When I talk about my love of Disney vacations, people often say they dread going because “I don’t want to spend my holiday waiting in line.” No one wants to spend their holiday waiting in line. Just the fear of waiting in long queues is enough to put parents with small children or more easily-tired seniors off a Disney World trip. My advice to these people is that you can substantially reduce the amount of waiting through careful advance planning. And, if you know about different options, and are willing to pay for them, you can reduce your waits and frustration even more.
My most recent multi-generational Disney World trip was scheduled close to Christmas, one of busiest times of the year. But despite the crowds (capacity controls were put in place at Magic Kingdom several times while we were there), we didn’t wait more than 20 minutes for any attraction. I credit smart advance planning with most of our line avoidance. But I further minimized waiting and stress for our family by paying for some optional extras, some of which you may also want to add to your Walt Disney World vacation.
Here are different options to consider if you want to minimize your waiting at Disney World:
As I mentioned, smart advance planning helps to minimize waits and frustration at almost every point of your Disney holiday. I can think of no place on earth that is more conducive to, and almost requires, detailed advanced plans. How is one supposed to make smart advance plans? Do your research, starting with Touring Plans.
Touring Plans is a site that not only has detailed ratings and descriptions of pretty much everything at Disney World, but they also have created touring plans and other tools that will help even a Disney rookie put together a great touring strategy that minimizes waits. I am a data dork, and their plans and methodology are perhaps the most fun use of statistics and modeling I have ever seen. You can access some of the information and tools for free, but I highly recommend upgrading to a premium membership while doing your planning. A one-year, non-renewing (how nice is that?) subscription is $14.95. As a premium subscription member you have access to their tools to create personalized touring plans (my favorite feature), full access to their “Lines” mobile app (crucial when you are in the parks), full crowd calendars, a dining reservation finder, and other tools.
The Touring Plans website claims that you can save 4 hours per day waiting in line by using their tools. I have never tried to back up their claim, but I definitely wouldn’t consider going to Disney World without their tools. There are other planning websites, but none come close to the power of touringplans.com. It is my number one tool for minimizing wait times (and also the least expensive).
This tip is not only great for Walt Disney World, but Touring Plans also offers coverage of Universal Studios and Disneyland California as well.
If anyone in your party is interested in meeting the Disney characters, I highly recommend booking character meals to make the experience more efficient. In my opinion, the food at the character meals isn’t fabulous, but it is edible. Most of them are buffets giving you lots of options and the ability to fill up. You are paying for the character interaction. Given that, I recommend picking your character meals based on which characters you most want to meet. WDW Prep School has a good article listing the different characters you can meet at each meal.
For example, if you were to choose breakfast at Akershus Royal Banquet Hall, it would cost $44 per adult, which is a lot for the food you get. However, you will meet five different princesses while dining. I usually plan on spending 75 minutes for a character meal, which works out to 15 minutes per princess. Even with a Fast Pass, you can spend 15 minutes waiting to meet a princess in the Magic Kingdom, and many of the meet-and-greets don’t have the option of Fast Pass. (Also, using a fast pass for a princess meet-and-greet isn’t recommended now that Anna and Elsa have moved to Epcot.) I definitely think it is worth the extra money to knock out five princesses in one session and get fed.
Many character meals also have the advantage of being available at your hotel and/or outside of park hours, meaning that you can meet characters even more easily and without interfering with your park touring.
Disney does an amazing job with their fireworks and parades. Unfortunately, that means that for prime viewing people stake out places to watch these shows up to 90 minutes in advance. I can’t imagine foregoing that time from rides or even keeping my children calm for 90 minutes, so that waiting isn’t an option for me. However, if prime fireworks or parade viewing is critical for your group, you may want to consider a dessert party, particularly for the Star Wars fireworks in Hollywood Studios.
Disney World offers dessert parties for Wishes (the Magic Kingdom nighttime show), Illuminations (the Epcot nighttime show), the Festival of Fantasy parade at Magic Kingdom, and the Star Wars fireworks at Hollywood Studios. Dessert parties are also sometimes offered for the seasonal shows.
While a dessert party may not save you time, it certainly is preferable to waiting in line, and you are guaranteed a good view. All of the restaurants offer a range of themed desserts, drinks (non-alcoholic at the Magic Kingdom), and sometimes character interaction. The party is held either in a prime viewing location or you can be escorted to a reserved section shortly before the show. I know that with young kids, their energy levels will definitely be dipping by fireworks time. A dessert party is a way to give everyone’s feet a rest, take a break, and get a sugar high – all while avoiding the alternative of fighting for space to see the show, just at the point when meltdowns are most likely.
Disney Guided Tours
Disney has recently started offering several tour packages that allow you to hit attractions that usually have the longest lines with minimal waiting. Here are three that are currently listed on their website:
- VIP Ultimate Day of Thrills This tour, priced at $299, allows you to experience Splash Mountain, Space Mountain, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Big Thunder Mountain, and the Haunted Mansion in the Magic Kingdom, Soarin’ in Epcot, and Toy Story Midway Mania, Rock n’ Roller Coaster, Tower of Terror, and Star Tours in Hollywood Studio. The tour lasts 7 hours and includes a sit down lunch.
