There's no place like the merriest place on Earth for the holidays.
Disney Parks – like no other – capture the magic that seems to float through the air during the month of December, transforming their parks into (unseasonably warm) winter wonderlands. So it's no surprise that visitors come from near and far to see shimmering, snow-covered castles; to meet Santa and Elsa in one go; to experience limited-time holiday overlays; to celebrate those precious few weeks of family togetherness when work and school obligations relax.
And for that reason, we stand at the precipice of "the most busiest time of the year." Hundreds of thousands of guests will pile into Disney Parks over the course of December, overwhelming parking, causing multi-hour waits for headlining rides, and even causing gates to close as parks reach capacity! Planning to join the stampede to get a taste of Disney's Christmastime magic? Then you have to have a plan.
Join us as we tour through the best low-wait and no-wait attractions at each Disney park (from the least-attended to the most) and – for those brave enough to tackle the crowds – start your planning. The busiest days at Disney Parks can be the most magical... as long as you have the right expectactions.
6. Disney California Adventure
Estimated attendance: 9.5 million
Disney California Adventure is the lowest-attended of Disney's U.S. theme parks (though it's tied with Disneyland Paris and Universal's Islands of Adventure, so don't let that mislead you). Disney should be wildly proud of the rising attendance there given the hard work it took: a $1.2 billion reconstruction of the park, as detailed in its own feature here – Declassified Disaster: Disney's California Adventure. Now, Disney is in the midst of a second era of redesign for the park, this time intent on plussing it with Pixar and Marvel properties. The result is more than just new E-Ticket... it's a slew of "hidden gems" and other asides that make the park perfect for the resort's more crowded days.
For example, on busy days, you might opt to take the Red Car Trolley down Buena Vista Street, enjoying the 1920s holiday decor along the streetscape. Then, the Pacific-Electric cars will hook a right at the Carthay Circle Theater and head for Hollywood. There, the Animation building along Hollywood Blvd. is home to the charming Sorcerer's Workshop, Animation Academy, and Turtle Talk with Crush – all perfect places to take a break from crowds. So far, Disneyland's loyal, repeat visitors have indicated that Frozen – Live at the Hyperion (a 70-minute, shot-for-shot, line-for-line retelling of Frozen) isn't exactly re-watchable like the former occupant, Aladdin, was. The end result is that you can probably sneak into a showing right as the doors open and at least secure a seat in the balcony of the 2,000 seat theater.
Next, head back in time to heyday of family roadtrips and national parks with a walk through Grizzly Peak, where the Grizzly Peak Bypass trail wanders up close to the namesake mountain. The Redwood Creek Challenge Trail is more than just a playground thanks to facts, stories, and native legends posted around the area, as well as the beloved Spirit Cave (a rare in-park reference to Brother Bear), a fire circle, fire watchtowers to climb, and more. For that matter, you shouldn't have to wait too long for Grizzly River Run, given that few care to get soaked during chilly winter weather.
While the E-Tickets of Pixar Pier and Paradise Gardens will be slammed, you can count on The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel's Undersea Adventure thanks to the Omnimover ride system that keeps crowds moving. Plus, the classic amusements of this turn-of-the-century pleasure park (like Jumpin' Jellyfish and Silly Symphony Swings) tend to have light queues.Then, in Pacific Wharf, spend some time in the Boudin Bakery seeing how sourdough is made. Though Cars Land will be in a bumper-to-bumper traffic jam, the whole point of this area is that it follows the "Wizarding World" model – the land as the E-Ticket – which means you can dine at Flo's, watch Luigi's Rollickin' Roadsters, and revel in Radiator Springs' Christmas decor.
5. Disney's Hollywood Studios
Estimated attendance: 10.7 million
Annually, Disney's Hollywood Studios might see more guests than Disney California Adventure... But there's a big difference in the way crowds navigate these two parks... Because while California Adventure has 18 rides (pending the opening of the rest of Pixar Pier and an upcoming Marvel land), Disney's Hollywood Studios has 6 – the least of any Disney or Universal park. So while attendance at Disney's Hollywood Studios will likely increase by double-digit percentages with the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge next fall, designers are scrambling to super-charge the park with enough to do to soak up the crowds.
For now, a busy holiday at Disney's Hollywood Studios simply means avoiding those six rides and instead angling toward the entertainment offerings at the park.
Plan to see the Indiana Jones Epic Stunt Spectacular to relive the 1981 classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. While you're in the area, you could settle in for For the First Time in Forever: A Frozen Sing-Along... if you haven't already "let it go." We can't in good conscience suggest you see Star Wars: Path of the Jedi or Star Wars Launch Bay, but the latter tends to be empty even when the rest of the park is packed. You might opt to skip both and head to the star of the park's entertainment offerings: Muppet*Vision 3D. The Muppets are probably just the thing you need to relax in a packed day at the park.
Detractors call Disney's Hollywood Studios a half-day park. On a day when FastPass slots are "sold out," that becomes exponentially more true. But just think... next Christmas, Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge will transform the park altogether. So in December 2019, you can count on Disney's Hollywood Studios being a full-day park, but half the day may be spent waiting in line for the two Galaxy's Edge E-Tickets. For this year, avoid Toy Story Land. If you want to walk through to see the Christmas decorations, so be it. But if you're looking for low-wait attractions, there's nothing in Toy Story Land for you.