Visiting Disney During Busy Seasons: Crazy? CRAZY LIKE A FOX!

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Adventure Awaits!

Walt Disney World and Disneyland have times of year that are notoriously busy. Spring Break, Easter, July 4th, and the week between Christmas and New Year’s all come to mind immediately. I’ve heard people say, “you couldn’t pay me enough to visit during those times of year.” Up until late last year, I fell into a similar camp (it would never come to the point that someone else would have to pay me to visit a Disney theme park; even a busy day at Disney is better than most good days at home!). Some people, due to school and work schedules, don’t have the luxury of avoiding these busy times. Actually, a lot of people don’t have that luxury. That’s why these times are busy in the first place. If your only option is visiting during one of these crowded times, is it worth visiting at all? Will you be miserable the entire trip?!

Luckily for you, we visited Walt Disney World the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve about a month ago, and I hold the answers to these questions so that you don’t have to waste your valuable vacation dollars testing for yourself. Unluckily for you, I rarely speak in absolutes. The answer is “it depends.” That said, it was one of the best trips we’ve ever had. With busy seasons fast approaching on both coasts, I thought I’d share some of our strategies we utilized to keep our sanity on this trip.

1. Owls are Wise: In just about every children’s fable, Winnie the Pooh included, owls are wise creatures. It thus should come as no surprise that being a night owl is a wise move. After all, the term “night owl” probably derives its name from the wise nature of staying up late, not because owls are nocturnal. During these busy times of year, the parks will be open extremely late, sometimes with Extra Magic Hours concluding at 3 or 4 am in the Magic Kingdom. Even during the busiest times of year, most attractions have very short waits after 1 am. On New Year’s Eve (technically New Year’s Day by the hour we rode them), we walked waited 10 minutes in line at Toy Story Mania and Twilight Zone Tower of Terror. Sorry, Grandma, but that “nothing good ever happens after midnight” advice you gave me certainly doesn’t apply at Walt Disney World and Disneyland!

The Sun Also Rises

2. The Early Bird Gets the Elephant: Eating worms is disgusting, so I’ve never quite understood that adage. Most birds don’t eat elephants, so my adage doesn’t really make sense, either, but my point stands. Unless you enjoy standing in line for hours to ride Dumbo or Peter Pan’s Flight, arrive at the park for rope drop and follow a Touring Plan. We’ve been stressing this ad nauseam since like 1985, but that’s because it is such sound advice that so few people follow. On New Year’s Eve morning, we arrived at the Magic Kingdom at 6:30 am for 7 am opening. Not only did our group breeze through the queue for Space Mountain and ride Peter Pan’s Flight with no wait, but we also saw the sunrise over Cinderella Castle, which was especially magical. For me, that was a highlight of the trip! Not many guests get a chance to see the sunrise in the Magic Kingdom, and it was truly a special experience.

3. Practice the Principles of the Panamanian Night Monkey: This is turning into “Tom’s Critter (Post-)Christmas,” but only because these animals are smart! TouringPlans.com has long suggested taking a midday break to relax and swim, etc. I’m taking that a step further. You may be wondering how to reconcile my “owl” advice with my “bird” advice, since following both only allows for a few hours of sleep per night. The solution is that you do your sleeping during the day, much like these sly monkeys, if possible. The middle of the day is the busiest, hottest, and most crowded time, anyway. Skip it. On the first night of our trip, I was the very last guest out of the Magic Kingdom and then one of the first half-dozen to enter the park the next morning. Not only did I manage to take a lot of photos during these peaceful hours, but I completed dozens of attractions (easily exceeding Disney’s reported “10 attraction average“) during the course of only a few hours. This was on a “10″ day on the Crowd Calendar, on one of the busiest days of the year, too!

Contemporary Resort From Our Bay Lake Tower Balcony

4. Reside in the Dam Nearest the River’s Mouth: Take it from the mighty Beaver; be close to the action. We stayed at Bay Lake Tower at Disney’s Contemporary Resort during our trip. I realize it’s a bit unreasonable to make the suggestion that everyone stay here when it’s busy, but if you can, do it! Walking only 10 minutes to get to the Magic Kingdom definitely has its advantages, and if you can spring for this location, it’s well worth it during busy times of year. It means you don’t have to get up as early to allow for transportation, and it also makes for easy mid-day hibernation. If the Contemporary isn’t in the cards, at least stay on-site. Disney transportation is pretty efficient really early in the morning, and utilizing Disney transportation means you don’t have to hassle with parking issues and the crowded Ticket & Transportation Center. Staying on-site also means you have access to Extra Magic Hours, which are crucial during busy seasons. I will admit that I have an on-site bias, but I think during busy times of the year, you’re much better off staying in a Value Resort than potentially accommodations off-site.

