The busy holiday season is upon us, with the weeks leading to Christmas and New Year’s being two of the busiest weeks of the year. This post will help you avoid the long lines at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure if you’re visiting during these two highly crowded times (or any other busy holidays, for that matter, such as Easter, July 4th, etc.) with 5 of our best tips for surviving the crowds at Disneyland Resort.
Before we get started, let’s make it abundantly clear that Disneyland and Disney California Adventure are both madhouses on holidays. Based on comments and questions we receive, a lot of people seem think they can “outsmart” others by visiting on days like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, or New Year’s Eve, and are surprised to find that tens of thousands of their closest friends have also had the same idea. It’s like the movie theater: it seems like people would want to stay home with their families instead of going to movies on holidays, and yet the theaters are slammed, too.
That’s the unfortunate thing. Fortunately, there are ways to minimize your time spent waiting and line and maximize what you accomplish. To be clear, you will encounter hordes of people and lines in the middle of the day for popular attractions will be ridiculous. There’s no magical hack to avoid that. This post is not written from the perspective of having the most amazing time ever with no crowds–it’s about making lemonade out of lemons. If you envision a day skipping around from one headliner thrill ride to another, it’s time to adjust your expectations.
With that said, here’s what you can do to improve your experience, based on our holiday visits to Disneyland Resort when the parks have been crowded…
1. Arrive Early, Stay Late
Disneyland’s operating hours are tied directly to anticipated crowd levels, and Disney is pretty adept at predicting based upon bookings and other factors. Check park hours before you go. If daily operating hours are long, expect heavy crowds. Whenever Disneyland and Disney California open at 8 am or 9 am and Disneyland closes at midnight (or later), you can be assured that this is because heavy crowds are forecast. (If you’re planning when to go now and have stumbled upon this article, a better resource for choosing a lightly-crowded time to visit is our When to Visit Disneyland Guide.)
These are the type of hours you can expect Christmas or New Year’s weeks at Disneyland, as compared to the 10 am to 10 pm hours that occur some days earlier in December when crowd levels are lighter. Disney doesn’t extend the park hours out of some sense of Christmas spirit–it’s to spread out the operating day to better handle the crowds, and increase guest satisfaction, which is directly tied to how many attractions a guest experiences in a day (and when it’s busier, it takes more time to experience the magic number of attractions to be “satisfied,” hence the need for more operating hours).
With that said, on holidays themselves, crowds are always lightest first thing in the morning, getting progressively worse until about 2 pm, then tapering down the rest of the day, with crowds again being light(er) the last couple hours each park is open. The first two hours of the day are the absolute lightest of the day.
During holiday weeks, but not on the holidays themselves, the first two hours are still the best time to visit, but the parks get progressively worse over the course of the entire day, especially around 5 pm when local Annual Passholders start getting off work and descending upon the parks. There’s still a bit of a reprieve at the end of the night, but 1 pm is less crowded than 7 pm.
2. Use Wait Times Apps
Visiting Disneyland Resort during the holidays is an ‘eat or be eaten’ scenario that requires an advanced degree in theme park touring. If “FastPass”, “Wait Times App”, and “Single Rider” are foreign concepts to you, you need to start from square one, reading our Disneyland Resort Trip Planning Guide.
Here’s the CliffNotes version: you will want to download a third party wait times app before you even get to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure. TouringPlans and MouseWait are both popular options for that, and both sites have a lot of other services, such as crowd calendars (although it’s a bit too late for that!), itineraries, and more. We also have a roadmap of our Ideal 1-Day Disneyland Itinerary, although it’s more focused on a leisurely and relaxing day at the park, rather than efficiently accomplishing everything.
A wait times app will give you an overview of posted and predicted wait times around the park without having to go to the Tip Board or wasting time running around looking at the marquees in the park. This way, you can determine your plans on the fly.
