Why is Walt Disney World STILL Requiring Theme Park Reservations?

If you are in the middle of planning your first Walt Disney World vacation since the pandemic began, we regret to inform you that you are in for a couple of extra steps…Okay, a lot of extra steps.

When Disney Parks and Resorts first reopened in the summer of 2020, state and local governments enacted restrictions aimed at keeping both Guests and Cast Members safe. We probably do not need to remind you of the days of social distancing and mask requirements, but this era of the pandemic is really the root of why some of the logistics of planning a Disney vacation are operating a certain way today.


Credit: Disney

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With capacity limits out of Disney’s control for the remainder of 2020, the Resort implemented a reservation system not unlike what nearly every other business type across all industries was doing at the time. As government restrictions lifted, however, and later as Disney lifted distancing and face mask policies, only a couple of remnants of the “new normal” way of doing things remained; theme park reservations, restrictions on Park Hopping, and a pause on sales of new Annual Passes.

For most Guests, theme park reservations and the restrictions on Park Hopping (basically that it is unavailable until 2:00 p.m. and you must check-in to the Park of your original reservation first) have become a step in the planning process that they begrudgingly deal with because they have to. If it isn’t loved by Guests, and if its benefit (at least from the Guest perspective) is questionable, why then is Disney World still requiring reservations?

Characters / Cinderella Castle - 50th Anniversary

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

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During the recent Wall Street Journal Tech Live conference, Disney CEO Bob Chapek continued to praise the theme park reservation system as a benefit to both the company and to the Guest experience.

In the interview, Chapek shared:

So what we developed during the COVID shutdown is a reservation system so we can plan like every other business out there, like an airline that’s got fixed capacity, an airline, hotel, cruise industry….We developed a reservation system so people would know ahead of time whether they were going to get in or not.

As we’ve touched on time and time again here on Disney Tips, this logic that the system is beneficial so Guests know whether or not they will be able to enter a theme park seems questionable. Prior to the pandemic, there were very few days where a Park would be filled to capacity and therefore stop allowing more Guests to enter (notably Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.)

Disney CEO Bob Chapek During D23

Credit: Disney

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And, when these rare scenarios did occur, the Parks operated on a phased closing system. The first phase blocked Annual Passholders from entering the Park, the same audience that today is currently unable to purchase Annual Passes as new sales are still paused.

Chapek and other Walt Disney Company executives like CFO Christine McCarthy have also praised the system for its ability to give Disney control over managing capacity to provide a greater Guest experience. According to McCarthy during the last Walt Disney Company Earnings Call, the Resort has continued to see more demand than reservations available due to the intentionally set capacity limits.

Whether or not we feel that the system works when we visit the Parks as Guests, it seems there are two clear motivators to keeping the Park Pass Reservation System (and Park Hopping restriction) from a business perspective: One is that the reservation system surely saves the company on staffing costs. By knowing exactly how many Guests will visit a Park on a given day, the company knows exactly how much staff is needed, and this is likely crucial to operations at a time when nearly every industry is still experiencing major staffing shortages.

Entrance to the Magic Kingdom during the holidays

As for Park Hopping, it is possible that the reservation system is coercing some Guests into purchasing Park Hoppers who otherwise would have purchased base tickets. For instance, if Disney’s Hollywood Studios has no reservations available, but riding Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is the #1 must-do on your next Disney vacation, and especially if you fall into the category of “once in a lifetime/once every five years” visitor, you will be likely to purchase Park Hoppers and bank on the fact that you can enter the Park after 2:00 p.m. when you might have otherwise purchased a base ticket.

Of course, we have no definitive way of knowing how many Guests are falling into this logic. But given the numerous comments on social media of Guests only checking into their first Park of the day (where their reservation was made) so they can leave and Park Hop to the one they actually want to visit, we imagine it is a weighty amount.


Credit: Disney

RELATED: Bob Chapek Continues to Defend Park Reservations & Limits on Annual Passes

Despite the company’s stance that theme park reservations benefit Guests, you as the Guest may feel differently. Unfortunately, it does not seem like the system will come to an end anytime soon (if at all), so here is our best advice as you plan your next trip.

Check for theme park reservations prior to purchasing your tickets. While the Disneyland website has been updated with a helpful feature that allows Guests to make reservations while purchasing their tickets, Walt Disney World visitors have not been so lucky. Your reservations will need to be made after your tickets are purchased, so we recommend checking that the Parks you want to visit are available before buying anything.

Upgrade to Park Hopper tickets during your trip if you are not able to get the reservations you want. Rather than purchasing a week of Park Hoppers when you just want that one day in Hollywood Studios after it’s been sold out, head over to Guest Relations during your trip to upgrade your tickets.

We hope this helps you make the most of your trip while theme park reservations are still a thing at Walt Disney World. Best of luck with your planning, and have a magical vacation!

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."