Christmas is our FAVORITE time of year at the parks, but it can also be one of the busiest times to visit Disney World. If you'll be spending your holidays dashing through the crowds at Walt Disney World Resort or any of the Orlando theme parks later this year, you'll want to head in fully prepared for all of the holiday merriment, as well as the changes put in place due to COVID-19. This post will walk you through tips for managing crowds during the holidays at Disney World, but there are a few things you need to prepare for, if you are considering visiting this holiday season.
Last year, new health and safety measures, including mask requirements and capacity limits at the parks, were introduced to allow for more physical distancing. Despite limited capacity, Disney World was the busiest it had been since reopening after the COVID-19 closure. We know it's still a long way away, but Disney does expect some form of social distancing and mask requirements to remain through the end of the year. However, the situation is fluid, as it mainly depends on the COVID-19 vaccine rollout. We'll certainly keep this guide updated, as it gets closer to the 2021 holiday season. In the meantime, here are our best tips for handling crowds at Disney World during Christmas.
Note: We're keeping some of our tips that apply during "normal" times, because we know some of you are planning for trips beyond 2021, but some of these have not been confirmed for this year. We've noted them accordingly.
Our Top Tips for Visiting Disney World During the Holidays and Peak Crowd Times
1. Book your reservations before you visit.
There are a few reservations you can take care of before your trip arrives. First, you'll want to reserve your Disney Park Pass. You can then book your Advance Dining Reservations, which can be done 60 days in advance for all guests (though Disney Resort hotel guests will be able to book for the entirety of their stay). At the 60 day mark, you can also reserve experiences, such as building your own lightsaber at Savi's Workshop. Note that all of these reservations, plus your admission to the park, all work together; to dine at a theme park, you need both valid admission and a Disney Park Pass reservation for the same park, on the same day. (If, for example, you've got a reservation for Chip 'n' Dale's Harvest Feast at Garden Grill at EPCOT, you'd also need a Park Pass reservation for EPCOT on the same day, plus valid park admission. Dining reservations do not guarantee theme park entry.) Disney Park Pass, dining, experience and FastPass reservations can all be made using My Disney Experience.
While not available yet in 2021, FastPass+ reservations are generally another hot commodity that you'll want to hop on before your vacay. 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 Mickey & Minnie's Runaway Railway at Disney's Hollywood Studios and Avatar - Flight of Passage at Disney's Animal Kingdom. (Note that FastPass+ service is temporarily unavailable.)
2. Brush up on current protocol.
Yep, there are a lot of changes that have happened over the last year in response to COVID and things are still changing inside the parks. What has not changed is a mask requirement, so you and your family will need to be prepared for that. We have tips for wearing a mask in the theme parks to help you out. You can find a current list of Disney World health and safety measures and policies that we update regularly.
3. Have a plan ... but be flexible.
We offer park plans that are great for crowd levels 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 in most years, it's better to set a few priorities for each family member. Get to the parks early so you can experience priority attractions with lower waits. You're not going to be able to do and see as much when crowds are at their highest later on in the day. 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.
4. Read up on how to book a Boarding Group if you plan to ride Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance.
Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance is a very popular attraction with very limited capacity. It — along with a host of new attractions — is the main reason Disney's Hollywood Studios regularly books up so quickly. If you want to ride (and we really, really hope you do, because it is toadally worth it), you will have to join a virtual queue at select times once you are inside the park. There is still no guarantee you will get to ride, but we highly recommend you check out our full guide on how to get a Boarding Group to ride Rise of the Resistance.
5. Download our iPhone app.
As mentioned above, our Orlando Planning App offers pre-set and customizable park plans. 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!
6. 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. If you are staying on-site, hop to it! Later this year, Disney will be introducing Early Theme Park Entry as a replacement to Extra Magic Hours. This perk will allow Disney hotel guests to take advantage of a 30-minute early entry period to ANY theme park, EVERY day.
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!)
For the holidays in 2021, arriving early is still important, but take note: the parking lots for the theme parks don't open until about an hour before the park officially opens. So if you're driving to the parks only to arrive and see a long line of cars, don't fret! The lines tend to move quickly for both the parking lot and the main entrance.