- Star Wars Guided Tour At $121 this 7-hour tour could actually be a good value for big Star Wars fans. You get to experience everything Star Wars related at Hollywood Studios, including Jedi Training for those aged 4-12, with minimal waits and reserved seating. It even includes the dessert party, usually $69 for adults.
- Epcot International Food & Wine Festival VIP Tour Only two rides are included on this tour, Frozen Ever After and Soarin’. But there are also a number of special features to help you experience the Food & Wine Festival without waits. It is $399, but does include a lot of food and wine.
These tours certainly are not for everyone, but they could make sense for your family if everything on the tour itinerary is a “must-do” for your party.
In addition to the guided group tours, Disney also offers Private Premium VIP Tours. For the family that wants to cram as much into a Disney vacation as possible and is willing to pay for it, the Private VIP Tours give you unlimited FastPass access to rides, as well as special VIP viewing areas for shows and events. At $400-$600/hr and a minimum booking of 7 hours, it certainly isn’t an inexpensive option. However, this luxury option certainly would save any group a lot of time and could facilitate a condensed trip. If you are considering this option, be sure to book ahead (90 days out), particularly during the Christmas holiday season. Private Premium VIP Tours can be reserved by calling (407) 560-4033.
Disney offers several different dining packages that combine eating at a table service restaurant (usually at an “off” time) and reserved seating for an event. I have done two of these and can highly recommend both.
- Fantasmic Dining Package This package is offered at three Hollywood Studios restaurants, Mama Melrose, Hollywood & Vine, and the Brown Derby. The price varies by restaurant, but, for example, an adult buffet at Hollywood Buffet is $47 without the dining package and $52 with it. If your group is using the Disney Dining Plan, this dining package is a no-brainer, as it has the same number of table service credits. The reserved seating for the Fantasmic Dining Package is front and center in the amphitheater. While you can almost always get a seat for Fantasmic, even if you don’t show up 30 minutes in advance, having the dining package guarantees you a prime seat.
- Candlelight Processional Dining Package Epcot’s Candlelight Processional is perhaps my favorite holiday addition to the Disney Parks. The retelling of the birth of Jesus by a celebrity narrator backed up by a full choir and orchestra is magical. However, the lines to get into the Candlelight Processional can be insane, and with popular narrators may form HOURS before. Fortunately, you can choose to buy a dining package at many of the Epcot table service restaurants. The surcharge varies by restaurant, but if the Candlelight Processional is a priority for anyone in your party, I highly recommend booking a package. Given that there is no FastPass+ for the Candlelight Processional, if you want to avoid a lengthy wait, this is your best option. You need only to book the package for the people who want to attend the Candlelight Processional. So if there are people who don’t want the package, they can still eat with you from the a la carte menu.
- Festival of Fantasy Dining Package This is the newest of the dining packages offered and the one I have not tried. With this package you have lunch at Tony’s Town Square Restaurant, the Italian Lady and the Tramp themed restaurant off Magic Kingdom’s Main Street. It includes appetizer, entrée, dessert, and non-alcoholic drink for $45/adult, as well as a voucher that gets you into the reserved viewing area for the Festival of Fantasy Parade. It is far easier to get a reservation to eat at a normal time with this dining package than with others I have tried. As it is only one table service credit on the Disney Dining Plan, if lunch at Tony’s was on your to-do list, this is a great use of a credit.
- Rivers of Light Dining Package Now that Rivers of Light is (finally) coming to Animal Kingdom, you can book a dining package for this night time show. Your reservation at Tusker House (a character meal) or Tiffin’s will give you a pass into the reserved seating area for Rivers of Light. As the Tusker House Dining Package is only one credit on the Disney Dining Plan, it is an especially good use of a credit and gives you the opportunity to meet classic characters.
Just because you are staying at a Disney World Resort doesn’t automatically make your waits shorter, but it does give you the opportunity to reduce your wait times in two ways:
- Booking a Frozen Ever After FastPass+ As an on-site guest, you can book your FastPass+ reservations 60 days before the first day of your trip, whereas off-site guests can only book 30 days out. That detail doesn’t matter, except for Frozen Ever After, the new Frozen themed ride in Epcot (and occasionally the newest roller coaster, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, in Magic Kingdom). The FastPasses for Frozen are usually unavailable at 30 days out. Given that the lines for Frozen Ever After can often be as long as 90 minutes, you can see how this FastPass, in particular, is quite valuable.
- Extra Magic Hours Every day at least one theme park at Disney World opens early or remains open late exclusively for on-site guests. Many crowd calendars suggest avoiding those parks that offer Extra Magic Hours, but my experience has been that if you arrive at these parks at those exclusive times and visit a different park for the remainder of the day you can save a lot of time. The opportunity to get into the Magic Kingdom and enjoy many of the rides which normally have unbearably long queues before everyone else arrives is a great start to a wonderful day at Disney.
