Christmas is our FAVORITE time of year at the parks, but it comes with its downsides. If you'll be spending your holidays dashing through the crowds at Walt Disney World or any of the Orlando theme parks this holiday season, you will likely get quite close with many guests, as crowd levels are at their peak! While Disney World is an amazing place to visit during the holidays, the parks can be packed. If you're heading to Orlando on a "red" — or high crowd day — this post is for you! Here are the best tips for handling the Disney World holiday crowds.
Our Top Tips for Managing Disney World Holiday Crowds
1. Book FastPass+ reservations before you arrive.
As soon as your reservation window opens (60 days in advance of check-in for resort hotel guests and 30 days in advance for non-resort guests), make sure to book FastPasses for the most popular attractions, such as Slinky Dog Dash at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Avatar - Flight of Passage at Disney's Animal Kingdom.
2. Have a plan ... but be flexible.
We offer park plans that are great for crowd level 5, 6, 7 and 8. These levels cover most of the season, so they can help ease the stress of Disney World holiday crowds. If you download our printable plans, you'll find additional park plan maps, plus packing lists for the whole family. For the tadpoles, make sure to print out our packing list coloring page that they can use to help with the planning.
On the handful of days when it is busier than an 8, especially Christmas Day and New Year's Eve, it's better to set a few priorities for each family member. Get to the parks early so you can experience any priority attractions you don't have FastPasses for. You're not going to be able to do and see as much when crowds are at their highest. Factor in more time for everything. Be flexible and set realistic expectations for the whole family. Make sure to take some deep breaths, plan some chill time and enjoy quality family bonding time.
3. Download our iPhone app.
As mentioned above, our Orlando Planning App offers pre-set and customizable touring plans. It also has park schedules, show times and wait times in an easy-to-use interface, so it's a great tool for managing Disney World holiday crowds. We've added a map feature so you can easily navigate and see your plans and wait times. It won't drain your precious battery life, and it covers Disney World, Universal and SeaWorld. Best of all, it's FREE. You definitely don't want to leave home without downloading it!
4. Arrive early and stay late.
The most tested time-saving tip is to arrive early, and this is mostly true with Disney World holiday crowds. Arrive at the Disney World parks about an hour before rope-drop and ride your favorites in the first hour or two before the lines get really long. The exception to this is if a park has morning Extra Magic Hours and you are staying off-site. Pick another park if you can.
This is unavoidable during the busiest days at Magic Kingdom. You can still arrive early so you get in when the park officially opens, but it will be more crowded. If you are staying on-site, hop to it! Make sure to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, and if you have night owls, take advantage of the late Extra Magic Hours.
During the very busiest times, park hours are extended. This is a great way to get the most out of your visit. Stay as late as you can. (This was our secret to riding Slinky Dog Dash for the first couple times!)
5. Avoid hopping on the very busiest days.
Park hopping is not recommended during the very busiest times — crowd level 9 and 10 — especially if you're a first-time visitor. If a park reaches capacity, you won’t be allowed re-entry. Plus, moving between parks takes up a lot of time.
6. Know the parade & show schedules.
The special holiday versions of the parades and stage shows draw large crowds, so save a viewing spot an hour before show time. Use our app or grab an official Times Guide at the park entrance. A common mistake (and a sure-fire way to miss a parade or show) is to underestimate the time it takes to get from point A to point B.
7. Eat breakfast before you arrive, and bring snacks and drinks with you.
We like to fuel up in our hotel room or even splurge on the occasional breakfast buffet (Boma at Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge is our very favorite!) before we head into the parks. If you eat a hearty breakfast, you can go lighter — or even skip — lunch. This helps you beat some of the Disney World holiday crowds during mealtime! You can also bring your own snacks and water bottles into the parks, or even a full picnic lunch. The restaurant crowds can be busier than attraction lines when the parks are packed. A picnic lunch in a less busy spot in the park is a great way to regroup and save money.
