How to manage a crowded day at Walt Disney World

December 26, 2017, 1:21 PM · Welcome to the busiest week of the year at the nation's most popular theme parks. Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom hit capacity yesterday, closing its entrance to new visitors for a couple of hours on Christmas Day. Insiders report that Disney forecast at least 73,000 people in the Magic Kingdom yesterday, with wall-to-wall crowds expected through the Orlando theme parks for the rest of the week.

To illustrate just how crowded it can get inside Disney World when this many people visit the park, check out this video that went viral on Twitter yesterday:

Granted, the stretch between It's a Small World and Peter Pan's Flight might be the most notorious pinch point in the entire Walt Disney World Resort. The video reminded me how rarely I actually walk through that stretch — my years of experience working in and visiting the park have conditioned me to avoid it if at all possible. But what do you do if you're stuck in a crowded park like this? How do you salvage some value from all you have spent on your family theme park vacation?

Days like today are why we preach advance planning here on Theme Park Insider. Ideally, you made your Walt Disney World dining reservations six months ago, bought your theme park tickets in advance, and made your three Fastpass+ ride or show reservations a month ago (or two, if you are staying at a Disney resort). Even if you didn't do that, you still can have a great time at Disney... or any other crowded theme park.

The key is to skip to the final step in the stages of grief and embrace acceptance. There is nothing you can do about these crowds. You cannot make them go away. Accept that the park is packed, and accept that you will find fun ways to deal with that.

No, waiting in hours-long queues is not fun. So let's find ways to avoid them, even on crowded days. Here, your mobile phone is your best friend. You are going to need the park's official app to help you avoid lines in the park. This advice applies not just for Walt Disney World, but also for Disneyland, Universal Orlando, Universal Studios Hollywood, or any other slam-packed park you visit. Go to the App Store and download the park's free official app, then create an account and log in.

You can associate your account with your theme park ticket, and with Disney's app, link all your friends' or family's tickets as well. If you don't have tickets, you can buy tickets via the app, saving you from having to wait at ticket booths at the park. You also can use the app to reserve Fastpass+ return times so that you can skip the long standby queues for select attractions, to book dining times, and even to order food at select counter-service restaurants without having to queue at the registers. (At the Disneyland Resort in California, I would recommend paying the upcharge for its Maxpass feature so that you can manage Fastpass times via your phone, instead of hiking across the park to check in for those reservation times. Disneyland does not yet have mobile food ordering, however.)

Fastpass+ and dining reservation times might be hard to find on the day of your visit, but some will be available. (All Fastpass times are made day-of at Disneyland. That's why there's no "+" after Fastpass there. The plus sign is for the advance reservation capability.) You will need to get on that app and start looking for return times, though. Mobile ordering at counter service restaurants might be a better bet than looking for a reservation at a sit-down restaurant on a crowded day.

All park apps also include a park map, which will show your location. Remember that nasty pinch point at Small World in the Magic Kingdom. Study the park map to find alternate routes from where you are to where you want to go in the park. (I never enter Fantasyland from the Liberty Square side, for example. I always come in from the much more open Tomorrowland side.) The shortest distance between two points in a crowded theme park is almost never a straight line.

In between your Fastpass return times, use the park app to see the wait times for other attractions in the area, and pick the ones you can get on and through in time to make your next Fastpass time. Busy days are not the ones to play favorites and try to get on only the "best" attractions. You take what you can get during Christmas week. Fortunately, the Orlando and Southern California theme parks are the nation's most popular because they offer pretty consistently solid experiences. There aren't many dogs to spoil your day.

If you're visiting alone, as a couple, or in a small group, consider using single rider lines to reduce your wait times, too.

One of the things that can help with your embrace of acceptance on days such as these is to focus on what you are doing instead of regretting what you cannot. Any wait time under an hour is a good one. Don't count on everyone leaving the park in the evening, either. It ain't gonna happen this week. So don't pass on a relatively short wait time in the hopes that it might become a walk-on later in the evening. Again, play the hand you are dealt, not the one you wish you had or will get.

Here are my favorite attractions in each park that rarely have crushing wait times, even on the busiest days in the park.

Help your fellow theme park fans here by sharing your picks for go-to attractions on crowded days, in the comments.

More theme park planning advice:

Replies (7)

December 26, 2017 at 1:34 PM · I really don't get it. Who decides "I'm going to go to an extremely popular recreation place during this, the time every man and his dog has off, so I'm not really going to enjoy it as much as I could".

Yeah I know, evidently a lot of you.

Save your money and go some other time when you can actually enjoy it.

December 26, 2017 at 2:34 PM · For those in WDW and looking for additional FP+ reservations after your first 3 (or just one if you didn't make any reservations ahead of time), don't be satisfied with that first pull of attractions and times on the MDE app. If you don't see anything that you want at a time that works in your schedule, don't be afraid to refresh the list. With tens of thousands of people in the park at the same time, there's a good chance many are trying to book extra FP+ reservations too, and have something in their list that they may not want, but may be exactly what you're looking for. Now, if a Flight of Passage or Seven Dwarfs Mine Train FP+ reservation pops up, you should grab it the moment you see it even if it may not fit perfectly into your schedule. However, what we found was that the list of available FP+ reservations can vary dramatically in just a short period of time (less than 5 minutes) as you refresh the list over and over.

