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A Lot Is Changing at Disney World This Week

By Rick Munarriz – Dec 20, 2021 at 11:55AM

Key Points

  • With schools out for winter break, Disney World is bracing for its busiest two-week stretch in the past two years.
  • The return of parking lot tram service and a popular stunt show should help make visits easier.
  • Disney World is also temporarily tweaking some of its offerings.

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The world's most-visited theme park resort is bracing for a seasonal surge in visitors, and some long overdue attractions are returning.

Something old, something new, something borrowed, and something blue: The old wedding checklist fittingly applies to Walt Disney's (DIS -1.83%) busiest theme park resort these days. Disney World is gearing up for the holiday travel season, and bracing for an inflow of guests at levels it hasn't seen in two years.

The media giant's theme parks have recently been a bright spot in its financials. The parks, experiences and products segment surprised Wall Street by returning to profitability two quarters ago, and revenue from the parks specifically nearly tripled in the quarter that ended Oct. 2. There may have been some speed bumps along the way, but the House of Mouse is making sure that Disney World is ready for the spike in business. Let's check out some of the things that are changing this week.

Mickey and Minnie in front of the Magic Kingdom's castle at Disney World.

Image source: Disney.

Something old

If you heard blasts coming from Disney's Hollywood Studios shortly after noon on Sunday, there was no need to panic. It was just the sound of The Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular show returning to the park for the first time since the resort's pandemic closure began in mid-March 2020. Due to a combination of health concerns and staffing challenges, the company has been slow to resume live shows since the park reopened. However, they have been gradually returning to the resort's four gated theme parks, and the Indiana Jones-themed extravaganza is a pretty big deal given the show's large capacity. If your goal is to keep a seasonally expanded crowd of visitors spread throughout the park complex, you'll want to have plenty of things for them to do.

Another welcome return this weekend was parking lot tram service. Trams play a big part in moving guests from the massive parking lots to the front gate. With all the walking that most guests do once they pass through that gate, they'll no doubt be pleased to be spared the often lengthy hikes to and from their cars.

Also, for these next two weeks, Disney World is widening its operating hours a bit. Normally, guests staying at select Disney resorts are able to access the park 30 minutes before the official opening. Over the holiday period, they'll be able to enter a full hour early. This should help reduce the early gridlock at the turnstiles -- definitely a good thing.  

Something new

This is Disney World's first holiday season with the Genie, Genie+, and Lightning Lane+ system, which it introduced two months ago. The new in-park optimization app and the more controversial premium-priced replacement for the old FastPass system find Disney raising the bar when it comes to  using machine learning to provide more customized recommendations. 

Guests can use Genie for free, but have to pay $15 a day for access to Genie+, which allows them to reserve return windows for access to the expedited Lightning Lane queues that have replaced the old FastPass system. And for the two rides in each of the complex's four parks that command the longest wait times, Disney has added what it calls the Lightning Lane+ -- guests can pay an additional surcharge for one-time access to one of those expedited queues. 

For the next two weeks, though, Disney will be shifting a couple of the attractions from the Lightning Lane+ system into the Genie+ platform. It might seem as if Disney is leaving money on the table by doing this during its busiest time of the year, but there's a method to the mouse-ness. Genie+ has been criticized by first-time users who find key return windows fill up quickly. Adding some of the Lighting Lane+ rides to the Genie+ options will help increase supply at a time when demand will be surging.

Something borrowed

Disney World suspended most annual pass sales to new buyers four weeks ago. That was a pretty surprising move in Florida, but it's a strategy that has been in use at Disneyland in California for years. 

Annual pass holders are among the resorts' biggest fans, but they're also paying between $1 and $4 a day for year-round access. That's a sharp contrast to the high prices that guests buying one-day tickets have to pay. Disney also recently tweaked its annual pass system, among other things adding more blackout dates during peak periods to the less expensive options. Suspending annual pass sales -- and putting more restrictions on when they can be used -- will make sure that Disney World's average revenue per guest this season is a lot higher than it has been in previous years.

Something blue

The unfortunate backdrop to all of this is that COVID-19 cases are surging again in Florida, around the country, and across the planet. The omicron variant is highly contagious, even among folks who have been fully vaccinated. 

Disney World isn't going to close down, though. It has already learned to deal with the swings in COVID-19 case counts since it reopened in July of last year. It has safeguards in place, and measures that it can take that have generally worked to allow it to operate safely in the new normal. Guests will still come, and as the top dog in the entertainment industry, Disney knows -- the show must go on.

Rick Munarriz owns Walt Disney. The Motley Fool owns and recommends Walt Disney. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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