New Year's Eve in Japan

5. Mellow Like a Manatee: Have you ever seen a manatee? If not, check one out the next time you’re in the (Living) Seas. They just float around, eating cabbage all day. They have no natural predators (although boats have become their arch nemesis). If you’re visiting during these crowded times, you need to go with the flow like a manatee. You will get bumped into. You will be pushed “through.” People will cut you off. You will hear crying children in “surround sound.” People will randomly stop in thorough-fares blocking traffic. You cannot let these types of things make your blood boil! Just take a deep breath, remember that you’ve already hit 12 attractions that day because you followed tips one through four, and drown out the crowds by focusing to that pleasant background music. Soak in the details. See some of those unpopular attractions that you love that have little-to-no-waits. Drink around the ‘World at Epcot or at Disneyland Resort. Have fun just being there!

Fantasy in the Sky Fireworks

Obviously these tips aren’t one-size fits all. Not everyone is going to be able to stay in the park until 3 am and get up before 6 am. Not everyone is going to be able to stay on-site. The over-arching point, though, is that planning ahead and using the TouringPlans.com resources will enable you to see and do more, regardless of when you visit! If you go into your trip during a busy time of the year with the right attitude and strategy, you’ll have an amazing time. If you go in expecting no crowds and to be able to walk onto Soarin’ at 3 pm, you will have a bad time.

What do you think? Is my advice unreasonable and suggesting “too much” to most guests, or is this a great way to tour the parks during busy seasons? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!

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Posted on February 3, 2012

26 Responses to “Visiting Disney During Busy Seasons: Crazy? CRAZY LIKE A FOX!”

  • Great post, but just have to comment on your photos. They’re ridiculously awesome.

    I think your tips are spot on for experienced guests. I still wouldn’t recommend busy seasons for first-timers who are generally under-prepared. Sadly, that’s when most of them go, because they don’t know any better.

  • I went to WDW last Spring Break. Your advice is sound, especially the suggestion of getting to the parks before opening. Yes, they are open very late, but you can accomplish a lot more in the early morning than you can at night. I remember one Sat night at MK when it was open until 3am. At about 1:45am, Peter Pan had a 45 min wait, and Space Mt was 50 mins. That was much less than that afternoon, of course, but doesn’t mean the first hour the park is open.

    Spending the afternoon at the hotel for a rest was what saved me (and I’m usually “hardcore” in that I’m in the park from open til close). Afternoons are also good times to just roam around and take it all in, since you’re not getting on any attraction without a major wait.

    One other tip I would add. During the busier times of the year at WDW, Disney has the nerve to raise some TS prices for no reason (well, because they can). Most character meals and popular TS locales fall victim to this gauging (think ‘Ohana, anything in MK, etc). If you want to go during a busy time, try to avoid these places and save yourself some extra $. That $4-$6 per person extra can really add up!

  • LOVE step 4. I feel like if you keep your positive energy up and don’t let the grumps get to you, the vacation is increasingly more enjoyable! I watched a friend of mine last year get very annoyed at the children and it really affected how she enjoyed the vacation.

  • My last trip with my family was during Easter week, and we didn’t wait more than 30 minutes for anything using most of this advice. And using a good touring plan is a must, of course…

    Great article, and my son wanted to know what I thought was so funny when I was reading about the Panamanian Night Monkey.

  • Love this. I’m a teacher so I can only go when it’s crowded. I’ve seen pictures of empty parks in the middle of the day during low seasons and it kind of weirds me out. In a way I like the energy of the parks during high season. So many people so excited to be on vacation! If you adhere closely to step 5, you’ll remain excited right along with them.

    • Yep, there is definitely a fun energy about being in the parks when it’s so busy. I think there’s also a fun energy among the really early crowd as you wait for the parks to open. It takes a special breed to arrive at the Magic Kingdom at 6:30 am… ;)

      • That’s awesome. I’ve never been to WDW for a 7 am opening but if I ever am, you can bet I’ll be at the turnstiles by 6:30. Sunrise at the MK is right up my alley. I’m definitely more of an early bird than a night owl. Great blog post – fine Friday afternoon fun.

