Disney World Planning Challenges: First-Time Touring at Crowd Level 10

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Fantasyland - December 30, 2014, 11:09 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)
Magic Kingdom’s Fantasyland – December 30, 2014, 11:09 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)

We finally took the plunge this year. After multiple trips to Walt Disney World in assorted months, my family decided to take a trip during the absolute busiest time at the World, between Christmas and the first few days of January. As first-time Christmas time visitors at Disney World, we had certain expectations about how it would be to tour with the masses of people visiting during the holidays. This article tells how these expectations matched up with reality as well as how well our planning and previous trips prepared us for the trip. But first, here is some background on how we got to the point of braving Christmas time crowds at Disney World.

The fantastic times our family has on our Disney World vacations plus our increasingly challenging schedules as the kids have gotten older have led us to progressively plan trips at more crowded times of the year. When the kids were young in the mid-to-late 2000s, we took a yearly trip with the below-average crowds of early May. By 2012, we were taking trips with the summer crowds in July and August. A couple of trips during the days just before Thanksgiving followed as well as trips in April during busy school vacation weeks. In May 2014, we experienced the crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios’ Star Wars Weekends.

TouringPlans logoTouringPlans Crowd Levels  TouringPlans defines a “crowd” as the average posted wait time for the key attractions between 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest level. The reasons TouringPlans selected this definition and more detailed information on our crowd levels can be found here.

The Crowd Calendar on TouringPlans.com has been a major component in our day-to-day planning of each trip, allowing us to decide on which parks to visit on which days and to maximize our fun by minimizing our time in line. (See sidebar for a brief explanation of TouringPlans crowd levels and a link to more details.) In addition, for many of these trips, we were armed with knowledge from The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World and the tools on TouringPlans.com, including the Crowd Calendar, touring plans specific to each park, dining and resort hotel information, and now a FastPass+ availability tool. Even so, each time we upped the crowd level ante, we wondered if we would have as good a time as on past trips. This was never more true than when planning our trip from December 27 to December 30, 2014. We thought we were prepared, but were we really? Could we have fun with the sustained level 10 crowds predicted for our entire trip?

Following is my family’s itinerary, the day-by-day crowd levels we faced, and observations on our expectations for our trip versus reality. In addition to its 1 to 10 crowd level scale, TouringPlans acknowledges that crowd levels can be perceived subjectively in terms of how crowded a park feels to people as they walk around, a factor also considered in my comments.

December 27

We landed on time at Orlando International Airport at 11:25 AM and picked up our rental car. We had wondered if traffic would be heavier than usual, but it was a breeze driving to check in at Disney’s Port Orleans – Riverside. We stuck with our general rule of thumb that we can check into our resort, drop our luggage in our room if it is ready, and be in a park by 3 hours after we land. True to form, using Disney’s bus transportation with an approximately 10-minute wait, we were inside the gates at Disney’s Hollywood Studios just before 2:30 PM.

TouringPlans had predicted a 10 out of 10 crowd level for Hollywood Studios that day. This is the one day during our trip when we lucked out in terms of crowd levels, with TouringPlans later posting the actual level as an 8. With our three FastPass+ reservations plus an advanced dining reservation at Sci-Fi Dine-In Theater Restaurant, we felt we had a full experience at the park when we exited around 8:15 PM to beat the crowds leaving after the 8:00 PM Fantasmic performance.

Hollywood Studios' Osborne Lights looks crowded but was manageable - December 27, 2014, 7:45 PM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)
Hollywood Studios’ Osborne Lights looks crowded but was manageable – December 27, 2014, 7:45 PM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)

The park did feel very crowded in specific spots, particularly on Sunset Boulevard and around the Streets of America when people were lining up for the next For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along Celebration. In fact, the Frozen Sing-Along is the only attraction that posed any challenge for us. We attempted to see the 6:00 PM performance by lining up at 5:30 PM but decided to wait when we found the line extending well into the Streets of America. Instead, we walked right onto Muppet*Vision 3D and then later waited in line for about 15 minutes for the 7:05 PM performance of Sing-Along.

The surprise of the night was that after we saw Sing-Along, the crowd at the Osborne Family Spectacle of Dancing Lights wasn’t all that bad. There were a lot of people, but we walked around enjoying the lights easily. I had feared it would be a shoulder-to-shoulder shuffle through the lights. Bonus: Just before 7:00 PM, we were able to obtain a fourth FastPass+ for The Great Movie Ride at 8:00 PM, but we decided to head back to the resort instead. After all, our next day would start with a 7:00 AM rope drop at Magic Kingdom.

