“It’s pretty hard to get around Disneyland when people are there.”
-Walt Disney, quoted in Jim Korkis, Walt's Words: Quotations of Walt Disney with Sources. Theme Park Press.
It’s no secret that over the years, Disney has done a lot to draw more guests to the parks during what used to be relatively slow times of the year. From Run Disney events to ticket discounts, Epcot’s new “Festival of the Arts” and (my favorite) free dining plans, there are many incentives now in place that have all but eliminated what once felt like empty parks during certain times of the year such as January, February and the fall.
In part due to the success of these efforts, anyone who travels to Disney parks very often—even with thorough research and careful planning--will inevitably find themselves facing long lines and crowded walkways in the midst of a throng of other guests. In addition, sometimes you have an opportunity to visit one or more parks during what you know will be a crowded time of year, but obviously you still want to take advantage of the chance to go.
There’s no need to despair (or worse, retreat) when you find yourself facing a mob of people at the entrance of a park you want to visit. Here are some strategies we have used to turn even the most crowded days into fun, memorable experiences:
1. Remember that what looks overwhelmingly crowded to us is usually perfectly normal for Disney.
Disney parks are designed to accommodate thousands of guests at once, so don’t let a crowded entrance to a park or attraction scare you away. I remember visiting the Magic Kingdom the first weekend Seven Dwarfs Mine Train opened. We arrived about an hour prior to the park opening (more on that later), and the entrance was completely choked with guests—to the point that after getting off of the monorail we couldn’t even walk to the end of the ramp before coming to a standstill elbow to elbow with other guests. Despite my dire expectations (“They’ll close the park before we get in!”), in less than half an hour we were in front of the train station and got into the park on time as usual. Other than the Mine Train, which we avoided that entire day for obvious reasons, we got to ride and eat everything we wanted. On the way in I said something to a cast member about how crowded it seemed. His response: “Not really—just looks that way until the logjam clears.” Like most other things, “crowded” is sometimes just a matter of perspective.
2. Get up early and arrive 1 hour before park opening and/or go late at night if park is open until midnight or later.
Despite the fact that this advice (at least the first part) appears in multiple Disney guidebooks and is repeated regularly on many podcasts, I am still surprised at the number of guests who don’t follow it. Maybe it is because so many people refuse to get up early while on vacation, but no matter what time of year you visit, you can count on getting the best experience by arriving early and making your way first thing to the must-do attractions on your list. As I said in #1, at first it will seem like you’re in the midst of a mob, but once the park opens people disperse quickly and you can get where you want to go. If you’re staying on Disney property and the park you are visiting has early morning “Extra Magic Hours” (8:00 – 9:00 a.m., for example), apply the same strategy for even better results. If you are staying off property, it is usually best to identify and avoid parks with early morning EMH’s, since on-property guests will go in first no matter how early you arrive.
As for late night hours, the least crowded I have ever seen parks at Walt Disney World is between about 11:30 p.m. and 1:00 a.m. This was true even during New Year’s week (although not on New Year’s Eve—I’ve never been on that night and don’t ever plan to!).
3. If you are visiting Walt Disney World, make FastPass+ reservations as far in advance as possible.
If you are staying on Disney property during your trip, you can make FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance. If you are staying off-property, you can reserve FastPasses 30 days prior. Whichever applies to you, make sure to take full advantage of the time you have. You can use the My Disney Experience app to find out what day you are eligible to begin: once you have linked your tickets, simply log in, choose “FastPass+” from the menu, and select your party. A “Choose Date & Park” window will open. Take note of the earliest date that is not grayed out—this is the day you want to get up early and start making FastPasses just prior to 7:00 a.m. when the app officially “opens” that date. If you have a party of 4 or more, consider setting up FP’s for 2-3 people at a time instead of trying to reserve for the entire group all at once. The times may not match exactly, but this sometimes makes it easier to get what you want, especially for highly popular attractions. If you plan to follow Strategy #2 and show up an hour before the park opens, try to make your FP+ reservations for no earlier than 10:30 – 11:00 a.m. That way, you can ideally get in early, ride your must-do attractions using standby lines, and then ride them again later using FP’s. (Of course, if you are using ConciEARS to help plan your trip, you can tell your planner what FP’s you want and let him or her do the rest!)
4. Take advantage of single rider lines whenever possible.
As the name suggests, Single Rider lines allow “groups to split up and embark on select attractions individually!” These lines are only offered on a limited number of attractions (especially at Walt Disney World), but they often move much faster than the regular standby queues. For example, my daughter and I recently walked on to Rock n’ Roller Coaster (in Hollywood Studios) with no wait using Single Rider, even though by my quick count there were more than 100 people waiting in the standby line, which was backed up past the giant guitar. Doing this means we don’t get to ride next to each other, but it allows us to spend more time having fun instead of standing in line—especially on extra-crowded days in the park. Rock ‘n Roller Coaster and Test Track (Epcot) are the only WDW rides I know of that offer Single Rider, but Disneyland and Disney California Adventure offer it on 7 different attractions: California Screamin’, Goofy’s Sky School, Indiana Jones Adventure, Radiator Springs Racers, Splash Mountain, Grizzly River Run, and Matterhorn Bobsleds.
5. Watch your Times Guide for parade times to avoid being trapped in one area of the park.
The Times Guide is a one-page flier you receive when entering the park. It contains times for shows, parades, and other events throughout the day. When the parks are crowded, it’s especially important to keep track of when parades are scheduled for at least two reasons: First, sometimes the parades draw guests away from popular attractions and give you a chance to get on without waiting so long. Second, if you’re not careful you can find yourself trapped in one area of the park with no escape until the parade ends (very frustrating, to say the least). If your group is willing to miss seeing a parade altogether or to see it at a different time, find out when and where they are scheduled and as the time approaches, make your way to one or more attractions that may have been too crowded the first time you tried to ride them.
We hope these strategies will help the next time you find yourself in an ultra-crowded Disney park. The most important thing to remember, of course, is that most people would still trade places with you if it meant getting to spend the day at Disney. If you have other ideas or tried-and-true tactics for having fun even in the midst of thousands of your closest friends, please share them in the comment section below.