How to enjoy the most crowded week of the year at Disneyland, Disney World and Universal Orlando
Written by Robert Niles
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.Tweet
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:
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.)
Have fun, and I'd love to see some trip reports!
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