How to Survive a Ridiculously Crowded Day at Disney

December 15, 2015, 11:08 PM · What can you do at Disney when the park is so crowded that you can't do anything?

Plenty, actually.


My family and I found ourselves in this all-too-familiar situation a couple of weekends ago, when holiday crowds packed what seemed like every square foot of Disneyland. Now, let's admit that no one wants to be in this situation. Ideally, we all would visit on days with below-average crowds, when we could walk on most rides and wait no more than just a few minutes for even the most popular attractions.

But weekends during the holiday season, especially just after Disneyland opened its "Season of the Force" event, aren't even close to "below average" crowd days. Nor are the mid-summer weeks when school schedules dictate that most of us with children have to take our family vacations.

On busy days, it's especially important to follow our core advice for visiting theme parks:

But even if you follow all those tips, the moment will come during a busy day when the crowds fill every queue and leave you no space on the pathways — when you will think that you have no choice but to hurry up and wait for the rest of the day.

This can be the most frustrating moment of your visit. That helpless fear that you'll be spending the rest of the day waiting in line instead of enjoying the park leads many visitors to despair, and sometimes, anger. But even though the money you spent for your tickets is a sunk cost at this point, you are not committed to wasting time during your day in the park.

In September, Rob McCullough offered his Top 10 Ways for Annual Passholders to Get the Most from Their Theme Park Visits. Those tips also work well for anyone on busy days, too, as they offer a variety of ways you can enjoy yourself in the parks beyond the typical rides and shows.

So don't despair when the crowds get ridiculous. Just zig when the world zags, and start looking for things to do in the park that few others are doing.

Watch the Gap
Watch for those gaps, when the park gets busy

A show schedule is your best friend here. Always pick up one at the front gate when you visit, even if you're not planning on seeing any shows. When the attraction queues blow up, your show schedule can offer some nice alternatives that will allow you to continue to get value from your day. You're not looking for the big shows, either. Everyone else in that huge crowd will be going to see the parade and fireworks, too. Look instead for often-neglected, smaller shows, such as the Dapper Dans, the Royal Street Bachelors, and the Flag Retreat ceremony.

Tony Baxter's window on Main Street
Look for the names in the windows on Main Street, too, and learn about the people who built the Disney parks.

In between shows, haul out the camera or your smartphone and seek out unique decorations throughout the park. This is the time to fill your friends' Instagram feeds with the sights of the park. (And to make them jealous that they aren't there with you! Of course, they won't see those awful crowds in your photos.... What they don't know won't hurt you.)

I always used to love visiting the fort on Tom Sawyer Island. Installations such as that reward people who take the time to look for little details that most visitors miss while rushing past to mark another attraction off their "to do" list. On our most recent visit, my kids passed the time playing checkers in the Market House on Main Street USA. Sure, you could play checkers at home. But it's the atmosphere in the old-timey shop on Disneyland's Main Street that makes this time playing the game special.

Playing checkers

There's an audaciousness to it, really. Tens of thousands of people a day run around the park, trying to cram in as many rides as possible. But who takes the time to say "eh, forget that. I'm playing a game of checkers, instead"? That's the mark of an exceptional theme park fan. ;^)

What's your favorite way to switch gears and enjoy the park when the lines grow unbearable long?

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Replies (13)

December 15, 2015 at 11:26 PM · I recently took a trip to Disneyland during the busy summer months and, as a new parent, I loved reliving the small details. Before becoming a father, all I wanted was the thrills, but this time around, the smallest things caught my eye. Taking time to see the smaller things really added depth to my vacation. Sure, you can't change the crowds, but you can still have a wonderful time.
December 16, 2015 at 2:21 AM · I have a new granddaughter who was 13 months when we went to WDW in October. I learned where all of the baby lounges were. It was such a nice place to go and relax and have quiet. No one was ever in the rooms and I learned where there is a little "potty" for the future trips...a really great way to get away.
December 16, 2015 at 4:59 AM · Whenever crowds get too big, I like to go on small, obscure attractions that no one cares about. MK and Epcot have the best obscure attractions IMO. Grant it, there are some really terrible ones, like Tomorrowland Speedway and Journey Into Imagination X(. But there also some really good ones. I love Enchanted Tiki Room, find the the greenhouse facility in Living WIth The Land quite intriguing, the Gran Fiesta Tour is quite amusing, PeopleMover is one of the best rides in Orlando....And, I don't care what anyone says, I love The Seas with Nemo and Stitch's Great Escape. Just like Charlie Brown's little Christmas tree, "It's not bad at all, really, maybe it just needs a little love."

