Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever December 31, 2015: Surviving Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Crowds

Do you love ginormous crowds of people, endless seas of strollers, and triple-digit wait times? If so, you’ve picked the Best Week Ever to visit Walt Disney World. But even if you are allergic to all of the above, it is actually possible survive the madness of Magic Kingdom holiday week crowds, and even enjoy a visit to America’s most popular theme park during the busiest week of the year, with the proper preparation.

In contrast to my relatively calm Christmas Day at Disney’s Animal Kingdom, my December 29 visit to the Magic Kingdom came smack in the center of 2015’s winter peak season psychosis. I braved the Magic Kingdom holiday week crowds in order to share with you a first-person perspective on navigating Disney when attendance is at its most extreme.

Without that professional motivation, I’d normally avoid Walt Disney World on days when our Crowd Calendar hits 10 out of 10, but many visitors don’t have another option due to work and school schedules. If the busy holiday week is the only time your family can visit WDW, I hope my experiences will help educate you about the perks and pitfalls of a peak season vacation.

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Parking

As any Magic Kingdom veteran knows, simply arriving at the park is an adventure in itself; that’s doubly true during peak holiday weeks. My day of queuing began around 9 a.m., many yards before the Magic Kingdom parking toll booths.

Magic kingdom holiday week crowds parking

 


Once through the toll booths, a solid line of cars stretched into the Magic Kingdom parking lot.

 

After about 15 minutes, I found myself parked in the Rapunzel lot for my first time ever. Though one of the furthest sections from the TTC, I opted for the 10 minute walk over waiting for an overloaded parking tram.

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Ticket Lines

Here’s the first, best tip I can give you for visiting Disney during a peak time: buy your tickets before you arrive at the park! These folks are wasting valuable touring time waiting to buy tickets that they could have taken care of online in advance. Don’t let this happen to you!

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Transportation

When the Magic Kingdom’s designers decided to make most guests take a ferryboat or monorail before entering the park, it must have seemed like a brilliant aesthetic choice. But when peak holiday week crowds arrive, the Magic Kingdom’s transportation system backfires, becoming a backbreaking boondoggle. Who wants to wait in a line like this before they even enter the park’s turnstiles?

 

Luckily, during the busiest days Disney provides bus transportation from the TTC to the Magic Kingdom. These comfy motor coaches are by far the fastest way to reach the park, with the one-way trip clocking in at about 5 minutes. Even with signs directing people to the busses, many guests are attracted by the romantic allure of the monorail and boats, leaving little or no wait for those who do opt for the alternate vehicles.

 

If busses are in service when you arrive, they will be your best bet for reaching the Magic Kingdom quickly. They may not look very magical, but they’ll get you to the magic much quicker; you can always take the monorail or ferry back to your car later.

 

Whatever method ultimately moves you to the Magic Kingdom, you might see some special seasonal entertainment when you arrive. This toy soldier marching band from the holiday parade was serenading ferry guests as they disembarked.

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Security Screening and Entry Touchpoints

With all the recent news about enhanced security screenings at Orlando’s theme parks, you might expect a huge logjam at the Magic Kingdom entrance — and you wouldn’t be wrong:

 

However, as intimidating as those lines might look, they moved amazingly swiftly, thanks to the huge number of staff. Despite discussion of TSA-style body scans, only two walkthrough detectors were in use, and only a tiny number of randomly selected guests passed through them.

Aside from the increased use of handheld metal detector wands and third-party security guards, the actually bag check procedures didn’t seem significantly stricter or slower than in the past. In addition, the “No Bags” line is still in operation, and remains a great time-saver if you can stuff all your belongings in your pockets.

 

Once past the bag check, my personal favorite part of MyMagic+ comes into play. FastPass+ may have its detractors, but I’ve got nothing but praise for how MagicBands and touchpoints have improved the park entry experience.

 

These lines may look long, but I got my green Mickey light and entered the park in well under 5 minutes. In the old days of paper tickets and turnstiles, a similar crowd could mean 20 minutes or more in line, so this aspect of MyMagic+ seems to have worked out marvelously.

 

Walkthrough Video of Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Crowds

 

Now that we’ve made it inside the park, it’s time to see what a 10 out of 10 on our Crowd Calendar really looks like.

 

Lucky for you, this video will let you walk through the Magic Kingdom at its most crowded without leaving the comfort of your couch:

 

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Attraction Wait Times

Whew! If you survived that lap around the park, let’s take a closer look at wait times at some of the Magic Kingdom’s most (and least) popular attractions.

 

The wait to meet Mickey Mouse in Town Square was nearly an hour when I arrived in the morning, and didn’t drop until late in the late afternoon. Tinker Bell always seems to have a significantly shorter line than Mickey.

