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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.