So you’re thinking about doing New Year’s Eve at Disney? Most people would think that’s ridiculous given the massive crowds, but after a few years of experience under my belt doing this very thing, I’m here to tell you, it can be a really fun day in Walt Disney World. Below, I’ll outline a few of my hard-learned secrets to a successful Epcot New Year’s Eve along with a few crowd-sourced tips from my colleagues here at TouringPlans for handling Magic Kingdom, as well.
Julia and Dani have already given some great tips on staying sane during phase closures and planning for crowds at Universal, and many of these rules also apply here, too. Though Epcot does not normally phase-close on New Year’s Eve, the same tips work for surviving the busiest days in any theme park. Dani’s tips about setting up Touring Plans ahead of time are also super helpful for making the most of your theme park visits during the last few weeks of the year.
Why Not Magic Kingdom on New Year’s Eve?
Despite the crowds, New Year’s Eve is a fun day, unlike any other you’ve spent in a park. One of the toughest parts of the day, though, can be actually getting in to a park. As Julia explained, phased closures are very common for this time of year, particularly at Magic Kingdom. This means that, depending on your ticket type and whether you have an existing dining reservation, you may not be able to enter or even hop on transportation to your chosen park.
To help alleviate some of the crowds on New Year’s Eve itself, and to ensure the most people possible can experience the fun, Magic Kingdom actually runs its celebration on both December 30th and December 31st. That’s right – totally identical fireworks (the much-remembered and well-loved Fantasy in the Sky show) go off both nights just before midnight. Magic Kingdom is the only park that does this, making it easy to try for a one-two punch for Magic Kingdom on the 30th and Epcot on the 31st.
As far as “why go to Epcot” and not anywhere else? Well, it’s really personal preference. Epcot really goes all out for New Year’s Eve. On top of all of the actually-great dance parties and excellent fireworks (which I’ll explain more about shortly), Epcot also handles crowds the best out of any of the four Disney theme parks. There’s simply more space for people to walk and more facilities for people to use (restrooms and restaurants, in particular), so it generally feels more comfortable than dealing with crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios (bonus: you can also see their fireworks from Epcot in certain spots!). Disney’s Animal Kingdom closes at 8:30 PM on New Year’s Eve, since the animals like to celebrate in peace and quiet – if that’s more your speed, have at it!
In short: go to Magic Kingdom on 12/30 and Epcot on 12/31 for the best New Year’s Eve experience.
The Basics of Epcot New Year’s Eve
Park hours are 8:00 AM to 1:00 AM, with World Showcase opening at 9:00 AM. If you want to get anything done for the day and are planning to use standby lines for attractions, it is critical you rope-drop the park (and use a Touring Plan!). Otherwise, my best tip is that you choose to not make rides a priority on this one day, and instead, enjoy the atmosphere of the park. Enjoy the holiday decorations and the numerous entertainment options in both Future World and World Showcase.
Unlike normal operations days, on New Year’s Eve, there are two fireworks shows. The first IllumiNations show of the day takes place at 6:00 PM (a fun view, if you’ve never seen the show during sunset!), followed by a second full IllumiNations show with a special New Year’s Eve finale at 11:40 PM. To help make the occasion more festive, Epcot distributes party hats and horns to guests mid-afternoon at specific locations around the park (don’t worry – you’ll know when and where distribution starts, as you’ll hear it all across the lagoon).
Around 7:00 PM, DJ dance parties amp up the atmosphere around the park to something you’ve likely never seen before. In the past, these have included:
- China – modern dance and pop hits blasting under a dragon and fire effects
- Japan – a “silent rave”, where you bring your own headphones and listen to the music set on a specific website
- Italy – a more traditional “rave” with fantastic lasers and electronic music
- United Kingdom – a classic rock party hosted by British Revolution
- American Gardens Theatre – a celebration of Latin music where dancing is not only encouraged, it’s a must
- Future World Fountain of Nations Stage – family-friendly pop and holiday hits (note: this is usually the least-crowded and least noisy of all dance parties, perfect for families with young kids)
Dance parties will run from 7:00 PM all the way until about 11:30 PM, giving you plenty of time to dance your heart out and then find a spot for the fireworks. Don’t discount these dance parties as the same ones you are used to from Tomorrowland in Magic Kingdom or at Disney’s Hollywood Studios – they really are a lot of fun (but plan for crowds and lots of noise!).
In short: plan for fireworks, dance the night away in World Showcase, and just say no to party horns (your family and everyone else will thank you)!
How to Navigate Crowds on New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve is, without a doubt, one of the most crowded days of the year, but aside from a few operational changes, you may not notice much of a difference in the park. In the last few years, crowds have ranged from busy Food & Wine Saturday levels on the low end to wall-to-wall people on the high end – both year to year and within the same year, depending on where you are in the park and what the weather is at any given time. Attraction wait times skyrocket on the day, no matter how crowded the park actually “feels”.