 

Working our way counter-clockwise around the park, the first shocking sight is this rare extended queue for Monsters Inc. Laugh Floor. Cast members holding these “line starts here” signs are ubiquitous on peak days during the holiday week.

 

Right across the street, even the much-derided Stitch’s Great Escape has garnered quite a crowd.

 

Even so, both of these attractions’ wait times peaked at about 30 minutes, making them two of the shortest waits in the park. That wasn’t the situation next door at Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, whose wait time hovered around 100 by mid-morning.

 

As bad as Buzz’s wait time was, it didn’t touch the stratospheric heights achieved by Space Mountain, which broke 2 hours by 9:30 a.m., and approached 4 hours in the afternoon.

 

It didn’t help matters any when Space Mountain shut down while I was waiting to board with my FastPass+, forcing the cast members to turn on the work lights and evacuate everyone through unglamorous back hallways.

 

There was understandably some grumbling from folks who had waited almost 2 hours, but everyone was given a Re-Entry pass valid on most of the park’s thrill rides (excluding Seven Dwarfs Mine Train).

 

Long lines for Space Mountain are no big surprise, but here’s a queue that might confuse you: a 20-minute long line for the PeopleMover that stretches nearly to the Tomorrowland stage.

 

Thank the theme park gods that there is still one attraction that is always a walk-on, even on the busiest days. Carousel of Progress offers a nap-friendly haven any time you need it, no matter the crowd level.

 

Leaving Tomorrowland, the line for the Speedway stretches almost to the border of the land.

 

Moving on to Fantasyland, we find the standby line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train wraps halfway around the mountain, ending near the entrance to the Mad Tea Party. If waiting up to 3 hours for a 3-minute ride doesn’t appeal to you, I hope you booked a FastPass+ far in advance, since none were available on the day of.

 

 

Around the corner, you can meet Ariel in about 45 minutes, or experience her ride in a little less time.

 

Storybook Circus was gridlocked in certain spots, but surprisingly uncrowded in others, with over an hour wait for Dumbo, but half that for the Barnstormer.

 

Originally a FastPass+ kiosk area, this rest area in Storybook Circus is one of the park’s best refuges on busy days.

 

A limited menu of snacks was being offered here, with no wait to order.

 

At Princess Fairytale Hall, I noticed something surprising: the wait for Anna & Elsa was actually shorter than the one for Cinderella and Rapunzel.

 

I was also able to book a same-day FastPass+ for Anna & Elsa. Could this be a sign that the Frozen fad is finally fading? Perhaps, but by later in the day the wait times had reverted to their usual hierarchy, with the sisters sporting the longer wait.

 

Speaking of Rapunzel, the Tangled rest area provided a pleasant holiday surprise: for the first time in memory, I found a working USB power port and was able to refresh my flagging iPhone.

 

One benefit of the New Fantasyland expansion was the addition of much-needed strolling parking.

 

But even with more elbow room, the path between Peter Pan and it’s a small world remains one of the most congested bottlenecks in the park — especially when the two attractions have a combined wait of 225 minutes!

 

As we cross into Liberty Square, the wait for the Haunted Mansion has also hit triple digits, with the FastPass+ return line snaking all the way to the Riverboat landing.

 

Splash Mountain isn’t usually that popular during the winter season, but with Orlando temperatures in the high 80s (about 15 degrees Fahrenheit higher than normal) the water ride was wildly popular. At one point, the standby wait was posted at over 150 minutes, with the line starting on the bridge over the splashdown.

 

Further into Frontierland, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad had standby waits of around an hour and a half and up. Even FastPass+ had a back-and-forth queue before the initial MagicBand scanner, though my total wait to board the train was barely 12 minutes.

On another lap around the park later in the day, I found that Big Thunder shut down for at least 45 minutes, leading to a long backlog once it finally began operating again.

 

In the heart of Adventureland, Pirates of the Caribbean was also having a hard day. Once one of the park’s most reliable people-eaters, PotC sported at least an hour and a quarter standby queue for most of the day, when it wasn’t closed for technical difficulties.

Here’s a hint if you haven’t been on Pirates since its most recent refurb: refuse to sit in the front row unless you want to wear recycled water for the rest of your day.

 

The 2015 Jingle Cruise will sail away soon, but until it does the Jungle Cruise is as popular as ever, with waits running over 100 minutes. FastPass+ proved especially useful here, and allowed me to board in only 5 minutes.

 

 

You know the Magic Kingdom is at maximum capacity when the Swiss Family Treehouse — usually the poster child for always-empty attractions — has a full queue and a 15 minute posted wait time.

