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Image: Disney

Anyone else feel like we’ve gone back in time?

Much has changed in Disney parks since the 90’s and 2000’s. Technology and smartphones are essential parts of vacations. Intellectual properties are king. Many elements of the parks are bigger, better, and bolder, with a welcomed lean towards new heights of immersion.

The thing that feels like a shift into a time warp are some of the most recent changes at the Most Magical Place on Earth…

Standby lines have become an essential part of a Disney day once again. Free Fastpass+ is out, imminently to be replaced with the paid services Genie+ and Individual Attraction Access. Perks are vanishing while prices for those same perks increase. Even just finding your way around the parks is proving more challenging as construction projects like the reimagining of Epcot press forward.

Many complications we thought long gone from the Disney experience have returned—while there are many great apps and tools guests can utilize to help with these matters, it seems more and more that the greatest tool you can have to get an edge in a Disney vacation is some old fashioned know-how.

Delighted older male cast member gapes in excitement on receiving classic Mickey Ears
Image: Disney

Before the internet and smartphones were widespread, savvy Disney visitors made use of clever skills to improve their vacations—trip-hacks before hacks were a thing. While these popular skills from the 80’s, 90’s, and 2000’s have remained helpful, in this new era in Disney parks, they’re quickly becoming essential again.

It's time to go old school...

1. Reading crowd trends

Mickey and Minnie dressed up with castle for 50th Anniversary
Image: Disney

A large number of the problems that crop up on a Disney vacation have to do with crowds: crowds in thoroughfares, crowds for nighttime shows, reduced reservation availability, and of course, long attraction lines. The problem is there are a lot of voices—many who are out to make money like Disney—that will try to entice you that the busiest times of the year are the best times need to go.

Don’t do that.

A Disney vacation where you can enjoy low to moderate crowd levels is worth its weight in gold. You will start your trip ahead of the game and dramatically reduce the stress you are likely to encounter compared to the busiest times of the year.

While it is easier than ever to get hints what crowds are doing in Disney parks thanks to the internet (we’re not going full Luddite and throwing these valuable tools out), a little understanding of consistent trends at Disney parks can go a long way to help you pick dates for your trip, as well as make plans for your Disney days. While crowd trends have shifted somewhat in the last few years, some foundational points have remained the same.

The basics of pinpointing the busiest times at Disney parks are fairly simple: avoid holidays and special events. 4th of July, Christmas, and New Year’s tend to be the worst of all—miserably busy days where the parks reach maximum capacity. Spring break (which now encompasses all of March and early April) is also unusually crowded. Summer is unpleasant overall but isn’t quite as busy as it used to be. Basically, any time that kids are off of school, you can expect some sort of increase in attendance.

Other basic principles are also worth noting, such as that weekends will almost always be busier than weekdays (Super Bowl Sunday being the exception) and special events like RunDisney events or ride openings will usually draw bigger crowds. In general, your best chance for hitting low to moderate crowds are found in the lulls between holidays, such as portions of January, February, September, and November.

2. Learn strategies to reduce time in line

65 Minute Wait Sign for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
Image: Jett Farrell-Vega

Learning how to read crowd levels doesn’t just help with planning dates for your vacation: it can make a major difference to improve your Disney days as well.

With free Fastpass+ now being a thing of the past, most guests are back in the position of relying on standby lines to access attractions. Fastpass+ reservations used to play an interesting role in planning a Disney day, forming something of a spine guests worked around to reduce time in a few lines.

Once of the advantages of going standby only is an increase in flexibility: you can choose entirely how to lay out your itinerary without worrying about Fastpass+ reservations you made 3-6 months ago. While services like Disney Genie (the free itinerary-generator coming out with Genie+ for My Disney Experience) and TouringPlans.com can help you narrow down which attractions to hit when, once again, some old school know-how can give you a major edge in reducing time in lines and will cost you nothing but a little research time.

Most line-reducing strategies surround one simple theme: think counter-intuitively. Your goal is to do the opposite of what crowds are doing since crowds tend to move in somewhat predictable patterns. Here are a few basic precepts that apply across all Disney parks:

