Tips for Disney World Orlando during Peak Crowd Times
Having family fun - Disney Christmas
Beat The Crowds at Disney Theme Parks
Last Christmas I took the family to Disneyworld and hooked up with the Florida snowbird grandparents. Big mistake? Well, let me give you some advice based on my experience with Disney during some peak times.
When we originally came up with the idea of heading to Orlando from New Hampshire during the Christmas break we really were not thinking about crowds. In our own minds it was hard enough to consider not being home for the holidays. But then again Christmas can be such a let down the day after. All of that hype leading up to the big day and then nothing to look forward to unless you venture out to return unwanted gifts or snap up some 70 percent off deals at Target. So we weren't really thinking that mobs of people would be headed to Disney in December.
In the few weeks before our trip we started to get an idea that going to Disney at Christmas might not be such a good idea. Friends of ours took their two elementary school children out of school for a week at the Disney Resort in mid December and started Twittering and texting us their reactions to the crowds they witnessed. "Tons of fat people on rented scooters", "We waited two hours for the ride", "We couldn't use our meal plan", "Thank goodness we made reservations six months ago" etc.
Partly their experience seems to have been hampered by Disney's decision to layoff thousands of park employees due to the recession. We ourselves had been considering the Disney's meal plan option but didn't like the idea that we would have eat three full meals plus dessert every day. I never considered that the restaurants would be so booked up that one might have trouble finding a place to actually use the pre-purchase meal plan tickets! Our friends were savvy enough to make their reservations six months in advance so they were able to stick to that six month old plan for most of their visit although they still had trouble getting into a few places. Personally I never liked the idea of picking out what you're in the mood for six months in advance or having to stop what you are doing and rush over to a reservation. I like to keep flexibility in a vacation. We ended up saving lots of money (and calories) by smuggling in sandwiches, frequenting the free soda at Epcot and just buying some snacks like ice cream during the day. We didn't waste money on over eating or the time waiting to eat a full sit down meal.
Most of the pre-planing was done buying guidebooks and reading insider tip web sites about the Disney Resorts. My wife and I had been on a previous trip to Disney about 20 years ago, fresh out of college, no kids. We always joke about that trip because my wife had everything planned out on flash cards. Everyone in our group knew which ride to rush over too when the gates opened. We ended up doing everything but at the end of the week we were exhausted.
We thought that this time we be a little more relaxed with the grandparents and our 11 year old son. That is until reality set in. With the reports coming in on the crowds, we decided to again turn to the guide books for advice and despite all of the crowds during that week between Christmas and New Years at Orlando, we saw most of what the Disney Resorts have to offer.
Test Track Ride at Epcot
Tips for Surviving Disney durning Peak Times
- Get to the parks early - This is the number one tip. We ended up doing most of the things on our Disney "must do" in the first two hours of the park opening. We had four adults and one 11 year old boy in a room at Shades of Green. Every night we went to bed by 10 pm (we were exhausted!) and got up around 6 am, grabbed a muffin at the snack bar on the way to the first shuttle bus in the morning. When the park opened we went to the most popular rides (like Soarin' at Epcot). It didn't matter that many people there early in the morning had the same idea. Later in the day we could take it slower and try some of the higher capacity rides or shows that pack in the thousands.
- Extended Park hours - Extended park hours can be a red herring. Often when a park says its going to be open later it attracts even MORE people. Some of the parks during our stay even had to shut their doors and turn people away because the reached the maximum capacity.
- Pack a lunch - Sure park security checks bags but they are looking for bombs, weapons and alcohol. They can't stop you from bringing in food. If they actually say anything just say you have food allergies. We had no problem bringing in sandwiches and granola bars every day in the park. It saves a lot of time if you can have your lunch while waiting in line.
