How to save your Disney holiday when the parks are absurdly crowded
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Based on reports from my friends, neighbours, family members and even a few enemies, Disney World crowds are back in a big way.
Major holidays and summer vacations are always going to be busy, but with so many festivals, ride openings and special events, there’s no longer a traditional “off-season” where you’ll feel like you have the park to yourselves. If you show up to the parks with your day planned down to the minute, you might leave disappointed when the crowds throw you off schedule from the get-go.
Don’t be “Dopey” and let your thwarted plans ruin your day. Instead of going home “Grumpy,” you can go home “Happy” with my best backup plans (and a few we sourced from TPG’s friends on social media) for those days when Disney is way too crowded.
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Head to Disney Springs
Disney Springs is Disney World’s expansive shopping, dining and entertainment complex. All Disney resorts offer complimentary bus service to Disney Springs, or you can take a leisurely ferry ride from Disney’s Saratoga Springs Resort, Disney’s Old Key West Resort or Disney’s Port Orleans Resorts.
Disney Springs also has its own collection of hotels, many of which are major chains if you are looking to earn (or burn) points on your Disney vacation.
Aside from Disney’s “Drawn to Life” Cirque du Soleil show and a handful of restaurants that require reservations, most of Disney Springs is open to be explored at your leisure.
There are more than 100 shops and restaurants and live entertainment every day of the week, so just window shopping with a coffee, cocktail or Dole Whip makes for a fun way to pass the time. Experiences like a carousel, kiddie train ride, Amphicar boat ride and a tethered hot air balloon ride remind you that you are still in a theme park.
If crowds are not your bag, you have to plan ahead. Plan to arrive at the park about 45 minutes before the posted opening time so you can be there for “rope drop” – the moment that Disney opens the park and allows guests to get in line for their first ride of the day.
If you can be near the front of that first group into the park, you can knock out your first few rides in under an hour and then take a break for a late lunch while the crowds start to really roll in or, as one Instagram user put it, you can “watch everyone panic at the lines.”
Go for a dip
All of Disney World’s resort hotels have large, family-friendly pools where you can cool off on a hot (and busy) day, but we definitely have a couple of TPG favourites.
Stormalong Bay at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort has a sandy beach, winding waterslide and a shallow children’s pool with a miniature waterslide. It’s also the only Disney resort pool with a lazy river.
The Lava Pool at Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort has a 142-foot-long waterslide built into a volcano, a large splash area for kids with two smaller waterslides and nightly fireworks views of nearby Magic Kingdom.
If you are planning to make a day of it, a few Disney resorts offer cabana rentals. Cabanas come fully furnished and include amenities like fruit, snacks, a stocked mini-fridge and towels (amenities vary by resort). We recommend reserving in advance to ensure availability.
Go on a Hidden Mickey hunt
Before we tell you how to look for Hidden Mickeys, first we should tell you what they are. Hidden Mickeys are images of Mickey Mouse that are concealed in the design of Disney attractions, lands and resorts and even films.
Some are easy to spot, like the Mickey head made out of rocks at the bottom of a massive saltwater tank at Epcot’s The Seas With Nemo and Friends. Others, like a subtle wallpaper pattern or cleverly placed stones in a mosaic walkway, not so much.
Rather than spend the day standing in line, you can spend it competing with your travel companions to see who can spot the most Hidden Mickeys. If you’d rather team up than face-off, bring along a copy of “Walt Disney World’s Hidden Mickeys: A Field Guide to Walt Disney World’s Best Kept Secrets” by Steven M. Barrett to aid you in your quest.
See which park is the slowest
As long as there is availability, you aren’t beholden to the park you chose when you made your Disney World Park Pass reservations. If you are greeted by a sea of humans when you arrive at the front gates, it’s likely those people are planning to get in line for all of the same rides you are. That’s why you need a backup plan.
Whip out your phone and take a look at the wait times at Disney World’s other three theme parks. If you notice that one park has significantly shorter wait times than the others, you can simply switch your Park Pass reservation to that park.
You must do this before you tap in at the turnstiles, otherwise, you’ll have to wait until park-hopping begins or, if you didn’t purchase a Park Hopper ticket, you can try again the following day.
Do Disney like a VIP
If it’s within your budget, taking a private Disney VIP tour essentially renders crowds meaningless. Your VIP tour guide will help you plan a custom itinerary that includes front-of-the-line access to most of your favourite attractions and will share fun Disney facts and interesting history tidbits along the way.
The icing on the Mickey-shaped cake is that you’ll also get private transportation from your hotel and between the parks, access to special viewing areas for shows and fireworks and a knowledgeable guide who can help you with any needs that may come up and rearrange plans on the fly if necessary.
This level of crowd-clearing luxury comes with a hefty price tag. Per hour pricing starts at around £349 ($425) (not including park admission), with a minimum duration of seven hours. You can have up to 10 people in your VIP tour group, however, so you could save money by inviting people who can pay their way versus children whose costs are your responsibility.