Hard Ticket Events
Throughout the year, Disney World offers several different “hard ticket events,” where the purchase of a separate ticket is required. For most of these attractions that ticket can be a substitute for your park ticket. So while the cost is certainly more than an extra day on your park tickets or adding the park hopper option (depending on your touring plans and schedule), it may be worth the extra cost.
- Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party (MNSSHP) and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (MVMCP) Both of these parties are extremely popular and are probably more about meeting rare characters and seeing the special holiday parade and fireworks than they are about short lines. That said, if your objective is to get fast access to the rides and less about holiday festivities and characters, you should be able to accomplish your goal. Either way, the ticket allows you into the park starting at 4pm, although the party doesn’t start until 7pm when non-party guests leave. You also get to make 3 FastPasses between 4-7 pm if that is your only park of the day, so you could get in a decent amount of Magic Kingdom touring ahead of the party.
- Disney After Hours In 2016 Disney World began offering after- hours experiences as a hard ticket event at the Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios, both in the morning and in the evening. Currently, only the evening Magic Kingdom option is running, but that isn’t to say other options won’t be available again.For the evening Magic Kingdom Disney After Hours event, the tickets cost $119/adult. This allows you park admission starting at 7pm. Then at either 8pm or 9pm, depending upon the night, the park closes to regular guests. At that point you have virtually walk-on access to all of the major rides and some character meet-and-greets. In addition, attendees get unlimited free ice cream treats (Mickey Bars and such) and bottled beverages at stations throughout the park. The three hours of no-crowd touring until 11pm or midnight should allow your group to hit all of the rides easily.The Magic Kingdom morning option was much more limited in the rides that were open. So, assuming that option becomes available again, be sure to check out the details to make sure it makes sense for your party.
Upgrade your Transportation
Disney offers free transportation to its on-site guests, both from the airport to the Disney hotels and to-from the theme parks. While these options can certainly save money, they are definitely not time saving options. Waiting in line for a bus to take you back to your hotel at night (or for a mid-day break) when everyone is exhausted can be some of the most frustrating waiting at Disney World. To speed up your trip and reduce frustration, I would definitely recommend considering upgrading some of your transportation with either a rental car or car service/Uber and potentially purchasing the Express Transportation option that Disney World recently began offering.
- Magical Express Magical Express is Disney World’s free bus service from the Orlando airport to the Disney hotels. Depending on your flight, they will even pick up your bags from the carousel and deliver them to your hotel. (In some situations you have to collect your own bags and bring them to the bus.) It all sounds great, except for the extra time that this can add. The bus doesn’t run on a set schedule. Instead, it operates on capacity and need-to-be-full basis before departing for Walt Disney World. So you may luck out and wait only a few minutes. But you could be sitting on the bus for half an hour or more. Magical Express drops off at all the Disney hotels, so you may be dropped off first, or you could have an unwanted tour of all the Disney resorts before reaching your hotel. Finally, while they will bring your luggage from baggage claim, it won’t be on your bus. Disney advises you to plan at least 3 hours for your bags to arrive, which can be very frustrating if you need something from your suitcase. I would recommend using a car service, taxi, or renting a car instead.
- Rental Cars Renting a car (if you haven’t driven to Orlando) can be a much more convenient and faster alternative than relying on Disney bus service. As an on-site guest you get free parking at all of the parks and Disney Springs. The amount of time you will save depends upon which resort you are staying at and how long you might have waited for a bus each time, but it is something I would definitely recommend. The only park I don’t recommend driving to is the Magic Kingdom. Parking for the Magic Kingdom is at the Ticket and Transportation Center, just past the Polynesian Resort. Therefore, if you drive to the Magic Kingdom you will still need to take the monorail, a boat, or a bus to get from the parking lot to the park. The Disney buses, however, will drop you right at the front of Magic Kingdom.
- Uber or a taxi Using Uber or a taxi can be a great alternative to your own car. In the Orlando area you can request an Uber with a car seat if needed. You can be dropped off or picked up at the main entrance of all of the parks except Magic Kingdom. If you are using this option for the Magic Kingdom, I recommend that you arrange to be picked up/dropped off at the Contemporary Resort (say you are eating there), which is only a short walk away.
- Disney’s Express Transportation Disney World recently began offering Express Bus service between theme parks for $15/day or $24 for a week. This is a fabulous time-saving option for those who are doing a lot of park hopping. Not only does this eliminate the need to take multiple buses (or drive) to switch parks, but the service uses back entrances to the parks, so you do not have to go through security at each park. As of this writing, this service is officially still a test, but hopefully it will be an ongoing option. One thing to consider is that it probably works better for experienced Disney visitors. You will be escorted through the backstage areas which might dull the “magic” for young kids and first timers.