I recently had a friend take his young family on their first vacation to Disney World.  They had a miserable time.  Being a Disney World fanatic, I was shocked. His complaints are familiar. It was crowded, hot, and the lines were ridiculous!  For many people, the idea of a wonderful vacation isn’t cramming into a hot theme park and waiting in lines all day.  In part one of our “Beating the Crowds” series, we will try and help you avoid that fate.

Experienced Disney World guests can have a great time touring the parks at any point during the year.  I've been on some of the busiest days of the year and still had a great time. BUT…it requires being realistic and creating a great plan for your group. I realize that plotting out your every move on a spreadsheet might not be your idea of an enjoyable vacation, but the benefits of proper planning will be felt by your entire family.

Here's the deal. Most Disney guests don't do a ton of planning, aside from fastpasses. Most guests sleep in a bit, eat breakfast in their resort, then head over to the park. If you ever want proof of this, sit at a bench on main street for 3 hours as the Magic Kingdom opens. After the initial rush, guests will trickle in for the first hour. Then from 11-1, guests will start STREAMING in for a day of activity. This leads us to our first tip

Arrive Early!

We'd be remiss if we didn't point out that waking up early on vacation is not normal. While on vacation, most people love to relax.  That doesn’t involve cracking the whip at 6 am, getting the family out of bed, getting breakfast, and high-tailing it to the park!  That usually means sleeping in until 9-10, going down to the resort dining area, standing in line with everyone else to get breakfast, and then finally arriving at the park at around lunchtime.    This strategy is GREAT when you are at the beach!  But at Disney World, you’re in trouble before your day has even started!

The key to beating the crowds at Disney World is arriving early.  The earlier you arrive, the more you will get to do.  Would you rather conquer all of Fantasy Land in an hour and a half, or wait 30-40 minutes for EACH ride!   You can ride Space Mountain twice in 30 minutes…OR you can spend 90 minutes waiting in line for this ride!  Hoping to catch Mine Train? Wanting to try the new Slinky Dog Dash ride? Getting there before the gates open will allow you to knock out those attractions very early, and get through a large portion of the park before lunch time.

We highly recommend arriving at the park 45 minutes before the park opens.  Usually the parks open at 9am.  Arrive at the front gates no later than 8:15 and you will have an advantage over most people. Don't be intimidated by the large crowds there at rope drop. You're going to think that everyone else got the same memo. But when the parks open and everyone spreads out, you'll have a couple hours to ride before things get insane.

Now if you wake up early and rush to the park, you may have to skip breakfast at the resort or hotel.  We highly recommend bringing some light breakfast foods with you, to help you bide your time while you wait for an early lunch.  You can even order granola bars and bottled waters online, and have them shipped to your resort.  This can save time and money!

Key to the First Two Hours

The key to the first two hours is to ride as many rides as you can. Don't stop for photos, don't eat breakfast, don't grab a Starbucks, don't stop and shop at a cool little gift shop.. The reason you are here is to have fun, so go have fun. If you see something you want to try, make a mental note and come back. If it's peak season, you're just a couple hours away from crazy crowd levels, and then you'll be able to shop all you want.

We have park-specific touring plans for each of the four parks. They are all different and all have their own unique personalities. Let's take the Magic Kingdom as an example. If you arrive early, you should be able to knockout the following rides before lunch:

Peter Pan
Winnie the Pooh
Mine Train
Space Mountain
Buzz Lightyear

That's 8 of the biggest rides in 2 hours, and you've finished them before lunch. If you arrived at 1 pm and tried to ride these 8, it would probably take you 6 hours. Do the math! Getting to the parks early is crucial.

Once you’ve knocked out all these rides in two hours, you're faced with a tough decision. If you’ve done things right, you’ve knocked out a good portion of the theme park by lunchtime.   Now what?  At the very minimum you want to try and knock out another couple hours at the park. If you’ve used the FASTPASS plus system correctly, you are ahead of the game right now and you can start setting up fastpasses for the rest of the day. Since you've knocked out most of the park, you don't have to stress about planning. Do what your family wants. 

A few additional tips

Small Children:  If you have small children, they probably need naps.  Try and squeeze another 2 hours out of them after your early lunch and leave around 1-1:30.  If you have a long trip and you try and overload your kids the first few days, they probably won’t argue, as who wants to leave Disney World?  But you may pay for it later with exhausted and cranky kids toward the end of your vacation.

Length of stay:  How long is your vacation?  Will you be returning to this particular park again?  If you only have one day to do Magic Kingdom, then it’s probably best to push through and try and finish everything.

How late is the park open?  If the park is open late, than you can possibly afford a few hours to nap, swim or relax.  During the peak season, parks stay open late every night.  This allows you to leave during the heat of the day and return in the evenings when its cooler.

Now so far in this article, we've only briefly touched on the fastpass system. That is another important consideration when staying ahead of the crowds. In Part 2 of our “Beating the Crowds” series, we will show you how to setup your fastpasses to create a perfect day of touring the Disney parks.