You don't need a crowd calendar to plan a Disney vacation

January 11, 2019, 4:53 PM · Looking for an accurate crowd calendar to help you plan your visit to Walt Disney World or Disneyland?

Quit wasting your time.

Ten to 20 years ago, the smartest way to get the best deal on a Disney vacation was to plan your trip for the slowest times of the year. But with school calendars varying by district, not to mention conventions and special events skewing the number of visitors from out of town, would-be visitors needed more information to know precisely what days and weeks would see smaller-than-usual crowds at the parks.

That was the era of the crowd calendar. But it's over.

This week, I've noticed several posts from fans planning Orlando vacations who were confused by their inability to book hotels, make restaurant reservations, or book Fastpass+ return times during what the crowd calendars they'd found had told them would be a lightly-attended week at the resorts. They thought that they'd beaten the system... only to learn that there's no escaping it anymore.

Whether you plan your theme park vacation for the first week in February or the first week in July, your approach toward booking your trip ought to remain the same. There simply are no times of the year left that are so slow that you can just walk up and get on-site hotel and top restaurant reservations.

As I wrote in my newspaper column this week, "it used to be that Disneyland's daily prices stayed the same throughout the year, but the crowd level fluctuated. Disney now wants to flip that. The company wants the prices to vary so that the crowd levels will even out over the year."

And they've done it — in Anaheim and in Orlando. The "off season" is all but extinct in Anaheim, and on the endangered list in Florida. Even if you do encounter relatively smaller crowds in Orlando, shorter park hours, refurbishments, and light staffer levels will even out whatever benefit you might have gotten from those smaller crowds.

Smart use of the parks' time management tools provides you a much more powerful way to avoid getting stuck in long queues than any crowd calendar can these days. Yes, when you visit still matters — but that's for finding lower prices, not smaller crowds. And you don't need a crowd calendar to find those deals. Just search for the best airfares and hotel and ticket pricing.

Let pricing and your personal schedule determine when you visit Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, or Disneyland. Go for the best available price on airfare, hotels, and tickets during the possible dates you could visit. (Here is our page on finding discounted theme park tickets.) But be sure to book at least six months in advance if you want to book any of Disney World's table service restaurants, as that's when the reservation window for those open. The window for Fastpass+ reservations opens 60 to 90 days in advance for people staying on-site at Disney, and 30 days in advance for everyone else.

Because of those reservation windows, everyone else is going to be looking to book their Disney World rooms at least six months out, so if you wait until later than that, you're going to be lucky to find anything available at a less than exorbitant price... no matter when you want to visit.

Neither Disneyland nor Universal Orlando offers advance attraction reservations as Disney World does with Fastpass+. And their restaurant reservations aren't nearly as hard to come by as they are at Walt Disney World. But their hotels also often sell out far in advance, too, making early action to nail down your dates a must. If you haven't started booking for summer 2019, start now.

Follow our advice on what is actually important in planning a trip to Walt Disney World and learn how to make advanced dining reservations at Disney and how to use Fastpass+ to reserve ride times.

If you are visiting alone, use single rider lines to avoid long wait times. At Disneyland in California, download the official Disneyland app and upgrade to Maxpass (now $15 per day) to book Fastpass return times from your phone, allowing you to experience more attractions during the day.

No matter what park you visit, download its official app to check attraction wait times from wherever you are, so that you can make an informed decision about what to do next, before you set off walking across the park. Traditional rules apply: Get to the park before opening and do the most popular rides first, before the crowds get too bad. Save theater shows and big, high-capacity dark rides for the middle of the day. (Disney's Peter Pan is the trap here. It has terrible capacity for a dark ride, so do it early or late, if you must.)

Use those early access hours if your on-site hotel or ticket gives them to you. At Universal Orlando, staying at one of the resort's top three hotels also gives you unlimited front of line access to almost all of the parks' rides and shows at no extra charge. Consider that benefit when pricing the value of where to stay! Otherwise, if you have the budget for it, consider paying for the park's line-skipping option, if one is available and you want it.

The good news is: If you use the tools the parks now provide, even the totally free ones, you can enjoy a full day of fun and action... no matter when you visit.

Replies (13)

January 11, 2019 at 5:17 PM

Central Florida theme parks are reliably quietest in September after Labor Day and January after the holidays- including right now. Consistently true relative to the rest of the year no matter what.

January 11, 2019 at 7:11 PM

Dave, are you a Florida local? So you can compare the crowds now to the rest of the year?

January 11, 2019 at 7:18 PM

At some point, it was inevitable that crowd calendars would become self-defeating. The whole point was to use information to help people move their visits from busy periods to less-busy ones. Eventually, enough people would do that there would be no "less-busy" periods anymore.

That's happened in California. And it's close enough in Florida that simply picking a "slow" date no longer absolves you of having to do all that other stuff - booking rooms and restaurants 6+ months in advance and FP+ the minute your window opens to get what you want on your trip.

So let price - not guesstimated crowd forecasts - determine when you visit now. Then follow the advice above to minimize your waits while you are there.

January 11, 2019 at 7:27 PM

When visiting parks in my home state (other than SWO) my go to times are mid September to mid October; 1st 2 weeks of November; 1st 2 weeks of December and early January to mid February (before spring break starts). As a side note, my visits are all mid-week.

These are tried and trusted times when I know the parks will be relatively quiet. Compare that to 10 years ago, then I agree it’s a whole new meaning of ‘relative quiet’. These are the times that give me the best chance of riding the attractions I most want too.

