Walt Disney World peak season tips for Australians
Many Australian families visit Walt Disney World in Florida in July, December, and January, the months which coincide with our school holidays. Unfortunately these months are also some of the busiest at this popular theme park. Peak season means long lines and crowds and long lines aren’t much fun at all. As for the crowds? Perhaps surprisingly, these often end up being more fun than you might think. More on this later. Our family of two adults and a teen was initially concerned about visiting Walt Disney World at the busiest time of the year, especially as we only had two days to see everything. Would we be able to get on the rides we wanted? What about the crowds? Could we see shows without getting there hours early to nab a seat? All of these fears turned out to be unfounded, largely because we did a LOT of research about visiting Disney World at peak season before we left Australia. But we still learned a lot along the way.
Based on our two day visit in late December, you definitely shouldn’t rule out visiting Walt Disney World Resort during peak season. July brings with it the perfect weather for enjoying the two water parks, Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach. The months of December and January offer a magical Christmas and New Year experience. However, there are some things you need to consider if you want to maximise your time, save money (and your sanity) and keep the fun factor high when you visit at peak times.
1. Walt Disney World size
Even if you’ve been to other Disney parks, nothing quite prepares you for the incredible size of Walt Disney World Resort. Along with half a dozen different theme parks – Epcot, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Magic Kingdom, Disney’s Blizzard Beach and Disney’s Typhoon Lagoon. There are also myriad resorts, a huge entertainment precinct known as Disney Springs and car parks which seem to stretch on forever. All of these things are spread throughout the resort which is the same size as San Francisco. No, I’m not kidding. For this reason, you need to allow time to get from one park to the other.
While bus transport once you’re inside the resort is free, it can take a half an hour or more to move between parks, especially if you just miss a bus. This isn’t a problem in itself but it is important to be realistic when it comes to factoring in how many things you can fit into your day. Also, you can’t just pop back to your hotel for a few minutes if you forget something. Bring everything you think you might need with you, like rain coats or umbrellas and sweaters for the evening. Bringing wet weather gear with you ‘just in case’ has other advantages as well. When it was Magic Hour in Magic Kingdom on our first day, hardly anyone wanted to ride Splash Mountain early as the December weather was chilly and they were worried about getting wet. We got off the Seven Dwarfs Mine Train (our first Magic Hour ride of the morning) and could see there were loads of empty rafts going around on Splash Mountain. We put on our rain ponchos and rode with no wait at all and without our clothes getting wet.
2. Stay at a DisneyWorld on-site hotel
Sure, it might be a bit more expensive, but you should REALLY consider staying at an on-site hotel when you’ve travelled all the way from Australia. While you can probably get a cheaper room elsewhere, staying onsite comes with loads of benefits. The most important benefit for ride lovers like us was the option to book three FastPass+ slots 60 days before we arrived. That’s 30 days before everyone else. By the time everyone else got to book their peak season FastPass+ slots, all of the highly coveted rides were gone.
On the day of your visit, you can use your FastPass+ booking any time during the 1-hour arrival window to access the special FastPass+ queue for your chosen ride. This can cut your wait from up to four hours (the ‘record’ wait we saw on the excellent live-update Disney app for the popular Avatar ride during our visit) to around 20 minutes or even less. If you’re trying to fit in as many rides as possible, staying at an on-site hotel is your secret to success.
In addition to being able to book FastPass+ slots earlier, you can also access Magic Hours at one or more of the parks each day. Magic Hours are a fancy way of saying you can access the park an hour earlier than everyone else. All of the FastPass+ spots for Avatar Flight of Passage were already gone when I tried to book a few days after the booking window opened (lesson learned, don’t make the same mistake). However, we were able to get on the ride with a minimal wait during the Magic Hour at Animal Kingdom. See (5) below for more Magic Hours tips about how to get the absolute maximum value from your extra hour in the park.
Staying at an on-site hotel also entitles you to a Magic Band. This electronic rubber wrist band looks a bit like a watch and acts as your ticket, opens your on-site hotel door and can be used for purchases. Don’t worry, it’s fingerprint protected so no one else can use it if you lose it. These are super-handy when it comes to getting through turnstiles quickly and accessing FastPass+ bookings. They also make for a cool souvenir when you return home. We didn’t think much of these bands before we arrived at Disney World Resort – after all, we had managed perfectly well with a regular ticket at other Disney parks – but once you’ve used one you’ll never go back!
