But fear not - even if you go this time of year, you can have a great trip. Ive been working with several families this year that are planning trips over the Christmas-to-New Year's school break. These can be the most challenging trips to plan. This is not to say you can't avoid the crowds and have a good time this time of year - you can. But it takes a lot more planning and creativity.
What follows are some high-level tips that will help you have a better trip if traveling to Disney World in the Christmas-to-New Year's time period. These are essential tips. As always, let me remind you that for Optimal Magic customers I put together a full itinerary that helps them avoid the long lines - even on the busiest days. These tips won't replace a full Optimal Magic itinerary (and my customers would be mad if I gave everything away for free!), but they're a good start.
Holiday Survival Tip 1: Longer winter school break? Go after New Year's Day
Many parts of the country have two-week winter breaks for schools, and kids don't go back to school until January 7 or so. If this is the case for you, then you are much better off starting your trip January 2 instead of going late December.
The reason for this is simple - many areas of the country on the east coast only get one week for winter vacation, and the kids return to school on January 2. (New York City, Boston, and Philadelphia, for example). More kids in school means fewer people in the parks.
If you're one of the lucky ones who get two weeks for winter break (for example, most of the Chicago area), then use this to your advantage. There will still be crowds after January 1, but they'll be less crazy than the week before. Plus, hotels will be much cheaper!
Holiday Survival Tip 2: Arrive Early. Like really, really early
You probably already know that it is best to get to the Disney parks early. It is even more true during the holidays.
Here's the problem - Disney usually opens its parks at 8:00am the holiday week. And they add an "extra magic hour" for Disney resort guest from 7:00-8:00. Usually I don't like the extra magic hour, but during this crazy week, the Magic Kingdom has it every day. This means you need to use it if you're staying at a Disney hotel
So if the park opens at 7:00am (and you need to account for travel time too), that means you're going to be at the park very, very early! The good news is that relatively few people are willing to be at the park this early. So you can usually visit a good number of attractions relatively quickly.
Holiday Survival Tip 3: Get the heck out of the parks in the afternoon
This is sort of a corollary to the previous tip. If you're going to be at the parks early, you're going to be tired mid-day. And the crowds are going to be absolutely insane. I like to take very long breaks mid-day during the holiday season - like from noon to 6pm or longer. Have a long lunch at one of the hotels. Go swimming (it may be cold). Stroll the Boardwalk. Everything is festive and fun, so enjoy the resort, but don't be waiting three hours to ride Peter Pan!
One important thing to note - the parks (especially the Magic Kingdom) tend to reach capacity in the later morning/early afternoon. This means if you leave, you may not be able to get back in. So if your heart is set on watching the fireworks at the Magic Kingdom on December 31st, you're best off just sucking it up in the park. Would I want to be in a mob scene for twelve additional hours just to see the fireworks? No, I wouldn't. But to each their own!
Holiday Survival Tip 4: Park Hopping isn't a bad idea
I don't push the Park Hopper option on Disney tickets that often (it's $55/ticket for a feature that is often not needed). There are occasions and groups where it makes sense, but more often it does not.
However, during the holidays, it may make sense for more people. For example, the Magic Kingdom may be tolerable at 7am, but completely intolerable by noon. Epcot, on the other hand, can better handle massive crowds, and may be tolerable in the afternoon/evening. So why not head to the Magic Kingdom in the morning, and Epcot in the afternoon?
Be forewarned that in this scenario, if you're going to Epcot to ride the big attractions, you're still going to be waiting in long lines. But if you just go to soak up the atmosphere and maybe see lluminations, you'll be swarmed with people, but you'll be able to go.
Holiday Survival Tip 5: Bring your wallet
This isn't really a tip as much as a FYI. While park tickets cost no different during the holiday season, you're still going to spend more money on everything else. Disney hotels are MUCH more expensive in late December. Like "take-out-a-second-mortgage" expensive. Also, Disney increases the prices at character meals and other buffets by a few dollars. And of course, rental cars and plane tickets will be much more expensive.
Unfortunately, I don't have many tips to avoid these costs. There are rarely (if ever) discounts on Disney hotels in the holiday period. Best I can offer is advice to book plane tickets and rental cars early, and avoid the restaurants that increase prices during these periods.
Conclusion: Avoiding lines and having a great time at Disney during the holidays can be done, but it takes effort!
Long story short, it is possible to get on many of the attractions at Disney World during the holiday period, and have a good time, without waiting in long lines.
However, if you choose to go at this time, please have a plan. If you arrive at the Magic Kingdom at 9:00am, you're going to take an hour to get there on the monorail, and then you're going to be wading through huge crowds and waiting in two-hour lines. Unless that sounds like fun, you need a sophisticated, full plan for the day.
As always, feel free to contact me if you have any questions. Thanks!