On occasion, particularly with my previous blog, I get an email that goes a little something like this:
Dear Disney Expert:
I am throwing myself at your (terribly small) feet and hoping that you deign to answer this question with the full force of your knowledge and wit: Just when is the best time to go to Disney World?
A flummoxed traveller.
Okay, so I'm exaggerating. Most often, it would simply say "Hey, when is the best time to go to Disney and also, could you stop with the run-on sentences?" Well, who am I deny the weary masses the full force of my Disney knowledge. I mean, I've spent a lot of my husband's hard-earned money amassing this information. The least I can do is share.
The best thing is, it's very simple. Here's what I always say when someone asks about the best time to go to Disney:
Go when it's hot, or go when it's crowded, but don't go when it's both hot and crowded.
There. Easy peasy, right? Seriously, I should write a guidebook. Except that for most people, it isn't that simple: Kids and jobs often dictate when you can travel. So here is the next best thing, a quick primer on Disney crowds, month by month:
January: Usually a great month to go to Disney World, however be aware that when crowds are lower, Disney normally closes a small number of attractions for refurbishment and has shorter park hours. The weather can be pretty cool, although some people find swimming comfortable (Alaskans?). Disney usually closes at least one water park during this month. The following can effect crowd levels, so plan accordingly:
New Year's Day is going to be very crowded. If it falls close to the weekend, that weekend will be will be crowded as well, but after that, the crowds are very light.
College bowl games in Central/South Florida will attract crowds on the days before and after the game.
Martin Luther King weekend, like all holiday weekends at Disney, will be crowded.
Finally, Disney holds several marathons/half-marathons this month. While it generally doesn't effect park attendance that much, some resorts may fill to capacity and driving on property can get tricky during the races as some roads are closed off. If you somehow happen to find yourself trapped in this healthy horde, hide that Snickers bar and get away as soon as possible. Reward yourself later with a Dole Whip. Whew.
Verdict: I'm going to go out on a limb and just say it: Other than holidays and special events, January is the best time of the year to go to Disney World. Be mindful of park hours, as they will be shorter. Bring a jacket and a raincoat. And maybe your running shoes. You know, if that's your thing.
February: Prior to mid-month, the parks are not very busy. Believe it or not, mid-February marks the start of Disney's Spring Break season, which also means crowds. Lots and lots of crowds. There will be long-ish waits for major attractions, although less than in March or April. February and March are probably your best months for near-perfect weather. If the Super Bowl is in Central or South Florida that year, expect higher attendance that weekend. The Epcot Flower and Garden show begins in February but generally doesn't increase the amount of visitors in the park. Higher resort rates usually start right before Valentine's day, cutting into your romantic getaway mojo.
March: Spring break crowds really get going during this month, although March is much less busy than April. This year, resort discounts kept attendance levels up but manageable despite the economy.
April: I would never go to Disney World in April. Okay, let me take that back. If I had children who were on a traditional school-year calendar (we have year-round school here and I'm only slightly ashamed to admit that I choose the schedule that was the most Disney friendly--hey, I have my priorities) and could only go in April or during the summer, I'd go in April. Otherwise, I'd stay home.
That says a lot, considering how much I love Disney. I mean, I have a blog about it.
In any event, crowds this April were so bad that Disney closed the parks several times, meaning that only resort guests or guests using the park hopper option could enter the parks; day guests (that is, guests who are not staying on-site) who slept in late were out of luck. This is, fortunately, very rare. Some friends who went reported having a good time, but were frustrated with the crowds and noted that cutbacks in the parks, aggrevated by the large crowds, were starting to show. So you take your chances. Mild spring weather, but crowded parks.
Verdict: Don't go to Disney World in April. Ever. Unless of course your only other option is July. Then, by all means, go in April and enjoy. Keep in mind that the worst weeks of the entire spring break season, if not the worst weeks of the entire year, excluding Christmas, are the week before and the week after Easter. Put on your game face and bring your best attitude. You can still have fun, you'll just have to plan accordingly.
May: I've been twice during May and both times I thought the crowds were low to medium. Last year, I was in Disney World with my then five-year old and the place was practically empty on Mother's Day. Who knew other moms didn't want to spent their day in a theme park?
Check the Disney website to find out when grad nights are scheduled. Currently, they are being held at Hollywood Studios, but that can change. Not only can it effect crowds at that park, it also means that the park will be closing at 7:00 p.m; all that means is that you will probably want to visit another park that day, particularly if you're not using park hoppers. Expect crowd levels to pick up by the end of the month, particularly if Disney announces Star Wars Weekends will begin in late May rather than June.