One last thing about staying at an onsite hotel which we didn’t know about until we arrived. Walt Disney World Resort hotels have special free Christmas activities. On the evening we arrived at Disney’s Yacht Club Resort, there was a full-on Mickey meet-and-greet going on in the hotel lobby. It was even better than the ones in the theme park as the lavish Christmas tree backdrop made for beautiful photos, the atmosphere was magical and the queue for this character meet and greet was teeny tiny compared to the ones we saw later at Disney World. While the Mickey meet-and-greet looked like fun, our favourite Christmas activity happened on the second night.
We arrived back at the hotel just after sunset to discover a full choir in the lobby made up of school students from one of the local high schools and their choir master. Think Glee meets Second City as the choir had worked out comedic routines to go with some of the songs. While this might sound a bit corny, the funny sections were sweet but also hilarious with some audience participation for those who wanted to join the fun. Just the thought of the burly dads in the crowd acting out the 12 Days of Christmas still makes me smile. While some people passed on the 12 Days of Christmas, everyone sang along as requested during Silent Night. It was a beautiful moment of sharing which really encapsulated the spirit of Christmas for us.
3. Skip the buffet breakfast
Lingering over breakfast if you’ve only got one or two days at Walt Disney World Resort isn’t a smart use of your time. While a buffet breakfast at your on-site hotel certainly sets you up for the day, it can also stop you getting to the parks as early as you should. We loved the comfort and convenience of our accommodation at Disney Yacht Club but passed on a package which included breakfast. Instead, we arrived prepared with plastic bowls, plastic spoons, cereal, and mini-juice bottles. We had researched our hotel online before we arrived and knew it had a coffee maker in the room and a Marketplace in the lobby where we could buy fresh milk. If your hotel doesn’t have anywhere to buy milk, you can always purchase long life UHT milk from a supermarket before you arrive.
4. Plan ahead at Disney World
Okay, now it’s time for some bad news, so let’s get it over with. Even if you stay at an on-site hotel and plan carefully when it comes to getting around, it might not be possible for your family to do everything in one or two days when the park is this busy. This is especially true if you are travelling with young children who tire easily or need to take breaks for naps. However, there is no need to feel disappointed. The secret to a happy peak season visit is to let everyone choose one ‘must do’ activity so no one leaves feeling they’ve missed out.
For youngsters this might be a Disney Princess character photo; teenage siblings will likely opt for something more hardcore like the Aerosmith coaster which is our son’s all-time favourite theme park ride. If someone in your family wants a character, sessions in the early morning and around lunch time tend to be quieter. Get everyone to make their choice before you arrive so the family can plan their day accordingly and no one misses out on their ‘must-do magical Disney moment’.
And if the weather is less than perfect, rejoice! We had some rainy weather on one of the days we visited and it cleared the crowds like magic without impacting on our experience. As soon as the skies look threatening, many local families who are staying at the resort longer than a few days often decide to head back to their hotel for a break. Arrive prepared with your wet weather gear and you’ll be all set to enjoy the park for a while with less people around.
As for the crowds throughout the park and waiting in lines for things, perhaps surprisingly we didn’t end up minding this at all. Everyone is at Walt Disney World Resort to enjoy some holiday fun. Many locals dress up in themed outfits such as funny festive t-shirts, loud Christmas sweaters, and Christmas light necklaces. It created a great atmosphere and really added to our visit overall.
5. Arrive early for Magic Hours
It’s not promoted as part of the Magic Hours program but you can access the park around an hour before the Magic Hour starts. This doesn’t mean you can start going on the rides. However, you can pass through security, have the mandatory bag search and scan your ticket or Magic Band, then proceed to the rope drop area. The rope drop area varies depending on which park the Magic Hours are in but it is usually well past the entry gates. If in doubt, follow an American family who looks like they know their stuff. When the appointed Magic Hour begins, the rope will drop and you can make your way to your preferred ride entrance. There’s no need to run but walking quickly is a good idea.
Because I left booking our FastPass+ for Avatar Flight of Passage – the ride we really had our hearts set on – too late we caught the first bus of the day from the Disney Yacht Club to Animal Kingdom for Magic Hour, and got through security and to the rope drop area as quickly as we could. Despite our ridiculously early arrival, there was already a crowd at the rope drop waiting area but we were still on the Avatar ride in less than 30 minutes. Hooray for us! That wouldn’t have happened if we had left it until 8am to start the entry process. While you might not feel like getting up early, it’s worth it!
In general, queues tend to build later in the day so make sure you head to the most popular rides first straight after Magic Hour finishes. This helps to minimise wait times and ensures your kids can get on their ‘must do’ ride if it’s a popular one. Download the free Disney app and use it to check how long the wait times are at each ride and if any are broken down. Space Mountain broke down and was out of action one morning during our visit.