8. Dine during off-peak hours.
If you're going to eat at the restaurants while you're in the parks, save your line time for the fun stuff by eating during off-peak hours and using mobile ordering. Restaurants inside the parks get busy around traditional dining times — 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. for lunch and 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. for dinner. Consider having those big meals outside of busy times. Most restaurants begin serving lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. Plan your dining times around any shows or parades you want to see. Keep your hunger satisfied with a turkey leg or fresh popcorn.
9. Review your safety plan.
Crowds + tadpoles (children) = sky-rocketing anxiety levels for parents, especially with the Disney World holiday crowds. Review things like “what happens if we get separated” beforehand. Take a look at Lily’s theme park safety strategies for more tips.
10. Don’t pass up a restroom break.
If you pass a restroom and the line isn’t too long, GO! Even if you think you can wait … GO! You'll thank us later.
11. Set a souvenir budget.
It’s easy to get carried away, especially during the holidays. We give Tad and Lily a souvenir allowance to spend as they wish. My wife and I also surprise them with souvenirs we purchase in advance at a much lower price. And it’s not just the kiddos who hate hearing, “No dear, you can’t have that.” I think I may have the hardest time of any of the frogs passing up the goodies!
12. Take a break from the parks.
If you or your little ones are completely frazzled by the afternoon, take a break from the parks completely. One alternative is Disney Springs. During the holidays, there are Toy Soldier and Reindeer stilt walkers, live holiday music, dining, shopping … and SANTA! Do keep in mind that Disney Springs can be just as crowded as the parks during the holidays, so if you want to avoid that, go early in the day.
The Frog Family also really likes strolling along Disney’s BoardWalk Entertainment District. There are shops, restaurants, a dance hall and carnival-style games.
Another fun thing to do around the holidays is to take a tour of the Disney World Resorts. You can take in all of the holiday decor and Christmas trees decorated to the nines. Disney's Animal Kingdom Lodge and Wilderness Lodge have gargantuan trees that are absolutely amazing inside their already spectacular lobbies. The other Deluxes (minus Disney's Polynesian) offer oversized gingerbread displays that are works of art in their own right.
13. Watch the fireworks outside of the parks.
Along the same lines as the previous tip, consider watching the fireworks from outside the park. By doing this, you can have a less stressful time fighting the Disney World holiday crowds and getting back to your hotel. Many people don't realize it, but you can see Magic Kingdom's fireworks from afar. Magic Kingdom fireworks shows are viewable from the beaches at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, Grand Floridian Resort and Disney’s Polynesian Resort, and on the boat ride between Magic Kingdom and Fort Wilderness.
Additionally, the fireworks can be seen from California Grill at Disney's Contemporary Resort. You need a reservation for this, but it can be for any time in the evening. Just save your receipt, and you can come back up later to watch! I must confess this is my favorite place to watch the fireworks, because you're watching from above. It's one of the only places I know where you really see the whole show. The music is "piped in" at each of these locations, so you're not even missing that element of the show.
14. Be flexible.
While I love when a great plan comes together, I know when it’s OK to alter that plan and change course. Take occasional “temperature” checks of everyone’s energy levels and attitudes. If you have to cut something short or go to a different park than you planned, don’t sweat it. It’s about quality, not quantity. And when you're trying to navigate through those tough Disney World holiday crowds, flexibility is key!
15. Pack your patience.
The Grinch is great as long as he stays in his place at Universal's Islands of Adventure. Don’t let him take over your vacation. If you start to feel overwhelmed, just take a deep breath and maybe a five-minute “time-out.” It’s very important to bounce back from a melt-down … yours or the tadpoles' :)
Whew! There you have it — our top tips for successfully managing the Disney World holiday crowds. Have a tip for navigating the parks during the busy holiday season? Spread some joy and share it in comments below! And hop over to our When to Visit Orlando page inside the Orlando Planning Timeline!