Now ... for me with SWO, and Disney in a few weeks, being able to go into a park and just stroll around with no agenda, then anytime is fine .... even weekends. So a lot depends on what your expectations are going to be when visiting the parks.

It’s true, there are no quiet times any more, especially at Disney, but there are times that are quieter than others, and if you can get here then ... do it.

January 12, 2019 at 12:25 AM

I agree that crowd calendars are dated, but I do think they can still be used to judge general trends and are good as a first step. For example, the least busy times to visit the Disneyland Resort are still mid January through the end of February (except right around President's Day) and early-mid September, while the most crowded are spring break, October weekends, the week of Thanksgiving, and winter break, which are reflected by most crowd calendars. However, that is not the sole determining factor. Crowd calendars need to be compared against the park's operating calendar and admission prices to determine what truly are the best days to go. Low price and short hours on a day marked quiet? It probably will be. Peak pricing and 16 hour days during a busy period? Expect it to be packed. The crowd calendar says it's a quiet day, but the park is open until midnight? Probably going to be busier than you think.

The thing many guests overlook, however, is that low crowds does not automatically equal high value. In my experience, the best days to go are those which predict moderate crowds but have long hours, as these combinations generally allow for the most attractions with the least stress. Like ski slope ratings, crowds at a theme park are relative, and while a quiet day at a local park like Knott's Berry Farm translates to 2-3 train waits, a quiet day at Disneyland still comes with waits of 45+ minutes for E-tickets. Which is truly better...a 10 hour day with an average wait of 30 minutes per attraction, or a 16 hour day with average waits of 40?

January 12, 2019 at 6:25 AM

Don't worry, these insane crowd levels won't last forever. Many of these trips are being paid for by high-interest rate credit cards and/or cash-out home equity loans. The party can't last forever. When the debt bubble bursts (along with a correction in housing prices), crowd levels will ease. The middle class has all but lost the ability to finance a Disney vacation with the money that they've saved throughout the year. Crowd levels this year in Orlando have looked very similar to 2006, and we all know how that ended.

January 12, 2019 at 7:32 AM

Hey, Dave. Your general point is correct but this is the WDW marathon weekend. It is most definitely not quiet here in Orlando...

January 12, 2019 at 9:23 AM

Steve is right on the money. If you can do it, avoid WDW Marathon weekend. While January used to be a traditional low time, it was so crowded at Animal Kingdom on Marathon weekend that they ran out of parking and started parking people at Blizzard Beach. If you must come to WDW this weekend, I would recommend going to Epcot, which has nice wide walkways to diffuse the crowding and a pleasantly walkable parking lot. Keep your expectations really low. :-)

January 12, 2019 at 3:32 PM

Orlando-based, with projects all over and with venues at all the Central Florida theme park destinations. Yes, Marathon weekends and other events make for bursts of activity in the off season- but still quieter most of January till Presidents Day weekend and most of September into October than rest of the year here. As for that Marathon crowd, while it disrupts roads in the area, the Marathon guests tend to mostly be in the same places at the same time making everywhere else quiet. And they tend to be early risers and not around at all in evenings. Really only encountering crowds at Disney Springs, not so crowded at the theme parks. Not too difficult to plan around them, while they run others ride with less waits. Cast Members in many places not getting hours unless they're covering events or a College Program gap at Disney, with many picking up shifts at the places the Marathon folks frequent, especially Wide World of Sports and at Disney Springs. Weekdays are easiest for avpiding crowds. Still, no need of any planning calendar.

January 12, 2019 at 6:11 PM

I used crowd calendars, especially Kenny the Pirate, for our last trip and I feel that it helped. He has a good formula for picking the least attended park on a given day, even during a heavy crowd period (part of our trip coincided with Jersey Week). In general, we found the crowds fairly manageable -- of course, I used every trick in the book!

I actually used two crowd calendars in combination -- if BOTH picked a particular park as the one of the two least crowded that day, that`s what I went with.

January 12, 2019 at 7:40 PM

Never used a crowd calendar and never been disappointed in my vacation. I guess some just need more help than others ;)

January 13, 2019 at 10:30 PM

I don’t use crowd calendars to play the time of my trips, but I do use them to determine the park I plan to visit on those days to help book ADRs and FPs. But ultimately it is a good touring plan that makes for a successful day no matter if the crowd is a 1, a 5, or a 10.

January 15, 2019 at 8:20 AM

"And they've done it — in Anaheim and in Orlando."

Have the ticket prices done that, or have the crowd calendars done that? I would surmise that it's the latter, as more and more guests are going out of their way in an attempt to avoid the crowds. A $10/day difference in admission price isn't nearly as big of a driver as the thought of avoiding 2+ hours lines for mediocre attractions and 3+ hour long lines for the headliners. The crowd calendars have done more to shift attendance than any price changes ever have.

While crowd calendars will not help you find a truly "slow" day at any of the Disney parks, they definitely will help you avoid crushing crowds and identify days in a given week where crowds might be a little bit slower (and parks that might see lighter attendance for those that don't have park hoppers). For the guests that don't understand the dynamics that drive specific park attendance (shows, fireworks, magic hours, special events, large school system mid-term breaks - like "Jersey Week"), crowd calendars can be a HUGE help for guests wanting to experience every attraction in a park, which is difficult to achieve under crushing crowds.

While many guests may not have the luxury of shifting their vacation up or back a week/month, a good crowd calendar will still help identify which specific days are best for going to each of the parks. I do agree with AJ though that there is a give and take in terms of park hours. If a park is only open for 8 hours, even on the slowest of days, you might not be able to get on as many rides as you can on a moderately crowded 12-hour day.

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