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How to save time at Walt Disney World

Magic Kingdom castle image

There is an incredible amount to do during a stay at Walt Disney World. As well as hosting four theme parks (the Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Disney’s Animal Kingdom), the World is also home to two water parks (Blizzard Beach and Typhoon Lagoon), the Downtown Disney shopping and entertainment complex, five golf courses and a myriad of other distractions. Not only that, but visitors may also hope to cram in visits to Orlando’s other theme parks and attractions during their stay. Managing time on a Walt Disney World vacation is, therefore, a real challenge.

The biggest enemy of Disney visitors is queuing. Although the theme parks contain a huge number of rides and shows, the sheer number of guests that visit each day, combined with the extreme heat and humidity of a Florida summer, can lead to hours of hot, sweaty frustration waiting line after line for the next attraction.

Fortunately, it doesn't have to be that way. It is possible to holiday at Walt Disney World during the peak season, and not spend hours waiting in lines for rides. Regardless of when you go and what you want to do, there are some simple strategies you can follow to minimize the length of time you spend in line, and maximize your enjoyment of your vacation. Spend some time planning before you go, and you can beat the crowds and ensure a stress-free trip for you and your family.

In this article, we’ve collated some simple time-saving steps for you to follow to ensure you have the best time possible on your next trip to Walt Disney World. Just start with Step 1 below.

Step 1: Choose the best possible time of year to go

Attendance at Walt Disney World varies greatly from season to season. Picking a less crowded time of year can save you a significant amount of time spent in queues.

  • If you're aiming to experience as many rides and shows as possible, steer clear of major holiday seasons. Christmas Day through New Years Day should be avoided at all costs, along with Thanksgiving weekend and the period around Easter. The parks are gridlocked during these periods, and although Disney makes up for this with spectacular one-off shows and events which can be worth the trip on their own, this is not the time to pack in as many rides as possible.
  • Peak season at Walt Disney World is the summer – from the end of May through to early September. The quietest period is during fall and winter (September – February, except for Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year). Spring can also be relatively quiet, with the exception of school and college holidays.
  • You can save time by flying during the middle of the week instead of at weekends. As more people fly at weekends, you’ll find queues at Orlando airport significantly shorter.

For some visitors, such as families with kids in school, or those visiting from farther field (during their summer holidays, for instance), being flexible around dates may not be an option. Don’t worry if that’s the case – you can still save time and beat the crowds using the remaining steps in this article.

Important note: there are downsides to attending during the off-season. Most notably, the parks' opening hours may be shorter. Shows and parades may take place less frequently (or not at all), and rides may be down for refurbishment. Check ahead on Disney's website to avoid disappointment.

Step 2: Choose the best possible day to attend each park

Crowds in Frontierland

Attendance at Walt Disney World’s parks varies from weekday-to-weekday. Heading to the parks on a day with low attendance can see you skipping directly on to the major attractions with barely a wait, while attending on the busiest days could leave you facing huge queues for even minor attractions.

Choose the best day of the week to attend each park (taking account of Extra Magic Hours – see Step 6). Although crowd levels fluctuate greatly depending on specific events and times of year, generally speaking the best days to head to the parks are:

  • Magic Kingdom – Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday
  • Disney’s Hollywood Studios – Monday, Tuesday, Thursday (note: on days when Fantasmic is performed at the park attendance is much higher in the evenings, so check the schedule)
  • Epcot – Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday
  • Animal Kingdom – Sunday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday

Step 3: Get your tickets in advance

If at all possible, purchase your tickets in advance to save time when you arrive (as well as saving money). Tickets can be ordered from the Disney website, or from many independent resellers. If you’ve ordered your tickets online and need to pick them up from Guest Services, collect them the evening before if you can. If not, allow extra time in the morning to do this.

Step 4: Stay on-site or nearby

Choosing whether to stay at an on-site Walt Disney World resort or at an off-site hotel is a big decision for any visitor. Often it will come down to money, and whether you want to be “in the magic” for your entire stay. There are advantages and disadvantages to each – the “special” feeling of stay on-site, plus Disney’s free shuttle bus service, versus the generally lower cost of stay at an off-site hotel.

If you’re staying at a Disney resort, shuttle buses are frequent, air-conditioned and relaxing – even if they aren’t always faster than taking a car, we’d recommend them. However, be aware that hotels in the Downtown Disney Resort Area (excluding the Hilton) use a different shuttle service that is inferior to Disney’s.

If you’re staying off-site, don’t worry. Due to the size of Walt Disney World, the commute to some parks is actually sometimes faster from hotels outside than some of the on-site hotels. However, be careful to book somewhere that is conveniently located - usually on either International Drive, along FL 535 or on US 192 (south of Walt Disney World). Check the travelling distance to Disney’s parks (and other Orlando area attractions) using Google Maps before booking.