  • People tend to tour parks in predictable ways, moving from one attraction to a nearby one, then so on. This is especially noticeable at Magic Kingdom, where people tend to usually start in Fantasyland or Tomorrowland and tour in a counter-clockwise arc across the other lands. Just breaking up this pattern can improve your chances of hitting lower lines. In particular, if you are willing to put in a lot of extra walking, you can hit attractions with lower lines just by being willing to walk across the park a few times.
  • The rope drop rush is back! If you are willing to rise early enough to make it to the park gates at least 30 minutes before opening, you might be able to hit one or several high-demand attractions first thing in the morning. While several factors can affect this strategy (such as if resort guests have early entry before you arrive), it is still a particularly useful means of getting a head start on your day.
  • Disney has several attractions with extreme high demand. In general, these are headliners like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Avatar Flight of Passage, or any major new attraction. If you cannot be one of the first people in the park, expect a majority of guests to head straight to these rides. In these cases, it can sometimes be worth it to wait until later in the day and hit another attraction first instead.
  • In most cases, crowds peak at Disney parks about 90 minutes after opening—usually around 10 AM. During these hours, you can check line lengths to attempt to ride several attractions with shorter waits or compare options of attractions with moderate waits to see which one feels like it would add the most value to your vacation to endure.
  • You are likely to catch lower waits during nighttime spectaculars like Magic Kingdom fireworks or Harmonious.

Rise of the Resistance stormtroopers in Star Destroyer hangar
Image: Disney

Knowing how to navigate wait times is crucial right now. A notable example of this surrounds Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. This ride currently draws multi-hour waits within the first hour or two of the day. This makes perfect sense as pretty much everyone visiting Disney’s Hollywood Studios heads to this ride or Slinky Dog Dash first. The thing is lines for Rise of the Resistance lately have been dropping to pretty reasonable levels during the last few hours of the day.

When we recently took a group of teens, they struggled with some severe FOMO in regards to waiting to ride this ride… The idea of risking waiting to later in the day definitely caused some anxiety about whether we’d be able to ride at all. In the end, waiting until the last two hours of the day paid off—instead of waiting 190 minutes, we only waited for 50 (it may have been shorter in actuality).

If you’ll be visiting with a park hopper pass, you have even more options open to you—some parks are busier certain times of day. Disney’s Animal Kingdom is a great morning park since it opens so early. Epcot is an excellent park to hop to in the early afternoon while Disney’s Hollywood Studios and Magic Kingdom are busiest. Lines reduce in Disney’s Hollywood Studios significantly the last few hours of the day.

There are lots of tools available to give you hints what to expect in crowd patterns before the day of your visit. Use these! The simplest option is just to pull up My Disney Experience and take a look at waits several times on days leading up to your vacation. For a more precise tool, look at wait statistics from past days on TouringPlans.com.

3. Build a Disney survival kit

Happy family with 50th anniversary balloons
Image: Disney

We’ve talked about this before, but a smartly-packed Disney survival kit can be a game changer on your next vacation.

 There are some things a smartphone just can’t replace and others you aren’t going to want to buy in the parks. The trick is to know which essentials will make the biggest difference to save you time, stress, and money.

For us, some of the non-negotiables of a good Disney kit include:

  • A water bottle (I usually bring a collapsible one)

  • Snacks (particularly for kids—this will reduce impulse buys)

  • Sunscreen (expensive in the parks!)

  • Rain protection (plastic ponchos from Walmart or Amazon are ideal—Disney overcharges heavily for these)

  • Extra masks (if COVID restrictions are still in effect—these are surprisingly hard to find you lose one!)

  • Hand sanitizer

  • Passes and copies of tickets

  • Sunglasses

  • Phone charger and a charging block

  • Chapstick

Optional extras I usually throw in include specialty items like electrolyte tablets, something to tie my hair up with or a hat, trading pins (you can get these much cheaper online from a reputable dealer), and headphones. If you have kids, some coloring books or other fun items are a good idea as well.

As important as knowing what to bring is knowing what not to bring: don’t pack too heavy so you don’t weigh yourself down. Many items you might get at a pharmacy store can be picked up for free if the need arises at Disney’s First Aid stations (with the exception of sunscreen).

4. Learn how to stay entertained in lines (without a phone)

Woman and girl dressed like Cinderella take pictures in front of castle
Image: Disney

We’ve touched on this one before at Theme Park Tourist as this is a frequent issue at Universal Orlando Resort (where guests may have to check personal belongings into a locker before getting in line). While passing time in line without a smartphone isn’t a big deal for many of our readers, for others it can be a challenge.

While Disney does have some great phone games integrated with attraction queues on the Play Disney Parks app, you may find yourself in a situation where battery drain renders your phone unusable as an entertainment source. In these situations, classic skills for passing time in line can be a lifesaver.

Conversation is an obvious choice, but this is easier said than done for some families, particularly those with children who feel the minutes passing at snail speed. In these cases, have a diversity of games, activities, and conversation starters available to help pass the time. This can be as simple as learning to take in the details of a queue or engaging in games like trivia, 20 questions, I Spy, or don’t-break-the-chain games (e.g. one person names a character, the next person names a character whose name starts with the last letter of the previous character’s name, so on, so forth).

