Christmas and New Years at Disney World: Planning for the Crowds

Do you have plans to visit Walt Disney World this holiday season over the Christmas/New Years break? If so…and if you have never been to Disney World during this time period….I want to share some thoughts with you today.

First the good news: this is a wonderful and magical time of year to visit Disney World. There are many festive decorations, holiday-themed attractions and entertainment, and an energy that all combine to make this a memorable way to spend a holiday. We’ve gone for New Years three times now and honestly, there is no better place to ring in the New Year than at Walt Disney World!

Now the bad news: it is crowded. Very, very crowded. Think “oh-my-gosh-where-are-all-these-people-coming-from?” crowded. Believe it or not, some of the Walt Disney World parks can…and do…close to capacity during this time of year. If you are going during the extremely busy Christmas/New Years holidays, it is vitally important that you understand this and plan for it.

So let’s talk a bit about how Disney closes the parks first. Disney uses a 4 Stage phasing in for park closings. While I have read different variations on exactly how it works the central idea basically is this:

  • Stage 1: In this first phase the parking lot is closed and you will only be admitted using Disney transportation.
  • Stage 2: The ticket windows are closed (including automatic Ticket Vending Machines) so in this phase, if you don’t already have a ticket for that park, you will not get in. Guests who are re-entering the same park on the same day will be admitted, as will Disney resort guests, Annual Passholders, and guests already holding Park Hoppers.
  • Stage 3: Only those who are Disney resort guests or Annual Passholders will be admitted.
  • Stage 4: The park is closed to all incoming guests. There is no incoming transportation of any kind.

So what does all this mean to you? Just know that, despite those crowds, you can still have a magical vacation. Here are some tips to help you do so:

  • Go for the experience, not the number of rides and attractions. Have a very short list of “must-sees” because you will find lines for the big-names like Soarin’ to grow rapidly (like hours long wait times). FastPass will be your new best friend: if you have the ability to schedule FastPass +, do so for the things that matter the most, and select times for later in the day when the lines will be longer….do stand-by early in the mornings when lines are shorter. If you can only use the old paper FastPasses, use them wisely and note return times, because FastPasses will be gone for the day very quickly….so don’t expect to arrive at noon and be able to get a paper FastPass for Space Mountain. At that point, you will be in stand-by lines for some rides that will be several hours long. Which brings me to….
  • Go early. Yes you can sleep in and try to go to the parks later in the day, but that strategy can cause several problems. For starters, the later in the day, the longer the lines for everything. If you do have a number of rides/attractions that you really want to experience, the best way to make sure you do so is to be at the parks when they open. Another reason to go early is to make sure you actually get in to the park of your choice in the event that it closes.
  • Having an advanced dining reservation (ADR) in a specific park, will NOT get you into a park if it is closed. Even if you have written confirmation. If you really care about eating a specific place…or have a credit card guarantee…make sure you get into the park early enough in the day and don’t leave.
  • I have seen discussions that being a Disney resort guest guarantees that you will get into the parks, and that is not quite true: as you can see, it is entirely possible that a specific park will be closed to even Disney resort guests. If you are staying on Disney property, and have a ticket, what you *are* guaranteed, is entry into A park….just not necessarily the one you want. So again, if the park you go to matters to you at all, go early.
  • This phased closing is also not permanent: parks will re-open again once enough people leave to reduce the crowd level in a park, usually later in the afternoon. So if you go and a park is closed, you can certainly try back later.
  • Know the odds. By that I mean that Magic Kingdom is far more likely to close than Animal Kingdom. So if you can, consider doing Magic Kingdom as early in the day as possible, and then hop over to Animal Kingdom later.
  • If you will not be a Disney resort guest and unable to use Disney transportation, plan very carefully and absolutely make sure you get to the parks early.
  • Consider Park Hoppers. If there is a time of year these are worth it, this is it.
  • Be prepared for linesfor everything. This means attractions, food, and restrooms. Plan accordingly (and make sure your children do as well if you know what I mean…..)

How has this translated into our family’s experiences? Well, I will say that using the above strategies, we have fared well. For most of the time we have been there, we have been successful at going early, leaving in the afternoon, and returning later for dinner. And yes, we have heard of the parks experiencing various stages of closing during our stays: most often Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios, which makes sense as they are the smallest parks.

Now, New Year’s Eve is an entirely different story, and our times there have been different experiences as well. We have always chosen to spend New Year’s Eve in Epcot because it’s our favorite park….and because we figured it could handle the crowds the best. Our first year doing this, we had no problem visiting earlier in the day, leaving, and then returning for dinner.

However, the other two times were completely different. In both cases, after starting our day at Epcot around 10, we had planned to leave later and return for dinner as we had done the first time. However, after learning that Cast Members at the gate were telling guests that if they left they might not get back in (Stage 3-4!) we decided to stay the day. It makes for a long day, but with a little nap on a blanket and/or some well-chosen ahem “restful locations”, it was all good, and we had a great time!

Visiting Walt Disney World on Christmas/New Years is not for the faint of heart….but with the right expectations, some patience, a sense of humor and a little pixie dust, it can be a truly magical way to spend your holidays. :)

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Related posts:

  1. Planning Your Disney Itinerary: Managing Crowds
  2. Planning Your Disney Itinerary: Busy and Crowded
  3. Christmas at Disney World: Make Like a Boy Scout and Be Prepared
  4. Disney Vacation Planning: Should we go at Christmas Time?
  5. 10 Ways to Make the Most of Your Disney World Christmas Vacation
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