- Use the Fast Pass - Not for the first time on a ride but the second ride. If you are following my advice you'll be on the popular rides before the crowds crawl out of bed and eat their big overpriced Character Breakfast. Grab a fast pass on the way out to return a second time for popular ride. When we were at Disney for Christmas break the fast passes were GONE by 10 am. Yup, think you can just stroll into Disney, grab a fast pass and enjoy the ride you've been waiting to ride all year? Think again. Just paying the admission price at Disney just means you have a chance to do all of the things the resort offers -- it doesn't guarantee you can actually do them.
- Watch Out for the Shows - By the end of the week our group was showed out. At first some of the shows were a nice break from walking around. A place to cool off, sit back and relax. The stunt shows at Hollywood Studios were particularly good but they all involve being herded by the thousands and being told to keep squeezing in so that more Disney visitors could be packed in a like sardines. Once the show lets out, thousands of people are unleashed on the park. This means you and your thousand newest friends are all headed in the same direction. Its kind of like when the park opens and everyone rushes to the same thing. You can turn this on its head and use it to your advantage. When a big show is going on you know that there will be thousands less people around. Might be a good time to get a snack. I'll tell you the show that did me in was the Lion King show at Animal Kingdom. I've seen the Broadway version of the Lion King and the one at Disney's Animal Kingdom just seemed like an excuse to create sensory overload rather than have any story. After you've seen a number of show they just all seem to be repetitive - using the same Disney movie over and over.
Making Unforgetable Family Memories
Disney's Animal Kingdom
Disney Guide Books
Peak Times for Orlando Themeparks
Disneyworld with Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom are not unique in having peak times. These times also pertain to the other popular Orlando theme parks such as Universal Studios Islands of Adventure. Parents are usually stuck taking their kids when schools have their various breaks but parents with kids in the lower grades might consider taking their kids out of school at other times for a once in a life time trip to Disney. C'mon what are they going to miss in first or second grade anyway? The following are the historic busiest times at the theme parks:
February: Presidents Week
Presidents Day is a national holiday in the US, occurring on the third Monday in February. Many schools extend the long weekend into a "Presidents Week" break.
Mid-March to Mid-April: Spring Break
"Spring Break" typically means ten days off from school for K-12 students. Dates vary, but usually fall from mid-March to mid-April.
May: Memorial Day Weekend
The last Monday in May is is a national holiday honoring those who died in military service. It's also the kick-off for summer and a big weekend for getaways.
Mid-June through Mid-August
This is prime summer vacation time. Many kids have school holidays until Labor Day, the first Monday in September. However, in some districts, especially in the Southeast US, schools re-open earlier and crowds may ease in the last weeks of August.
November: Thanksgiving Weekend
On the fourth Thursday in November, families crisscross the country to get together, and many meet up at Disney World. Thanksgiving starts the Holiday Season; the theme parks are decorated and special Disney Christmas events are on.
December: Christmas through New Year's Day
Peak season crowds are at their highest, but there are many Disney Christmas events to compensate.
Disney at Christmas - Was it Worth it?
Looking back on our trip to Disney during the peak time of Christmas break (you need a little distance with these things), we had a great time. Sure there were some stressful moments which come from a group all tired out and suffering from sensory overload but overall it was fun. That said I think its a once every 10 to 20 years kind of thing. Lord knows how some people seem to go back every year!
Its kind of weird for a New Englander to be in sunny Florida at Christmas but at least we had the cold weather (I am joking). It was in the 40s all week when we were at the Disney Resort. Every single layer of clothing that we brought we had on including hats and gloves. So to say the least the water parks were not open but at least we didn't have to sweat.
Some of the best things about being on the Disney property for Christmas for our family was shopping at the Lego store at Downtown Disney with a gift certificate sent by auntie, seeing the Christmas lights display at Disney's Hollywood Studios, having a much needed beer at the German Pavillion at Epcot and watching Grandpa get picked to play Scrooge in a street performer show. Lots of great memories in a whirlwind vacation.
Got any Disney Resort Orlando Tips to Share?
Got any tips from your experiences at Disney? Share them below, thanks!
Article, photos and video copyright by Edward M. Fielding