I'm a mom of two, super-powered by a degree in biochemistry and a lot of first-hand experience!
Have a Strategy
While some people do not enjoy planning, the payoff at Disney is worth the pain of researching and planning out the trip. A fly-by-night person may decide to go to the Magic Kingdom two days before Christmas and find, to their dismay, that the park is packed and the fast passes are “gone” for their favorite rides, leaving them with excruciatingly long waits and a sense of frustration.
It is far, far better to understand which rides generate the lines and to know where you want to go first when you get into the park. Our family once made the mistake of getting to the park at rope-drop and riding the Haunted Mansion and Pirates of the Caribbean prior to riding the Jungle Cruise. Due to the loading capacity of the Jungle Cruise, our wait was a painfully long 90 minutes for this ride (the marquee outside the ride stated 25 minutes: it was dreadfully wrong). We now know to ride the Jungle Cruise before riding some of the other, faster-loading rides!
Your strategy will vary depending on your personal preferences and “must-see” attractions. If you have small children, Peter Pan is likely to be a highly coveted ride and you may choose to go to Fantasyland first. If you have teenagers, Space Mountain might be a priority and you will run to Tomorrowland first. Having a strategy will allow you to get the most out of your time and will prevent you from running from place to place, randomly searching for the lowest waits.
Use the Single Rider Line
One of the easiest, free ways to cut wait time down in a Disney Park is to use the single rider line strategy. The single rider line is often located near the exit to most rides. Where available, there will be a sign indicating the location of the single rider line – if unsure, simply ask a cast member for guidance. While not every attraction has a single-rider line available, many of the major headliners offer this option and it is a way to get multiple rides on a favorite ride. On a recent visit, our family noticed the wait time for Test Track was 70 minutes long. We entered the single rider line and waited a total of 15 minutes for the ride. The disadvantage to the single rider line is that you will not be in a ride vehicle with your family, but placed next to a stranger. The single rider system will not work for those with very young children for this reason, but for those with older kids and teenagers who want to re-ride Rockin’ Roller Coaster, the single rider line is an excellent strategy.
The rides at Disney World offering a single-rider line include:
- Test Track
- Rock N Roller Coaster
- Expedition Everest
How to Use Single Rider Lines
Use the Fast Pass System
Disney World uses the “Fast Pass +” system, which allows guests to book up to three fast passes in advance of their stay. The fast passes are linked to the ticket for each guest and can be viewed (and managed) from the Disney World app. The fast passes are also stored on the Magic Band, which is a bracelet that stores guest information (including park tickets, ride photo download information, and fast pass reservations). Resort guests obtain a magic band for free, but any guest may choose to purchase a magic band and link it to their ticket information.
Fast passes allow a guest to “skip the line” for many attractions. They may also be used to guarantee seating to popular shows and to obtain prime viewing for fireworks. While three passes may be booked in advance for each park, some parks have tiered systems to prevent three headliner rides from being booked on the same day.
EPCOT, for example, will allow a guest to book Test Track or the Frozen Ever After ride in advance, but not both. Many guests will opt to book one of these rides in advance, and then get to the park early and ride the other headliner as soon as they enter the park. Decide which headliner you would like to ride in your early planning, and book that fast pass as soon as it is available. Plan to use extra magic hours or a rope-dropping strategy to ride the other headliners.
Staying On-Site Has Many Benefits
Stay at a Disney World Resort Hotel
Staying on site at a Disney resort is advantageous for several reasons: you have access to the parks for extended times (extra magic hours), you have priority for park entrance during crowded seasons, and you are able to book fast passes 60 days in advance of attending a park.
The general public (staying off-site) may book fast passes 30 days in advance, but many of the fast passes for the most popular rides will not be available at this time point. By staying onsite, a guest has the ability to book fast passes for the most popular attractions 60 days in advance. In addition, off-site guests must book each day of fast-passes as the window opens for each day they plan to attend. For those staying onsite, the window opens at 60 days for the entire length-of-stay.
Extend Your Stay
Visiting Disney World for one or two days may be enough for someone who lives locally, but the presence of four separate theme parks in the area makes a visit of longer than a couple of days advisable. For those staying on-site, the fast-pass window opens at 60 days from the first day of check in. This means that you can book some fast passes at more than 60 days from your stay. If you are staying for 7 days at the resort, for example, you can book all of your fast passes the moment your window opens. For some of the most popular rides, the only way to get a fast pass is to book a fast pass at more than 60 days in advance.
