If you pick up any guide book to Disneyland or browse any news article with tips for visiting, one message that comes through loud and clear is, “Don’t go during peak season!” Disneyland can get incredibly crowded on certain days of the year and avoiding those days can go a long way towards making your trip a fun family vacation instead of a miserable battle of long lines and packed sights. A prospective visitor can even search online crowd calendars such as http://www.isitpacked.com/disneyland-crowd-forecast-predictor-calendar/ and http://touringplans.com/disneyland-resort/crowd-calendar# in order to avoid those dreaded “10 out of 10” days.
But what if you look at the crowd calendar and realize that the only days you can go in the next year are on those high crowd level days? Those days exist for a reason: they coincide with the days that the most people are off from work and school, and if you’re one of those families that have zero flexibility in your vacation dates then you’re kind of stuck.
My husband is a teacher, so we know that feeling well. On our last family trip to Disneyland we were able to visit for three days in October when American schools were in session, but that was a rare treat. For our trip to California this spring we had a wonderful stretch of two weeks off, but it was right at the height of the American spring break season. We went expecting crowds and we most certainly found them.
So did we end up spending our whole trip fighting crowds and standing in lines? Actually, we were pleasantly surprised at how well it went and how much fun we had despite the sheer number of people in the parks. We were able to see and do everything we wanted and we rarely waited more than 15 minutes in line. Here’s how we did it.
1) Bigger crowds mean longer hours
On off season days, the park opens at 9 or even 10am and can close as early as 6 or 7pm. When we were there it opened at 8am and closed at midnight. That means the parks could be open twice as long on a busy day as they are on a slow one. Someone going on one of those slow days is likely to arrive at opening and stay until closing. On a busy day, however, there will be people coming at opening and leaving in the afternoon and others who won’t even arrive until after lunch. Which leads to another fact which can be good news for some but not so much for others….
2) Arriving early gives you a huge advantage
We arrived at opening time every day and found the parks to feel almost empty for the first two or three hours. At about 11am there would be a noticeable uptick in crowd levels but before then we could stroll uncrowded pathways and ride all but the most popular rides with almost no waits. This strategy worked even better for the last few days of the trip when the area was hit with a freak March heat wave that pushed the temps up into the high 30’s (Celsius) and the early morning was the most comfortable time to be there. But if getting up at 7 am when you’re on vacation is simply not an option for you, the next best thing would be …
3) Staying late is great, too
While the park doesn’t exactly feel empty in the late evening, it’s definitely less crowded than the middle of the day. If your kids are older, or are just night owls, you can have a great time after dark, especially when large portions of the crowds are in one area watching parades or fireworks.
4) Or you can do both!
The long hours of high season give you the perfect chance to enjoy the best of both worlds. There were several days when we went in from about 8am-noon, then left just as the crowds and temperatures were peaking. After a quiet afternoon of resting at the hotel, we’d return for another stretch just as the crowds and temps were starting to decline. This is much harder to do during the shorter hours of low season.
5) Research and plan
If you go in early, don’t waste those precious early hours on attractions that never have a long wait. Get a book or research online and hit the most popular rides first. Then get Fast passes for later in the day. Check the posted wait times at every ride you pass to get a sense of how the crowds are building and if something you want to see has a short wait then hop on. Study the show schedule as you’re waiting to enter the park and plan to alternate between shows, high capacity rides with short wait times and Fast passes during the busy hours between about 11 am and 5 pm.
6) Book a character meal
This one is only for people who enjoy meeting the characters. There are two character meals in the parks; Ariel’s grotto with the princesses in California Adventure and Minnie’s breakfast at the Plaza in Disneyland. Both of these options are quite pricey; but I’d rather spend a few extra dollars and have the characters come to me instead of using up several hours of my precious park time waiting in lines. The meals also have a set capacity; no matter how crowded the park gets, there are only X number of tables in the restaurant and you will get the same amount of character interaction as you would on a slow day. We booked the latest breakfast seating at Minnie’s at 1030 am and considered it an early lunch. We had a great time seeing Minnie as well as about 8-10 other characters and felt it was well worth the money.
Another strategy is to book one of the character meals at one of the three Disney hotels. This would be a great use of a half day on your arrival or departure day rather than paying for park tickets for a few hours. I’ve never tried any of those meals before so I can’t really say if they’re as good as the ones in the parks.
7) Go for as many days as you can
We decided to go all out for this trip and bought five day tickets. It was a huge advantage for a peak season trip since we felt no pressure to try to get everything done in a day or two. When a ride broke down for a few hours and lines suddenly got long, we just planned to come back another day. We relaxed when the crowds built up and sat in the shade listening to the wonderful entertainers instead of trying to get in some more rides. We poked our heads into the neat little shops that we had passed by on shorter trips. I know that it’s not always possible to go for this long, but the price difference isn’t that great, currently it’s $275 for an adult five day ticket vs $235 for three days or $20 more per day for those extra two days. In some ways it was nicer to have high crowd days than two or three low crowd ones.
So would we go in high season again? Well, my husband isn’t giving up teaching any time soon, so it’s likely that most of our Disney trips will be during high season for the near future. And it’s good to know that Disneyland can be a great family trip no matter when you go. So if your travel dates fall on high crowd days, don’t despair. With a bit of planning and flexibility you can have a great Disneyland vacation no matter when you go.