By the way, recent reports are that Memorial Day Weekend crowds were very light this year due to the economy. Hard to say if that will be the case next year, as holiday weekends are usually packed.
Verdict: Go the first two weeks in May and bask in the glory of how clever you are as you walk onto attractions and easily get a walk-up reservation at your favorite sit-down restaurant in Epcot (not Le Cellier--let's not get crazy here). Don't forget the sunblock; it's starting to get hot.
June: The start of summer vacation understandably means bigger crowds. Big event weekends like Star Wars Weekends (every weekend in June) and Gay Days (the first weekend in June) can add to the crowds. Nonetheless, crowds are usually manageable the first part of the month as many schools are not out yet.
Okay, here's a little secret about Gay Days. Some people are uncomfortable with it. I know, shocking. The truth is Gay Days visitors are just like any other group going to Disney World, except you may see same-sex partners wearing red shirts and holding hands. I know, red shirts. Sheesh. Otherwise, they're just like everyone else and for a lot of us, it's an opportunity to explain to our kids that there are all kinds of families out there. Nonetheless, not everyone feels that way, nor do they have to, and if you look at a Disney message board this time of year you'll probably find posts from worried parents wondering if they should cancel their vacation.
With that in mind, you can make Gay Days work for you. Here's how: Gay Days has a set schedule, with each park being designated for a certain day. That park will be busy that day, but most if not all of the park activities take place in the morning, and then the parks clear out, leaving who? You, that's who. Walking on attractions and having a ball because those other folks didn't want to visit Disney that weekend.
Conveniently, Gay Days also takes place during Star Wars Weekends. It's win-win, my nerdy friends.
Verdict: Go early in the month and you will save yourself time waiting in lines.
July: What is there to say about Disney in July that hasn't been said? It's crowded. It's hot. Really hot. Sticky strangers getting into your personal space hot. Did I mention it's also crowded? And then there are the so-called dreaded, infamous tour groups hailing from Brazil. Now, I have never personally experienced a Brazillian tour group while at Disney, so I can't speak to their infamy or their . . . dreadfullness. I can only say defininitively that one more tour group in an already crowded park probably won't effect your trip one way or the other. It's going to be hot. It's going to be crowded. And you're probably going to have fun anyway, regardless of how rowdy the tour group in front of you may or may not be. Make friends and practice your Portuguese.
Verdict: As a former Floridian, I wouldn't set foot in Disney in July, however, to each his own; I commend your bravery. Get a good touring plan and put it to use. Use sunblock. Drink plenty of water.
Oh, and change your socks. I'm not sure why that's important, but they say it in all the war movies and since you're basically going into battle, it must be the right thing to do.
August: Early August is much like July, but when most of the kids go back to school in late August, attendance levels drop slightly, making it preferable to mid-summer. If your kids don't go back to school until September, this is probably the best time to go during summer.
September: September is a great month to travel to Disney World. Crowds drop dramatically after Labor Day and stay that way for most of the month. Disney frequently announces incentives to get people into the parks like free dining and room discounts, so watch for those. Special events include Mickey's Not So Scary Halloween Party, held several nights a week in the Magic Kingdom, until October 31st, and Night of Joy, a Christian music festival held at Hollywood Studios early in the month. Neither event increases park attendance dramatically, but it can result in earlier park closings of Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios on those nights. Again, if you're not taking part in those activities, arrange your park schedule so that you visit a different park on those days, or be prepared to park hop or call it an early night.
Of course, there is a reason why September isn't very crowded. Most obviously, the kids have gone back to school. But it's also hot. And this: Did you know that September is the worst month for hurricanes? While Orlando is normally spared the most dramatic effects of hurricane season, it often gets soaked--for days--by its outer bands, which makes for some very wet days in the parks.
Verdict: September is reliably one of the slowest times of the year at Disney World. Go and take advantage of the low crowds. Obviously you should be aware of the threat of bad weather, but that wouldn't personally stop me. However, if you're staying somewhere with a strict cancellation policy off-site, by all means, this is the time to buy trip insurance. You never know. Better safe than sorry.
October: The weather is cooling down. A bit. It probably won't be as rainy as September. Epcot's Food and Wine Festival is underway. Several times a week, there's a Halloween party at the Magic Kingdom WITH FREE CANDY! Crowds, while not as low as September, are very manageable. What's not to like? If you're still worried about crowds, try to find out when fall break is in the United Kingdom; in past years, due to the favorable exchange rate, the parks have been very busy during this time.
Verdict: One of the nicest months to go to Disney.