December 28

Our second day found us taking advantage of the 7:00-8:00 AM Extra Magic Hours (EMHs) at Magic Kingdom. Magic Kingdom crowds were predicted to be 9 out of 10; the actual was 10 out of 10. I had expected there to be a lot more people arriving early like us but was pleasantly surprised to be the second group in line at the tap stiles when we arrived at approximately 6:30 AM. Rope drop really works! The rewards: Multiple line-free rides on Space Mountain and Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin for my boys and husband and a leisurely stroll down an uncrowded Main Street, U.S.A. with coffee in hand for me.

Navigating Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland - December 28, 2014, 12:45 PM
Navigating Magic Kingdom’s Tomorrowland was a challenge – December 28, 2014, 12:45 PM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)

Although we have taken advantage of rope drop for years, the value of rope drop and EMHs was never more clear than on that day, with crowd levels warranting a solid 10. Space Mountain, which my family had walked onto at rope drop, had an average wait of 109 minutes for the day.

We also took advantage of the fact that there is a “second” rope drop on days with EMHs because Frontierland and Adventureland don’t open until the start of regular park hours. So after blasting through Tomorrowland, we joined the crowd waiting at the Liberty Square bridge to be one of the first on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. Although it took a few minutes to actually get to the attraction queue because of the rope drop crowd, once we reached it we didn’t stop walking again until we were next to board the train. After 9:00 AM, the park started to feel busier, and it was time for us to take advantage of our three FastPass+ reservations.

We then followed our usual strategy of taking a mid-day break from the park. The value of this break (and our general feeling of crowd overload) was definitely magnified at a crowd level 10. We had expected that a planned break to tour the holiday decorations at some of the Magic Kingdom resorts would be enough of a rest, but instead we changed our plans and returned to Port Orleans for some much-needed down time at the pool and pool bar before returning to Magic Kingdom that night. We used a fourth FastPass obtained before our break, saw Holiday Wishes: Celebrate the Spirit of the Season, and experienced a few non-headliner attractions while much of the crowd exited the park.

December 29

Next, we headed to World Showcase at Epcot to take in some of the most lavish and abundant holiday decorations in all of Disney World as well as the Candlelight Processional. Crowds were predicted to be 10 out of 10 at Epcot that day, and the actual was 10 out of 10. After the hustle and bustle of Magic Kingdom the day before, we knew we would want a slower pace, and so we made FastPass+ reservations starting an hour after park opening and arrived inside of the window for the first one.

View from Epcot's Land Pavillion toward Innoventions West - December 29, 2014, 11:16 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)
View from Epcot’s Land Pavilion toward Innoventions West – December 29, 2014, 11:16 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)

After making quick work of Future World using FastPass+ with enough extra time to spend 45 minutes experiencing Ellen’s Energy Adventure, we headed to World Showcase to see some of the holiday storytellers who take part in Epcot’s Holidays Around the World, take a break by enjoying a Candlelight Processional dining package for lunch at Restaurant Marrakesh, and see the 5:00 PM show of Candlelight Processional. By taking advantage of the dining package, we were able to get good seats for the Candlelight Processional 1/2 hour before the show. Again, we were easily able to see all the attractions on our touring plan, including a showing of the American Adventure and a performance of the Voices of Liberty Dickens Carolers.

Epcot is known for handling crowds well by virtue of its size and abundance of open spaces. Still, I had expected it to feel uncomfortably crowded at least some of the time at a level 10. Surprisingly, it did not.

December 30

On our last day, we had until about noon to be in a park before heading to the airport, and we decided to wrap up with Magic Kingdom. Crowds were predicted to be 10 out of 10 at Magic Kingdom that day, and the actual was 10 out of 10. To maximize our time, we decided to drive so that we could leave directly from the Transportation and Ticket Center (TTC). However, in our travels on Disney buses the previous days, we had seen some very big traffic backups due to the holiday season, particularly around Magic Kingdom. We knew the trick would be the same as usual … be early!

Gaston's Tavern before the crowds hit Magic Kingdom - December 30, 2014, 7:16 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)
Gaston’s Tavern before the crowds hit Magic Kingdom – December 30, 2014, 7:16 AM (Photo by Sarah Graffam)

With a 6:15 AM departure from our resort for the park’s 7:00 AM opening for EMHs, we encountered no traffic and scored one of the front parking spots at the TTC. We walked to the monorail (no need to take a TTC tram!) and arrived in plenty of time to catch the Magic Kingdom Welcome Show.