To help alleviate all the extra foot traffic in World Showcase, Cast Members are generally out directing traffic after dark. On particularly heavy New Year’s Eve days, World Showcase becomes a one way circle, where you must travel in only one direction, and circle back if you wish to move the other way. Backstage bypass walkways are usually open for guest use once crowds pick up after dark. These bypasses run between World Showplace and The Land pavilion on the west side of the park, and the Norway/China walkway and Test Track on the east side of the park. Know them; love them; they will become your best friends in surviving the day with the least amount of pain.
Because of crowds, two things will happen that are unique to this day at Epcot (and always seem to surprise park guests every year): Lines for *everything* will be slammed, including restrooms and First Aid; and Wi-Fi and cell phone coverage will die a slow and very painful death as crowds pick up. Use additional temporary restrooms set up on Canada side of World Showcase (or in World Showplace, the largest bathrooms in the front of the park), or go to Future World for the shortest lines for anything – drinks (including free cups of water – hydrate, hydrate, hydrate!), restrooms, snacks. Most importantly, be prepared! Set a plan with your traveling party with specific meeting time and locations if you split up, as you may not be able to reach them through mobile channels.
People are also usually surprised by the mass exodus of families following the first IllumiNations showing of the night. Usually, families with small children who wish to ring in the New Year from their hotel rooms, or those who’ve become overwhelmed by the park’s atmosphere, choose to leave then. This is fine – let them leave! But don’t let the slight ebb in crowds fool you – many more people will show up as the night goes on (and as they discover they are unable, or don’t want, to get in to Magic Kingdom).
In short: make a plan and stick to it, and as Crush says, just go with the [crowd] flow.
Good Attractions to do on New Year’s Eve
It kind of goes without saying at this point, but if you don’t have FastPass+ booked for attractions on New Year’s Eve by now and are planning to visit Epcot on the day, book them ASAP! As of the writing of this article, there are still plenty of FastPass+ available for most rides (except Test Track and Frozen Ever After, as expected), even for big ticket rides like Soarin’. Don’t expect rides like Spaceship Earth and Living with the Land to be walk-ons, either – book FastPass+ for them if you want to ride them without a significant standby wait. As always, you’ll need to be flexible with the times and plan around all dining reservations.
Be sure to plan for an extended wait, even in FastPass+ lines, especially for rides later in the day. Rides are taxed beyond compare on busy days, and breakdowns or slowdowns in operation are par for the course. If you are unable to ride something you had expected to, take a chance to wander World Showcase and see all of the great holiday decorations or entertainment options – during daylight hours, this area of the park will be fairly navigable.
In short: make FastPass+ reservations and use a Touring Plan.
Dining Options for New Year’s Eve
Just like with FP+ for attractions, ADRs for table service restaurants are few and far between already, but you might have some luck at this late hour. Table service meals are an excellent way to find shelter from crowds (and possible erratic weather), but keep in mind that many discounts do not apply on New Year’s Eve and holiday pricing is in effect, so budget a bit more money for each meal than you’d typically expect at other times of the year.
If table service is out of your price range or you want to maximize your time in the park, take advantage of less-trafficked quick service options like those available in Germany, Morocco, and all outdoor food carts. Because of the proximity to the main promenade, this year’s new Holidays Around the World booths will likely be a little busy, but they also offer a few different options (and meal-sized portions) if nothing stands out elsewhere. As always, try to take advantage of off-peak dining hours by planning lunch before noon or after 2:00 PM, and dinner before 6:00 PM or after 8:00 PM.
As Epcot doesn’t typically phase-close to capacity, you’re also safe considering dining options around the Epcot Resorts area – Hurricane Hanna’s, Beach Club Marketplace, and Boardwalk Bakery are all my top picks for quick, relatively cheap meals that most people enjoy, within walking distance of International Gateway. These will provide additional breaks from the crowds in the park, but be aware, entrance back into Epcot through International Gateway may take longer than normal.
In short: dine at less popular times and locations for the highest chance of success.
New Year’s Eve Fireworks Viewing
The first rule of fireworks is that much of what you know for regular IllumiNations applies – as long as you’re not standing behind a giant tree or building, you’ll be able to see the fireworks finale from anywhere. Even with tree obstruction, you’ll still be able to see about 90% of the show, which is very, very good. The biggest tip I have, though, is to make sure you can see at least half of the World Showcase countries from your spot. It’s nearly impossible to be *in* World Showcase and see every country, so don’t stress too hard about finding a spot with a perfect view of them all, but it’s nice to be able to see many of them for the New Year’s Eve fireworks finale.
If World Showcase isn’t your thing, there are traditionally several viewing areas located on the lawns at the edge of Future World, adjacent to the monorail beam – you’ll know them by the temporary white fences around their perimeter. They usually open around 7:00 PM (but can vary year to year, so be sure to ask Cast Members). Though obstructed, these areas offer very nice views of the finale (the most important part of the show), and ensure close proximity to the park exit at the end of the show.
Many guests will start camping out in viewing areas just after the first IllumiNations show, and viewing areas will become very full by 10:00 PM. You are more than welcome to do this – you’ll probably get your first choice of spots this way. However, my best tip is to keep moving. You’ll want to find a spot before the show, certainly, but like I said earlier, you will be able to see it from basically anywhere.