  • So glad to see this plan worked for you. I am planning to go sometime to the world that week between Christmas and New Years. Hopefully 2013- 2014 but maybe beyond that. Because I’m an obsessive Disney planner, I’ve already got the trip pretty mch planned out and this is exactly what I plan to do- super early for rope drops and BIG naps in the middle of the day followed by Holiday activities at night. Did you do the MK NYE fireworks on December 30th or did you skip these? And did you see he NYE Fireworks at DHS? How were the crowds for these events.? How early dos you stake out a good spot. Thanks again cor the great post!!

    • If you can swing it, I’d REALLY recommend a stay at Bay Lake Tower for your trip. I didn’t get into it in the post because of the timing of this post (more likely to apply to Easter and Spring Break guests now), but BLT was GREAT for the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve because of the fireworks viewing location. We watched both NYE Magic Kingdom fireworks shows from the Top of the World Lounge. Each time, we got our spots about 15 minutes in advance. The last photo in the post is a shot I took during the NYE fireworks. What an amazing show. Expect to stake out a spot much, much earlier if you’re in the parks. Hours earlier.

  • I’ve always said that if I go back in the super-high season, I would basically flip the normal advice – instead of sleeping during the night and a short break during in the middle of the day, sleep during the day and a short break in the middle of the night! Glad to see someone has tried it – it sounds like fun!

    Just curious – what are the food options in the hotels in the wee hours of the morning?

  • by @Chasoneering on February 3, 2012, at 4:04 pm EDT

    Because of sites like Touring Plans, comprehensive and relaxing vacations at WDW are totally possible. I went for 10 days with my family for Christmas 2010. The six of us (set of parents and kids ranging from 22 to 4) stayed right up until New Year’s Eve and balked at a number of the rules: No MK on Christmas Day, show up at rope drop, stay in a centrally-located hotel (stayed at Saratoga Springs. Lovely resort. Buses were a pain the ass). I knew TP was the best thing to happen to us the very first morning. We had a character breakfast scheduled at Chef Mickey’s and then headed over to the Magic Kingdom after the park opened to all. My four year old sister exhibited more interest in characters than rides, so the remaining kids dove into part one of a two-day MK plan. Days to Christmas, we completed the plan IN FOUR HOURS. We had hit everything we dearly wanted to hit that day before we stopped for lunch. We lazied around for a while, hit most of what we wanted to see on day two, went Epcot for dinner, and popped back before the end of the night without a problem. It was phenomenal.

    I am fairly certain I lost the plot, but it is hard to not share memories and sing praises when given the opportunity! Bottom line, properly armed, do not fear traveling during peak season. It can be done, and it can be done successfully and happily. Advice like this is the way to do it.

  • Tom- I’m going to sound terrible here but last July (mid) we followed the advice above and generally had another really great trip despite the crowds, BUT… due to the tour groups of teens we will NEVER visit WDW in July ever again. 1. I swear they were also following touring plans and pushed like crazy at openings. 2.They got fastpasses and were allowed to use them all together (even 3 or 4 groups at a time) so that we frequently saw wait times jump from 20 min to 65 min or more mid- wait. Somehow it screwed up the system. 4. They trashed bathrooms (I’d never before seen a truly gross, filthy bathroom in Disney) 4. We saw castmembers losing it & shouting because they were literally laying all over the train station tunnel blocking it and refused to move (we saw this in several through-fares/ parks). 5. The worst part was the non-stop shouting- at first I thought it was cute that they were boosting moral, but after 9 days it got VERY old. We lost count of different groups at around 40. No amount of going with the flow could ease the insanity. You couldn’t work around them- you just ran into another group… or 10. I hate to be so negative, but it was brutal. I kept trying to logically tell myself that they were just like any other crowd of people so what’s the difference? I don’t know what it was but we’d go at any other crowded time before risking encountering them again. :( You guys should make an “avoid crazy tour groups touring plan”

    • Sorry- I should make it clear that we’ve followed touring plans on other trips at busy times and they’ve worked brilliantly. We LOVE Unofficial Guide & lines because normally they are life-savers :)

  • We can only go in the busy seasons. Last year we hit all four parks in four days at spring break. We used the crowd calendar and best park to help us plan and hit parks at rope drop. I could not get my husband to do the touring plans though. We had a good time but they were long days. When we went back at Christmas my husband agreed to try a touring plan for 1 day. When we finished the Future world part of Epcot 2.5 hours earlier than on our own at spring break, my husband was a convert! He also loved not having to stand around with a map and say “What’s next?” We used the Lines app for accessing our plan and just kept moving.

