How to enjoy Christmas and New Year's at Disney and Universal, during theme parks' busiest week of the year
Published: December 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM
Inevitably, that leads people to freak out. But if you come to the parks with the expectation that they'll be crowded -- and bring a strategy for dealing with that -- you can have a wonderful time enjoying the holidays at Disney and Universal.
First, all the regular rules for visiting theme parks apply. Buy your tickets in advance, online. Make your lunch and dinner reservations early. Get to the park in the morning before it opens - an hour or more this week.
But don't expect to use the first hour or so in the parks to enjoy most the top rides before lines build up. These aren't typical, summer-like crowds. Lines for almost all attraction will blow up immediately, but getting to the park and in line at the front well before opening will help you to get in at least one, maybe two, top rides before waits get crazy-long later in the day. At Disney, grab a Fastpass for a popular ride before heading to your first destination of the day. At Universal, consider buying a Universal Express pass, if you aren't staying at one of the resort's three on-site hotels, where guests get free front-of-line access for their entire stay. (That perk makes this the very best week of the year to stay at those hotels.)
I'd give up on park-hopping at Walt Disney World on these busy days. Once you've got a parking spot, hang on to it. Lots will close later in the day, and you don't want to spend time waiting for buses or monorails when you're already waiting so much for rides and shows. At Disneyland and Universal Orlando, the other theme park is just steps away, so park-hopping remains a better option at those resorts, but you'll still have to wait at the entrance turnstiles, and might get caught outside if the park closes temporarily after hitting its capacity. So even at those resorts, I'd stick with the park you enter in the morning, at least until well after sundown.
Though wait-times will exceed an hour for almost all attractions at mid-day, remember that attractions have well-defined and regulated queues. On busy days such as these, you might be tempted to skip the crowded attractions for some of the other entertainment in the park, such as parades and street shows. But thousands of other park visitors will have thought the same thing. If those thousands of visitors are patient folks like you, and understand that they're visiting on a crowded day (down in the front, please), all will be fine and everyone will enjoy the show. But if you've got even a few impatient people in the crowd, who expect everyone to get out of their way, conflict's gonna happen. At least in an attraction queue, there's a literal order that you won't find on parade route and in front of the Magic Kingdom castle stage. So bring extra patience if you choose to enjoy a show or parade in the parks. Stay safe, and make friends with the people around you. You want cooperation, not conflict, when the parks are this busy.
On New Year's Eve, the crowds will swell even larger. If you're planning to spend midnight in the parks, you might need to claim your space as early as 5pm. By 9, don't expect to be able to move around, go to bathroom, send someone to get food, etc. After 10 in front of the castle in the Magic Kingdom, you might not be able to move your arms anymore. It's like being in Times Square in New York at that point. Thousands of people around you are having a great time, and if you know what to expect, you can, too.
You do have other options for seeing midnight fireworks, however. Some restaurants in the parks and surrounding hotels have tables with views of the fireworks and offer special New Year's Eve dining packages. But you'll need to book up to six months early to get the best tables. Keep that in mind, though, for your next visit to the Orlando area.
For meals in the parks, if you haven't made dining reservations already, plan to eat like you're in another time zone. That means hitting the counter-service restaurants for lunch before 11am or after 2pm, and dinner before 5pm or after 7, to minimize your wait time and increase you chances of getting a table near the restaurant.
Remember, too, that there's never any wait to wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy New Year - especially the park employees, who are working hard to control these crowds, keep the lines moving and help everyone enjoy their day, as much as is possible. Keeping a smile on your face and a positive attitude in your mind will help even the most crowded day feel fun.
I'd love to hear some your advice and stories about visiting the theme parks during the holidays. Please share your stories, in the comments.