For example, it may be impossible to get a fast pass to the Flight of Passage ride at Animal Kingdom at 60 days out. For a guest staying onsite, it would be best to visit Animal Kingdom later in the week – perhaps on Day 4 of the trip rather than on the first day. Obtaining fast passes for the ride might be possible 64 days prior to the trip when there are none available at 60 days.
Extra Magic Hours and Rope Dropping to Avoid Lines
Understand Extra Magic Hours (EMH)
If you are staying onsite, you will have access to extra magic hours. Designated for a specific park each day of the week, these hours are available to those staying onsite at official Disney World resort hotels. Morning extra magic hours will let you into the park to enjoy select attractions approximately one hour prior to the official opening time. Evening hours will allow you to stay in the park for one to two hours after the general public has left.
Magic bands and/or park tickets are scanned at the entrance to each ride, preventing those who are not staying onsite from gaming the system. Be aware that some parks may not have all rides operating during morning extra magic hours: the Magic Kingdom opens Fantasyland and Tomorrowland, but the rest of the park remains closed until the park opens to the general public.
Even if you are not staying onsite, paying attention to the park that has extra magic hours is important. The designated park with morning hours will often have higher-than-normal crowds that day, as resort guests flock to that park and often stay most of the day. A wise strategy for those staying off-site is to avoid the park with EMH and enjoy a different park that day.
Likewise, resort guests who do not have park-hoppers may find the park becomes unbearably crowded on a morning EMH day. Those with park-hoppers may simply leave the EMH park and move to a different park after the park is open to the general public.
Evening EMH is excellent for those with older children or adult parties. Many families leave the parks after an early start and a long day of walking. We enjoyed evening extra hours at EPCOT during a holiday week and did not wait for any of the major attractions during that time period.
Book a Breakfast in the Park
Obtaining an Advance Dining Reservation (ADR) at a restaurant inside the theme part you intend on visiting that day will allow you to enter the theme park before the official opening time. Our family has successfully used this method to get into the Animal Kingdom theme park prior to opening. While the rides are not open when you enter the park, you are already inside the park and close to several attractions before the general public makes it through the ticket scanners.
One caveat: if you are planning to be inside the park early to enjoy a highly popular attraction, make sure your breakfast location is within that area of the park. It does little good to get into a park early, only to find yourself farther away from the attraction you want to queue for than the people at the ticket scanners. Our family’s general method is to obtain a fast pass for the popular ride later in the day and use the early entrance to see other attractions with no wait.
Watch the Calendar
If possible, visit during off-peak times. It is often said that Disney World no longer has an unpopular time, and this is partly true as tiered pricing strategies have helped to even out crowds. Even so, there are some times of the year where the park is crushingly crowded: Christmas to New Year’s Eve, Easter, and Thanksgiving weekend are extremely crowded times to visit. One of the lowest-crowd seasons to visit is in early to mid September, just after school has started.
It is not always possible to visit at a time of year with lower crowds. Our family is limited to school-break times, which often generates higher crowd levels in Orlando. Paying attention to the calendar is still important, especially during school breaks and holidays. The Magic Kingdom is typically the most crowded park, since many families consider that park to be the epitome of the Disney experience. We avoid this theme park on weekends, Mondays, and Fridays in general. We tend to visit this park Tuesday through Thursday of our vacation week.
Festivals, marathons, 5K races, and other events also affect the crowds at specific parks throughout the year. Specific events that influence crowds include:
- May: Star Wars Days
- Star Wars 5K
- Festival of Lights
- Disney World Marathon
- Food and Wine Festival
- New Year’s Eve Celebration
- Festival of the Arts
- Flower and Garden Festival
- Candlelight Processional
- Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party
- Mickey’s Merry Christmas Party
- Earth Day
Be There at Opening (or Stay Late)
A common strategy for getting a lot of attractions done in a short period of time is to arrive at the theme park prior to opening. Disney used to hold up a rope and slowly walk the public through the first part of the park at opening, so this practice became known as “rope dropping.” Most people who are on vacation do not want to get up early, and will sleep through the parks’ first few hours. Many rides will have little or no wait in the first couple of hours after the park opens. Also note that the marquee above many rides will state a falsely elevated wait time just after park opening: the Haunted Mansion recently stated a 40 minute wait time when there was no wait at all and we simply walked onto the ride.
