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Disney World News: AP Freebie, Ticket Deal, Character Selfie Spot & Guest Satisfaction Up?!

We’re back with a big Walt Disney World news roundup. Among other topics, this one covers expanded & added park hours through June 2021, spring break at EPCOT, lighting enhancements to Spaceship Earth & Grauman’s, ticket discounts, an Orange Bird freebie, physically distanced selfie spots with Minnie & Mickey Mouse, and more.

Let’s start with an update on new and extended park hours as Walt Disney World’s spring break season continues. All four theme parks, Disney Springs, and Blizzard Beach have had hours for another week added to the DisneyWorld.com park hours calendar. These now extend to June 5, 2021. Hours are the same for all dates:

  • Magic Kingdom: 9 am to 6 pm
  • EPCOT: 11 am to 7 pm
  • Hollywood Studios: 9 am to 7 pm
  • Animal Kingdom: 9 am to 5 pm
  • Blizzard Beach: 11 am to 6 pm
  • Disney Springs: 10 am to 10 pm (11 pm on weekends)

Park Hopping times for those and all dates remain from 2 pm until park close; that’s quite the range given Animal Kingdom closes at 5 pm and Magic Kingdom closes at 10 pm on certain dates. Also note that beginning on May 23, 2021, Disney’s Hollywood Studios begins opening at 9 am daily instead of 10 am. As usual, there are also extensions to hours for select dates at specific parks…

From April 4 to 10, 2021 all four parks at Walt Disney World have received significant extensions:

  • Magic Kingdom: 8 am to 9 pm (previously 9 am to 6 pm)
  • EPCOT: 11 am to 11 pm (previously 11 am to 7 pm)
  • Hollywood Studios: 9 am to 8 pm (previously 10 am to 7 pm)
  • Animal Kingdom: 8 am to 8 pm (previously 9 am to 5 pm)

Significant extensions here, but standard for the week following Easter. The only minor surprise here is that April 11, 2021 was not also extended. That’s the last day of peak spring break season, and should be every bit as crowded as the days immediately before it.

What April 11 still having the boilerplate/placeholder hours underscores is that Walt Disney World’s park hour releases and extensions are formulaic. Hours are typically released or extended by the week, which ends in Saturday, without regard for crowd or attendance trends beyond that.

This is significant because we’ve heard from several readers recently looking at the park hours calendar months down the road, trying to draw conclusions about crowds. Walt Disney World still has not updated hours for a Sunday three weeks from now that will unquestionably be busy–we know that, they know that. The current hours for May and June 2021 are utterly meaningless and in no way reflective of crowd forecasts.

Speaking of spring break, we visited EPCOT over the weekend to check out some new things. Although we’ve been tracking wait times from the comfort of home, this was our first spring break visit to the parks.

It wasn’t too bad. Busier than the last couple of months (save for Mardi Gras), but not as congested as we anticipated based on last Christmas season. It would be premature to draw sweeping conclusions from one visit, but our guess is that loading more rows of ride vehicles has helped a bit with the “feels like” crowds. Wait time data also supports this hypothesis.

Our main motivation for visiting was the new physically distanced selfie spot with Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in the EPCOT entrance plaza.

Pluto and Goofy also appear throughout the day, but we didn’t see them.

This is a solid addition, and one that is proving quite popular with spring break crowds. Throughout our time in the main entrance plaza, there were always several parties waiting for selfies or photos with the characters.

It’s a bit surprising that it has taken Walt Disney World so long to deploy this concept. RunDisney has done distanced selfie spots for years, and the Winnie the Pooh characters outside Crystal Palace have proven popular since last summer. Clearly guests want more character “interactions” like this.

We also checked out the 2021 EPCOT Eggstravaganza scavenger hunt that debuted over the weekend.

If you want the prize, the cost is $8.

Here’s what should be a spoiler-free photo of one of the eggs. If you can identify that location, you have quite the astute eye…and will thus have no problem finding the eggs.

I’m not sure what the prize is, as we did a “self-guided version for cheapskates who don’t need trinkets.” It would be savvy if Disney made the prize that Spike the Bee spork that they’re otherwise going to be selling for the next decade.

