Osborne Spectacle of Lights at Hollywood Studios.
For years, the best time to visit Disney World was in early December: Cool weather, low crowds, and amazing Christmas decorations all made for a beautiful visit. With the advent of the internet, this eventually became Disney's worst kept secret and in recent years, crowd levels have gone up considerably. Don't be daunted, however. It's still a great time to visit if you know a few tips. Overall, the first three weeks of the month will have similar crowd levels, but some events will bump up park attendance slightly.
Cinderella Castle lit up with the holiday lights.
Pop Warner is a sporting event that takes place every year involving school-age cheerleaders and football players, usually the first or second week of December. This year's competition is December 3 - 10. With Pop Warner, you don't have to be concerned with crowds, although towards the end of the event you'll see a slight increase in attendance levels as more and more participants are eliminated from the competition. The bigger issue is that discounts are often blacked out for this week, so if discounts are important to you, consider shifting your visit around a bit. Keep in mind that you can often get a discount like free dining for your entire stay as long as your first day is covered under the offer.
The Pop Warner kids get a lot of flack, most of it unwarranted. I've never noticed any bad behavior in the parks, but if you're staying in a resort where they stay, usually the All Star Resorts and one of the moderates, and if you'd like a quieter time, considering not staying at these resorts during the event. Young kids are going to be a little rowdy, no matter how well-supervised.
The Disney Christmas Day Parade Taping.
Regis and Kelly, former co-hosts of the Christmas parade.
Yes, it's true. Disney tapes the Christmas day parade in early December over several days. Usually the first Friday, Saturday and Sunday of the month, the parade only effects the Magic Kingdom. Expect heavy crowds on Main Street, but the rest of the park should be at normal levels until taping ends for the day. At that point, many spectators will make their way farther into the parks to enjoy the attractions. I'm going to be honest, this isn't an ideal time to visit the Magic Kingdom, especially on the two main taping days, Friday and Saturday. If you're visiting this week and can only visit the Magic Kingdom on these days, expect to be brought backstage to bypass the parade taping, so getting around the heaviest crowds shouldn't be that difficult once you get past the turnstiles. Save your shopping on Main Street until the end of the day after the taping ends.
Mariah Carey performs in from of the castle during the 2010 parade taping.
The Weekend Before Christmas Weekend.
I have a lot of faith in Touring Plans' crowd calendar, which uses years of data to predict crowd levels, but I often find their predictions for this weekend to be a little off--in fact, they're often revised as the season approaches so be wary about what you see at this point. Most kids probably aren't out of school yet, which is why you wouldn't expect huge crowds, but a lot of parents will pull kids out early so they can enjoy better rates and lower crowds. The result is that the third weekend of December is usually packed, depending on when Christmas falls. In general, if Christmas is on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, expect the weekend before Christmas to be when Christmas crowds start coming in. If you're not a big fan of crowds, you might want to think about getting out of Dodge at that point.
Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.
The parade at Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party.
Besides seeing unique Christmas shows, rare characters, and a Christmas parade you won't see during the day, one benefit of attending this party is being able to enjoy lower crowds in the Magic Kingdom. Ideally, this means you'll plan on going to the party on a less popular night. It's difficult to predict crowds at this holiday party, but the general rule is that you should avoid Friday or Saturday nights and the last night of the party. Everything else is anyone's guess.
When you go to purchase tickets, which usually go on sale in May, you can tell which dates have historically lower attendance levels by the fact that they're slightly discounted. One way to ensure that you never go to a sold-out party is to refrain from buying them ahead of time. If the party is not sold out that night, you'll see signs up in the Magic Kingdom saying that tickets are available; you can also ask at the concierge desk at your resort. This approach works best if you have a lot of flexibility (i.e., you don't have people in your party who need a nap to stay up late). The only downside is that you run a risk that all the parties during your stay will have sold out months earlier, but you also won't be paying to attend a crowded party.
It's clear that each one of these weeks has pluses and minuses and that if you stay an entire week, you'll hit one of these snags. If I had to pick, I'd say that the second week is probably ideal from a standpoint of being past the Pop Warner discount blackout and far enough ahead of Christmas itself that you're not hitting the worst crowds. I'm going the 9th through the 19th. Like most of you, I can't always plan control when I go, so I'm going to love those low crowds the first seven or so days and hope for the best staring on the 17th, which is a Saturday. I've got a few plans in place just in case the crowds are bad for the latter part of the trip: Moving to the Contemporary so we can walk to the Magic Kingdom, dining reservations in the parks so we can take breaks when the crowds become too much, and pool time (if the weather permits) if it's just too crowded. This is probably overkill, but I like to have a plan in place so we're not caught off guard.