Friday, July 15, 2022

Is Epcot Becoming Too Top Heavy?


When most people think about Walt Disney World, they think of attractions.  And while Disney is so much more than just attractions, it is the reason that the vast majority of people fork over their hard earned money and spend their precious vacation time there.  With four parks, there is certainly a lot to do.

But when you look at each park's attraction selection, there is quite a disparity.  Magic Kingdom leads the way - it's chock full of attractions for all ages.  It's the park that most people spend more than one vacation day visiting (and matches our recommendation of spending two days here if you can spare it - this makes for a more leisurely touring schedule as opposed to trying to cram everything in during one day).  They also have a lot of classic rides and not as many new, showstopper attractions (Seven Dwarfs Mine Train was really the most recent one, though Tron Lightcycle Run will certainly be one whenever it opens).

On the other hand, the other three parks combined barely have as many attractions as Magic Kingdom does.  This creates some issues that manifest themselves in different ways.  Animal Kingdom, for example, has a low ride count, and in their case, it leads people to spend less time there, whether that means rope dropping and leaving mid-afternoon, or doing the reverse and showing up later and staying till close.  Either way, right now Animal Kingdom has a reputation as "half day" park.  This could change if Disney took my suggestion for how to fix Dinoland, but I digress.

Epcot and Hollywood Studios are a different story.  Epcot has been dealing with a large scale renovation for years now, and that renovation is still ongoing.  But the reason I thought about the idea for this post was how Epcot compares to Hollywood Studios, and if they're following the same pattern that park did as it underwent its own transformation.  So before we discuss Epcot, we have to look at Hollywood Studios.

Hollywood Studios is the hardest park to plan in Walt Disney World.  This park has undergone a lot of changes in recent years - Toy Story Land opened in June 2018, Star Wars Galaxy's Edge opened in August 2019, and Mickey and Minnie's Runaway Railway (while not a land unto itself, the ride has a place of prominence in the park) opened at the unfortunate time of March 2020.  That's a lot of change in only a couple of years.

In the time leading up to Toy Story Land's opening, Hollywood Studios was certainly the "half day park" on a given vacation.  There just wasn't a whole lot open, and it was headlined by two thrill rides (Tower of Terror and Rock N Roller Coaster) that had been around for a while and didn't appeal to families with young kids.  

Since 2018, though, Hollywood Studios has enjoyed a renaissance of sorts, with at least five new rides opening as mentioned above.  As is the case with most new attractions, these instantly became some of the most popular in the park.  But since they all came so close together and because there wasn't a whole lot of smaller attractions or shows underneath that (or at least, not ones which locals hadn't experience many times over), Hollywood Studios began to have a different problem - it became top heavy.

When I say top heavy in this context, I mean that there were a small number of rides that took up the vast majority of the wait times in the park.  It was a park made up of mostly headliners.  Even now, when looking at Thrill Data, there have been seven rides this month (July 2022) that have an average wait time of 60 minutes or more (technically Tower of Terror was only at 58 minutes, but that's a negligible difference for our purposes).  

With meet and greets returning, this has alleviated some of the congestion at the park, but it remains a park of mostly headliners.  This makes it difficult to plan around and leads to frustrated guests.  There has been more entertainment returning in recent months, but it doesn't appear to be enough to ease the waits at the headliner rides.  Staffing is still an issue at Walt Disney World, and added capacity, even in the form of restaurant seatings, would probably help there as well.

This all brings us back to Epcot.  Frozen Ever After had opened in 2016, but until recently, that had been the most recent big addition to the park.  Epcot was often the least attended of the four parks, and though they had some good headliner attractions, there wasn't often a massive crush to ride those.  In other words, a day at Epcot was very manageable, especially compared to Hollywood Studios.

Things have begun to change recently.  Remy's Ratatouille Adventure opened in October 2021, adding some much needed capacity to World Showcase. And most recently, Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind opened in May 2022, a groundbreaking attraction that will draw crowds for years to come.  Combined with Epcot's other headliners (Frozen, Test Track and Soarin' Around the World), the question then became - has Epcot become too top heavy, like Hollywood Studios before it?

So far the answer is no.  When looking at Thrill Data again, only three attractions averaged a 60 minute wait or longer so far this month.  The biggest beneficiary of the newer rides seems to be Soarin', which is now comfortably the fourth busiest ride at the park.  One caveat here is that Guardians still doesn't have a standby line, which means there is no "wait time" data for that ride.  Once that changes, that will result in a seismic shift in wait times, as Guardians will reach the rarified status that Rise of the Resistance holds at Hollywood Studios (all the more reason to catch it now while the virtual queue is active).  

One of the reasons Epcot hasn't fallen into the same pattern as Hollywood Studios is that there are more "lower level" attractions spread throughout the park.  There is also a variety of entertainment options. Epcot is also the park most frequented by locals during festival seasons (which are almost all the time now) so even if the crowds feel larger, a lot of those people are visiting Food and Wine booths, for example, rather than riding Spaceship Earth.

Another component to the crowd situation at Epcot is that guests are more spread out physically.  Epcot has a large, definitive pattern that moves guests to different areas of the park.  Hollywood Studios on the other hand has the smallest footprint of any park, and there's just not enough space to put people if they're not on line.  This makes it a much more difficult experience to traverse.

Epcot's transformation is still not complete, and unfortunately some of the more ambitious aspects have been scaled back.  But the park should look great once completed, and it appears that the crowd situation will be much more balanced than some of the other parks.  This should allow Epcot to reclaim its place as the number two park at Walt Disney World.

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