Welcome to Theme Park Insider! Join the community or log in
Theme Park Insider
Facebook Twitter YouTube Email Newsletter

How to enjoy the most crowded week of the year at Disneyland, Disney World and Universal Orlando

Written by
Published: December 28, 2010 at 6:20 PM

The week between Christmas and New Year's Day is, without a doubt, the single most-crowded week of the year at the Orlando and Southern California theme parks. How bad are the crowds? Today, Disneyland closed its gates to new visitors by 10 am. Disney announced that California Adventure closed its gates by mid-afternoon, too, though many guests reported getting in then, anyway.

I live in LA and would never consider visiting a theme park during this week, when I enjoy 51 other weeks of relatively headache-free theme park visits instead. But if you have your heart set on going to a theme park this week, here are five tips to help you get the most out of visiting a crowded theme park:

Universal crowds
Crowds at the Wizarding World of Harry Potter this summer.

1. Use weather to your advantage

If there's rain in the forecast, make that your primary day for visiting the parks. Rain's supposed to hit Southern California again on Wednesday, which should help reduce the crowds a bit, making that the best possible day this week to visit Disneyland. Just be sure to follow our tips for enjoying a theme park in the rain.

Whether rain bails you out one day or now, be sure to…

2. Go early, or don't go at all

Plan to arrive at the park's toll booth no less than 90 minutes before the park's scheduled opening. That will give to time to get through the lines at the toll booth, park your car and get to the front gate in time to get far enough ahead of the crowd to enjoy at least one ride without a massive wait.

This also assumes that you've bought your tickets in advance, either online or at an off-site location, such as the Disney Store or a AAA office. Never buy your theme park tickets at the gate. (Don't buy them in advance for pick up at will call, either.) Have your tickets in hand before you head to the park.

At Walt Disney World, if you are staying on property, be sure to arrive early to take advantage of Extra Magic Hours. If you're not staying at a Disney Hotel, avoid the park which has Extra Magic Hours each day, so that you won't find lines already filled when you arrive at the "official" opening time.

3. Something's got to go - skip the parades

Even with an early arrival, you'll face hours-long waits throughout the day. Something's got to give, and I say let it be the parades. Allow tens of thousands of your fellow guests to cram the parade routes while you enjoy a temporary reduction in wait times elsewhere in the park.

Take a look at the parade route on your park guidemap (pick one up at the turnstiles as you enter the park), and target rides that are "cut off" from the rest of the park by the parade route, further reducing wait times.

In the Magic Kingdom, I'd head over to Jungle Cruise about an hour and a half to two hours before a parade time, just as the parade crowds begin to choke access to Adventureland. Ideally, you'd be able to ride Jungle Cruise and Pirates of the Caribbean (the highest-capacity ride in the park) in time to scoot across the parade route at the Pecos Bill crosswalk in Frontierland just before the parade steps off. Ride Big Thunder Mountain and then Splash Mountain while access to those rides is all but cut off by the parade crowd. In a perfect world, you'll finish up on Splash and hop aboard the Disney World Railroad just as the parade finishes, whisking you to the other side of the park (or the Main Street exit) ahead of the crowds.

Of course, you could flip the strategy and forget about the rides, choosing instead to camp out for the better part of the day to secure a prime spot to see the day's parades. It's your call. Just don't expect to do both. (If you are trying to ride rides, your only shot at seeing a parade would be the 11pm parade at the Magic Kingdom.)

4. Eat like you're in Hawaii, or London.

In other words, eat like you're in a different time zone, hitting up meals at times such as 10am or 3pm, never at noon or 6pm. Get your reservations in advance if you can (call 407-WDW-DINE for Walt Disney World, 714-781-DINE for Disneyland and 407-224-4012 for Universal Orlando), but still select the off-hours, in an attempt to catch rides and shows with slightly shorter waits, when thousands of others are converging on area eateries.

5. Travel lightly

Getting through a crowded theme park requires a ninja's agility. You can't do it loaded down with a stroller or heavy backpack. Carry nothing with you into a theme park on crowded days such as this week - just a money belt with your drivers' license (or passport), credit card, park ticket and some cash. Stash your cell phone in a front pocket and use it as your camera for the day. If you buy something, use the park's package service to have to held for you to pick up at the end of the day (or delivered to your hotel room, if you are staying on site).

Above all, change your expectations for the day. If you want to see everything a park has to offer, with minimal wait - don't visit during Christmas week! This is a week to enjoy the energy of massive crowds while hitting up a few favorite attractions along the way. People-watch. Visit a few out-of-the-way attractions you typically wouldn't bother with on less-busy days. (Ahem.)

When I was a cast member, I loved working this week, with so much to do and so many people from around the world to share conversations. So while regulars (like me, now) might shun this week's crowds, there is fun to be had - if you come to the parks with the right attitude.

Have fun, and I'd love to see some trip reports!

Readers' Opinions

From TH Creative on December 28, 2010 at 7:33 PM
Here's one that's a bit different: Prep for one 90 minute wait.

Know that there is a show or attraction that is on your must do list but will likely involve a healthy wait. Pick the ride with the best queue or pre-show. Bring something to occupy your time (SmartPhones are the greatest kill queue time invention ever!). If allowed bring food or beverages.

If you expect to experience at least one of these substantial waits, then be prepared -- make it easier to deal with.

From 98.14.59.201 on December 28, 2010 at 7:56 PM
branch off from crowds go the opposite way it is great then you are working against the crowds and may hit some rides without wait
From Bobby Miller on December 29, 2010 at 9:58 AM
Coming from a small coal region town in Pennsylvania, I enjoy the crowds and talking to people from around the world, like you Robert. Because of that, many times I have visited WDW for the 4th of July for that reason. I don't plan to ride many rides since my grandson Zachary and I have been on all of the rides many times, so we sit around a parade route and chat with the people instead.

