Attendance at the Disney theme parks has rebounded to pre-pandemic levels, and the 2022 holiday season looks to be one for the record books, based on what we witnessed first-hand during Thanksgiving Week at Walt Disney World. If you are planning to visit during any of the upcoming peak periods — from Christmas through New Year’s, or next year’s Martin Luther King Jr and Presidents Day weekends — you’ll want to follow these survival tips for holiday touring at the Disney parks.
Before we begin, our best advice for visiting the theme parks during peak holiday periods is “DON’T.” The advantages of experiencing attractions during the off-season (such as late August, or early December) are so great that we suggest scheduling your visit then if at all possible. However, if you’ve committed to visiting Walt Disney World or Disneyland Resort during one of the busiest times of the year, here are five things you can do to maximize your enjoyment and minimize your frustration, despite the massive crowds:
Arrive Extra Early (or Fashionably Late)
Right now, the biggest perk afforded on-site guests at Disney resort hotels is the ability to enter the theme parks 30 minutes before the general public every day. While half an hour might not sound like much of an advantage, it allows on-site guests to get in one ride, and hop in line for a second, before the masses make it through the turnstile.
To make the most of early entry at Disney’s parks during a peak holiday period, you should try to arrive at the park entrance up to a full hour before early opening; it’s best to walk or use a personal vehicle, rather than relying on Disney transportation.
Unfortunately, the downside of daily early entry for on-site guests is that off-site visitors never get to take advantage of empty queues at rope drop, no matter how early they arrive. For example, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, the posted standby waits for most major attractions already exceeded an hour when regular guests were allowed into the park.
For that reason, guests without early entry may want to forgo the pre-dawn rush entirely, and instead use the line-skipping services described below to facilitate a later arrival.
Spring for Genie+ and Lightning Lanes
It pains me to say it, but even with early entry it is now practically impossible to enjoy holiday touring at Disney’s parks without paying extra for Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lane access. While the idea of spending up to $55 per person each day — on top of the already expensive admission cost — for shorter waits at a handful of attractions may sound absurd, the alternative is spending an additional four or five hours of your day standing in barely-moving standby queues.
Lightning Lanes can be especially important when a headlining E-Ticket like Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance doesn’t open as scheduled due to technical issues. When this occurs, the backlog of standby riders will ensure epic wait times throughout the day for anyone without a return time reservation.
When you assess the sunk cost of your tickets, and calculate the value of each hour you spend in the park, the upcharge for Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lanes doesn’t seem like as bad a deal. If you are visiting the Magic Kingdom or Disney’s Hollywood Studios, we say Genie+ is absolutely essential.
Even if visiting one of the less attended parks, you’ll still want the Lightning Lane advantage for holiday touring. Just be sure to brush up on Genie+’s quirks, pack an extra battery for your phone, and be prepared to spend the day constantly refreshing the My Disney Experience app.
Enjoy the Entertainment
If there’s one thing Disney’s parks are known for, its putting on extra entertainment to distract holiday visitors from the overflowing queues. Take advantage of this by seeking out seasonal street shows, such as the Sleigh a cappella singing group performing in front of DHS’s Chinese Theater, that require no waiting to attend.
You’ll want to arrive at least 15 minutes before scheduled shows that are held inside seated venues, especially popular ones with seasonal overlays like the “For the First Time in Forever” Frozen Sing-Along, which adds an encore with Olaf during the holidays.
Don’t overlook films and animatronic shows, such as MuppetVision 4D, which rarely require a wait longer than the length of a screening or two.
Reserve a Character Meal
Table service dining inside the Disney parks is pricey, and the time it takes for a full-service meal is often incompatible with a tightly-packed touring plan. However, opting for sit-down dining over quick-service does provide a pause from the jostle of a packed park, which may be more valuable than the meal itself.
If you’ve got kids (or are a kid at heart) a smart compromise might be a character meal, which usually combines a buffet with meet and greets from three or four or more members of the Fab Five. You’ll find a wide variety of food — including vegan options — and get guaranteed face time with each animated celebrity as they circle the room.
Character meals like Minnie’s Holiday Dine at Hollywood & Vine are as popular as ever since returning after the pandemic, so reservations as early as possible.
Exit Early, Then Return (or Don’t)
At a certain point in mid-afternoon, all the coveted Lightning Lane reservations will have been claimed, and the standby queues will stretch down the streets. If there aren’t an shows or attractions with reasonable waits left that you want to see, don’t be afraid to leave the park and return to your hotel for a swim or nap.
As long as the parks remain open late, you can always go back in time for the evening spectacular, or to redeem any nighttime Lightning Lanes you managed to nab. Or opt to stay in, and get some much-needed sleep…before you get up early the next day, to do it all over again at another park.
For all there is to see and do at Walt Disney World, check out The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World, or to plan your family’s trip to Orlando, check out The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World with Kids. And for all there is to see and do at Disneyland, check out The Unofficial Guide to Disneyland by Seth Kubersky with Bob Sehlinger, Len Testa, and Guy Selga Jr.