Two times on Space Mountain, three times on Buzz, Thunder Mountain, Splash Mountain, Jungle Cruise … all knocked out before our first FastPass+ for Seven Dwarf’s Mine Train at 9:05 AM.

Lessons Learned

Touring at a crowd level 10 was more manageable than I thought it would be. Mainly, it showed how well my family’s (and TouringPlans’) usual strategies can work under very crowded conditions: we plan before we go (including dining and FastPass+), arrive early to the parks, take a mid-day break, use a touring plan as a basis for our day, and know that we probably won’t be able to do everything.

But would I like to tour with high crowd levels all the time? Definitely not! The importance of our strategies was magnified so that we operated at an overall accelerated pace and did not have as much downtime as usual. There were moments when the crowds were unpleasant, particularly around Holiday Wishes, A Frozen Holiday Wish castle lighting ceremony, in Fantasyland when we were there during the late morning, and in Tomorrowland, which was extremely congested between Stitch’s Great Escape! and Monsters, Inc. Laugh Floor. The buses were almost always standing room only. And a 7:00 AM rope drop is so early! I much prefer one at 9:00 AM. Definitely on the next trip.

If you are planning a 2015 trip to Disney World and want an idea of the crowd level to expect, see Fred Hazelton’s excellent 2015 month-by-month summary.

Sarah Graffam

Sarah gets that giddy feeling when walking down Main Street, U.S.A. (and sometimes in her own living room just thinking about her next trip to Disney World). She is a Disney Vacation Club member and has been a professional writer and editor since 1990. Other favorite places she has traveled include Hong Kong, the Czech Republic, England, the Caribbean, Hawaii, Alaska, Kenya, Tanzania, and Disneyland.

8 thoughts on “Disney World Planning Challenges: First-Time Touring at Crowd Level 10

  • January 15, 2015 at 12:52 pm
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    Thanks for this post. We are planning a trip mid-June when the crowds will be well above the late October and early December dates that we are accustomed to seeing. We ALWAYS use TouringPlans to map out our days and will definitely do so again. But this time I will have us take advantage of a mid-day break, which hadn’t been part of our prior touring.

  • January 15, 2015 at 1:18 pm
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    We usually visit at Easter or in July/August, but are considering a christmas/new year trip this year. Very helpful to get a first hand account from someone who has been many times and knows how to use RD, FPPs, ADRs and touring plans. Thank you!

  • January 15, 2015 at 3:18 pm
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    We have rarely been when crowd levels weren’t 9/10. Honestly, and with no financial renumeration*, our reliance on the TouringPlans has always made all the difference. Read the book. Follow their rules. It works. We have always felt like the parks were ours to enjoy.

    *…but if Len wants to fix that, I won’t complain. 😉

    • January 16, 2015 at 5:24 pm
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      I hope one day you get to experience Disney on my favorite day of the year to go — the Wednesday after Labor Day. When I worked retail, I made sure I had this day off to enjoy empty parks.

  • January 16, 2015 at 2:44 am
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    We were also there at Christmas this year for the first time, but we departed on the 28th. The week before Christmas was extremely busy as well. We found the crowds (which are lighter than the week between Christmas and New Years) to be quite packed. We have an 11 year old and a 7 year old and were constantly concerned about getting separated from them and then be swallowed up by the crowd. We were travelling from a place that has a two hour time difference from Florida, so a 6:15 am wake up was not possible for my crew. Fast passes in advance were essential and even though I booked 30 days in advance on the dot (there the two hour time difference helped), I still couldn’t get on to some of our fav rides.

    Was I glad I went? Yes, I am pleased to have enjoyed the candlelight processional (although we went on the 22nd and I would advise being there at least 45 min to an hour before the performance – even if you have bought the meal deal) and the Holiday Wishes, but I think it is unlikely that we would go back.

  • January 16, 2015 at 1:34 pm
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    Before I say anything let me congratulate you on a very well written article. Well done.

    We were also in the world this year after Christmas arriving on the 26th and leaving January 5th. This was our second time doing this and we are already planning on doing it again in two years. To be honest if you plan ahead, take breaks and are flexible it is doable. I would not recommend this time of year to first timers (or 2nd or 3rd), people with small children or even seniors with health issues but if you’re a veteran it is a magical time of year.