5. Find your way around without a device

Lit up monorail in front of Spaceship Earth for 50th
Image: Disney

It’s easier than ever to get lost in Disney parks thanks to ongoing construction and new lands that may not be familiar to veteran guests. While apps like My Disney Experience offer maps and tools for navigating the parks, what is a person to do if these options become unavailable due to battery drain or outages? The simplest alternative, of course, is to use a paper map (these are still widely available in the parks) but this can prove time consuming.

You can redeem some time on your Disney day by utilizing basic wayfinding tricks: specifically, learn key landmarks and general park layouts.

The most obvious of these are the four park icons: Cinderella Castle (Magic Kingdom, park center), Spaceship Earth (Epcot, near the entrance), the Chinese Theater (Disney’s Hollywood Studios, center), and the Tree of Life (Disney’s Animal Kingdom, center). While you cannot necessarily see these from everywhere in the parks, they can give you an idea where you are in some cases, particularly if you familiarize yourself with each park’s general shape.

Other landmarks to be aware of are visually striking attractions or lands. In Epcot, these might be easy-to-spot World Showcase pavilions like Mexico or Morocco. Knowing that Test Track and Mission: Space are on one side of the park with The Land, The Seas, and Journey Into Imagination on the other can also be helpful.

Cinderella Castle looking massive from a low perspective
Image: Disney

For Magic Kingdom, knowing the order of the lands and how they are laid out can save a lot of time—the park is basically shaped like a sideways S with Frontierland on the top left, followed by Adventureland, then Liberty Square, Fantasyland, and finally Tomorrowland on the right). Disney’s Hollywood Studios looks complicated on maps, but the easiest way to figure out where you are is to remember Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge and Toy Story Land are on one side with the Tower of Terror and Rockin’ Roller Coaster on the other.

The trickiest park to navigate remains Disney’s Animal Kingdom, mostly because it is huge. The best way to do so is remember the park is shaped like a giant wheel, with the Tree of Life and Discovery Island as the hub. The “spokes” of the wheel going clockwise starting from bottom-left are the World of Pandora, Africa, Asia, and finally Dinoland U.S.A. With the exception of the entrance Oasis, you can get to any of these corners of the park either by crossing Discovery Island or by following paths along the edge of that wheel.

6. Improve your photography skills

Millennium Falcon and spires at night
Image: David Vega

This one is more of a bonus than an essential, but it’s a great time to up your photography skills at Disney parks. Unlimited Photopass downloads are no longer included in some annual passes, and the service continues to remain pricey. It’s easier than ever to take photos thanks to smartphones and digital cameras—where back in the 80’s to 2000’s, we were limited by how much film we had on hand, guests can now take thousands of pictures if they choose.

I will make a bold statement—a guest who knows a bit about photography can usually produce a better collection of photos than relying on Photopass photographers alone. Photopass photos can often feel posed and homogenized compared to pictures taken more organically.

Here are a few tips to improve your photography skills:

  • Take more candid photos than posed ones. While posed photos where the family stops and looks at the camera are great, there’s something truly endearing about capturing an unscripted moment with family and friends. Take lots of pictures before members of your party know you’re doing it. If you have to delete a few, no big deal, but you’re likely to capture some great moments being a photo-ninja.
  • Knowing a bit about composition can help your photos look better. If taking pictures of people, for example, you’ll want to keep an eye on headroom—the space between the top of heads and the top of the frame. Many photos have either too much or too little headroom (teens, I’ve noticed, tend to leave hilarious amounts of headroom in selfies as they capture only their heads and nothing else). You don’t want the subject’s head touching the top of the frame or far from it in most cases—there should be a small gap of space.
  • Composition concepts like the rule of thirds and leading lines can also be helpful for taking pictures. While some landmarks and subjects look great exactly centered, often you will find the most interesting photos land the subject on one of the “thirds” of the frame (left, right, top, or bottom). The intersections of these thirds mark good spots to place subjects in many cases.
  • Leading lines and vanishing points are similar concepts you can study, helping you spot interesting photo compositions based on the way “lines” within photos intersect (such as diagonal and horizontal lines), as well as where objects disappear or the horizon begins. These things require a little research to learn how to spot, but it’s worth it if you really want to improve your photography.
  • In most cases, you will be reliant on lights already in place in Disney parks. Resist the urge to use flash photography whenever possible (especially on dark rides!) as these photos tend to look weird unless you have advanced photography knowledge. During the day, take whatever photos you can under natural sunlight—try different angles. Some photographers swear by keeping the sun behind you while others like the depth created by having the sun somewhere behind your subject. At night or in dark spaces, utilize whatever sources of light you can rather than using flash if possible. On some phones, you can play with advanced settings to help improve photos in dark environments.

What is your favorite old school skill for visiting Disney parks? Let us know on Facebook or in the comments. Thanks for reading!

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