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Best time to visit Disney?

Updated on November 19, 2012

Disney World is crowded?

Disney vacations can be expensive. Ok, who are we kidding? Disney World vacations are expensive! Even with the best discounts, they are pretty pricey. Nothing ruins a great Disney vacation faster than crowds. And heat. And my mother in law. But mostly crowds. The kids are excited, the adults are excited, you get to the parks, tickets ready, and find out that the shortest line for any ride is 90 minutes, and that is for Davy Crockett's Explorer Canoes, the worst Disney "ride" anywhere. It was hardly a ride, more like a legalized form of torture on unsuspecting theme park guests.

Oops, got a bit off track.

Imagine what it would be like to pay less money, and not really have to wait in lines at the parks!

Once upon a time, Disney World was mostly empty.

Epcot
Epcot

I am constantly asked questions about Disney, but the one I get the most often is "When is the best time to go to Disney World"? 20 years ago, it was a very easy question to answer, now, I have no idea what to say.

We first visited Walt Disney World in 1992. I grew up going to Disneyland on summer vacations, but I had to wait to get married to head East. At that time, the internet hadn't been widely accepted, so places like MouseMisers weren't around to help you plan your vacation. There were very few guidebooks, and those around were basically brochures produced by Disney. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World was the only "unofficial" guide around, but wasn't nearly as popular as it is now. That is where we first learned about traveling in early December and annual passholder discounts. For the most part, at that time, as long as you avoided summer and major holidays, the place was pretty empty.

But I heard December is not crowded at all!

For years, our family traveled every year the first week of December, and enjoyed great weather, low crowds and all the Christmas decorations we could handle. It was our own little secret, no one ever seemed to catch on.

Through the early years of this century, as the internet became more mainstream and a part of our lives, and as Disney planning sites became more popular (not to mention Amazon and the access to decent guide books), traffic patterns at Disney have changed dramatically. At first, it was the Disney geeks who caught on to slow attendance times, and then those who knew Disney geeks. Over the last few years (starting in 2006 for the most part), the general public has figured out that you don't have to visit Disney World during the oppressing heat and crowds of the summer months.

In addition, it took some time but Disney World figured out that Fall and Spring were great times to get large groups of school kids. You now have the Pop Warner championships held at Disney World every year (usually the first week of December), along with many cheerleader contests and camps, not to mention all the sports camps held each Spring.

Walt Disney World circa 2005

In the 2005 Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, this estimated attendance graph was printed.

Looking at the graph, you notice that as long as you avoid summer, the major holidays and Spring Break, you are golden. You also notice that the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas is by far the lowest during the year, kind of a siren's song to prospective Disney World guests if you will. Another interesting tidbit, I compared this graph to the graph from the 2000 edition and the 1995 edition, they are identical, nothing had changed at all in 10 years. What was true in 1995 was still true in 2005, so no need to change it.

Walt Disney World circa 2012

Enter the latest version, pulled from the 2011 version of the Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. It is almost like someone dumped a bucket of water on the 2005 graph. The highs are not nearly as high, and all of the lows have been filled in. There are still some spikes over major holidays, and summer is still pretty high, but things have evened out quite a bit.

Answering the question of when to go is quite a bit harder now, there isn't an easy, default answer.

So, when should I go?

It is pretty rare that you will be able to find Disney World without crowds. Even on the slowest days, there are still some lines. But, I would rather wait 5 minutes or Space Mountain than three hours.

There are a few things you can watch to try to anticipate crowd level.

1. The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World is still pretty accurate, in broad terms, as far as crowd levels go. This book is worth it's weight in gold, buy it. From their attendance outline, you can see the dates to avoid, that is a good place to start.

2. Check out TouringPlans.com. They offer a crowd calendar, with the next 365 days covered. They list each day on a scale from 1 - 10, with 1 being pretty dang empty, and 10 being akin to Grand Central Station at rush hour, only with a bunch of crying kids, and three hour waits. They do offer some dates for free, but if you want to see the entire year, you will have to pay for a subscription. The cost is $12 for a one year subscription, and includes access to many more areas than the crowd calendar. If you are spending $5,000 on your Disney trip, you need to spend $12 on TouringPlans and $12 on the Unofficial Guide to make sure you get it right. If you do a few Google searches, you should be able to find a coupon to save you a few dollars off of the subscription too.

3. Watch Disney Discounts. When rooms are full, and parks are busy, Disney has no incentive to release discounts, or the deals they do release are very limited. When the parks and rooms are empty, Disney has all the incentive in the world to release deal after deal. When discounts are released, watch for excluded dates (usually holidays) and avoid them.

For most people, the Free Dining discount is the best deal made available each year. If you see it made available to the general public, that is a great sign that the parks will be pretty quiet during those dates. While Free Dining does draw some crowds, Disney uses that deal for a reason, they expect everything to be dead, and are trying to drum up some business.

4. Ask a Disney Travel Specialist. Booking with a Disney Travel Agent won't cost you anything extra, and will probably save you some money, time and headaches. Plus, you can ask them when to go among other Disney questions that will arise. Most decent Disney travel agents know exactly from week to week which one is a good week to go, and which one is not. Then again, maybe you like standing in line for hours with thousands of cheerleaders. OK, I am not making my point very well. Moving on.

5. Avoid big events at WDW like the Pop Warner Football championships, the WDW Marathon and related events, Star Wars weekends, etc. While you certainly can travel during the Marathon weekend, and honestly, most dates will be pretty quiet as it is in January, some dates will be crowded and crazy due to the number of people there to run, and the races themselves, which seem to interup only my bus route and not any others.

6. If it is the only time your kids can get off of school, it is very likely that every other parent in North America is saying the same thing, and the parks will be crowded. If you can only go during the summer months, go as early in June as you possibly can. While it may still be crowded, it won't be as bad as July.

Disney Links

Consider visiting these sites to help you plan your Disney vacation

Comments or Questions?

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    • DRSandAssociate1 profile image

      DRSandAssociate1 5 years ago

      Great article, maybe it is time that I visit disneyworld has been awhile.