Pent-Up Demand Fueling Florida Travel

Travel

With spring break season nearly over and summer fast approaching, it’s time to return to one of our favorite topics: “Revenge Travel” at Walt Disney World in 2021. This isn’t the first…second…or even third time we’ve broached the subject, which has significant implications for crowds, attendance, and pricing for travel to Orlando later this year.

It’s been a busy few weeks in Central Florida. Universal hit capacity before noon for almost a week straight. Judging by social media, SeaWorld look bonkers. I-Drive is the most packed I’ve seen it in well over a year, with full parking lots in a variety of establishments. We drive past the Flamingo Crossings Town Center hotels daily, and have never seen them this busy.

Over the weekend, we did a stay at a third party on-property hotel, and it was similarly hoppin’. Busy bars and restaurants, people reserving lounge chairs at the pool early in the morning, multiple weddings taking place. Of course, that’s entirely anecdotal, and we’ve been talking about the impact of pent-up travel demand on Walt Disney World for a while now. The difference now is that we’re starting to see data out of Florida and the United States as a whole that supports the predictions.

By most objective measures, travel is starting to return. U.S. airport numbers hit another new high yesterday (March 28, 2021) with over 1.5 million passengers screened, according to daily statistics released by the Transportation Security Administration.

This is nearly three straight weeks of over 1 million travelers per day screened by the TSA, which is still down as compared to two years ago, but up dramatically as compared even the busy Thanksgiving and Christmas seasons. For its part, Orlando International Airport has become the No. 1 airport destination in America.

American Airlines paints an even rosier picture of domestic travel. The carrier reports that first-quarter total available seat miles flown will be down about 40% as compared to the first quarter of 2019, but with most of that weakness occurring earlier in the quarter.

As of March 26, the carrier’s seven-day moving average of net bookings is about 90% of its 2019 level. American Airlines is expecting the strong bookings to continue, and anticipates reactivating most of its aircraft in the second quarter as demand continues to pick up. In recent weeks, the CEOs of Delta, Southwest, and United have all been similarly optimistic, with reports of strong bookings ahead of summer vacation season.

Upon landing in destinations, travelers might also encounter a shortage of rental cars. Last year when travel essentially stopped, the rental car industry sold off more than a half a million cars, about a third of their combined fleets, to generate cash they needed to survive the crisis. Although demand has now returned, rental car companies are unable to rebuild their inventory because of supply chain issues facing the auto industry.

The situation is particularly bad in Florida, with reports indicating that 18 of the state’s 20 largest airports were sold out of cars during the peak of spring break. Going forward, MCO is still sold out of cars for many travel dates–with others having astronomical prices of $100 to $300 per day for a rental.

Weekly United States hotel occupancy also jumped seven percentage points last week as compared to the week prior. Nationwide occupancy was 58.9%, which is still historically low. However, this has the highest level in the country since early March 2020–and a 94% increase year over year.

Moreover, Florida is outperforming the rest of the United States. Of cities in the top 25 markets, Tampa (85.3%) and Miami (80.7%) experienced the highest occupancy levels per STR data. The Florida Keys and Sarasota were two markets that actually surpassed their 2019 levels.

In an interview over the weekend, Marriott’s CEO corroborated this, indicating that their real-time data shows consumer confidence and demand are increasing for travel to leisure destinations (like Florida) despite still being down in many big cities.

This surprise turnaround came after Marriott predicted last year that the financial impact of the pandemic would be on par with 9/11 and the Great Recession. He credited pent-up demand and vaccine distribution for this, as well as a blending of trip purposes, with more people able to work and learn remotely.

Walt Disney World doesn’t release its numbers, but anecdotally, things are looking up for some of the resorts that have reopened. In checking availability, Disney’s Pop Century Resort is sold out for a handful of dates over the next two months. Art of Animation and Caribbean Beach also have limited options during that stretch.

Then there’s All Star Movies, which has been overbooked to the point for spring break that there are widespread reports of guests being upgraded from there to the Grand Floridian. (Seriously–and it’s not just a couple of people. We’ve seen/heard at least a dozen instances of this exact move.)

On that front, another interesting trend is that over the last couple of weeks, pool wait times at Coronado Springs and Caribbean Beach have consistently been between 1 and 2 hours. Other resorts have had similar issues, albeit none (to our knowledge) that bad.

At the other end of the spectrum, Deluxe Resorts still seem pretty quiet. It’s impossible to ascertain occupancy levels just by wandering the grounds, but there’s a reason Grand Floridian is where displaced All Star Movies guests are landing. Same goes for the aggressive targeted discounts, delayed reopenings, and impromptu room overhauls at the Contemporary and Poly. Those aren’t the kind of things that happen when numbers are strong. (The apparent booking disparity between the lower priced hotels and Deluxe Resorts is fascinating on its own, but that’s another topic for another day.)

With all of that said, Walt Disney World wait times do not reflect a pronounced spring break travel spike. Some days and attractions have had numbers on the longer side since reopening, but are not what you’d expect if extrapolating from TSA data. For instance, current crowds are lower than Thanksgiving, Christmas, Presidents Day, and Mardi Gras.

Of course, Walt Disney World is utilizing the Park Pass reservations system, which is one means of manipulating attendance. While those have been fully booked for a number of dates over spring break, we discussed recently why we suspected that Disney was limiting attendance.

