A longtime theme park fan, Hastin Zylstra has spent plenty of time waiting in long lines for rides at the Disneyland Resort.
So, he was prepared for the worst when he recently got in the queue for California Adventure Park’s newest attraction, Web Slingers: A Spider-Man Adventure. But to his surprise, the wait was only 20 minutes — an unusually short period for almost any theme park, let alone a Disney park.
“This is a shock to see wait times so low,” said Zylstra, who hasn’t seen queues this short since a brutal 2016 heat wave kept most Disney fans at home.
But Zylstra’s brief wait was no anomaly. Average wait times at Disneyland, California Adventure and Universal Studios Hollywood have dropped — dramatically for some rides — since the parks reopened from a pandemic-provoked closure that lasted more than a year, according to a comparison by an outside firm of wait times in August of 2019 and the same month in 2021.
Compared with two years ago, wait times have dropped an average of nearly five minutes at the Disneyland Resort while queue times at Universal Studios Hollywood plunged an average of nearly 22 minutes. On some rides, such as Revenge of the Mummy at Universal Studios Hollywood and Matterhorn Bobsleds at Disneyland, the queues have been cut by more than half, the data show.
A combination of factors may be responsible, including the adoption of new reservation systems that give park operators greater control over daily attendance. In the past, ticketed parkgoers and annual pass holders could crowd into the parks until they reached capacity. But now, no visitor can enter either park without first going online to make a reservation.
The parks can manage how many people walk through the turnstiles — and thus how many stand in ride queues — by denying reservations when demand grows too high. They may draw the line long before parks hit capacity.
The parks adopted these reservation systems in order to reopen in April in compliance with state health protocols that limited occupancy. The state occupancy restrictions have since been lifted but the reservation systems remain.
“Our reservation system has provided so many benefits as it relates to our operations and it’s become a critical tool that allows us to spread visitation more evenly throughout the year and improve the overall experience in our parks for both guests and casts alike,” said Liz Jaeger, a Disneyland spokesperson.
Universal Studios Hollywood representatives declined to comment on the wait times.
Another possible reason for shorter lines may be that park fans remain hesitant to return to crowded theme parks during a pandemic.
“Many people, especially older folks, simply do not feel comfortable being in a theme park right now,” said longtime Disneyland fan Matthew Gottula of North Hills. He said he was in Disneyland on a recent Saturday and saw no line longer than 40 minutes.
But theme park officials dismiss the theory that low demand is resulting in shorter wait times.
During an Aug. 12 earnings call with analysts, Walt Disney Co. Chief Executive Bob Chapek called demand for Disney parks in the company’s fiscal third quarter “pretty darn good.”
“So we’re still bullish about our park business going forward,” he said.
The Disneyland Resort eliminated its virtual queueing systems, called FastPass and MaxPass, and ended its annual pass program during the pandemic closure. A new annual pass program, called Magic Key, launched Aug. 25, and a new queueing system, dubbed Disney Genie, is scheduled to begin this fall.
Industry experts and park enthusiasts suggest that the lines are shorter at the Disneyland Resort because sales of the new annual passes have begun only recently. Others suggest that enthusiasts are staying away until Disney replaces the virtual queueing system so they can bypass the lines on their favorite attractions.
But those theories don’t explain the drop in wait times at Universal Studios Hollywood, which did not alter its annual pass program after reopening or eliminate its Express Pass system for avoiding long queues.
Consider that the average wait time for Jurassic World — the Ride at Universal Studios Hollywood dropped from 109 minutes in August 2019 to about 30 minutes in August 2021.
Theme park fans have been raving for weeks about the shorter wait times on social media.
Eric Oh, an annual pass holder from Thousand Oaks, said he believes the Disney parks are emptying in the evening because the after-dark water and light shows — World of Color at California Adventure Park and Fantasmic at Disneyland — have not relaunched since the pandemic closure.
That may explain, he said, why he had no wait when he got on one of the most popular rides in the resort — Radiator Springs Racers — about 9:45 p.m. on a recent weekday.
“I’ve noticed wait times dropping at around 6ish,” Oh said.
Darren Pardee, a Disneyland pass holder from Long Beach, said he expects the long lines at Disneyland and California Adventure Park to return as more fans buy the new annual passes.
“I’ve been to both parks several times since reopening, and August has been one of the least crowded months by far,” he said.
The most noticeable exception to the shorter-line trend has been Jungle Cruise at Disneyland, which was overhauled in July to remove what Disney calls “negative depictions of native people.” Increased interest in the remade boat ride may explain why the average wait time in August 2021 was 23 minutes, up from less than 11 minutes in August 2019.
The wait time data were collected and analyzed by Touringplans.com, a website that offers subscribers planning tips and crowd predictions for the Disney parks and Universal Studios Hollywood, among other tourist destinations. To calculate average wait times, the website relied on the wait times posted on the Disneyland and Universal Studios apps and on data posted on “wait time” signs installed throughout the parks.
Theme park experts predict that wait times will remain low as park operators use the reservation systems and other strategies to better manage attendance and disperse crowds throughout traditional low- and high-demand days.
The parks will remain profitable, they say, because shorter lines will give parkgoers more opportunity to buy food, drinks and souvenirs. Also, happier park fans will be less resistant to future ticket price hikes, experts say.
“They are moving away from the idea of ‘The more the merrier,’” said Bill Coan, a theme park expert and president of Itec Entertainment Corp.
The price of tickets for Disneyland and other theme parks has already been outpacing the rising cost of other entertainment, such as concerts and professional sporting events.
For years, park managers have been trying to balance the pressure to maximize ticket sales with the need to offer an experience that parkgoers feel is worth the price of admission, said John Gerner, a theme park consultant and managing director at Leisure Business Advisors. Park managers, he said, may be close to finding that balance.
“When you are waiting in line for an hour or more, you are going to be upset no matter how great the ride is, and that will impact if you come back,” he said.