OpEd: The Disney Park Pass System at Walt Disney World Needs an Overhaul

Disney Park Pass System

The Disney Park Pass system was introduced when the Walt Disney World Resort reopened following its closure at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. At the time, and even now at least in some parts of the country, the reservation system Disney uses is a fairly standard practice given the way travel and attractions have changed to handle crowds during the pandemic. Now, we have confirmation that the Park Pass system will be in place through at least 2024. Still, many Guests, myself included, feel that while the system was initially put in place to limit crowds and help with Guest and Cast Member safety, it has begun to feel like it only exists to better serve business needs.

Credit: Disney

When the system was first introduced, capacity was limited to less than half of the total attendance cap for each Disney park. Using a reservation system while attempting to limit capacity seems logical, where it is obviously frustrating for Guests to show up only to be turned away because a park is at capacity. (This is not an occurrence that would have regularly taken place prior to the pandemic however we have seen it on certain days of the year. For instance on Christmas day, Guests who have not arrived at the Magic Kingdom early enough in the past have been redirected to another park before reaching the parking area once the park is at capacity.)

With capacity limitations, the Park Pass system feels like a Guest service. If there were a chance that I’d be spending a lot of money on travel and a lot of time making dining reservations only to potentially arrive at a park that’s at capacity, the system feels like an added service to make planning my trip easier. At full capacity, however, the system just feels like an added step in a vacation that even for regular Guests already requires a fair amount of complicated steps.

Disney Park Pass Reservation

Credit: Disney

The current use of the Disney Park Pass system is not unlike other reservation systems in place at attractions, museums, and events in destinations across the country. Like Disney parks, many attractions and events adopted a reservation system to curb capacity during the pandemic, and now, while capacities have reached 100% in most industries and businesses, reservations are often still required.

Requiring reservations while operating at full capacity makes running a business easier at the cost of inconveniencing Guests. Reservations give businesses, Walt Disney World included, a head’s up on how many customers to expect on a given day. This helps them work out how many staff members they need on a given day, and how hours of either entire attractions or theme parks, or even individual restaurants, exhibits, and events within a given destination should run based on crowd levels.

Toy Story

Credit: Disney, Matt Stroshane, photographer

While the Walt Disney World experience on a whole is not geared to locals or annual passholders making last-minute trips, and while reservations have been much easier to come by lately, the system still just feels like an added step in planning that some Guests, myself included, are simply tired of.

As of writing this post, all Walt Disney World theme parks have reservations available through the end of this year, and due to the reservation system, Park Hopping is still limited to switching to one theme park after 2:00 pm based on availability.

Disney park Pass

Credit: Disney

I do not typically recommend hopping to more than two parks per day, but especially depending on where I’m staying, there have been times on past Disney trips where three parks felt sort of reasonable (ie: staying at the Disney’s Contemporary Resort and walking over to the Magic Kingdom for breakfast at Be Our Guest, hopping over to Animal Kingdom for most of the day, then ending the night with Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. This sort of scenario gives the greatest “value” for your park ticket, too, on a short trip, and is currently not possible with the reservation system. And with Fantasmic still not back, but that’s a topic for a different post!)

Assuming reservations truly are the “new normal” for all kinds of attractions, I understand why Disney would keep in line with industry standards and continue to require reservations. And, if the parks are operating at full capacity, and reservations are often available, it isn’t the biggest inconvenience from the Guest perspective, it just feels like an extra, unnecessary task.

Credit: Disney

Here’s how I think the reservations system could be fixed, though:

  • Require reservations only for the first park you visit each day. This would satisfy Disney’s business need of wanting data for how many Guests are visiting the parks.
  • Remove the Park Hopping limitations. After entering your first park, you can hop to another at any time, and visit more than two parks per day.
  • Automatically tie dining reservations and tours to the ability to access a park. While reservations do seem readily available now, I would still be cautious about booking something like a pre-paid backstage tour or credit card-guaranteed dining experience at a park I’m planning on hopping to. Assuming the above point was doable, this one may not be necessary but just in case, I would add in a clause that as long as you have a Park Hopper ticket, dining reservations and events you have booked effectively double as a second park pass reservation and guarantee you access to the park.

Another option would be to only operate with the Park Pass system during peak times of the year. Even with spring break coming up, the parks do not typically fill to capacity during those weeks. Keeping the system as is (or preferably implementing my above suggestions) but only making reservations a requirement during times like Christmas, New Year’s, and 4th of July also seems like a fair compromise.

For now, we’ll continue keeping you updated with any changes from the Walt Disney World reservation process, and even with capacity limits being lifted, we recommend making reservations early just in case!

About Brittany DiCologero

Brittany is a New England-based writer focused on the history of the Walt Disney World Resort. She is the author of "Red, White, and Disney: The Myths and Reality of American History at the Walt Disney World Resort," and "Brittany Earns Her Ears."

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