Take a long lunch
Most of us are guilty of rushing through meals at Disney World so we don’t miss out on a minute of fun. It’s pretty easy to do, now, with so many Disney restaurants offering mobile ordering, but a crowded day could be the perfect time to slow down and visit one of Disney’s sit-down dining locations.
You could go the high-end route at spots like California Grill or Steakhouse 71, both located at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, or spend your mealtime with Disney characters at Tusker House Restaurant at Animal Kingdom, Hollywood & Vine at Hollywood Studios or Garden Grill Restaurant at Epcot.
Reservations for table service restaurants can book up well in advance, but Disney has made it simple to search for walk-up availability if you want to escape the crowds.
In the My Disney Experience app, you can join a walk-up waitlist for many of Disney’s table service restaurants and you’ll receive a notification on your phone when your table is ready. If you are able to snag an early-bird dinner reservation (around 4 or 4:30 p.m.), you’ll be finishing up your evening meal around the time most people are just getting started and you’ll hopefully be dealing with fewer after-dinner crowds because of it.
If you can’t find a walk-up reservation, order a snack or quick service meal and find a shady spot to people-watch while you grab a bite to eat.
Go on a monorail crawl
The Walt Disney World Monorail was designed to transport guests to Magic Kingdom (including the Magic Kingdom resorts) and Epcot, but there is some fun along the way if you are looking for a way out of the theme parks.
In addition to stops at the Transportation and Ticket Center and Magic Kingdom, the Resort Monorail makes stops at Disney’s Contemporary Resort, Disney’s Grand Floridian Resort & Spa and Disney’s Polynesian Village Resort. Each of these has shops, restaurants and elaborately themed lobbies where you can while the hours away.
Depending on who you are travelling with, you could turn it into a bar crawl, appetizer crawl, dessert crawl or progressive dinner of sorts. Disney’s resorts are just as magical as its theme parks and this gives you a chance to see multiple spots in one day.
You can plan a similar adventure on Disney’s Skyliner, which connects Epcot and Hollywood Studios to Disney’s Riviera Resort, Caribbean Beach Resort, Pop Century Resort and Art of Animation Resort.
If you’d rather be surrounded by fish than Disney folk, Disney World offers multiple opportunities to rent a rod and reel and showcase your fishing skills. Two- and four-hour guided excursions on a pontoon (up to five guests) or bass fishing boat (up to three guests) are available at various Disney resorts and advance reservations are recommended.
If reservations are unavailable or you’d rather go the more budget-friendly route, dockside fishing is available on a first-come, first-served basis at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort & Campground and Disney’s Port Orleans Resort.
Head for the wilderness
Fishing isn’t the only outdoor activity you can participate in at Disney’s Fort Wilderness Resort. Aside from the passersby proudly wearing their Mickey ears, you’ll hardly know you are at a theme park when you head to Fort Wilderness for horse or pony rides, archery, canoeing, kayaking and cycling.
Advance reservations are recommended for some activities, but cycling and pony rides are available on a walk-up basis. Other activities may have walk-up availability, but, if that fails, you can enjoy the serene wooded landscape for a bit.
Cross never-experienced attractions off your list
You know you have them. Those Disney attractions you skip over in lieu of whatever is bright, shiny and new in the parks. Maybe it’s shows like the Country Bear Jamboree at Magic Kingdom or walk-through attractions like Walt Disney Presents at Hollywood Studios — we all have those attractions we bypass no matter how many times we visit the Most Magical Place on Earth.
Next time you visit, consider giving your skip-over rides and shows a try. The lines are often shorter and you may discover that you were missing out by not showing lesser-known attractions some love.s
Take a tour of Disney’s greatest hits
An alternative to hitting up under-the-radar attractions is to tour the classic Disney hits. This really only works if you are at Magic Kingdom, as it was the original park at Disney World when it opened in 1971.
Here are the rides you’ll need to visit:
- Country Bear Jamboree.
- Dumbo the Flying Elephant.
- Hall of Presidents.
- Haunted Mansion.
- “it’s a small world.”
- Jungle Cruise.
- Mad Tea Party.
- Peter Pan’s Flight.
- Prince Charming Regal Carrousel.
- Swiss Family Treehouse.
- Tomorrowland Speedway.
- Walt Disney World Railroad.
- Enchanted Tiki Room.
Not only will you get the chance to experience the Disney of yesteryear, but many of these, like the Enchanted Tiki Room and Mad Tea Party, also have reasonable wait times even on busy days.
Wait it out
If the crowds at Disney are so overwhelming that you want to turn around and walk right back out the gate, just go for it. The busiest time of day to be at Disney is between lunch and dinnertime, with crowds dropping off drastically after the nightly fireworks.
If you go this route, take a nap or go for a swim before heading back to the parks for some nighttime fun. The temperatures will be cooler, the crowds thinner and the wait times much shorter. We’ve waited less than five minutes for rides like Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway and Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run when we showed up an hour before Hollywood Studios closed for the day.
Rather than letting a little thing like throngs of other Mickey-loving travellers ruin your vacation, use it as inspiration to veer from the well-worn paths connecting Disney’s most popular rides and turn to one of these alternative touring plans instead.
It might just save your vacation.
Featured photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.
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