If you want to maximize dance party time or don’t feel like sitting/standing on concrete for 3 hours, consider spots off the main promenade or other unconventional viewing areas for last minute options. I’ve had success in years’ past as little as 10 minutes prior to showtime by standing near the temple in China, near the stairs to Tokyo Dining in Japan, from the gardens of France, the France/UK bridge, and more. On some occasions, I’ve even grabbed spots in these great locations while the first part of 11:40 PM IllumiNations is running.
As always, heed all taped areas and Cast Member instructions – if they ask you to keep moving out of an unauthorized viewing area, please do so. They have to keep a sidewalk area open, and if you do not fully fit inside a taped viewing area, it’s unsafe for you and those around you to stick around. Bonus: you’ll still see the fireworks as you walk to a suitable space!
In short: don’t stress too hard about a perfect spot – you can see the finale from almost anywhere.
Entering And (Most Importantly) Exiting Epcot on New Year’s Eve
Don’t be afraid to delay entrance into the park by spending the morning and afternoon at your resort, particularly if you are not prioritizing attractions. Based on past trends, Epcot will still be open for all admission even as late as 11:00 PM. My general New Year’s Eve game plan to reduce stress and maximize fun is to grab an early dinner before heading to the park for the first IllumiNations show of the night, and then party the rest of the year away. It saves my sanity and energy, and I haven’t missed a single bit of the special New Year’s Eve fun. If you qualify, be sure to take advantage of shorter waits at the new Annual Passholder lines at park entry.
As for exiting… ah, well, there’s the rub. Pack your patience – seriously (and maybe a snack or two). Consider the fact that three theme parks using the same roads, on their busiest day of the year, are closing all at the same time. Everyone – tourists, locals, buses heading back to resorts, and emergency vehicles (as there are always many accidents), are all using the same roads.
This point in particular bears repeating: resort buses are not magical – even if they are Disney buses. Resort transportation will still take considerable time to exit the park and get back to your resort. Nearly all parks use the same routes back to hotels as everyone else – there aren’t any secret back roads they can use, and traffic is inevitable. Plan for very long monorail and bus lines at the end of the night, and longer than usual rides back to your resort.
Try to acquire a snack, some water, and use the restroom prior to 11:40 PM fireworks. Though the park is open until 1:00 AM, it will take that whole hour for much of the congestion to clear out of the park’s walkways. Consider finding a bench or out of the way spot in World Showcase and parking your traveling party there until the masses clear out. This will take a while, and will add another hour or two on top of that time to your drive home, but you will be in the park socializing instead of stuck in parking lot traffic.
Speaking of traffic, if you’ve never had the joy of seeing roads on Google Maps’ traffic feature turn purple (instead of just yellow, orange, or red), you’re in luck – tonight’s your night! Traffic is generally at a standstill on Epcot Center Drive (and in Epcot’s parking lot) for two to three hours following the fireworks. Optimistically, you can be home by 1:00 AM by sprinting (which I do not recommend) to the parking lot. Realistically, plan for 2:00 AM to 3:00 AM, depending on the route you have to take.
Be aware many roads (including Epcot Resorts Blvd and parts of Buena Vista Dr) convert to one-way traffic flow as the parks close on New Year’s Eve. This is to ensure the best traffic flow for everyone. It does, however, change your traditional routes home if you are parked at or staying at Epcot Area Resorts. Check with the individual resorts in the area to confirm the best routes in and out.
Don’t be afraid to hop on I-4 or other local non-Disney roads to find a roundabout way back to your hotel/home. Sometimes, that is far faster than fighting the traffic and inevitable accidents along the way. In the past, many have found success using Osceola Parkway for East/West routes (as Animal Kingdom closes prior to midnight), and I-4/SR-535 or Toll Road 429 and their connecting roads for North/South routes.
If you’re unfamiliar with the area, screenshot or download local road maps (or use an up-to-date physical map) in case cell service is spotty and mobile options are unavailable. Take a quick glance at them prior to getting to the park that day, and have an exit strategy ready. Even if you end up having to use Plan B, C, or Z, it’s less stressful on you and your whole party.
In short: be patient, safe, and remember that the fireworks were worth the traffic.
If You Must Go to Magic Kingdom…
If that’s still not convincing enough, and you feel you have to go to Magic Kingdom on New Year’s Eve for the full experience, I’ve outlined a few survival tips below, based on experiences from fellow TouringPlans colleagues:
- Try to choose lesser-known quick service restaurants for meals – Columbia Harbor House and Tomorrowland Terrace stand out as easier options than Pecos Bill’s and Cosmic Ray’s.
- Don’t forget to take advantage of PhotoPass opportunities around the park – these lines will likely be shorter than attractions and are a fun way to mark the occasion
- Visit shows! Enchanted Tiki Room, Hall of Presidents, and Country Bear Jamboree offer guaranteed seating with minimal waits.
- Tom Sawyer Island – wander here during daylight hours to get away from the hectic main park.
Happy New Year!
Pack your patience (and a plan), and you’ll ring in the new year at Epcot (or wherever you choose) in true TouringPlans style!