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Have You Abandoned Disney World for Universal? You Aren’t Alone…

Price increases have been prevalent around the Walt Disney World Resort recently. Between added costs, and the continued pause on Annual Pass sales, temporary closures of some attractions, shops, and restaurants (due to the pandemic), and more, the latest theme park attendance report is telling.

In particular, large numbers of Guests who in the past might have planned their Central Florida vacations around Walt Disney World now seem to be leaning toward the Resort’s primary competitor, Universal Orlando.

sunset-boulevard-hollywood-studios

Credit: Disney Tips

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As Walt Disney World continues to recover from its Resort-wide closure at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, some events and experiences at the property have sold out due to pent-up demand (and with capacity limits that allow for fewer Guests following g the pandemic.) In particular, the theme park reservation system regularly shows dates with no availability for Guests to plan a last-minute trip to the Parks, and Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party sold out for the entire season for the first time ever.

Still, the latest TEA/AECOM Theme Index shows a bigger picture, particularly in that Universal Orlando is beginning to surpass Disney World in terms of estimated theme park attendance. (Disney does not publicly release attendance numbers, so the data in the index is estimated.)

Universal Annual Pass

Credit: Click Orlando

According to the report, both of Universal Orlando’s theme parks (Universal Studios Florida and Islands of Adventure) are estimated to have taken in more Guests in 2021 than three of Disney’s Parks.) While the Magic Kingdom remained the most visited theme park at an estimated 12.7 million visitors, EPCOT, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom all saw viewer visitation than Universal Orlando.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios led the three additional Disney Parks with 8.6 million Guests, followed by EPCOT with 7.7 million, and Disney’s Animal Kingdom with 7.2 million. Islands of Adventure had an estimated 9 million Guests, followed very closely by Universal Studios Florida with 8.9 million.

Characters / Cinderella Castle - 50th Anniversary

Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom (Credit: Disney)

Early on in the pandemic, nearly every theme park followed similarly strict capacity limits, which at times were required by state and local governments. As city and state restrictions were lifted, Universal was ahead of the curve in removing additional COVID-19 precautions, which could have impacted some of Disney’s estimated lower attendance. Moreover, while we finally began to see more availability in the theme park reservation system at Disney World throughout 2022, for most of the previous year capacity was further limited.

In comparing this data with the impact of COVID-19, we would also point out that the Magic Kingdom’s attendance for the last full pre-pandemic year (2019) reached almost 22 million, roughly 40% more than 2021’s numbers. Of course, Disney has been upfront with its capacity limitations over the past couple of years, with CEO Bob Chapek regularly praising the reservation system and defending the pause on new Annual Pass sales, as a way to provide better service to Guests.

Animal Kingdom

Credit: MyNews 13

Alternatively, many fans are feeling burnt out by the capacity restrictions, and especially the Park Hopping restrictions for Disney theme parks (where they cannot enter their second Park until 2:00 p.m.) We also have to wonder how much of Disney’s pre-set capacity limits remain in place primarily due to ongoing staffing challenges, with the improved Guest experience being more of a side effect than the reason for limits in the first place.

In any case, if you passed up Disney for a trip to Universal last year, or at least opted for a day in Islands of Adventure over Animal Kingdom, it seems you are not alone. Disney is continuing to reopen experiences that closed with the pandemic (with Fantasmic! next to return) and the Resort’s newest coaster is coming online by spring 2023, however, Universal’s Epic Universe is also in the works and set for a 2025 opening, (so Disney may want to add to its capacity and/or offer several new experiences within the next three years…)

We will continue to monitor attendance trends at Walt Disney World, and will report back with updates here on Disney Tips.

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."