I love Disney World, but I hate crowds. Most people that know me are confused by this. They assume that Disney is some sort of bizarre Latin form of the phrase ‘packed full of people.’ But what they don’t understand is that Disney crowd levels can vary drastically–and that I typically try to only visit during the low crowd times of the year.
There are numerous websites and apps out there which, often for a small fee, will tell you how crowded Disney World will be each day. I use Touring Plans, which even goes so far as to suggest which park to visit each day. Additionally, there are some basic truths about Disney crowds that you don’t even need a website to understand. Parks will be more crowded on weekends, on holidays, and in the summer–basically any time children are not in school. Parks will be less crowded during times immediately following holidays. Disney is also slow from late August until late September, presumably because parents think that the beginning of the school year is the most important time for children and are reluctant to take their kids out during that time (as a teacher, I can tell you that’s simply not true. But that’s a story for a different post).
Thus, using all of this information, I check anticipated crowd levels before even considering scheduling a trip. I would never dream of traveling to Disney during the hot, crowded summer months, or during the ever popular (and admittedly very beautiful) winter holiday season. I’ve been to WDW five times in the past year and a half, and each time the parks looked something like this…
…which is why I was scared out of my mind to arrive on a Thursday in late February, smack in the middle of one of the most crowded weeks of the year. There was a crowd-level trifecta in effect–it was President’s Day week, Mardi Gras, and the weekend of a Disney Half Marathon. But my mom wanted to meet me in Disney for a few days after her Vero Beach trip, so I had no control over the timing of my visit. My Touring Plans subscription did little to calm my fears, informing me that during the first three days of my trip, crowds would be in the top 10% for the entire year.
However, I’m happy to report that my first high crowd experience was not as scary as anticipated. I had several very serious concerns, and most turned out to be unfounded. And believe me, I had many fears, including but not limited to:
Concerns that using Disney transportation would be painful
This concern was remedied simply by having my mother retain her Vero Beach rental car upon her arrival in Disney World. However, visits to the Magic Kingdom required the use of the monorail, and crowded parking lots (and tired feet) necessitated the use of parking lot trams. I’m happy to report that neither the monorail nor the trams were difficult or time consuming to use during high crowd times. In fact, I’d say just the opposite. When I visited in September, I’d often have to wait ten minutes or so for a tram to fill up. Not so during this last trip–trams lined up one after another, ready to transport me to the gates as quickly as possible. I’m not sure if the bus system was as impressive, but then I really don’t like WDW buses anyway (post on that to come later, too).
Concerns about wait times for rides
Yes, the wait times were a bit longer. But really, not much longer given the fact that crowd levels were more than double those I’ve experienced on previous trips. I was surprised to see that the Haunted Mansion never went beyond a 15 minute wait the entire time I was there–on an almost-level-ten Friday in the Magic Kingdom. I’ve been there at low crowd times of the year during evening Extra Magic Hours and have seen longer times posted. This is just another example of Disney efficiency–I imagine that whenever possible, more vehicles were added to each ride and more employees were put to work. The results were noticeable. With more than double the amount of people in the park, I hardly noticed a difference in my ride experience. Now that is truly magical.
Concerns about standing in line for food and restrooms
One of the things that I like most about Disney World is that it’s nothing like the real world–there’s yummy food everywhere and plentiful public restrooms. These things are important to me because without them, I am supremely cranky. So I was understandably concerned about the high crowds and what they would do to my ability to access food and restrooms. And I have to say that of all of my fears, this fear was likely the most well-founded. I did end up standing in annoyingly long restroom lines, and we did leave Epcot one night to have dinner outside the WDW Resort after being told that there was almost an hour wait–even with our reservation. So if restroom lines and crowded restaurants are deal-breakers for you, consider altering your high-crowd visit plans to include fewer bottles of water and more granola bars in your pockets.
Concerns about general crowding in all park locations
I’d read somewhere that on a level ten crowd day ‘you can walk down Main Street USA without having your feet touch the ground’. To claustrophobic, crowd-phobic me, this sounds like a special inner circle of hell that just happens to be playing songs from The Music Man. However, while the crowds were admittedly much heavier, at very few points did I experience the ‘get me out of here’ panic that I’d been anticipating. While I couldn’t, say, do cartwheels down the sidewalk or, at times, even put my arms fully out to the sides without hitting someone, it really wasn’t that bad. I promise. If I can do it, you can do it.
I spent three high crowd days in Disney before the crowds thinned out on my fourth day. During those four days, I visited Hollywood Studios, saw Fantasmic, took the Keys to the Kingdom tour in the Magic Kingdom, visited Downtown Disney, and spent a morning in Animal Kingdom and a night in Epcot. At no point did we leave a park because it was too crowded and at no point did I have a crowd-induced panic attack. To me, that’s a successful trip during any time of the year!
Of course, I did take the high crowd levels into account and planned accordingly. If you are visiting on a Wednesday in mid-September or January, don’t worry, just show up any time, do what you please, and have a magical day. But if you know you’ll be there during a busy time of year, following some simple advice can save a lot of headaches.
Tips for High Crowd Times in Disney World
-Arrive before the park opens each morning. This advice is listed first for a reason–it is the most important.
-Make dining reservations. Consider this for lunch as well as dinner. Counter service locations can get very crowded around meal times, and nothing is worse than hungry and cranky and in line.
-Consider renting a car. Trust me, it is worth the money.
-Use the Fastpass system for big-ticket attractions.
-Explore the lesser-known attractions. My favorite attraction in DHS is Animation Academy, and it rarely has a wait.
-Enjoy fast-loading attractions. My favorite attraction in Epcot is Spaceship Earth (sorry Melissa, I know you don’t love it) and it is so fast-loading that even if there is a line, it is quickly moving.
-Have a designated meeting place in each park, should your party be separated at any point. Be very specific (not ‘In front of the Sorcerer’s hat’, but ‘Touching this specific phone booth’.)
-Adjust your expectations. You’re not going to get to do everything–but you can still have a magical time.
Would I return to WDW during a high crowd time of year again? Not if I could help it. But if I could not help it–which is the case for many families, depending upon school and work schedules–I wouldn’t be as hesitant to book a trip during a more popular time. I’d go in with different expectations, certainly, but less fear. Maybe my teacher-with-no-personal-days husband will get to visit Disney World some summer day. And maybe–maybe–I’ll even go with him.