My husband and I enjoyed a somewhat impromptu trip to Disney World this past Christmas, an act that has generally elicited one of two responses – fear-tinged awe or aghast horror. WHY would we go to the busiest theme park resort in the world during the most expensive and popular season, and without kids, no less?! What kind of freaks and/or masochists are we? And yes, this has been the reaction of quite a few judgmental people – apparently the best time to go to Disney is never, but if you really must, at least make sure you’re not one of those childless losers lining up to take pictures with some capitalist plushie from the Star Trekking movies (very nearly an actual quote.) Also, oops, clearly didn’t get that memo before we left!
It should also be noted that Chewbacca, of the Star Warsing movies, thankyouverymuch, gives really excellent hugs. He’s kind of like Olaf that way!
So why did we go to the most popular and well-attended theme park in the world during the busiest and most expensive travel season of the year? Well, for no grander reason than we simply wanted to, but delightfully enough, because we could. We had the means and the time, so we went for it, with the full knowledge that it was going to be busier than we had ever seen it across a combined 14 visits. It was going to be a challenge, an adventure – and 2017 was nothing if not the year we heeded the siren call of adventure. 🙂
And was it busy? Yes, of course! I estimate that over four parks and five days, we rubbed shoulders with close to 200,000 of our newest, bestest, most-standing-on-top-of-us friends. Christmas Day the Magic Kingdom reached capacity for what was at that point just the second time in Disney history (it would do it again a week later on New Year’s Eve.) That’s 65,000 people right there.
But the quality of a Disney vacation should not be determined by a metric of attendance numbers alone. To be sure, the extra crush of humanity changed our Disney experience from every other trip we’ve ever enjoyed, in some predictably bad ways (shout-out to the disgraceful woman at the Indiana Jones show loudly grilling a cast member on what kind of disability she’d have to present with to be able to sit in the reserved-for-accessibility seating) but also in a number of unexpectedly delightful ones (the discovery of Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom, a number of stupendous themed meals and about a dozen awesome character meet-and-greets.)
We were already quite cocky about our mad Disney cred (with my 11 lifetime visits, I practically qualify for a pension) but I think we were both slightly taken aback by how much we had to learn – on-the-fly – during the busiest of the busy seasons. But by the end of our six days in theme park paradise, we had regained our swagger (helped along considerably by our total dominance of the World of Avatar) and have even begun bandying about the idea of another similar trip next Christmas. “We’re all a little mad around here,” said either Norman Bates or the Mad Hatter. 🙂
So, how did we manage an amazingly fun Disney World vacation during the hap-happ-i-est sea-son of alllll? Here are a few tips:
Be prepared, be prepared! No, really, preparation is key. The moment you’ve booked your vacation, download the My Disney Experience app. It’s free, and with screens displaying the entirety of the Walt Disney World Resort (everything from wait times to PhotoPass spots) it’s an invaluable in-park resource. Particularly if it helps you assess and avoid situations like this one, a 310-minute lineup at just 9:30 in the morning for Avatar’s Flight of Passage at the Animal Kingdom.
Through the app you can also book dining reservations, place mobile food orders for pick-up, confirm the day’s park hours and showtimes, link your party’s tickets for faster processing, and, of course, book those vitally important FastPasses. All just little pieces in the preparation puzzle.
Do your homework. If you’re staying on-property at one of the Disney resorts like we did, this gives you access to Extra Magic Hours. Extra Magic Hours are first-thing-in-the-morning or last-thing-at-night in-park hours given to guests of Disney’s resorts and hotels. I know waking up at 5 am when you’re on vacation is a pretty crummy proposition, but taking advantage of these additional hours can often mean the difference between experiencing that attraction you were just dying to see or…not. Working those 7 am Extra Magic Hours is how we rode Avatar’s Flight of Passage, THE newest and most popular ride at any of the Disney parks, in a little under 45 minutes with no FastPass.
So if you are staying on-property, call up the Disney Parks calendar and take note of each park’s scheduled Extra Magic Hours for the duration of your trip. You may even wish to consult the calendar before booking your tickets, should the offer of Extra Magic Hours (or lack thereof; they’re not offered by every park every day) alter your schedule in some way. The Disney Parks calendar also contains great information about what shows, parades and fireworks displays are running at each park and when.
Do even more homework for extra credit. I can’t stress the importance of planning and organization when it comes to Disney vacations quite enough. Book and confirm those dining reservations so you don’t spend precious hours of your day loitering around the restaurant waiting for a table to open up. That’s how we enjoyed fantastic, stress-free meals at all our favourite Disney haunts, including the 50s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios, La Hacienda de San Angel at Epcot (Queso, you are indeed quite Fundido!) and Be Our Guest (twice) at the Magic Kingdom.
Using the app, the Disney Parks calendar or a paper park map, double check the times of any shows or parades or fireworks displays you’d like to catch. If there’s a can’t-miss on your list, set a notification on your phone to go off one hour before showtime and then get there early. I regrettably lost track of a couple of stage shows at Hollywood Studios, only to discover that we had missed the final performance of the day by minutes.
Make up a list of the things you’d like to do on your Disney vacation on a park-by-park basis. This needn’t be anything set in stone, as your plans WILL change. But it’s always good to have a rough idea of what’s out there and the attractions you’d like to take in, particularly when you’re being bombarded with all sorts of other loud and shiny distractions.
