As avid Disney fans know, the Unofficial Guide recommends arriving at the gate of Walt Disney World’s theme parks 30–40 minutes before park opening during mid-summer months, and 45–60 minutes before park opening during the holiday season. The introduction of FastPass+ into touring strategies, however, may lead some to question whether arriving this early, i.e., for rope drop, is as important as it used to be. After all, if you can make your attraction selections in advance, why go through the “hassle” of arriving at the crack of dawn?
Though I would argue getting to the parks early is important for all guests, this article will examine why it is especially important for offsite guests. I’ll identify some of the benefits to “rope-dropping” as an offsite guest, and encourage you to at least give rope drop a try during your next Walt Disney World experience.
Everything is Simpler
Using “everything” in an opening headline may not be the best way to start most analytical articles. In this case, however, I think it is appropriate. Everything really is simpler when you arrive for rope drop.
Benefits at Arrival
To be at the turnstiles 45 minutes before park opening, an offsite guest must leave the resort early enough to drive to the day’s desired Walt Disney World Park; park in the appropriate lot; and either walk to the turnstiles, or, in the case of the Magic Kingdom, take transportation to the gate and then walk to the turnstiles. These additional steps most likely mean budgeting an extra 30–45 minutes before the prescribed rope drop arrival time depending on just how far offsite you are staying.
Let’s break this down a little more to examine the benefits gained during the arrival part of your day:
Driving to the park: I drive Interstate 40 on my commute to work everyday. If I leave my house at 8:30, it takes me 20 minutes to get to the office. But, if I leave at 8:40, it takes me 30+ minutes. Traffic on certain, well-travelled roads is tricky like that sometimes. Take this concept of “the more you’re late, the more you’ll wait,” turn it up to 11, and you’ve got Orlando. The highways around Walt Disney World’s parks go from cruising without another vehicle in sight to standstill within half an hour. If you leave your hotel early enough to be at rope drop, you’ll face lighter traffic on the roads leading to the park. Traffic will be discussed more later.
Parking: Have you ever driven onto Disney property at 7:30 a.m. (i.e., an hour and a half before the parks open)? Trust me when I tell you that it’s pretty wonderful. It is calm, peaceful, and, though these benefits are not guaranteed, you will generally wind up with short to no lines at the parking toll-booths, and prime parking very close to the park entrance (or the Transportation and Ticket Center if you’re headed to Magic Kingdom). If you’re very early the attendant may not even be there yet to demand the parking fee.
Walking to the turnstiles: You’re going to walk a lot on your Walt Disney World vacation regardless of where you park, but it’s nice to save the majority of the walking for inside the park itself. The closer you park to the turnstiles, the easier that is to do.
Benefits at the Park
One of the benefits of staying on-site is the 60 day FastPass+ booking window. By comparison, offsite guests who purchase their tickets in advance only receive a 30 day booking window. When you arrive at rope drop, regardless of your on- or off-site status, you normally get an hour to an hour-and-a-half of nearly line-free touring (depending on the season of course). Everyone else is still sleeping, or stuck in traffic, or unloading the stroller from their rented Dodge Caravan. If you weren’t able to secure the exact FastPass+ reservations you wanted as a result of the shorter advance booking window for offsite guests, those early hours with low-wait touring time are extremely valuable.
Relatedly, you probably won’t need any FastPass+ reservations in the first hour to hour-and-a-half after park opening. There will be exceptions, of course – currently, the main exceptions would be Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Anna and Elsa at Princess Fairytale Hall, but most attractions will have minimal-to-no wait in the early hours. As the Unofficial Guide says, “[t]he same four rides you experience in 1 hour in early morning can take as long as 3 hours after 10:30 a.m.” Speaking from personal experience, my wife and I have ridden Toy Story Mania twice in a row through the standby line in about 20 minutes thanks to rope drop (I won both times).
In addition to the shorter waits, there is also a social aspect of rope drop (that is, if you’re not as introverted as I am). Those who make it to rope drop are die hards. They live and breathe Disney and are there to make the most of their day. You can kill time waiting at the turnstiles by chatting with other fans or learning interesting information from the cast members manning the metaphorical rope (if you didn’t already know, there isn’t actually a rope to drop anymore).
Benefits at Departure
Though my wife and I are fans of the occasional all-day, guerrilla touring experience, it is more common to find us leaving a park in the early afternoon to head back to our resort to recharge (usually by the pool). Of course, staying offsite may mean that your resort is not as closely located to the Disney parks as Walt Disney World Resorts are, and this could result in a longer trip back to your resort. Fortunately, you rope-dropped and got a great parking space. That prime parking is just as helpful when you are leaving as when you are arriving. Avoid the tram and just make the quick walk to your car. If you’re not leaving at midday for a siesta, you’ll be even more grateful for the close parking spot as you exit the park later that evening, undoubtedly exhausted.
Avoiding Traffic while Coming and Going
As I mentioned above, traffic around Walt Disney World is usually non-existent at 7:30 a.m. (of course, 6:30 a.m. for an 8:00 a.m. park opening is even better.) Even the dreaded Interstate 4 (a road so notorious for its traffic hassles that the Unofficial Guide has a section discussing “[t]he I–4 blues.”), is usually empty at that time of day.
If you enjoy taking a midday break after a few hours of touring, then arriving at rope drop also usually results in lighter traffic heading back to your resort. For example, heading back to the J.W. Marriott – one of the four-and-a-half star hotels in the Unofficial Guide’s “How Hotels Compare” rankings – around 1:30 p.m. is usually traffic-free, even via I–4. Heading back around 3:00 or 4:00 p.m., however, usually means at least “normal” traffic (see the image on the right), or, just as often, the dreaded “red line” on your mapping application (i.e., heavy traffic). Nothing takes the relaxation out of my midday break faster than sitting in bumper to bumper traffic for 20–30 minutes when the drive back to my resort should only take 10.
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Though I make the above time-based traffic comparison, I always check the traffic before heading to or from my resort. Even if I leave at the most opportune time of day, I never know when there might be an accident or other event that could result in some kind of traffic issue. Google Maps’ most recent updates are helpful too – showing you shorter options while you’re already en route.
To many people, the thought of getting up at 6:00 a.m. to make rope drop goes against the entire idea of “vacation.” As we all know, however, a trip to Walt Disney World is not your average vacation. As the Unofficial Guide says, it is “the vacation that fights back.” Thankfully, by getting to the parks early, offsite guests of Walt Disney World put themselves in the best position to win that fight. Getting up early also makes it that much easier to make the dreaded transition back to your normal work schedule.