For those who remember my post two years ago, after my wife passed away right before out planned trip to WDW, TPI members urged us to continue the trip which we did. On that trip, we planned to release a balloon with a note attached that Zachary was sending to his beloved Nanny in Heaven.

We choose to do that right before the nightly parade. While we waited, a young woman(in her thirties) sat down beside Zachary and I. She spoke not a word of English and neither did both of her children, a boy about 7 and a girl about 8. Through another guest, he translated to me that she was from South America. Since the translator didn't know any of us, we soon became vacation friends quickly.

I explained to the woman through the translator what we were about to do with the note and balloon. After the man explained what we were going to do, she said something to here children and then began to cry. It really upset me that she was crying and then through the translator, I found out that her own mother(the childrens grandmother) had passed away just two months earlier and that what Zachary was about to do was so beautiful, it brought her to tears.

By now, atleast 50 people all around us had heard the whole story. So when Zachary released the note and balloon, everyone was cheering and clapping and I got it all on video as a keepsake we'll cherish forever. One thing I forgot to mention was that Zachary had a special necklace around his neck that was in the shape of a cross. It held some of his beloved grandmother's ashes and the people around us knew that fact also.

So you see how talking to strangers can affect someone's life in a nice way. One of these years, I'd love to take Zachary to WDW during the Christmas week Robert, just to be one of the crowd and talk to the people.

From Bryan Fear on December 30, 2010 at 9:56 AM
Agreed with all 5 of those tips, especially #2. I was amongst the crowd on the 27th ( which was as bad as the 28th. ) While park-hopping we saw many angry people up front trying to argue their way into the park. Many were sincerely outraged that they couldn't get in. They didn't equate their own lack of knowledge/research as the chief contributing factor to their predicament.

One more tidbit I'd add to the mix is to download the app "MouseWait" if you have a Droid or iPhone. Normally I'm not one of those "phone app" people but this app is a real opinion-changer for me. It let me see the wait times of rides, monitor which ones just closed and which ones just opened. We were literally able to run into one ride line which had closed an hour ago but then re-opened to have almost no one in line.

From 163.192.12.171 on December 30, 2010 at 12:09 PM
I was in the MK Christmas day. Crazy crowded. It took an hour to get from the parking lot to the main entrace. Then they had only one tunnel open because the parade had started. The attactions that usually have no one on them had huge lines. Fast pass, if you were lucky was the way to go. BTW, Robert, I was handing out candy canes to the cast members. Some were very happy to get one, others looked stunned, and some said they can't accept it. Disney policy. Is that true?
From Robert Niles on December 30, 2010 at 2:07 PM
Yep. Disney policy is that you can't accept tips from guests, either money or gifts. (Unless you are a table service waiter, of course.)

That said, policy is one thing. Practice, often, is another. :^)

From Jose Vazquez on December 30, 2010 at 3:53 PM
Oh man this week was enjoyable chaos at Disney and Universal.

On the 27th my family and I went to Hollywood studios and it was crammed. Nevertheless, with some maneuvering we rode the main attractions like the TOT and Rocknrollercoaster.The crowd was so diverse it made me realize how universal Disney's appeal is and how much patience crowds have in lines.

Speaking of Universal, on the 28th we rushed to Islands of Adventure. Again the crowd was dense and power walking was not an option. To even get into Harry Potter world I had to receive a standby ticket that didn't let me enter until 1:40. 1:39 came around and it was an ultimatum in choosing what to do in HP. I went on the HP ride, had some butterbeer, and rode the Dragon Challenge in a good 3 hours. It was packed but waiting in line for the HP attraction was so enthralling many didn't move until they got a good snapshot of the Sorting Hat or Harry and the gang.

On the 29th we thought we could go to Animal Kingdom under the impression that no one would go in 30 degree weather. We were wrong. Packed once again and the lines were winding. Nevertheless we rode Everest twice and saw several other shows.

Overall the most crowded week at Disney/Universal wasn't all that bad. I would have preferred walking without shoving or tripping over a stroller. Nevertheless, if you have children over 8 take advantage of the time between Christmas and New Years......under the condition that its the only time you can go with the whole family.

From michael hogerhuis on January 2, 2011 at 5:11 PM
Well I took my wife and kids to Sea World, Disneyland, and Universal Studios over the two week vacation in Southern California and only Disneyland was the park that was really hard to move around because of all the crowds. We are annual pass holders to all of them + Knotts Berry Farm too because it is hard to vacation when you run a small business. Knott's got dropped a lot this year because of all the accidents the park has had and I am scared to put my kids on rides that are dangerous. But back on the subject, Disneyland's payment by the month with no interest has made the park a little less desirable because of a lot more APH are buying the Premium Passes where as before, you had to pay the whole year pass up front which gives you a lot more people. Plus everyone that got passes for Christmas, even if it was a blocked day, get in the day the purchase the Annual Pass. Also since the weather wasn't the best this Christmas vacation, so the days it didn't rain, got a lot more people coming on the days it was sunny. But we still had fun at all of them and I couldn't choose more safe and fun places to spend time with my family during the holidays and the rest of the year.

This article has been archived and is no longer accepting comments.

Previous article: What's new on the discussion board: Coasters are fast, but lines are slow



Planning a trip to Walt Disney World?

Family vacation

Insider's Pick: Don't try to do Disney without the ever-entertaining and informative Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World 2014. Save time and money with these tested tips and strategies for getting the most from a Disney World vacation. It's a great investment in happiness for you and your family.

Get it! In paperback | For Kindle | For iBooks