Step 5: Eat breakfast before arriving at the park

This is a step that can save you time and money. Eat breakfast at home (for locals), at your hotel (for visitors) or at one of the many diners close to Walt Disney World (there are dozens on International Drive). Breakfast at Walt Disney World is expensive, and will waste valuable time during the morning period when queuing times for rides at their lowest.

Step 6: Avoid parks on Extra Magic Hours days

Disney’s Extra Magic Hours sessions allow guests staying at Walt Disney World resorts to enter a theme park one hour earlier than the official opening time, or to stay up to three hours after the official closing time. The “perk” is available at different parks depending on the day of the week – you can check Disney’s online calendar for the current schedule.

Although on the surface this like sound a great deal (and the same perk at Disneyland in California is well worth using), we strongly suggest avoiding Walt Disney World theme parks on days when they are hosting an Extra Magic Hours session. Unfortunately, so many guests are now eligible for the offer that the additional hour gained in the morning at the park is quickly lost due to the longer lines that are caused by the number of guests turning up to take advantage of it. In the evenings, the reduced range of attractions that Disney operates during Extra Magic Hours can lead to heavy queues.

The plus side is that Extra Magic Hours draw guests away from other parks. Whether you are eligible for the offer or not, spend an extra hour in bed and avoid the crowds by heading to the other parks.

Step 7: Arrive at the parks early

This single step can probably save more time than any of the others. If you arrive half an hour before a park opens, ticket in hand, and queue at the turnstiles you’ll have a great chance of riding the major attractions before the bulk of the day’s guests arrive. Don’t worry if it looks like there are a lot of people at the gates – inside, the park is empty and the guests will soon disperse. Officially, you can’t run – but make your way as quickly as possible between the rides. You’ll have time to rest later while those who had a lie in swelter in the queues.

For some attractions – particularly Soarin’ at Epcot, and Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios – arriving early is the only way that you will avoid either a long wait in line, or a wait of several hours for a FASTPASS window.

If you’re staying on-site, get down to the Disney bus, monorail or boat station 10-15 minutes before you hope to catch a ride. If you’re staying off-site, avoid driving on Interstate 4 during rush hour (7am-9am).

During the summer months, when temperatures are extremely high in the afternoon, return to your (air-conditioned) hotel for the afternoon and head back after the evening rain shower when temperatures are more bearable.

Step 8: Use FASTPASS

Jungle Cruise FASTPASS dispensers

FASTPASS is a system run by Disney to help reduce the amount of time guests spend waiting for the most popular attractions at the parks. All guests at the park can take advantage of the system – make sure you do. To use FASTPASS, look for the FASTPASS machines near the entrance to the attraction. Insert your ticket into the machine, and it will print out a special FASTPASS ticket. The ticket will be printed with an appointment time window for later in the day. If you return during that time window, you can enter a special FASTPASS line, bypassing the normal line. You may still have a short wait – but it will be significantly reduced.

Important notes on FASTPASS:

  • Disney says you can only hold a FASTPASS for one attraction at a time. However, you can grab another any time after the start of your return window.
  • Don't bother using FASTPASS if the regular line is short – it's only worth using if it’ll save you from a lengthy queue.
  • Disney cast members routinely ignore the “end time” on a FASTPASS ticket. You can almost always use FASTPASS tickets after they expire (as long it is on the same day).
  • There are only a limited number of FASTPASSes for each time window. When they are all gone, the window slides onwards. For the most popular rides, this means that all the FASTPASSes can be gone by early afternoon – so don't leave it too late to get one. This is particularly true for Toy Story Midway Mania at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
  • You can check the return time on screens above the FASTPASS machines – check that the time is acceptable for you before printing the FASTPASS.
  • At the time of writing, Disney is experimenting with a centralized FASTPASS system at the Animal Kingdom, which allows guests to pick up a FASTPASS for any supported attraction from a single location. It is not yet known whether this will be rolled out to all parks.

Fastpass attractions at the Magic Kingdom: Jungle Cruise, The Many Adventures of Winnie Pooh, Mickey’s Philharmagic, Peter Pan’s Flight, Big Thunder Mountain, Peter Pan’s Flight, Big Thunder Mountain Railroad, Splash Mountain, Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin, Space Mountain, Stitch’s Great Escape

Fastpass attractions at Epcot: Living with the Land, Soarin’, Honey, I Shrunk the Audience, Test Track, Mission: Space, Maelstrom

Fastpass attractions at Disney’s Hollywood Studios: Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular, Lights! Motor! Action! Extreme Stunt Show, Rock’n’Roller Coaster, Star Tours, Toy Story Midway Mania, The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, Voyage of the Little Mermaid

Fastpass attractions at Disney’s Animal Kingdom: Its Tough to Be a Bug!, Kilimanjaro Safaris, Expedition Everest, Kali River Rapids, Dinosaur, Primeval Whirl

Step 9: Use a touring plan

Using a touring plan developed by somebody who is an expert on traffic patterns and typical queuing times at Walt Disney World can save you a huge amount of time. The plans are simply a list of which attractions to head to in which order, and some cover other things such as when to catch parades and the best times to eat. The best touring plans are based on many hours of data gathering and statistical analysis, and TPT recommends Frommer's Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World which features a range of touring plans to cater for different tastes.

