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How to survive the crowds and enjoy the busiest week of the year at Disney and Universal

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Published: December 26, 2013 at 11:52 AM

Welcome again to the busiest week of the year at the theme parks in Orlando and Anaheim. You can expect many of the Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, and Disneyland Resort theme parks to hit capacity each day between now and New Year's. Many employees are blocked out of bringing guests into the parks, and many annual passholders wouldn't visit this week if you paid them.

But that won't keep hundreds of thousands of tourists from cramming the theme parks. Forget the strategies or approaches you might bring to a theme park visit the other 51 weeks in the year. There's no way to "beat" or even avoid crowds this big. So embrace the experience, instead. For this week, above all weeks, happy theme park visitors will focus on seeing the experience of just being in the parks as their big attraction.

Disneyland crowds

That doesn't mean you can't follow at least some practical advice, however. An early start is essential this week not so you can get on to a bunch a rides with no wait — that won't happen. But you'll need to arrive early to ensure that you just get a parking space and get into the park. Because parking lots and front gates might close during the afternoons this week, forget about park-hopping. Plan to leave your car in one space, and for you and your group to enjoy the day in one park.

Obviously, some advance planning will have helped you to get the most from your day at Disney or Universal this week. This is the best week of the year to be staying at one of Universal Orlando's on-site hotels, as that front-of-line access those guests get with their rooms will allow them to enjoy something approaching a "normal" theme park visit this week. Over at Disney, making dining and Fastpass+ reservations months ago will help ensure those Disney visitors get to enjoy at least a few experiences without extreme waits.

Even if you don't have those perks, you still can enjoy your day at the parks this week. Just look at the crowds around you as an attraction unto itself. Hey, you're surrounding by tens of thousands of the coolest people in the world: theme park fans! Get into the spirit of the party and talk with the people who are stuck next to you in line. And don't forget about those theme park cast and team members, too. Many of you have loved our Stories from a Theme Park Insider book and columns. Here's your chance to hear some original stories, live, from employees in the park. Next time you're stuck next to some cast member for several minutes, while waiting in an immobile line, don't just stand there, staring at your cell phone. Talk to the park employees. Ask questions. They can't tell you how to get around the crowds — that's impossible this week. But they might be coaxed into sharing some fun stories about the parks.

Look for the little details you can find tucked away in corners and alleys throughout the parks. Consider a photo safari of the decorated nooks at the far edges of the parks. Can you find new places to take pictures that you've never captured before?

This is the week that parks will try to run at full capacity, meaning that a lot of seasonal food windows, stores, and attractions will be open this week. Why not take advantage? Check out some of the options visitors don't find open on a "typical" day.

In the spirit of trying new things, how do you feel about lunch at 11am, or dinner at 4pm? Or ditching traditional meal times and just grazing around the park during off-meal times? With so many crowds packing restaurants during traditional meal times this week, if you don't have a reservation time, you can save yourself some potential aggravation by eating at different times. Again, you'll find queues throughout the day, even for burgers at 3pm. But you can at least minimize your waits by avoiding food locations between noon and 1pm and again between 5pm and 7pm.

If you're looking forward to watching a parade, the fireworks, or Epcot's Illuminations show at the end of the day, remember that you'll need to stake your place early. If you're planning to watch the New Year's Eve fireworks from the in front of the castle at the Magic Kingdom you'll need to be sitting in place by 6pm that evening. Plan on arriving at least two hours in advance for any other evening shows this week. Heck, this week, the crowd for the 11pm Main Street Electrical Parade will swoop in to start claiming their spaces just as soon as the 9pm crowd leaves.

Whatever you do in the parks this week, don't get in the habit of complaining. Come into the parks with a competitive, combative attitude, and the parks will fight you back. You can't beat this crowd. But, in the words of a wise character who now belongs to Disney, there are alternatives to fighting. Exude patience, kindness, and optimism, and you'll find enjoyment awaiting you, no matter how crowded the parks get this week.

Have a great trip, and don't forget to share your trip reports with us here on Theme Park Insider.

Readers' Opinions

From N B on December 26, 2013 at 12:37 PM
Oh, my lord.... I would never want to be in any park that crowded, even my beloved Universal with Unlimited Express.
From 205.201.179.2 on December 26, 2013 at 5:25 PM
useful info in case some of you don't know:

Disney Closing Phases
Phase I: Guests with non-hopper-type Magic Your Way base tickets or Single Day/Single Park Tickets, guests without admission, and Cast Members using certain types of CM admission are turned away at the entrances to the parking lots.

Phase II: Disney Resort guests, Annual/Premium Annual Pass-holders, guests with park hopper tickets, and guests re-entering the same park on the same day are admitted, but only if they arrive using Disney resort transportation or a taxi.

Phase III: Disney Resort guests and Annual/Premium Annual Pass-holders are admitted; however, they must arrive using Disney resort transportation.

Phase IV: The parks are closed to all incoming guests. There is no incoming transportation of any kind.

From TH Creative on December 26, 2013 at 6:06 PM
OH MY GOD! That's Me in the photo! I'm about three-fourths of the way back, in the t-shirt!
From N B on December 26, 2013 at 7:21 PM
I see you... very handsome....
From Brian Emery on December 27, 2013 at 7:50 AM

I follow Orlando Informer on Twitter and he posted some pictures and wait times at Universal Orlando yesterday...

Holy Christmas - 160 minutes wait time for Despicable Me, 120 minutes wait for Jurassic river adventure.
120 forbidden journey..

And it was wall to wall people everywhere...

If you went to a park - you would be lucky to go on 5 rides..

From 98.30.139.130 on December 27, 2013 at 2:47 PM
TH, I thought you were taller.
From 2.125.207.163 on December 31, 2013 at 5:16 AM
those wait times are the average at any uk theme park

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