Speaking of sporks, the “coveted” Star Wars spork is once again available for purchase (limited to one spork per person) at Docking Bay 7 Food and Cargo in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge. It even comes with a travel pouch perfect for keeping it safe as you explore infinity and beyond.

I’ll level with you: I do not get the appeal of this at all. I didn’t get it when people were stealing them from Disneyland and trying to sell them for absurd amounts on eBay, and I certainly don’t get buying this thing for $11. I don’t have anything against sporks, but I’m also not bothered by forks and spoons being separate utensils. To each their own, though. If Star Wars sporks spark joy for you, have fun with it!

In other news, Walt Disney World is working on some lighting upgrades happening at Disney’s Hollywood Studios and EPCOT. Imagineering is testing out new lighting on Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, plus the return of spotlights beckoning guests to the premiere of the latest Mickey Mouse short at Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway.

Per Imagineering, “this is a culmination of years of work by our teams to bring ‘premiere night, every night’ energy to this iconic golden age of Hollywood architecture.” Not to be too cynical or snide, but how on earth does it take “years of work” to add spotlights to a building? I’m not sure that’s something about which I’d boast.

Back at EPCOT, Imagineering teased work on the “Beacon of Magic” lighting debuting at Spaceship Earth on October 1, 2021 as part of Walt Disney World’s 50th Anniversary celebration. Above is a first look at one of the points of light, as overnight teams test fit the first of these fixtures before starting installation at the top and working down.

Per Imagineering, the team “has been hard at work innovating the design and technology for this poetic and inspirational lighting concept.” Again, not to be too cynical or snide, but what they call poetic and inspirational looks to me like a push puck light. Guess I didn’t realize our cheap closet lighting solution was so ingenious and inspirational!

The other aim of our EPCOT visit was checking out the Easter Eggs at Disney’s Yacht and Beach Club Resorts.

The displays are a bit scaled back this year, but given that we were expecting nothing, even this is a huge win in our view. As we discuss in our updated 2021 Guide to Easter at Walt Disney World, it also bodes well for future holidays and more returning. Incremental progress!

Next, Walt Disney World is offering Annual Passhodlers a special discount on 1-Day Water Park Tickets: only $49 plus tax. This means you can save up to $20 per ticket for adult and $10 per ticket for kids.

As covered in our Blizzard Beach Reopening Report, we had a great time at the water park…but it was dead. That was likely a byproduct of the weather, but also that the vast majority of Annual Passholders no longer have water park access. We’ll be back once the weather gets a bit nicer to see whether Blizzard Beach is busier.

In celebration of the 2021 Taste of EPCOT International Flower & Garden Festival, an Orange Bird magnet will be mailed to active Annual Passholders sometime in early summer. (Limit of two magnets per household.)

We only receive about half of our AP communications from Walt Disney World, so hopefully that means we’ll get one! Joking aside, it’s really nice to see Walt Disney World sending these out to APs. Kudos on this gesture. I am sort of surprised they’re not requiring an offseason weekday visit to EPCOT, but am very happy we won’t have to wait in what would surely be a long line for this!

Finally, Disney CEO Bob Chapek recently did an interview with Bloomberg and discussed a wide range of topics. Among other things, these included Disney+, ESPN+, theme park demand, brand trust, and the future of technology at the parks (again hinting that theme park reservations could stick around).

The most buzzed-about topic among Walt Disney World fans has been Chapek’s statement that guest satisfaction scores have improved since the parks reopened, with guests having more satisfaction than prior to the closure. He also mentioned a “reemergence scenario” in which the “magic is even greater for our guests when they do come back to the parks.”

On a somewhat similar note, I’ve heard sentiment essentially boiling down to high-level leadership within the Walt Disney Company being satisfied with current performance of Walt Disney World. There are concerns that said leadership will use the current numbers to justify maintaining a reduced slate of entertainment, nighttime spectaculars, etc.

To be sure, this is superficially plausible. Anyone who has been a Walt Disney World fan for the last 5+ years has seen this play out even pre-closure. I don’t doubt for a second that certain executives salivate at the prospect of axing more entertainment. However, I would not extrapolate anything from current trends.