November: In early November, Disney starts putting up Christmas decorations. This is either really great, if you happen to like Christmas, or really, really . . . not so great, for those among us who lean more towards Scrooge than Clark Griswold. This month, Disney starts its nighttime Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party as well. Crowds early in the month are generally low, although Jersey week can effect attendance levels; it you're worried about this, find out when New Jersey schools will be taking their fall break. Crowds really get going the week of Thanksgiving but the following week normally has very low crowds and short waits for attractions. By the end of the month, all of the Christmas decorations are up, although the big Christmas tree in Town Square in the Magic Kindgom won't be in place until after the taping of the Christmas parade in early December (it's in a different location in the Magic Kingdom).,
Verdict: November is a great time to go to Disney, although crowds will be thicker than sweet potato pie Thanksgiving week. Plan accordingly and if you're there on Thanksgiving day, make sure you make on-site dining reservations at the 180-day mark or you'll be eating Figaro Fries and a smoked turkey leg on a park bench for dinner. Not so festive.
December: I hesitate to tell you this, but if you've read this far you've probably earned the right to know: Early December is my favorite time of year to go to Disney and if you go, it just might be yours too. Apparently, I'm not alone in feeling this way. While early December used to be the best time to go to Disney, hands down, with low crowds being the main draw, word got around: The parks seem to get busier every year in early December. Despite this, crowds are still manageable and the Christmas decorations are gorgeous. I would venture to say that even the Scroogiest among us can't help but feel just the slightest bit festive during the holidays at Disney.
The downside? Well, as I said above, crowd levels have increased over the years. The days of walking on just about every attraction are long gone. And then there's Pop Warner. Now, some people say park attendance levels aren't effected by Pop Warner, a high school cheerleading and football competition which normally takes place two weeks after Thanksgiving. I'm not so sure I agree. At the very least, the weekend Pop Warner ends, the parks are packed with kids and their parents enjoying their last day or two in Disney. Keep in mind that the resorts where the kids stay (in previous years, All-Stars, but this has changed recently so check ahead of time) tend to get very loud, which really, is fine; they're kids, afterall. Unless you're trying to sleep. If you want to book a value resort at that time, book at least six months ahead and try for Pop Century. Finally, the weather in December can be very unpredicatable. I've worn a heavy coat and I've worn shorts. Mostly, it's comfortable enough for pants and a long-sleeve shirt during the day; you'll need a light coat at night. And don't forget your rain poncho.
The week before Christmas through New Year's Day is very crowded. Most guidebooks don't recommend a first trip during this time for the simple reason that you may find it hard to ride a lot of attractions. Parks are most likely to fill to capacity during this time, although as noted above, this is still rare. Despite the crowds, I've heard people say that just being there with all the excitement and beautiful decorations was more than worth it.
Verdict: Early December is still a great time to visit Disney, which is at it's best at Christmas; while the parks are gorgeous, don't overlook the decorations at the resorts, particularly the Wilderness Lodge. You don't have to be a Disney resort guest to resort-hop. If you're worried about Pop Warner, find out which week they'll be there and avoid the resorts where the kids will be. If you go during the holiday week, understand that it will be very crowded and plan accordingly, including using a touring plan. Even the weekend before Christmas can be so crowded that moving through the parks can be difficult. The same advice for making dining reservations for Thanksgiving applies for Christmas day, so make your Advanced Dining Reservations at the 180-day mark (or 180 plus 10 for resort guests, the earliest you can make them).
A couple of final thoughts on crowds. Keep in mind that while you can use the above information as a general rule, for the closest thing you'll find to exact crowd projections, check out the crowd calendar at Touring Plans (the people behind the Unofficial Guide). They make their predictions based on years of data and constantly update these projections based on everything from new data and the current economic forecast (they have an economist on staff) to the latest Disney promotions. You can view the calendar for free 30-days out or you can subscribe for about $10, which also gives you access to touring plans for the parks as well. You can also check out this site for free information on crowd predictions. I can't vouch for its accuracy and I don't know where they get their data from, but it seems to be very popular, so it might warrant a look. I tend to think that you get at you pay for when it comes to this sort of information, but if you want to save some money, check it out. I'm interested to know what you think.
Finally, if you're going during the busier times of the year, I recommend using a touring plan, which can cut down on time spent waiting in line. Most are tailored toward your specific needs, for example, a plan for those visiting the parks with young children or for touring a special event like Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party. I've used both Tourguide Mike and Touring Plans. I personally prefer Touring Plans, in part because they have more experience and data behind them, but also because I prefer a pre-made touring plan (although I still change it around a bit), however both have their advantages and I don't have a problem recommending Mike's site in the least. You can find plenty of reviews of both plans on Disboards using their search engine.
This post gets a lot of hits so I try to keep it updated. Feel free to email me at email@example.com or leave a comment if you find something inaccurate, have a concern, or want to share a tip. Thanks!