7. Avoid hopping on the very busiest days.
Park hopping is not recommended during the very busiest times — crowd levels 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. There will be more people using Disney transportation, so you may have to wait in long lines for the buses, boats and monorails. Use that precious time inside one park for the day! For the 2021 holiday season, hopping will return after its absence last year — so reserve your Disney Park Pass early!
8. Know your transportation options and factor extra time in.
Speaking of Disney transportation, it's important to know all of the transportation options available so you can have a back-up plan and not rely solely on one option. The monorail system can take you to Magic Kingdom, the Transportation and Ticket Center, the Magic Kingdom resorts and EPCOT (the EPCOT monorail is currently unavailable). Disney Skyliner links EPCOT, Disney's Hollywood Studios and several resorts, including Disney's Caribbean Beach Resort, Pop Century Resort and Art of Animation Resort. Or, hop on a ferry boat to get from place to place. For a complete breakdown of transportation options by park, use these guides to help navigate your way to and from Magic Kingdom, EPCOT, Disney's Hollywood Studios and Disney's Animal Kingdom.
Factor the extra time needed to use Disney's complimentary transportation since all options will be busy! With social distancing measures in place in 2021, this is especially prudent since there won't be as much room available in each bus, monorail car or ferry in order to space guests out (while keeping parties together). If you don't mind splurging, using a ride-sharing service is always an option, as well.
9. Know the parade and show schedules. (Not confirmed for holidays in 2021)
The special holiday versions of the parades and stage shows draw large crowds, so save a viewing spot at least 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.
In 2020, all of the holiday entertainment hoppened sporadically multiple times throughout the day with mini cavalcades and pop-up, socially-distanced character experiences. We're not quite sure what to expect with entertainment in 2021, but we sure hope that parades will be able to return!
10. 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 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.
11. Figure out activities to do in long lines.
When you're waiting in a long line for a ride, restaurant or the bus to take you home, this is the perfect time to play games, such as "I Spy" or the mobile game "Heads Up!" A Frog Family fave is a game of "Guess Who" with Disney and Pixar characters. The free Play Disney Parks app also has some interactive queue games for attractions such as Space Mountain and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run, as well as park trivia!
12. 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. In fact, the majority of quick-service restaurants at the parks and resorts are requiring mobile ordering to limit contact points, so be sure to read up on how it works. 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. Keep your hunger satisfied with a turkey leg or fresh popcorn in between meals.
Introduced last year, My Disney Experience can show you table-service restaurants near you that may be accepting walk-ins if you weren't able to snag a reservation. And for select table-service restaurants at Disney Resort hotels, you can even place a to-go order using My Disney Experience! (Sanaa bread service as a late-night snack? Drool.) For more information about what dining at Disney World is like right now, including the health and safety protocols in place, hop here.
13. 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.
14. 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. We also make sure everyone hits the bathroom before we head to the parks in the morning. If you’re planning on lining up super early at the parking lot, you’re looking potentially an hour or more of sitting there, and you know how that goes with littles ? Plus, with bus service especially slow right now, it could be a long wait there too.
15. 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!
16. 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 is a dazzling Christmas Tree Trail, snowfall and SANTA! Do keep in mind that Disney Springs has capacity limits in place, 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.
One of our favorite Disney at Christmas tips is to take a tour of the Disney World Resorts. This year, if you'd like to hop to a resort, you'll either need to be a hotel guest or have a dining reservation per new health and safety guidelines. 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) usually offer oversized gingerbread displays that are works of art in their own right (the gingerbread displays were unavailable in 2020, though we've got our froggy fingers crossed they'll be back in 2021).
17. Watch the fireworks outside of the parks. (Not confirmed for holidays in 2021)
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 can also be seen from the beaches at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground, Grand Floridian Resort, Disney’s Polynesian Resort and on the boat ride between Magic Kingdom and the Bay Lake resorts.
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.
Fireworks have not returned in 2021 yet! Of course, you can always rewatch previous years' festivities on our YouTube channel.
18. I repeat ... be flexible.
We cannot stress this enough, especially this year. Things are constantly changing in the parks right now, and without needing FastPass+, you have more flexibility. While I love when a great plan comes together, I also 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 change plans, 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!
19. 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 Disney World crowds at Christmas. 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!