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

How to enjoy Christmas and New Year's at Disney and Universal, during theme parks' busiest week of the year

Written by
Published: December 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM
Welcome to the busiest week of the year at the Walt Disney World, Disneyland and Universal Orlando resorts. The week between Christmas and New Year's brings the largest crowds of the year to the nation's most popular theme parks, creating long lines throughout.

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.

Hogwarts castle at Universal Orlando

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.

Readers' Opinions

From Tim Taylor on December 26, 2012 at 2:47 PM
I love visiting both Disney and Universal during the Holidays. But we specifically visit during the week BEFORE Christmas. It isn't too crowded, you don't have to wait too long to ride anything, and you still get the complete Christmas experience without the overcrowding. I honestly don't see anything fun or magical about being at a park that's so crowded you literally can't move anywhere.
From Bryce McGibeny on December 26, 2012 at 4:05 PM
I was at Islands of Adventure this Monday and it was crowded. Like, insanely crowded. We did do some things that helped:

1. We got there early! Everyone made a rush to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, but we headed for Marvel Super Hero Island. All of the rides had no waits and we walked right on. Same with the Toon Lagoon rides and Jurassic Park River Adventure. We had done half of the park by noon. Then the crowds came in.

2. Find quiet spots. We took our time due to the amount of people that suddenly swarmed the park. We found refuge at some non-crowded places that were great to escape the crowds. This included the walkway that goes all around Popeye & Bluto's Bilge Rat Barges and Me Ship, The Olive, in front of Jurassic Park Discovery Center by the lagoon, in front of the Toon Lagoon amphitheater, along Sneetch Beach in Seuss Landing and behind the Mythos restaurant.

3. We ate outside of the park in CityWalk. This let us escape the crowds momentarily for a relaxing lunch as we watched the crowds come in. Re-entering the park was not bad at all.

4. We realized that since it was officially crowded, and we had already done a lot of the major attractions, it was time to suck it up and wait. It was hard, but we attempted to brave the 140 minute wait for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey and the 45 minute wait for Dragon Challenge. We sadly never rode Forbidden Journey due to it being really just too long and the ride broke down.

From 173.65.105.62 on December 26, 2012 at 9:54 PM
Went to Epcot the last 2 years on Christmas day.
My strategy was, Go to Epcot at 9:00 am. Visit some rides and get Fast Pass to Test Track.
I hung around the park visiting the Country's and it did not get busy until about 12:30 PM. I mean we had the park to ourselves. Magic Kingdom on the other hand was slammed at the time.
I made a reservation earlier for the Be our Guest Restaurant at 5:15 pm.
I left Epcot at3:30 Pm, left my car in the less filled Epcot parking lot and took the Monorails to Magic Kingdom. They took me right away into my reservation and I was able to eat a great meal.
So if I was doing the Disney parks on Christmas time, I would hit up a Animal Kingdom or Epcot in the morning avoiding Magic Kingdom. If I had to go there later, I would get a dining reservation. This way if they hit code" we are too slammed," you can still get in the park because you have a dining reservation.
Overall, it was not a stressful day at all and like the article said I didnt make any expectations to get on anything that normally has long lines.
From 98.117.50.239 on December 26, 2012 at 10:07 PM
Probably wasn't the best idea to complain about your employer on camera.

Security should have told the guy with the camera to get off the street or they will pepper spray him.

The Disney staff usually has to break out the mace when guests get crowded and unruly.

If you want to feel magical at Disney World on Christmas your best bet is to head to a bar at the world showcase.

From Deidre Dennis on December 26, 2012 at 10:21 PM
We are heading to Disneyland Jan 1-6. I'm wondering what the crowds will be like since typically that is the week kids are back in school.

Regardless of the time of year, we always go with the expectations that these parks are going to be packed, however I have heard the first couple weeks of January is actually a good time to go.

From 99.144.129.108 on December 27, 2012 at 12:19 AM
Everything on this list is 100% accurate. I went to MK last year for New Year's Eve, and got the perfect spot in front of the castle at 6 p.m. and waited with my girlfriend till midnight. Prepare yourself, though. If it's gonna be cold, like last year, bring lots of layers of clothing! I made the mistake of attempting to go to the restroom at around 10 pm and the crowd control was so intense that I had to walk a huge circle from the hub, to Fantasyland, to Tomorrowland, out the side CM entrance by The Plaza, back to the front entrance of the park, up Main Street, USA, in front of Crystal Palace, and then back to my spot. It was a nightmare. Other than that, it was a lot of fun and get to the park as early as possible to guarantee entrance and try to ride SOME rides.
From Mike Gallagher on December 27, 2012 at 9:26 AM
Anonymous poster above said: "Probably wasn't the best idea to complain about your employer on camera."

What are you referring to? I didn't see any incident like that mentioned in this thread. I've been known to miss stuff, but I don't think I did here.

From James Trexen on December 27, 2012 at 3:37 PM
^Click on "people to freak out."
From Jake Johnson on December 28, 2012 at 3:11 PM
me.. i just stay away at thanksgiving and christmas holiday time.. its PACKED and there is no way around it..

But if you MUST go the items mentioned can help make this a better time for all.. actually if you wait till week after new year day the place is deserted..

happy christmas and merry new year to all my fellow TPI'ers..

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

Previous article: Robert's rules for the perfect theme park