Also, just because you select a FP+ reservation, you don't have to be bound to it. Don't be afraid to see what else is available after making a reservation by using the "Modify FP" feature. It allows you to see what other attractions are available without giving up what you already have. The system requires you to confirm the switch after selecting the new reservation, so the chance of inadvertently giving up a valuable reservation is pretty low. I was surprised what FP+ reservations were available throughout the day during our most recent trip and how the list changed throughout the day. Remember that anyone looking at FP+ reservation times are locking those out to everyone else in the system at that moment, so once they're done looking at the list, those reservations are randomly passed out to the next guests viewing available FP+ reservations. Your phone (and a backup battery) is your best friend at WDW, particularly on crowded days. Viewing FP+ reservation lists is a great way to pass the time while standing in a line (standby and FP lines), and can help mitigate the overall line waiting when parks reach capacity.

December 26, 2017 at 1:59 PM · @Chad - Honestly, I think a lot of people don't realize how crowded the Disney Parks can be on Christmas. They watch the parade on Christmas Day and see relatively moderate crowds around the parade route and concert stages without realizing those are filmed in November and early December. They see the promotions run during those programs, and make reservations for the following year. Once they do their research (if they do any at all), and realize how crowded the parks are this week, they've already sunk thousands of dollars into their trip, and are locked into the trip.

There are tons of people who simply don't understand how crowded the parks can be during this time of the year, and don't have the luxury to travel during the summer or off-season for one reason or another. Yet there they are, year after year, and they keep coming. So either the same group of people come every year to be with 100k of their closest Disney fans, or people are continuously fooled into thinking the week between Christmas and New Year's is a great time to visit. In either event, this phenomenon is nothing new, and is unlikely to change any time soon. Screaming to the heavens telling people to not go during this time of year won't change it, and personally, I'd much rather people visit during this week, so they're not crowding the parks when I visit during other times of the year.

December 26, 2017 at 4:48 PM · Why oh why would anybody go in crowds like that? Sheer madness! No. Utter lunacy! I don't get it. Sorry folks! I went to MK during Thanksgiving week in 2013, shuffled around for an hour, went on nothing and left as it was a complete waste of time. Never again. Christmas Day is obviously even worse.

I think the park limit should be reviewed as my experience that day also brought home how dangerous MK can be when nearing/reaching capacity with a sea of people going one way and a sea of people going the other way, both with their fair share of strollers and wheelchairs in the mix.

December 27, 2017 at 9:06 AM · #1 consideration when planning a disney trip for me: Choose the least busy weeks. Even the least busy days are crowded for me. I can't imagine the nightmare as shown in these Christmas videos. Why pay huge amounts of money for aggravation? People are just crazy
December 27, 2017 at 9:52 AM · /\ Closing a theme park for capacity is an absolute nightmare. First off you get tons and tons of people who throw a fit because they bought tickets but still can't get in (the GP doesn't understand the concept of tickets being good any day but only hitting capacity a few days a year, all they care about is that they bought their ticket therefore they should be guaranteed entry). Lawsuit threats up the wazoo. Then you have tens of thousands of hotel guests staying on property who are there and paid a ton of money for their room. Good luck telling them no without getting angry mobs at the front desk. Then there are people with dining reservations, fastpass reservations, people who bought photopass, all kicking up a stink. Disney got so tired of it that now when they hit capacity they basically say all of these people are still allowed even when the park is at capacity because it's such a nightmare trying to deal with all of them. It's enough of a nightmare trying to deal with all the day trippers who are only here once in their life and now their vacation is ruined and they hate Disney (what the people working at the toll plaza hear all day when the park is at capacity).

I think the way world trends are going with international tourism becoming more popular, more cheap flights to Orlando, and GenX/millenials caring more about experiences than buying stuff, the parks are going to continue to get more crowded in the years to come. There is no slow season anymore and that trend is going to continue, both WDW and DLR have become like Tokyo where its basically just busy every day, so get used to bigger crowds pretty much year round. I think what WDW did by expanding the capacity on rides like Dumbo, Toy Story, Mania, and Soarin was a smart investment and it would be a good idea to do that on some more attractions.

Adding the new theater is a big + for MK and Tron is a welcome addition (finally a big new ride after 20 years or so), but that won't do anything to help alleviate the crowds it will probably just make them worse. If I were in charge with blank checkbook I would:

-Remove Phillarmagic and gut the building. Upgrade Peter Pan into a better/longer ride with three tracks for triple capacity. Move the entrance & queue to where Phillarmagic's entrance is and use the space by Small World as stroller parking for Pan/Small World and have some covered seating.

-Build a new 3D theater on the other side of the backstage road that goes to the underground tunnel. Have the queue cross over the road (but obviously be themed that you can't see it).

-Remove Princess Fairytale Hall and expand Pooh into 2 tracks / improve the ride.

-Replace Enchanted Tales with Belle with a new / higher capacity princess fairytale trail thing where you meet more characters. This is a personal pet peeve, but the bang for your buck when you wait over an hour to meet two characters is bad. Have 3 trails for capacity but all with the same characters, and meet 5 or so characters.

January 1, 2018 at 8:54 AM · Moronic Drones, subjecting their families to this madness. This is not a safe environment- especially for children. Sheepeople being herded spending all the money with little to show for it, while Disneyworld executives salivate.
This will probably be flagged because this tool bag Niles gets some kind of commission for promoting this propaganda.

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

Park tickets

Weekly newsletter

New attraction reviews

News archive