The overarching travel trends and what’s happening at Walt Disney World are interesting to us for a couple of reasons. First, as a predictor of where attendance and crowd levels are likely to head. Not that this has been easy since reopening, but it’s becoming even more challenging.

When it comes to U.S. travel, it’s pretty close to a sure thing that this will be a blockbuster summer on par with two years ago. There’s a lot of pent-up demand to be exhausted, and that’ll likely result in a very busy vacation season for Florida as a whole.

With Walt Disney World, there are many more considerations. How will the parks handle their self-imposed attendance caps going forward? Will attractions increase capacity? Will health safety rules change? What entertainment and other offerings will return? Will there be a lull as fans postpone trips until after the start of the World’s Most Magical Celebration on October 1?

I’m inclined to predict that we’ve already seen the last of truly low crowds for the year at Walt Disney World. Summer will probably track with other destinations in Florida, albeit to a lesser degree depending upon how some of the above questions are answered. Things slowing down to some degree in late August and September before picking right back up in October also seems plausible, if not probable.

Intertwined with this is what substantive and policy changes Walt Disney World is likely to make in response to demand and evolving guest expectations and preferences. As you’ve probably gleaned by how frequently the topic comes up, this is very interesting to me. It’s something we’ve discussed at length in our Quarantine Rules for Disney Travelers and “Temporary Abnormal” Guide to Walt Disney World, among other posts.

In a nutshell, our view is that things will start returning to normal at Walt Disney World sooner than many fans anticipate–certainly before 2022. This will be driven by a combination of consumer sentiment and the reality that the current health safety protocol are the biggest obstacles between Walt Disney World and profitability.

As is borne out by spring break travel trends, Americans are tired of restrictions and are beginning a return to normalcy. This is despite public health guidance to the contrary, and the fact that only 15.5% of Americans are fully vaccinated. The CDC Director has conceded that their team’s messaging to stay the course just a little longer is largely being ignored by a “fatigued public.”

This is what’s already occurring right now. It’s a trend that’s only going to accelerate as summer draws nearer and more people are vaccinated. A large segment of the population has already returned to life as normal. For another large segment, being fully vaccinated will effectively be the end of this, and they’ll want to behave accordingly.

Sometime in or around May 2021, the United States is going to reach a point where the vast majority of people are exhausted and over this. It won’t matter what the CDC or anyone else says–things will go back to normal when that’s the consensus view of the general public. We’re not expressing any value judgment about that; it’s just increasingly clear that will be the case given what’s already happening.

In past posts, several readers have pointed out that one thing we’re overlooking when discussing Walt Disney World’s return to normalcy is that the pediatric vaccine won’t be approved and available until the first quarter of 2022. We’re not overlooking this at all, we simply think it won’t be the basis for Disney’s decisions.

Others have pointed out that families with small children are an important demographic to Walt Disney World, which is true. It’s also true that the company is very protective of its reputation for safety and being family-friendly. These are fair points and ones that’ll weigh heavily on the company’s decision makers.

Our core thesis is essentially that Disney’s policies will be (and have been) as much business decisions as about health safety. Divisive as they might’ve been, implementing these rules last summer was an easier decision when public opinion was more closely split. Going forward, that’s unlikely to remain true.

There’s a grace period during which fully vaccinated people will tolerate certain rules while the rest of the population catches up. That will not last through this summer, let alone into 2022. In the not too distant future, there’s a point when the protocol will cost Disney too much lost revenue to be the only major vacation destination in the United States to have policies few embrace.

Quite simply, it is untenable for Walt Disney World to be the lone holdout with mandatory health safety protocol in place.  People will simply vacation elsewhere. (This is already starting to play out with beaches seeing a faster recovery.)

Up until now, the CDC has sort of sidestepped this issue with pediatric vaccines by treating children as largely low-risk; a continuation of that type of guidance would provide Disney and other businesses the type of “cover” needed in relaxing rules. It would also make sense once deaths and hospitalizations crater, which almost certainly will happen even without a pediatric vaccine.

If for some reason the CDC doesn’t issue favorable recommendations, Disney will be faced with a dilemma. We could be wrong about how that’ll be resolved–it wouldn’t be the first time–but that’s our perspective.

Ultimately, to boil all of that rambling down into something succinct, pent-up demand is already fueling a recovery of the travel industry. Florida is seeing a disproportionately high amount of this demand right now, whereas it would appear that Walt Disney World is seeing less demand than other popular spring break destinations in Florida.

Going forward, there are two extremes as possibilities, plus a large swath of middle ground. One extreme is that Walt Disney World anticipates trends and consumer sentiment, and quickly accelerates the pace of its phased reopening to capture more of the pent-up summer travel demand. The alternative is the aforementioned gap widening if Walt Disney World errs on the side of caution or is way behind the general public’s sentiment in returning to normalcy. Our expectation is that a middle ground scenario will be what plays out, but it’ll be interesting to see what actually happens.

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

Have you visited Florida recently? What was your experience with the airport, rental cars, hotels, pools, or anything else? Were you surprised by the level of demand or lack thereof? Thoughts on crowds at Walt Disney World v. other destinations? Do you think Walt Disney World’s crowds will rise significantly come Summer 2021? Do you agree or disagree with our commentary? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? 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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