  • We went to WDW last year for Easter. We followed the crowd calendar as to what park to go to each day. We did not follow a TP, though being a Disney fanatic, I know what to ride early and what can wait, also what to grab fast-passes for. We were there for 4 days and got to ride/see everything we wanted. And that was with the input of 7 people. We didn’t see any wait times longer than about 20 minutes. Animal Kingdom on Easter Sunday was probably a 3 out of 10. Only crowds we saw were at the shows. Oh, but we did check the Lines app to make sure nothing out of the ordinary was happening.

  • As with most of you suggestions and commentary, this one is accurate from our experiences. We have been following TPs for numerous visits. On the busiest days we were typically ahead of the crowds. Even when arriving to the park hours after rope drop, as long as we started close to the right TP step we rarely waited longer than ten minutes.

    Getting some resort time at mid day is crucial to rest and recharge for heading back to close out to a park. The only challenge now is DD is no longer interested in taking naps. One trick that sometimes works is taking in ‘Hall of Presidents’ or a similar attraction (even a boat ride) so she dozes off.. The CMs are great about letting us stay for a few more showings when they see our Princess fast asleep in my arms.

    ‘See you real soon…’

  • What beautiful pictures! And good advice… We are headed to WDW in a few weeks and will be lucky enough to stay at our new DVC- BLT. I, too, love to hit the parks early/late to take advantage of crowd-free picture taking!! Love those early morning moments! We will be there for the OMDD and I am hoping to get some nice shots of the sunrise behind the Castle (although I am sure mine will not look like yours!!)…. I was wondering if you had any suggestions of where to stand to get the best shots?? Thanks again for your advice!

  • Great advice! Sometimes it’s worth making small sacrifices (getting up early or staying up late) to maximize your vacation. I also think #5 is especially important because big crowds can make for big headaches IF YOU LET THEM.

  • Very good advice. We were there for our first time this last new years eve. We did stay off site but we arrived at 7:30 and entered the park at 8. We managed to last the entire day and saw the most amazing fireworks that night. Next time though I will stay on site. I knew we couldn’t leave the park and re-enter due to the park going into phase 3 closure that morning. Had I been a WDW resort guest we could have taken that afternoon nap. We managed to get on almost every ride though and there was so much entertainment going on. Leaving after the fireworks was insane. You are literally packed like sardines and your feet can’t move ahead more than a few inches. Hold on tight to your children! Does anyone know if the park went into any phase of closure on Dec 30th?

  • We have done this twice and it worked both times!! This is hard with large groups but it can be done! Try to get as many as possible to understand what your plan is and how important it is to follow plan BEFORE you get to the park. When they see the benefits they will be glad they did!

  • by Kevin Crossman on February 5, 2012, at 1:23 pm EDT

    Sage advice, though I think the “rising close to the dam” is the one that can be somewhat less important (unless you plan to spend most of your time at the Magic Kingdom). If you have a rental car I believe you can get to the other parks very quickly early in the morning.

    • I agree, it is not difficult with a rental car to pop in and out of the parks. It is really cool to get there early and park right near the entrance (except for at MK).

  • Nice post. I am tucking away your advice for that day when I can go to WDW without small children. For now, though, we avoid the busy seasons. My little ones sleep from 8 pm to 7 am without fail and believe me, that ain’t a complaint!

  • My wife and I are both teachers, so we have always traveled on the February President’s day school vacation week. This is always a solid 10 week. By picking our parks carefully and showing up early we have never had a problem. We usually show up for opening and then go to around lunchtime. We head to our timeshare, relax, and then return in the evening (if we felt like it). We have never pushed it with our kids- we didn’t do our first full day in the parks until our fourth Disney trip! It’s not worth it if you are tired and miserable.
    BTW, we trade into the Disney area with our timeshare, and have never had a problem with staying outside the world and taking a mid-day break.

    What is astounding to me is the people I see coming in to the parks in the morning two hours later than us. We have done more in our first two hours than they will all day- and we payed the same for our tickets. I can’t imagine spending all that money for tickets and then squandering them.
    Of course, we also really enjoy the game of “beat the crowd.”