Now, all of the more popular, bigger WDW attractions like Tower of Terrror and Splash Mountain will always be my favorites, but sometimes it's even more fun to see the stuff that everyone ignores. Who knows? You might find something truly worthwhile.

December 16, 2015 at 5:06 AM · My Wife and I just enjoy walking around the parks and seeing the expressions on other peoples faces when they experience something magical for the first time. And we like finding nice passed by spots to sit and people watch. As Shaun said there is also something incredible about seeing Disney through your childs eyes. We have a 10 month old and he lights up when he meets Mickey and his friends and especially enjoyed meeting Santa at the Christmas Party this year.
December 16, 2015 at 8:34 AM · Go early. Visit the E-Ticket attractions and get as many Fastpasses as possible to return in the afternoon. This means go right at the hub to get Space Mountain Fastpass or go left for Indiana Jones Fastpass. By noon, it will be crowded as heck, then hit the minor attractions and eat lunch too. See the shows since the rides will be super crowded. Some rides will have bearable lines since they are people eaters like Small World and Pirates.

Visiting during the Christmas time means the weather will be wonky at Disneyland Anaheim. It isn't odd to have 70 degree weather in the mid-afternoon and 40 degree weather in the evenings. You'll be in short sleeves in the hot sun. When evening falls, the weather will be chilly. Bring extra layers of long sleeve shirts and thick jackets. Put them in tote bags to carry around the park. You'll want to stick around to see the fireworks and the parades.

December 16, 2015 at 12:07 PM · Before our most recent trip to Disneyland, I spent a ridiculous amount of time studying the Disneyland Encyclopedia and I wrote down a list of at least a dozen things I had never noticed before in my 10+ visits to the park. I had never been that interested in Main Street before, but the info in this book opened my eyes to some of the most amazing and enjoyable things that I had just ignored and rushed past since my first visit back in 1985. It was an absolute joy to wander through the stores and look at the tableaus and old-timey decor, pick up the phones in the Market House and listen to humorous recorded conversations, and just in general, see Walt's favorite part of the park from a newly educated point of view. This is easily something you could focus on and enjoy when the ride lines are discouraging.

Then of course, there's always the search for Hidden Mickeys, an activity that I am particularly awful at, no matter the amount of training, but my family and I still enjoy trying.

My family's motto on vacations in general, but certainly in theme parks, is that a good experience is made up of 50% planning and 50% attitude. Hard to work out when the kids are small, true, but as they mature just a little, you can start to instill the concept that you can determine for yourself in advance whether or not you will have a good time, regardless of what the crowds throw at you. Hokey, I know, but it works.

December 16, 2015 at 12:14 PM · "Favorite way to switch gears" plan a vacation cruise or vacation resort. Spending stupid money to deal with overcrowded overpriced theme parks to play checkers.. Really!? Get your headgear checked.
December 16, 2015 at 1:29 PM · I know some folks don't like them, but the Agent P and Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom games are great things to do when the mid-day crowds arrive, along with less popular attractions like the Carousel of Progress or Hall of Presidents. Once the fireworks are over, everything should have reasonable waits.
December 16, 2015 at 4:20 PM · Perfect timing for excellent advice!
December 16, 2015 at 8:02 PM · Re-

If you're having trouble finding hidden mickeys, I suggest asking the Cast Members. They can be really helpful with that sort of thing. Sometimes.

Re-Giacomo B.

So laying in a chair on the deck of an oversized yacht and getting sunburn is a better alternative to spend a truckload of money? Ok...

December 17, 2015 at 2:38 PM · Since my birthday falls during the busy holiday season we are subject to those crowds at DLR so we plan on lunch and dinner at a later time and find some of the smaller shows, ride on the Mark Twain or Columbia, take the train on a "Grand Circle Tour of the Magic Kingdom" several times - we will even ask about sitting in the caboose if the train is towing one. This last time we spent some time riding on all of the transportation available on Main Street.
December 18, 2015 at 12:23 PM · A friend and I went and I rode the mainstreet double decker bus for the first time and enjoyed it very much! We also settled in the hub to people watch and found ourselves front and center for the flag retreat, and it was very moving. We almost just bailed early for lunch outside the park because of the crowd and were very glad we stayed!
December 18, 2015 at 1:52 PM · I've lived in Orlando my whole life, and I've honestly always found it unbearable during the busy times. I always suggest for people to wait. You could see more in 2 days than entire week if you just come in the slower season. It's worth taking a couple of days off school/work.

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