Some headliner rides may be ridden without a fast pass and without a wait by rope dropping a park. For the newest rides, this strategy is well-known enough that getting to the park just before it opens is not enough. Being in front of the pack may require being at the park an hour prior to park opening. When rope dropping, pay attention to which park has extra magic hours – this park will already be quite busy by the time it opens to the general public.
Know the Rides With the Longest Waits
Some rides never generate long lines and do not merit a fast pass. Obtaining a fast pass for a ride like “Finding Nemo” at EPCOT will not get you onto the ride any faster, as this ride typically has no wait to begin with. Some rides also have seasonal popularity. Splash Mountain has a much shorter wait in the winter than it does in the hot summer months.
Rides which continuously load people tend to have shorter waits than rides which must load, run, and stop. An example of a continuously loading ride is the Haunted Mansion, which has “doom buggies” on a continuous conveyor belt through the haunted house. An example of a load-run-stop ride is Dumbo, which fills a set of ride vehicles and must run through the entire ride before more guests may be loaded.
Despite being continuous loaders, some rides have extremely long waits due to the number of people that want to ride and the loading capacity per hour. An example of this is the Peter Pan ride. It’s iconic nature prompts extremely long waits despite the continuous movement of sailing ships along the track.
New attractions are frequently being added to the theme parks and any new ride generates a lot of buzz and excitement. As a general rule, expect a long wait for any new attraction.
Rides With Consistently Long Waits
|Magic Kingdom||EPCOT||Hollywood Studios||Animal Kingdom|
Soarin' Over the World
Tower of Terror
Flight of Passage
Rock N Roller Coaster
Na'vi River Journey
Frozen Ever After
Toy Story Midway Mania
Guardians of the Galaxy coaster (anticipated 2021)
Slinky Dog Dash
Ratatouille (anticipated 2021)
Star Wars Millennium Falcon Ride (anticipated 2019)
Seven Dwarf Mine Train
Star Wars Battle Escape Ride (anticipated 2019)
Tron Coaster (anticipated 2021)
Mickey and Minnie Runaway Railway (anticipated 2019)
Get In Line Just Before the Park Closes
A trick we have successfully employed is getting in line for a major attraction just before the park closes. Be aware the park marquee will state a long wait time for the ride, generally to discourage people from joining the line just before park closing.
If the park closes at 9:00 pm, get in line at about 8:50 pm. The line will appear to be extremely long, but as soon as the clock strikes 9:00 pm, a chain is secured to prevent anyone else from joining the line. Since no additional fast-passes are in operation after park closing, the line moves much faster than during the day time.
Our family employed this strategy for Flight of Passage at Animal Kingdom. While the sign stated the wait was 180 minutes long, we waited for approximately 55 minutes before getting to enjoy our second ride of the day.
Get a Party Ticket for the Magic Kingdom
For those visiting from August through the end of December, getting a party ticket for Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party or to Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party is a unique way to visit the parks. Tickets are limited, which helps to control the general crowd levels. The parties typically start around 4:00 pm, so these are evening events. Fast Pass is not available during these events, but is not typically needed as the capacity is controlled and many attendees are enjoying the entertainment on offer.
Nearly all of the major headliner rides are open during the parties, and some are transformed to have a special “spooky” effect during the Halloween party. Purchasing a ticket to one of these events is a fun way to experience the Magic Kingdom with significantly reduced wait times for rides.
Knowing the dates of the parties during this season is also important, even if you do not plan on attending. The park closes to the general public early on party days, significantly reducing the amount of hours you have to enjoy the park on your regular ticket. On the other hand, non-party days experience higher crowds because guests prefer the longer park hours for the (considerably) high cost of their general day ticket.
If you are a resort guest with a park-hopper ticket, you can take advantage of the lower crowds on party days by attending the Magic Kingdom in the morning and hopping over to another park for the evening hours.
Take Advantage of Parade Times and Fireworks
If getting on rides is your goal and you don’t mind missing the evening fireworks or the afternoon parade, then use these times to your advantage to get on rides. Check the park app or website to take note of the times for the evening fireworks show in each park and make haste to get in line during this time!
Planning, Strategy, and Patience Lead to Success!
