What happens at Disney World when a park closes? We stayed to find out.

What happens at Disney World when a park closes? We stayed to find out.


There’s a special kind of magic at Walt Disney World at the end of a park day.

“As the number of guests dwindles down in each of these operations, there is a sense of quiet and focus on the guests who are there,” Jackie Swisher, Vice President of Disney’s Hollywood Studios told USA TODAY. “There’s also a little bit of a sense of awe from the guests being able to get a glimpse into what things might look like when there aren’t any guests there.”

At Disney’s Hollywood Studios, which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, the last guests on Slinky Dog Dash or in Oga’s Cantina may feel like they have Toy Story Land or Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge all to themselves as they leave, but the parks are never truly empty. 

“We’re a 24/7 operation here at Walt Disney World, and so we have cast members working all the time to make sure that everything runs as smoothly as possible,” Swisher said. 

USA TODAY got a peek behind the scenes at what it takes to close one of Disney’s most popular parks and what goes on after guests leave. Here’s what happens.

Going with the flow

Tens of thousands of guests visit Disney’s Hollywood Studios on any given day, but they don’t all leave at once. Some rope droppers who line up before park opening may tucker out early. Others may park hop. Many stay to watch the park’s popular nighttime spectacular show, Fantasmic. Still others wait to be among the last to leave the park.

“Our guests have patterns that they fall into and there’s things that we prepare for all along the way,” Swisher said, comparing each day to a symphony. “More like a jazz band maybe, with a little bit of the ad hoc play that goes in there,” she added with a chuckle. 

When hiccups arise, the park’s duty manager conducts that symphony to pivot. The night of USA TODAY’s visit, Fantasmic was cut short by a technical issue. To make up for the missed experience, guests were given a little extra time in the park, enough to squeeze in one more ride.

Using a variety of communications tools and staying in constant contact across teams, Swisher said. “We really are able to adjust as guests move around the park.”

On the way out

A number of guests chose to spend their extra time shopping. 

“Merchandise is actually very busy at the very end of the night, so we staff that operation accordingly.” Swisher said. 

Mickey’s of Hollywood was packed with guests perusing plushies, t-shirts and other themed souvenirs. The shop on Hollywood Boulevard is one of the last stops many guests make in the park, and it stays open late for that very reason.

“They may have been browsing all day looking for that one thing that’s going to help them remember their experience and they may not want to carry it with them throughout the day,” Swisher said. “So when they leave, we want to make sure that those shopping opportunities that are on the way to the exit are available for our guests. That’s kind of part of our design and part of the way we make sure our cast members are available.”

What happens if you are in line for a ride when Disney closes?

Even on typical nights, guests can enter an attraction queue until just before the park’s closing time. If they’re already in line when the park closes, they may stay in line to ride the ride.

“We want to make sure that all those guests in queue get a chance to experience that attraction,” Swisher said. “We’re not shuttling guests out, but we’re allowing them to finish out that day and making sure that there’s magic in every moment.”

The same is true for guests with late dining reservations.

“Sometimes the reason why someone in a restaurant might be out as the very last guest for the evening is because they were celebrating something really amazing, and you get a chance to get engaged in that moment with those guests,” Swisher said.

Can you stay overnight in Disney?

From the Campsites at Fort Wilderness to the Villas at Disney’s Grand Floridian, there’s a wide range of Disney resorts and hotels for guests who want to stay in the Disney bubble.

They just can’t stay inside the parks.

“We have very highly trained cast members to do very specialized things at night, and we want to make sure that we keep our guests and our cast members safe,” Swisher said. “So there absolutely are processes to make sure that before any of those activities start, that guests are safely on their way home or back to their resort.”

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How does Disney make sure everyone leaves the park?

Disney has a process called clearing the park. “We do that in each of our operations, whether it’s a restaurant or an attraction or show like Fantasmic,” Swisher said. 

The way it’s handled varies by venue, but at Slinky Dog Dash on the night of USA TODAY’s visit, cast members ensured no one else was in the queue behind the last guests at park closing. Then they made sure those guests exited the ride and headed toward the park exit when they were done.

There wasn’t actually anywhere else to go because cast members had already begun clearing the rest of the land. Starting from the back by Galaxy’s Edge, several cast members effectively blocked off access to areas that had been cleared. As section by section was swept, they moved forward toward the front of the park, ensuring guests didn’t turn back unnecessarily.

But no one was rushed out. When one of the last guests asked a cast member to take one last photo of their group in the nearly empty land, the cast member was happy to help. Additional cast members were stationed along the way to the exit to direct guests with lighted wands and to wave goodbye.

What time do the parks close at Disney?

Park hours vary widely by date and park. Times are posted way in advance on Disney World’s website, so guests can plan ahead. 

With the Halloween and holiday seasons coming up, travelers should keep an eye out for dates when parks may close earlier for after-hours events.

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 What happens at Disney World when the park closes?

“There’s a lot of different activities that we do that are easier for us to do at night when there aren’t guests there because of either the equipment or just the nature of what we’re doing to be able to support our guests and make sure that everything is as ready and as magical as possible,” Swisher said. 

That includes deep cleaning, maintenance, painting, restocking merchandise, changing visual displays and more. Because some of those things can’t start until guests are gone, the last ones to leave get an extra treat.

“You do get a goodbye from a lot more people at the very end of the night, and it’s really fun to be able to have those moments,” Swisher said. ”It really can fill you with a lot of pixie dust to be a part of that last goodbye.”

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