3. Avoid Lines with FastPass and Single Rider Lines
Once the parks start getting crowded after the first couple hours of the day, your primary plan on busy days at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure should be to acquire as many FastPasses as possible. You should focus your FastPass strategy on attractions that don’t have Single Rider lines (assuming you’re willing to use the Single Rider option), and you should grab a new FastPass as soon as your window to do so opens. In other words, don’t jump into a line with a 90 minute wait 5 minutes before your window to get your next FastPass opens.
The holidays are a special time of year meant to be spent with loved ones, but sentimentality like that is for the meek when it comes to busy days at Disneyland. Plus, the crazy crowds are probably going to stress you out, so maybe a respite from Cousin Eddie and his crazy stories is in order. As such, you should use Single Rider lines when available to bypass long waits.
You can still wait in the Single Rider line with your party, but you will ride separately (basically, the line works to fill in “gaps” in ride vehicles created by groups riding together). In Disneyland, only Indiana Jones Adventure and Splash Mountain (and sometimes the Matterhorn) offer the Single Rider option. Single Rider is a much bigger deal in Disney California Adventure, where most headliners offer Single Rider. You can find it in DCA at the following attractions: California Screamin’, Goofy’s Sky School, Grizzly River Run, Radiator Springs Racers, and Soarin’ Over California.
4. Do Less Popular Attractions
Although I hate crowds of people wandering around like they are lost, or (worse yet) large groups stopping in the middle of walkways to review a park map, visiting Disneyland Resort during busy times of the year doesn’t really bother me. This is probably because some of my favorite attractions aren’t all that popular, meaning there are a lot of things I can do that don’t involve long waits.
You can gather for yourself what some “unpopular” attractions are just by looking at the wait times apps, but I’ll throw some of my favorites out there, too. In Disneyland, you should make a point of doing the following: Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln, The Disney Gallery, Disneyland Railroad, Walt Disney’s Enchanted Tiki Room, Sleeping Beauty Castle Walk-Through, Davy Crockett’s Explorer Canoes, Mark Twain Riverboat, and Tom Sawyer Island are all fun experiences. At Disney California Adventure, Disney’s Aladdin – A Musical Spectacular, Red Car Trolleys, The Little Mermaid ~ Ariel’s Undersea Adventure, Redwood Creek Challenge Trail, Animation Academy, and Monsters, Inc. Mike & Sulley to the Rescue are good options that typically won’t have as long of waits as the headliner attractions.
Now, I wouldn’t want to do a full day of these, but they are good filler material between FastPass attractions during the midday hours. Just remember not to succumb to herd mentality: just because something has a short wait doesn’t mean it’s bad, and a long wait time doesn’t ensure quality. You can see our recommended attractions and ride ratings for the parks in our Disneyland Attraction Guide and Disney California Adventure Attraction Guide.
5. Eat During Off-Hours
Most people like to eat lunch around noon and dinner around 6 or 7 pm. Because of this, and because there are more guests in the park than there is space in the restaurants, every restaurant in Disneyland and Disney California Adventure will develop a long line around these hours. We know you have to have your Christmas Yule Log at the Plaza Inn (or other delicious Disneyland Christmas Treats) on Christmas. But you don’t have to eat it right at noon.
Eat when restaurants first open or later in the afternoon. The best time of day to have a meal is around 10:30 am, 3 to 4 p.m., and again after 8 pm.
That covers it for maximizing what you accomplish at Disneyland and Disney California Adventure when it’s busy. Hopefully these tips help you survive the insanity!
If you’re using these tips to plan for a Christmas week or New Year’s week visit, it’s also worth remembering that almost all Christmas entertainment runs until New Year’s Eve (some entertainment goes even further into January), so check out our Ultimate Guide to Christmas at Disneyland to determine what Christmas offerings you want to experience.
As for figuring out the rest of your Disneyland trip, including how to save money on Disneyland tickets, our Disney packing tips, whether you should stay off-site or on-site in a Disney hotel, where to dine, and a number of other things, check out our comprehensive Disneyland trip planning guide!
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Have you ever visited Disneyland Resort during the holidays? Would you ever do it? Have any additional tips for making the most out of the experience? Hearing from you is half the fun, so please share your thoughts and questions in the comments!