Planning and using a smart strategy will help most guests avoid long waits at the theme parks. Patience, however, will always be needed as wrinkles are inevitable. A ride may undergo unexpected maintenance and not be available on the day you plan to visit, or a ride may go down just as you are preparing to board. In most cases, any fast pass you had for the ride that goes down will be converted to a "multiple experience" fast pass, which means you can use it on almost any ride you wish. Patience, a solid plan, and a little flexibility will lead to a wonderful time at Disney World!
The Best Strategy of All
© 2018 Leah Lefler
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 07, 2019:
All excellent tips, Joe! We almost always rope-drop, though our strategy as changed now that we have boys that are teens. We sometimes skip the early park openings and try to hit up the extra magic hours late at night. We have done that several times and once the clock strikes 11 pm, almost no one is in the park! With teenagers, this works a lot better for us than the early hours. We definitely maximize fast pass opportunities!
We also generally buy park-hoppers because it gives us an "exit" when a park is too crowded. We can simply hop over to a different park. Meal times aren't too difficult for us, as we generally have ADR's (dining reservations) well in advance of our visit. Mobile ordering is a HUGE time saver as well. No need to wait in line to order, you simply alert the restaurant that you are there and pick up your order.
Joe B on November 02, 2019:
You need to use your fast passes and early park opening and try to get on at least 5 rides be for 11 then take a early lunch and do rides in afternoon that have small wait times
Or hope to another park .Remember try to eat lunch and supper on off times try to gk on rides when there is a parade is going on.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 17, 2018:
We really love going to Disney World, though I have to admit we avoid the holiday season, Dianna! I would love to go once during the Christmas season, but even with strategies the crowds are impressive from Christmas to New Year's Eve! Expectations are so important during that time frame - in addition to patience and flexibility!
Dianna Mendez on November 16, 2018:
Everyone here in south Florida is heading up there for the Festival of Lights. I would love to go again after seeing your post.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 05, 2018:
How did you handle the heat in August, Claudia? I have been in August, but haven't been in the summer for a very long time. We typically go in February now during our boys' President's Day break. It is crowded, but we use these strategies and manage to have a fantastic time. The single rider lines are a must! My kids love Test Track and we rode it about 4 times back-to-back with almost no wait. It is true that you skip the "creation lab" portion of the queue when you do the single rider line with that attraction, but we were happy to get repeated rides and didn't mind skipping it that much. I wish they had a single rider line for Soarin'! We used the one at Expedition Everest repeatedly, too - it really saved a lot of time and my kids could continue to ride after I was done (my stomach was done, too)!
Claudia Mitchell on November 05, 2018:
We just went this past August and had a wonderful time. We didn't stress too much, were flexible about changing passes on the days we were at the various parks and it worked out perfectly, except for the heat. We will never be going back in the summer! My family absolutely swears by the single rider lines. There was practically no wait at all and it's not that big a deal to sit next to someone you don't know for a 2 minute ride! We were there the first night of the Not so scary party, but it was the night before we were leaving and it was really hard to get tickets so we passed. I wish now that we had gone.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on November 01, 2018:
We met a family who had been at the Animal Kingdom park for the entire day, and had only managed to get on three attractions, total, for the day. The cost of admission is so high that it is a shame to spend the day sitting in lines! They were day guests and had no idea how the fast pass system worked. I felt so badly for them, especially since (as day guests) obtaining a fast pass for the most popular rides was so difficult. I actually prefer the system in California, as you cannot pre-book fast passes. There is a $10 fee to obtain the fast pass system on your phone, but everyone is on a level playing field and all fast passes are booked that day, in the park.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 31, 2018:
Yes. It definitely pays to have a good strategy and plan in place. Our son used to use the single rider to good effect.
Leah Lefler (author) from Western New York on October 30, 2018:
I am glad the strategies worked for you at your local theme park, Liz! We visit Disney parks on a fairly regular basis and knowing the planning required for the parks in Orlando really does help make a vacation go smoother. I was saddened to meet a family at Animal Kingdom on our last trip who only rode three rides - total - due to a complete lack of knowledge about the fast pass system. The single rider line is probably one of the lesser known strategies to enjoy some rides without a wait!
Liz Westwood from UK on October 30, 2018:
I recall adopting some of these strategies when our family were younger and we used to regularly visit a theme park in the UK. This is a valuable tool for anyone planning a visit to Disney.