The idea of following a series of pre-defined steps may not be attractive – whatever happened to spontaneity? But it really can save hours and ensure that you experience all the attractions you want to. If you’re heading to the parks for more than one day, try and get up early and use a touring plan for one day, and tour in a freeform way on the other days (using FASTPASS to re-ride your favourites).

For those looking for a personalised touring plan to fit with the attractions and parades they want to experience, check out Frommer's website or RideMax. Both will generate touring plans for a fee but the free ones included in Frommer's guide should be more than adequate for most visitors. The book is well worth purchasing for the other hints and tips it contains.

Step 10: Make dinner reservations, and eat late or early

If you're going to Walt Disney World during the peak season and plan to eat at any of the park’s sit-down restaurants, it is essential that you make reservations well in advance. Bookings can be made through the Walt Disney World website, with most restaurants taking bookings up to 90 days in advance. Although this means you’ll have to plan your itinerary well in advance (and thus lose some flexibility), you’ll be grateful for it when you see the hordes of people waiting in line for a table (or in many cases, being turned away completely).

At peak lunch and dinner times (around 12:00-14:00 and 17:30-20:00) both counter service and sit-down restaurants at Walt Disney World are mobbed by hungry park guests. If you can, eat earlier or later than this and avoid wasting time queuing for food. Or, go off-site to one of the many fast food joints on International Drive, where queues are shorter and food is often cheaper.

Step 11: Strategies for shows and parades

Afternoon Parade at the Magic Kingdom

Disney's parades and shows are one of the major features of the parks. Unfortunately, for popular shows like the evening parade at the Magic Kingdom, Illuminations at Epcot and Fantasmic at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the there is little choice other than to stake out a viewing spot early (on peak days, hours in advance). However, on days when the park is running more than one show or parade, it can often pay to attend the second one, as many of the guests viewing the first one will then leave the park soon afterwards. For parades, it can also make sense to watch from the place where the tour starts. That way, when it moves on you can take advantage of the shorter queues while people further down the route are still taking in the parade.

Trying to hit the rides during shows, parades or the nightly firework display is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, queues are much shorter due to the volume of people who are busy watching. However, moving between rides can be a nightmare, with sidewalks clogged with stationary people watching or waiting. Plan ahead, and tour rides in a specific area during the show or parade. Make sure you head there well in advance of the show starting.

If you’re not planning to watch the last parade or show of the day, try and exit the park before it begins. The car parks and transportation stops will be mobbed as soon as the show finishes.

Step 12: Don’t let the weather stop you!

If you're in Florida during the summer, you will experience both extremely hot temperatures and heavy rain during your stay. The best strategy for dealing with this is to split your day in two. Head to one park first thing in the morning, before the weather heats up. Hit the rides, eat an early lunch and then return to your hotel to relax wait out the afternoon heat. You can go to another park in the evening when the weather is (relatively) cooler.

Although it's well known that Florida sees regular showers and thunderstorms during the summer months, many guests arrive completely unprepared. The rain usually arrives in the late afternoon and causes many guests to rush for the exits. If you're following our strategy, you can head to the park in the late afternoon armed with an umbrella and a poncho (available from many outlets in the parks). Although outdoors rides close during extreme weather, Walt Disney World has many indoor attractions that are unaffected – and you can benefit from shorter queues at these if you're prepared to tour during the rain.

Other tips for saving time at Walt Disney World:

  • Bring a bottle and fill up on water at the water fountains in the parks, saving money and time queuing at concession stands.
  • There are many supermarkets close to the world where you can buy a stockpile of snacks to bring to the parks – saving time and expense.
  • If you don’t mind riding on your own, ask the Cast Members running attractions whether there is a Single Rider line. This is used to fill spare seats and utilize the ride's full capacity, and is usually much shorter than the regular line.
  • At every park, there are security stations where every bag is searched before guests are allowed entry to the park. If you have a bag with you, have all of the pockets opened or unzipped prior to getting to the security officer, to save yourself valuable seconds.

Do you have your own tips for saving time at Walt Disney World? Why not share them with others through our theme park tips section? If you spot something wrong in the article, or disagree with any of the tips, please let us know through the comments or by e-mailing us.

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