of the late twenty-teens, they only ever reached their true capacity on a small handful of instances per year, almost always in the late afternoon of their absolute busiest days, like the 4th of July or New Year’s Eve. And while I have to give the Mouse House kudos for their overall handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, any of the people who stood in a 6-hour line to buy a Figment-shaped popcorn bucket at EPCOT this spring can tell you that Disney is no longer the least bit shy about letting that large number of people back in. There’s very little chance that lifting the reservation system at this point would make the parks any more crowded than they already are.

So if that’s not it — if they don’t actually care about how many people are in the park — what other reason could there possibly be for them to show such rigor in taking attendance? Well, the answer is quite simple.

To put it bluntly, advance knowledge of park attendance makes it that much easier to keep staffing at a bare minimum at all times, and thus avoid ‘wasting’ excess money on ‘redundant’ employees. This methodology doesn’t stop at payroll, either; I’ve heard stories of Cast Members on their lunch break being turned away from dining locations because the kitchens were told to stock exactly enough food to handle the day’s projected demand, and no more. And of course, with so many of Disney’s offerings moving to the flex pricing model (you know, the one we all know and love so much from airline travel), a clear picture of the upcoming week’s crowd levels can help the Parks Division’s resident number crunchers figure out how high they can set the price points for last-minute tickets or add-on services like Genie+. As with so many decisions Disney has made since 2020, guest satisfaction here comes a distant second to the endless massaging of profit margins.

And yet! There is a light at the end of the tunnel. For as we covered last month, Disney is in the midst of a regime change, and while Josh D’Amaro1 still seems committed to the reservation system in principle, there’s always the possibility that he won’t want to use it to quite the same penny-pinching extent as his old boss. In fact, just this week, it was announced that Annual Passholders at Walt Disney World will no longer need to make a reservation for entry, so long as they arrive at their desired park after 2 PM. Meanwhile, in California, the park-hopping threshold — that is, the point at which you can leave the park where you made your reservation and cross the Esplanade to the other one — has moved from 2 PM to 11 AM. It may still be a while before reservations vanish entirely, but these changes are certainly steps in the right direction. To again paraphrase Disneyland vlogger David Erickson at Fresh Baked Disney: the earlier guests can park hop, the less useful all of that reservation data becomes, and the more useless the reservation system is to Disney overall.

But I’ve talked enough — what do YOU all think!?

Feel free to use this space to discuss all things theme- or amusement park!

Optional Discussion Questions: Does your park of choice ask you to make reservations, or can you still buy your tickets at the gate? Do you think the reservation system helps or hurts the parkgoing experience?

And just for fun, in the spirit of Friday the 13th, what’s the worst string of bad luck you’ve ever had at a theme park?