We kept an eye on it so we could head there asap when it reopened again. If you’ve only got one or two days, you don’t want to waste time waiting in line for a ride that could be off-line for hours. One last tip especially for Australians (and Brits). Americans tend to gravitate towards the queues for security and entry on the right, probably because they drive on the right hand side of the road. Opt for a left hand queue ANYWHERE in the park and you’ll probably get through quicker.
6. Bring lunch to Disney World
It is fine to bring your own food into Disney World Resort. Not only does this save you time as you don’t need to queue for food inside the park, it also saves money. We ate our Vegemite sandwiches (yes, our family was a walking talking cliché) while we were waiting in line. Bring a water bottle for everyone as well, especially during the summer months. It is easy to become dehydrated when the weather is warm and you’re waiting in a queue.
7. Find a meeting place
When your family enters each individual park, take a minute to locate an easy-to-find meeting place in case your group becomes separated. Sure, everyone probably has a mobile phone, but what if it gets lost or the battery goes flat? It is always wise to have a backup plan, whether you’re travelling with kids or a group of adults, as trying to find people wastes time. If you agree to meet at a set time and place in the event of a mix up, you’re all set.
8. Your regular Single Rider strategy won’t work well here
We used the Single Rider queue a lot at the Disney parks in California and Paris as it was usually much shorter and we didn’t mind splitting up on a ride if it meant getting on it faster. Disney World is different as there are only three rides in the entire park with a Single Rider queue: Test Track, Escape from Everest, and the Aerosmith roller coaster. If you’re planning to use a Single Rider strategy extensively to cut wait times it won’t work that well here.
One special queue we did use was the separate ‘Up Front’ line for rides such as Escape from Everest and Aerosmith. You can ask to join this ‘side queue’ for people who want to ride in the front or rear carriage when you reach the front of the regular line. We opted for the front carriage of Escape from Everest and it was fantastic! The ‘extra’ wait for the front carriage was only a minute or two.
9. Check show times
Disney World shows are excellent and let you (and your kids) take a break. Check show times before you arrive and have a think about when your family might need to rest. I probably enjoyed ‘Finding Nemo The Musical’ more than they did (too many musicals are never enough for this show loving gal) but we all agreed it was an excellent way to have a rest and the comfy seats and air-conditioning were a major bonus.
10. Parent swap at Disney World
No, this doesn’t mean your kids can swap you for another parent who lets them stay up until midnight! Disney World offers an official Rider Switch program (or Parent Swap as it’s colloquially known) for those travelling with kids who are too young or too scared to ride an attraction. One adult rides while the second waits with the child, then they swap. Both adults get to enjoy the ride without lining up twice. If you can’t see the Parent Swap sign, just ask to do it when you get to the front of the queue.
11. Divide and conquer
If you are travelling with other adults, consider splitting the kids into different age groups with a grown-up supervising each one. Adults can divide and conquer in the morning and come together in the afternoon or swap groups throughout the day. This makes it possible to split your time between different parks efficiently too; something worth considering if your kids choose a ‘must do’ in different Walt Disney World parks.
12. Disney World souvenir shop
Don’t browse for souvenirs when you’re inside the parks. During peak season, you can’t afford to waste time in the souvenir stores each time you get off a ride.We allowed time in our schedule for our teenage son do his souvenir shopping the night we arrived at our hotel. After we checked into Disney Yacht Club we headed straight to Disney Springs, the massive restaurant and entertainment precinct within Walt Disney World Resort.
We did this for two reasons. One, Disney Springs is the best spot at Walt Disney World Resort to enjoy an affordable meal for dinner, especially if you opt for one of the counter service restaurants as these are well priced and don’t require tipping. Two, we used this ‘down time’ (our Disney visit didn’t officially start until the next day) for browsing and shopping at Walt Disney World’s biggest Disney World store at Disney Springs.
Our son spent over an hour looking at all the merchandise and deciding what he was going to spend his pocket money on and we were happy to let him take his time as we had nowhere else to be. If we hadn’t gone souvenir shopping the night before at the biggest store in the entire resort (ie. if you don’t find what you’re looking for here, it’s probably not available anywhere else either), he would have wanted to visit those shiny souvenir stores when we arrived at the park the next day. If this had happened, we would have (a) wasted time while he browsed when we could have been going on rides, or (b) had an argument about the fact he was wasting time and dragged him out of there. Neither of these options would have created happy holiday memories.
Disclosure: The writers visited Walt Disney World Resort as guests of Disney Destinations International. Meals were at their own expense.
We also visited Universal Studios when were in Orlando and reviewed the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel at the Entrance to Universal Orlando.