Maximize your time. The best way to do this is to work those FastPasses. Disney hands out a limited number of these express tickets for nearly every attraction in every park every day. Each guest is entitled to three, although you can book additional FastPasses on a one-by-one basis once you’ve used up your third of the day (pending availability; typically by the late afternoon, the only FastPasses left are for those attractions that don’t really require them in the first place.)
FastPasses are available to all guests, including those who wish to roll up to a ride-adjacent kiosk the day-of and book a time with an actual paper ticket. But if you’re using the My Disney Experience app, you can book, cancel and modify your FastPasses at will right over your phone.
If you’ve pre-booked your park tickets, you can begin setting up your FastPasses 30 days in advance of your vacation, and if you’re staying at a Disney resort, you can begin choosing your FastPasses 60 days in advance of your vacation. Once again, this is how we rode both hugely popular Avatar attractions in one day – an early start thanks to the Extra Magic Hours took care of Flight of Passage, while a well-chosen and early-booked FastPass knocked off Na’vi River Journey. If you can, book those FastPasses early for best choice.
To that end, a little “insider information” can help you optimize your FastPasses. Many rides, even on the busiest of days, don’t require a FastPass (I’m not counting Christmas Day here; I would have gratefully accepted a FastPass for the Tiki Birds on Christmas Day when every wait time was an hour plus-plus.) Don’t waste your precious FastPasses on rides that rarely need them (Journey of the Little Mermaid, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh and Pirates of the Caribbean at the Magic Kingdom all come to mind) or rides whose wait times only begin ticking up during the peak afternoon hours (the Haunted Mansion, Jungle River and Big Thunder Mountain Railroad – again, Magic Kingdom attractions, all – also come to mind.) Knock those rides off early when the wait times are naturally manageable, and save your FastPasses for the attractions that are permanently slammed, or that have long, boring and uninspired wait lines (continuing to use the Magic Kingdom as an example, Space Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Peter Pan’s Flight and the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train would all be excellent candidates for a FastPass.)
From a general time management perspective, try to make peace with the fact that in order to enjoy all that Disney has to offer, you’re going to have to temporarily suspend the comforts and rituals of home. You may not be much of a morning person, or you might prefer to start every day with a leisurely, two-hour breakfast, but unless you’ve structured your vacation around those daily quirks of life, you’re just going to be wasting a lot of time you could be spending in the parks. On Christmas Day in particular, dawdlers who rolled up to the Magic Kingdom at noon found the park at capacity and the gates temporarily closed. So get there early, stay way late, and bank that sleep for the flight home. Kind of like these two goobers sharing a midnight smooch of triumph in front of Cinderella Castle following a 17-hour day of theme parking Christmas Day. Oh yeah, we hardcore!
Also, we’re not kissing in that photo so much as we’ve just passed out on each other’s faces. 😉
In terms of making your way comfortably around the parks, travel light. Families, particularly those with very young children, have no choice but to lug what a friend calls “the debris of life” all over hell’s half acre (also known as the Magic Kingdom on Christmas Day at noon in the middle of a parade.) But I’m side-eyeing the crap out of your lazy 12-year-old folded into a three-seater stroller, or the full size rolling suitcase you’re dragging behind you that contains Grayer, Kelpsey and Savani’s very important Goldfish crackers. Or the vloggers who show up with $20,000 worth of camera accessories strapped to their iPhone. Showing up to the parks with anything more than a light day bag is not just rude and inconsiderate (run that stroller into my shins one. more. time and it’s going straight into the Rivers of America) it’s also a primo way to spend an unnecessarily long time at bag check and security. Pare your pack down to just the essentials – phone, wallet, sunscreen, lip balm, portable charger, painkillers – and leave the rest up to random chance. Security will thank you by processing your nearly empty bag in about two seconds flat, leaving you free to zip into the park and straight onto a ride in the time it takes them to vet just two pockets of your neighbour’s Suitcase o’ Snacks.
Seriously, though, get your able-bodied teenager out of that stroller already, and stop yelling at the cast members because a ride can’t accommodate your Mini Cooper-sized EMV.
Finally, one last random tip for maximizing your in-park time: Employ a bit of theme park psychology. For reasons I would need to be a student of the human mind to understand, when given a choice between travelling to the right of something or to the left (a lineup, for instance, that branches at one point) we nearly always take the right. The right side of anything (the parks themselves, for instance) will always see the greatest concentration of people. So if given the choice to go to the left or the right of something, choose the path less-traveled and head west.
Stop being such a friggin’ jerk, you jerk. That’s just good life advice, but it holds especially true for mass gatherings of tens of thousands of people. Attempt to be considerate. Treat your fellow guests with just the tiniest bit of respect. Wish the cast members happy holidays and a very merry Christmas. Thank them for being away from their friends and family during the holidays so you can enjoy this special experience. Stop yelling and can the threats – no, no one knows (or cares) who you are. Stop line-jumping. For that matter, stop ranting about the wait times – not my fault you’re an idiot noob (whoops, that wasn’t very polite or compassionate!) Basically, if you can manage it, BE CANADIAN. We might be grumpy dicks, but we are remarkably wonderful world travelers.
Wow, that felt kind of exhaustive, but I’m also all too aware that there’s so much more about the parks that I just don’t know. Well, extra impetus to get back there lickety split and correct this deeply troubling gap in my Disney knowledge. 😉 If you’re contemplating a Disney vacation, I hope this information helps you out. Happy travels at the Happiest – and sometimes busiest – Place on Earth!