For one thing, current attendance is, at most, 35% of full capacity. Don’t misconstrue Chapek’s carefully crafted message: the parks are not profitable. They are making a net positive contribution towards fixed costs, which is to say that they are losing less money by being open than they would lose by being closed. Despite appearances and anecdotal observations during spring break, 35% of full capacity is not a healthy number of guests or good target. To the contrary, it is unsustainable.

While it’s true that we don’t know what organic spring break attendance would’ve looked like without the attendance cap, we do know that most other dates last year and so far this year have not even hit 35%. Occupancy rates are also anemic and many hotels remain closed, having had their reopening dates pushed back due to low demand. Perhaps things will change this summer and fall, but so far, the argument that “Walt Disney World is doing well despite cuts” is utterly unpersuasive. Attendance is mostly weak–for a variety of reasons.

As for guest satisfaction scores, those can likewise easily be explained away. It’s fair to say that there are objective upsides to the post-reopening lower crowd levels and shorter wait times. There’s no denying that guests enjoy those things. However, those advantages won’t last once attendance picks up.

Moreover, there’s a ton of self-selection bias occurring. There are so many warnings and disclaimers on DisneyWorld.com that they literally take up the top half of the page. You have to see and acknowledge those multiple times before even booking a theme park reservation–there’s no way to not see the changes and temporary rules before visiting.

Consequently, most guests know what the modified Walt Disney World experience will entail and choose to visit anyway because they’re okay with the compromises. Guest satisfaction surveys are sent to those who attend the parks–not those who choose to stay home.

Perhaps more significantly, this is all happening against the backdrop of a pandemic and incredibly divisive climate. Disney’s surveys don’t ask “how much has the last year sucked for you?” and use that to grade on a curve. But it’s probably not a stretch to say the last 12 months have been among the worst (if not the worst) of our lifetimes. Is it thus really any surprise that people are giving high marks to escapism?

We can only speak for ourselves, but two of the best days we’ve ever had at Walt Disney World occurred last year–our first stay back at Disney’s BoardWalk Inn and our first day back in Magic Kingdom. Our guest satisfaction scores for both would’ve been through the roof. While Disney certainly played a role in that, the larger change was in us. We really savored the experience and didn’t take it for granted. I’m guessing this is along the lines of what Chapek is suggesting with his “reemergence scenario.”

Beyond that, our overall satisfaction at Walt Disney World from last summer through the present has honestly been higher than the 12 months prior to that. That’s partly because of my aforementioned newfound appreciation for the parks, and not taking anything for granted. It’s also because a lot of the stuff that has been cut doesn’t matter a ton to us, and on balance, we prefer enjoying the parks with lower crowds.

If I did highly value all of that temporarily unavailable stuff, I simply wouldn’t visit Walt Disney World right now. Judging by readers and commenters on this blog, that’s exactly what people are doing–visiting now or postponing trips based on their circumstances and priorities. This is not really profound insight nor is the reality that it impacts guest satisfaction scores.

It’s also fair to say that, although Walt Disney World is not grading guest satisfaction scores on a curve, fans are doing exactly that. In normal times, I would not be okay with so much of what has been cut. However, for the time being some of that gets a pass given the real world circumstances. If those same things remain absent beyond mid-summer, I’ll be far less forgiving.

Ultimately, my strong suspicion is that Chapek was posturing for Bloomberg, trying to put his best spin on the theme parks’ performance for the sake of Wall Street, tailoring his message for that audience, and telling them what they want to hear. That isn’t to say his statements don’t concern me. It’s always possible that Disney leadership truly believes that attendance or guest satisfaction scores are strong and will hold at that level on the merits of the current theme park offerings or in light of pent-up demand. In such a scenario, it could take longer for entertainment and other components of the guest experience to be restored. However, guest satisfaction will also plummet in the process and park offerings will be corrected over time.

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

What do you think of this Walt Disney World news? Analysis on Chapek’s statements about guest satisfaction scores? Thoughts on what another extension to park hours means for spring break? Excited for the free Orange Bird Annual Passholder magnet? Thoughts on the physically distanced selfie spots? Do you agree or disagree with our assessments? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback—even when you disagree with us—is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

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