    It’s a shame you did not stick around for New Years Eve as for us that was the highlight of our trip. We did the Magic Kingdom (for the 2nd time) on NYE arriving at the park at 6:30 AM and staying until 2 AM. It was the much more crowded then when we did this four years ago but more on that later.

    Here is a rundown on our day once the park opened at 7 AM:

    Buzz
    Space
    Little Mermaid
    Peter Pan
    Small World
    Philarmagic
    Pooh (the ride!) by this time the masses of humanity had arrived
    Tiki Room
    We then had time to hit some shops and photopass photographers before our 10:30 Brunch reservation for Crystal Palace. Yes, Brunch! They change from breakfast to lunch around 11:00 so you get to enjoy both plus the restaurant does no seating for a period of time and it has an empty feel. Even on NYE!
    We stayed until 12:30 had a great time with the family next to us and loved our server, Ariel! Yes that was HIS name, yup Ariel was a man. All recharged we left at 12:30 to use our first FP.

    Mine Train (FP)
    Space (FP)
    TTA
    CoP
    Anna & Elsa (FP)
    Country Bears
    3:00 parade
    Riverboat (chance to sit and recharge)
    Tomorrowland Christmas Show (and now it was busier than I had ever seen it at MK)
    Frozen Holiday Wish (Main Street was now gridlocked)

    At this time I knew that our top two viewing spots were not going to be available and we decided to take a break in Columbia Harbor House scoring a large table for the six of us upstairs. We ate, recharged and so did our electronics for two hours. We shared food and drinks as the electrical parade and holiday wishes (which we had seen earlier in our trip) made movement almost impossible. It was on our journey to Harbor House that my wife and I noticed the largest amount of cast member we had ever seen. They where everywhere with orange flashlights like at the airport directing traffic. During this break we decided that it would not be possible to be on Main Street as we were four years ago (that time we scored a spot on Main Street at 11:30 right next to the ice cream parlor). We also knew they had already closed the bridge from Tomorrowland to the hub so that was out of the question. People were actually waiting for spots six hours before midnight. We were not willing to do that. We decided we would head over to one of our other favorite viewing spots (the bridge from Frontierland over to BTMR and Splash) around 10:30 and try and watch the fireworks from there.

    After we left CHH with our batteries (and selves) recharged we headed to:

    Laugh Floor (FP)
    Dumbo
    Hit up some more photopass photographers

    We then made our way to the bridge in Frontierland a lttle earlier after seeing the mass of humanity around the hub and Main Street; however, it was nice to find out that not only was there a DJ playing and people dancing the bridge itself had plenty of room. We staked out spots and my wife and I held them while the kids went and did some dancing. After awhile folks on the bridge also started dancing and we joined in as well and the next thing you know the kids are back and it was 11:30. We then enjoyed the fantasy in the sky fireworks and the countdown to midnight and then discovered what we had missed four years earlier on Main Street. We were completely surrounded by fireworks! It was the best show I had ever seen and our vantage point couldn’t have been better. Well worth the wait.

    After the fireworks we had planned to sneak into HoP but they shut it down at midnight so we made our way to Haunted Mansion for our first attraction of 2015. The DJ’s were back on again and going strong as well.

    After HM we now realized the park was already less crowded as the masses headed to the exits. Then another pleasant surprise, free hot chocolate and cookies! It hit the spot and we carried on and rode in order:

    Jungle Cruise (Jingle Cruise actually)
    Pirates
    Magic Carpets
    Mine Train
    Little Mermaid

    After this it was 1:55 so we made our way through the castle, caught the end of the DJ from in front of the castle and made our way down Main Street stopping at multiple photopass photographers again. That was our 19 hour NYE Disney Day! We did a lot but we certainly didn’t push ourselves and took breaks as needed.

    • January 16, 2015 at 3:38 pm
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      Wow! Thank you so much for your detailed post. It is great to get the perspective of someone who was there with the crowds on New Year’s Eve. I especially enjoyed reading about your experience watching the fireworks on the Frontierland bridge. Definitely no need for a 6 hour wait! We also spent some time upstairs at Columbia Harbor House on our Magic Kingdom day to escape and rest for a while. It sounds like you planned for the crowds perfectly and will be more than ready for your New Year’s trip in two years.

  • January 16, 2015 at 2:58 pm
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    Thank you for this interesting article on what it is like in late December. We have gone the week before Thanksgiving and have enjoyed the lower crowds , Christmas decorations, and Osborne lights. But – we miss out on the candlelight processional. Trying to decide on a new week for next fall. Great info in your article.

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