Disney done right: how to survive (and thrive!) in summer crowds

The first advice I offer any family asking how to get the most from their Disney theme park experience is to visit in the off-season. Of course, such a plan isn’t always realistic. If your only option is to visit Walt Disney World or the Disneyland Resort in the summer season, take heart! It is possible to best the crowds and the heat and have a fabulous time.

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During our three-day visit to the Disneyland Resort in August, we experienced every attraction we wanted, had time for relaxation, and never waited longer than 15 minutes in any line. Below you’ll find our top suggestions on maximizing your peak summer Disney experience:

1. Arrive at parks at ‘rope drop’. It sounds simplistic, but aside from utilizing FastPass (more on that below), arriving at park opening is the best way to beat crowds. Imagine theme park crowds as a breaking wave: get there first, and you’ll remain at the forefront of that wave all day long. We noted the difference during our August trip: at 8:15 am (with a general population park opening of 8 am) the standby wait time for the hugely popular Star Tours was under 15 minutes. Nearby, Space Mountain’s standby time was 10 minutes, and the new Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage was 5 minutes. By 9 am, we’d done all three and had snagged FastPasses for later in the day, while Star Tours’ standby line had increased to 60 minutes, Space Mountain’s to 45 minutes, and Nemo’s to 30 minutes. The FastPasses for Star Tours were listing return times after 7 pm. We moved on, riding that wave.

2. Use FastPass in an organized, deliberate manner. Most park visitors now know to utilize Disney’s ingenious FastPass system, but many still neglect to make the most of it. When crowd levels are high, fast passes for key attractions will run out by as early as mid-morning, so plan to gather the ones you want most as close to park opening as possible. We always send a Fast Pass ‘scout’ to obtain our FastPasses for our first attraction while the rest of our party jumps in the standby line for another ride directly following rope drop….this is often the only standby line we stand in all day. Remember that a new FastPass can be obtained as early as the first time listed on your current FastPass, and that FastPasses for water rides such as Grizzly Run in California Adventure and Splash Mountain in Disneyland won’t run out until later in the day (when people get hot); plan to snag those by mid-morning to ride in the heat of the day. (Or ride early morning to avoid any line at all!)

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3. Seek out quiet park areas to escape the crush of the crowds: In Disneyland, nothing beats Tom Sawyer’s Island for some R&R. Kids can run and play without standing in lines, and adults can find a shady bench to decompress. If you all want to sit down for a bit, consider taking a ride on the nearby Dixie Queen steamboat. Even in peak season, seats are available, and it’s always shaded. If your food budget allows for it, make a reservation for the quiet, darkened Blue Bayou Restaurant, located inside Pirates of the Caribbean. You’ll enjoy the ambiance, and escape the heat. In California Adventure, enter the Redwood Challenge Trail play area, where kids will climb ropes and cross bridges and zip down zip lines and adults, again, can blissfully sit. Bear in mind that neither Tom Sawyer’s Island or Redwood Challenge have food vendors; bring in a snack or water bottles.

4. Stay on-site. I’m a firm believer in staying at a Disney resort. While they’re often more expensive nightly than other area hotels and motels, they pay for themselves in the perks. During our August trip, we stayed at the Disneyland Hotel, where guests are given two extra FastPasses per guest per night which my kids called ‘magic FastPasses’ (as you can use them for any ride, at any time). Guests also enjoy extra park hours, and fun Disney touches in their rooms (my kids loved the musical headboards on the beds and their Mickey wake-up calls). The best perk of all, however, is simply logistical: staying at a Disney resort, you can easily take park breaks and won’t have to pay theme park parking fees. Each afternoon of our stay, we exited the parks and enjoyed a few hours in the Disneyland Hotel pools.

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5. Eat at off-peak times and skip beverage lines. By the time lunch or dinner rolls around, the last thing anyone wants to do is stand in another line. To beat crowds, plan your meals during off-peak times. We always each lunch right at 11 am and dinner at 4 pm, adding a later evening snack. Many lunch venues are just opening at 11, giving us our pick of seating. Carry water bottles and powdered drink mix (to make drinking fountain refills taste better) to always have drinks on-hand, saving you time and money.

Every family’s schedule, budget, and preferences are different, but even if you can only take advantage of 3-5 of these tips, you’ll have a more relaxing, fun, and cost-effective theme park experience during peak season. Will you still become worn down by crowds and feel the heat? Sure, at times, and at the end of each day, you may still say, ‘Next time, let’s come back in January’, but at least you’ll be smiling as you say it.

To maximize our visit, our family used Southern California CityPasses during our three days at Disneyland Resort. As I disclose whenever applicable, these passes were provided free of charge, but came with no expectation of a positive review.

About the author

Amy Whitley AUTHOR: Amy Whitley is the founding editor of Pit Stops for Kids and content editor of Trekaroo. She writes on staff monthly as a family travel expert at Go Green Travel Green and Practical Travel Gear, and contributes to Outdoors NW as an outdoor adventure traveler. Find Amy at Google.

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