 

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Dining

One sure way to tell how busy the Magic Kingdom will be on a given day is by seeing which seasonal restaurants are operating. When the rarely used Tomorrowland Terrace is not only open but busy, you know attendance will be astronomical.

 

It’s still before noon, but the line of lunchtime reservation holders at Be Our Guest already stretches back across the bridge. The restaurant was fully booked for the rest of the day, with no walk up seats available.

 

Jungle Navigation Co Ltd Skipper Canteen

A leisurely table service meal can be like an oasis in the middle of a stressful day struggling through holiday crowds. I stopped by the brand-new Skipper Canteen for lunch, and was delighted to find that they could seat me in only 15 minutes. Prepare for that to change once the restaurant starts accepting advance reservations.

 

As other members of the Touring Plans team have reported, the interior of the Skipper Canteen is a delight for fans of the parks’ history, with decorative references to early Imagineers, Disney’s S.E.A. mythology, and Pleasure Island’s Adventurers Club.

 

As far as the food goes, the Skipper Canteen boasts the Magic Kingdom’s most adventurous menu, with attempts at authentic ethnic flavors that go far further than we’re used to seeing inside a Walt Disney World theme park.

 

I started with the Schweitzer Slush, which is by far the best novelty beverage I’ve had in a Disney park. Ever since Universal invented Butterbeer, Disney has been trying to concoct their equivalent, with notable missteps like LeFou’s Brew. This boba-topped slushy is easily their best effort yet, with a good balance of sweet and tart; it’s still no Butterbeer, but I liked it much better than Diagon Alley’s boba-laced Fishy Green Ale.

 

With my drink, I was also served a complimentary loaf of “celebration” bread, with a saucer of fennel-laced honey for dipping. This is the best free bread services I’ve had in any Disney park restaurant, and practically a reason to visit all by itself.

 

For my appetizer, I selected the grilled sustainable fish collar, which turned out to be grouper. The collar of the fish is prized in Asian cuisine but frequently discarded by Americans, as the flavorful unctuous flesh requires patience to liberate from the scary, scaly cartilage.

 

I usually have to visit a traditional Japanese restaurant to enjoy grilled fish collar (or “kama”) but the one I ate at Skipper Canteen was as expertly prepared as any I’ve had. If only the accompanying soy-based sauce was slightly less sweet and thick, this would be a perfect dish, though the picked slaw the collar is served on serves nicely as a sour counterpoint.

 

Unfortunately, after a great start my entree fell a bit short. I was eager to try the head-on shrimp, but the kitchen only had tail in stock, so I opted for the Char Sui pork with white rice and broccoli. The bright red meat was dry and tasted remarkably like boneless spareribs from a Chinese take-out joint, and the accompaniments were completely uninspired. Not an inedible dish, but certainly not worth the steep $23 price tag.

 

Happily, my meal ended on a high note with the Kungaloosh Cake. It might not taste anything like its namesake Pleasure Island cocktail, but the killer combo of dark chocolate, coffee, and caramelized bananas satisfied my sweet tooth and then some.

 

Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Entertainment

When E-ticket attraction queues are all well over an hour, and even minor attractions require half hour waits, outdoor entertainment provides a best return on your time investment. Performances that you can experience with little or no wait range from modest temporary stage shows, like Tomorrowland’s VoicePlay a cappella singers…

 

…to signature seasonal productions, like Mickey’s Once Upon A Christmas afternoon parade:

 

Santa’s super-sized reindeer are among of my favorite elements of this classic Christmas cavalcade.

 

While some gets stake out curbside seats for the parade hours in advance, it really isn’t necessary. I found a great spot in the hub a few minutes after the parade stepped off in Frontierland, and had a fantastic view with no waiting around.

 

The parade packs the sidewalk of Main Street, but since the hub’s expansion there is always plenty of lounging room on the AstroTurf, despite gridlock everywhere else.

 

It’s important to note that the Magic Kingdom’s tools for controlling crowds during parades and fireworks include a corridor behind the east side of Main Street. This backstage passage between the Plaza Restaurant and Tony’s Town Square has been lightly themed, and is only opened to guests when Main Street becomes mobbed.

 

If you’ve never seen this passage opened, watch this POV video, and keep your eyes peeled for it next time you visit the Magic Kingdom during a peak period.

