Has Walt Disney World Found the Solution to its Collapsing Attendance?

Several days ago Disney surprised guests by announcing that Friday, August 19 would be the first-annual PhotoPass Day, a one-time event that would allow guests to take free PhotoPass pictures at designated spots around Walt Disney World as well as get some shots with rare and hard-to-find characters at Epcot and the Magic Kingdom. The event certainly sounded like a lot of fun, and seemed like a great way for guests to celebrate the end of summer. However, something happened at this event earlier this week that Disney might not have initially expected: it was a smash hit!

Though the success of the first-annual PhotoPass Day basically ensures that this event will be back next year, we can’t help but wonder if the character element of this event (which was far more popular than the free PhotoPass offer or challenge component) could be brought back sooner in an effort to help stem the attendance losses that have been experienced by Walt Disney World in recent months. Let’s take a quick look at some things we learned thanks to this event:

1. Rare characters draw huge lines…when guests know about them

Image: Disney

Although Disney didn’t give fans a lot of notice for PhotoPass Day (it was announcedonly four days before it took place), it looks like it was enough, as fans looking to meet hard-to-find characters at the Magic Kingdom and Epcot were met with massive lines right from the start of the operating day. Mulan and Mushu at Epcot (the latter of which hasn’t appeared at Epcot for several years) proved to be especially popular, as guests lined up at park opening and sprinted directly to the World Showcase in order to be the first to get in line for this rare character experience.

As the day wore on, lines got to be pretty intense, with Pinocchio, Gideon and Foulfellow in Storybook Circus drawing 90-120 minute lines at the Magic Kingdom and the aforementioned meet and greet with Mushu and Mulan topping out at a truly outrageous three hours just for a single meet and greet (for those of you keeping track, the only other characters to command such a wait were Anna and Elsa back when Frozen frenzy was still gripping the nation).

Image: Disney

Now the obvious conclusion here is that guests really really like meeting rare characters. And while we don’t doubt that’s true, there’s a bit of a caveat here: they need to know about them first. Several months ago, Disney’s Hollywood Studiosquietly brought back a number of rare characters to the parks for meet and greets,including Max Goof and Bolt. And while guests who stumbled across these lesser-known character meet and greets stopped for a minute to take a picture, they didn’t exactly line up in droves to meet these characters like they did on PhotoPass Day.

Of course, the probable reason for this is because Disney didn’t announce these character meet and greet opportunities in advance, and certainly didn’t make an “event” out of them, which meant that these rare characters didn’t even get on to guests’ radar. However, with at least a little planning time, it has now been shown that guests are definitely willing to make special trips to Walt Disney World (and wait in ridiculously long lines) to meet rare characters. Which leads us to our next point…

2. Could limited-time events included with park admission be the key to solving Walt Disney World’s attendance woes?

If you visited a Walt Disney World theme park (other than the Magic Kingdom) this summer you probably were surprised by how empty the parks were during a period where there are normally wall-to-wall guests. However, if you visited Epcot on PhotoPass Day, you may have seen something you haven’t in quite a long time: a packed park!

Though guests may have bemoaned the big crowds and of course the intense heat during this event, the throngs of guests lining up to meet these characters was likely a welcome sight for Disney executives, who have been buckling down for an even slower fall season after 2016’s disappointing summer attendance. Couple this with the fact that Disney seems to be in something of a crisis mode, announcing nearly a dozen discounts and deals to try and get guests in to the park before the end of the year, and we can totally see how, after the success of this event, Disney may be thinking about implementing more “limited time” character days in the future.

And while no one wants a repeat of 2013/2014’s disastrous Unleash the Villains event, Disney could do several more of these small-scale events during the fall to help keep guests flowing into the park now that the dog days of summer are officially behind us.

Unleash the Villains

Image: Disney

However, it’s important to note that in order to reach the success of PhotoPass Day, any new event should be included with admission, as it has been shown that upcharge events simply don’t pull in guests in the same way that those included with admission do (Club Villain is a good example of an upcharge experience that has been well-recieved, but doesn’t draw a noticeable amount of guests to Disney’s Hollywood Studios).

While a large-scale event like the aforementioned Unleash the Villains might attract too many guests, by keeping things small and only bringing back a few rare characters at a time (the same way they did during Limited Time Magic’s Long Lost Friends campaign), Disney could continue to keep guest levels high, without flooding the parks and causing guest dissatisfaction.

How would you feel about Disney bringing rare characters back to Walt Disney World in a limited-time capacity (that is included with park admission and not part of an upcharge)? If Disney did decide to go through with such a plan, which lesser-known characters would you like to see brought back to the parks?

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Don Korta

Tina & Don Korta are the Owners of "Destinations with Character Travel Services, LLC., An Authorized Disney Vacation Planner” and “An Universal Orlando Authorized Retailer”, along with many other travel industry awards and certifications.
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