“We’re going to Disney World this Christmas. What tips do you have?” I asked a coworker who had once worked at Epcot. “Pick another time to go.”
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Helpful, right? The two weeks around Christmas and New Year’s is one of the busiest times of the year to go to Walt Disney World, but I had no choice. I was locked into the dates because of a family reunion.
With a lot of planning and patience, we survived enjoyed Christmas at Disney. Here’s what I learned from our trip so that you too can experience Disney magic even during the busiest time of year:
Pre-Trip Survival Tips
1. Plan early. Plan obsessively.
Even if you’re a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants traveler, Disney is not the place to do it, especially during the holidays.
Unless you like eating popcorn for dinner and spending $100+ per person to ride three rides.
I used TouringPlans.com to plan each day and I highly recommend the site. For a small fee, you can customize each day, to minimize walking and wait times. The site’s algorithms calculate wait time for the date you picked, too.
Even on busy days at the end of December, our wait times were pretty accurate when we followed the plan, and of course, when we strayed from it, it wasn’t.
And, Pinterest is going to be your new best friend when it comes to planning.
2. You will be able to make meal reservations 180 days in advance if you’re staying on property. Do it.
If you know what day you’ll be at each park, you can reserve tables at preferred restaurants and maybe at typical meal times. Yeah, yeah, planning a meal six months out is hard—I don’t even know what I want to eat for dinner tonight—but it was totally worth it. We reserved the following places I really wanted to dine in:
– Three character meals: Breakfast Cinderella’s Royal Table at Magic Kingdom, lunch at Akerhus Royal Banquet Hall at Epcot and breakfast at Chef Mickey’s at Contemporary Resort.
– Late lunch for a large group at 50’s Prime Time Cafe at Hollywood Studios.
Tip: Do not make reservations chronologically, but in order of priority. The first reservation made was for Cinderella’s Royal Table, so that we could have one of the first breakfast times available. I waned shots of Main Street without the crowd, plus the chance to get a head start on rides once we were finished eating.
3. Book your Fast Pass+ rides early.
If you’re staying at a resort, that is 60 days in advance. If you made your touring plans for each park, you already know what rides you plan on doing and when, so that makes things pretty easy.
Without our Fast Pass+ times, we would’ve had to wait 150 minutes for the Seven Dwarfes Mine Train and 120 for Space Mountain. Fast Pass+ is still free, so don’t miss out on securing yours.
Tip: Like meal reservations, book the priority Fast Passes first no matter which day of the vacation they fall on.
4. Pack for cold weather.
We’re used to cold in Omaha. But seriously, Florida can get chilly. Pack a sweatshirt and jeans, just in case. We needed them for one day in December. On our Epcot day, the high was 63 and I regretted only bringing a light cardigan. By nightfall, it was in the 40s and I was tempted to buy gloves.
Mornings were rather cool, too, so a sweatshirt was needed for the kids. By noon most days, we were all in shorts and T-shirts.
During the Disney holidays trip
1. Be there at rope drop.
Rope drop is lingo for when the park opens. That makes for ridiculously early mornings, but you can ride a lot of rides before the parks start becoming really crowded (which is around 10 a.m.).
Tip: If you’re staying at a Disney resort, plan on trying to catch the Magic Express bus about 45 minutes to an hour before park opening. There may be traffic, even at 7 a.m.
2. If you’re getting up early anyway, take advantage of Extra Magic Hours.
We went to the Magic Kingdom at 7 a.m. one day. By the time lunch had rolled around, we rode most rides on our two-day touring plan. We just had our Fast Pass+ rides to do after lunch.
Tip: If you aren’t going to get up early, do not go to the park with Extra Magic Hours that day. It will be really crowded by the time you get there.
3. Reconsider that break mid-day break from the park.
Parks can reach capacity during the holiday season. Magic Kingdom reached capacity on New Year’s Eve in 2016. If you try to return early enough in the day, you may not get back in. My nieces returned to Magic Kingdom late at night and had no problem, though. With two little ones, that wasn’t an option for me.
Keep your expectations in check for Disney holiday magic
1. Have realistic expectations: There will be waiting.
It’s going to suck. Expect the worst so you may occasionally by pleasantly surprised. Might as well expect a little wait time for your meal reservations, too.
I also assumed I wouldn’t check everything off my touring plans. Because, well, kids.
2. Sneak in Breaks. Disney during the holidays is overwhelming and tiring. There aren’t a lot of places to escape the crowds. At the Magic Kingdom, there’s a nice seating area by the Swiss Family Robinson Tree House that felt slightly removed from the bustle, as did Tom Sawyer’s Island.
At Hollywood Studios, Mooch and I chilled at the Art of Animation. I had heard it was a quiet, not-too-crowded spot. Well, it was crowded (thanks a lot, Moana), but at least it was more subdued than outdoors.
3. Find easy ways to make it magical. You can have a Disney character call your kids during the trip! Find out how to get a free call from Mickey Mouse, which is sure to add a bit of enchantment to the vacation.