 

 

 

Final Tips for Surviving Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Crowds

To summarize, you can have fun at Magic Kingdom even on the busiest days of the year, but it requires mental preparation and advance planning to avoid apoplexy. Here are are my top tips for tackling the Magic Kingdom on a 10 out of 10 day, derived from my 2015 holiday week experiences:

  • Acquire your theme park tickets in advance so that you don’t waste time during your visit at the box office.
  • Go online as soon as you are eligible and book FastPass+ reservations for three top attractions, preferably determining your selection with the aid of an optimized Touring Plan.
  • Arrive early, ideally long before rope drop. The first hour of operations is your only chance for anything like normal wait times, and even then lines will escalate with every minute after opening.
  • If not arriving for rope drop, resign yourself to experiencing a limited number of standby attractions during the day. Make sure you at least arrive by 10 a.m., or you may find yourself unable to enter the park due to capacity closures.
  • Use bus transportation (if offered) for the fastest route between the TTC and Magic Kingdom entrance.
  • Focus your touring agenda around your preplanned FastPass+ bookings, working in attractions with moderate standby waits. Look for attractions with long experiences relative to their wait time: the Liberty Square Rivership, Tom Sawyer Island, Carousel of Progress, Enchanted Tiki Room, Walt Disney World Railroad, and Country Bear Jamboree are all great peak day picks.
  • Budget extra time to move through the heavy crowds, especially if you have strollers. Try to enjoy the people-watching along the way.
  • Take a break at one of the park’s handfuls of quiet hangouts: the rest areas under Tangled town and in the rear of Storybook Circus, the path from the Fantasyland train station to Space Mountain; the new gardens in the Hub.
  • Take advantage of seasonal entertainment that you can enjoy without waiting, especially parades and fireworks. If there are two performances of a particular show on the schedule, the second is almost always less crowded.
  • If you can secure a seat, a table service lunch makes a great refresher after a full morning.
  • Don’t try to stay from opening until closing. Plan on leaving the park at the peak of the afternoon, if only to monorail-hop to a hotel lounge. Return for the last few hours of the evening, if you have the energy.
  • Look for the passageway behind the Tomorrowland side of Main Street USA when trying to enter or escape the park once it becomes packed.

 

Have you experienced peak holiday week crowds at the Magic Kingdom and lived to tell the tale? Share your survival stories in the comments!

 

Seth Kubersky

Author of The Unofficial Guide to Universal Orlando. Co-author of The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland and Beyond Disney. Contributor to Unofficial Guides to WDW and Las Vegas. Live Active Cultures columnist for the Orlando Weekly. Travel and arts journalist. Theatrical director and producer.

7 thoughts on “Seth Kubersky’s Best Week Ever December 31, 2015: Surviving Magic Kingdom Holiday Week Crowds

  • December 31, 2015 at 11:10 am
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    Any idea when the Skipper Canteen will begin taking advance reservations?

    • December 31, 2015 at 6:09 pm
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      Currently Disney is saying that they don’t intend to take reservations because the restaurant will act as an alternative for those without ADRs. This may or may not be the long-term plan, but that’s the story Disney is telling for now.

  • December 31, 2015 at 12:08 pm
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    Thanks for the post Seth! I plan my trips around times of year with low crowds, and have wondered what the parks are like at peak times. The holiday decorations are pretty, but those wait times are painful. Loved seeing your photos! (and happy new year!)

    • January 1, 2016 at 4:40 am
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      You can see the holiday decorations a little earlier in the year. If you go just after Thanksgiving up until about the middle of December the park is relatively quiet and you can see the holiday parade if you go to MVMCP. HAPPY NEW YEAR TO EVERYONE X

  • January 3, 2016 at 4:12 pm
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    I have also noticed that the buses may be running when the monorail is out of service. During my visit last year at a non-peak time, I was dismayed to see huge crowds massing for the ferryboat because the monorail was down. Then I noticed the sign for the buses and walked over to the loading area. Either people didn’t believe the sign or were opposed to a non-themed trip to the MK, since this bus probably had fewer than a dozen people on it. But as you mentioned above, for repeat visitors (like myself), the bus is a big improvement.

  • January 5, 2016 at 10:33 am
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    Seth, thanks for taking one for the team to document the madness. There’s 10/10 days, and then there’s bonkers 10/10 days like this that practically give me a panic attack just looking at the photos.

    When I was there on 12/20, they opened the side walkway and I thought huh, what’s this? And I appreciated the mild theming as I was making my way toward Fantasyland (this was in the evening during MSEP).

    When we left that night after an 8 p.m. Wishes, they opened a walkway near Crystal Palace that dumped us out in the parade entrance. It was much less magical, felt backstage and odd but hey, we could move!

  • January 8, 2016 at 2:33 pm
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    This post was incredibly illuminating on the holiday week instanity. I knew it was busy, but not like this. This will educate many future guests. Thank you.

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