Worst Week of Winter is Coming at Disney World

One of the busiest weeks of 2023 will soon arrive at Walt Disney World, to the surprise of many tourists who expect winter to be off-season at Walt Disney World. This post covers dates to avoid, why it’ll be so busy, and what to do to beat the long lines and crowds if you’re already planning a visit during this timeframe.

Let’s start with the good news. It is currently off-season at Walt Disney World! This is a very recent development and quite the contrast to our last update, Colossal Christmas Crowds Cap Off Walt Disney World’s Busiest Year Ever! Now that the holiday break is over, school is back in session, and the Walt Disney World Marathon is over, wait times have plummeted across the board.

The bad news is that longtime fans expecting attendance levels during mid-January or February on par with a decade ago (or even 5 years ago) will still be sorely disappointed. In last year’s Winter Is Not Off-Season at Walt Disney World, we explain how January and February crowds have grown since ~2017, and what’s the new normal for this time of year. With that said, if your frame of reference is last year instead of several years ago, you might actually be pleasantly surprised…

In the span of two weeks, wait times have essentially been cut in half. The peak week of the holiday season saw average wait times of 61 minutes, and the following week only dropped to 54 minutes. Keep in mind that these are averages, taking into account unpopular and perpetual no-wait rides. Meaning that dozens of headliners had triple-digit wait times

Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance peaked at 320 minutes and Avatar Flight of Passage hit 240 minutes–to our knowledge, those were the highest highs. We saw several other rides at or above 180 minutes, which happened with regularity those two weeks.

It’s also notable that the first week of January was so busy. That timeframe has been getting busier and busier due to Osceola and Orange County schools being out of session (and a growing number of locals), plus the lifting of Annual Pass blockouts, plus Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend in the last 4 years or so. Nevertheless, this is the busiest that week has ever been.

With that said, this isn’t a typical backward-looking crowd report. Rather, we want to bring your attention to an upcoming week that will be really busy–probably in the top 5 worst weeks of the entire year, and definitely in the top 10. Absent a big surprise, it will be the most crowded window of the first quarter of 2023.

That timeframe is approximately February 17 to February 26, 2023. This particular week plus the weekends around it will be bad due to Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras once again coinciding. This happens from time to time, and whenever it does, those weeks are particularly bad.

Compounding those crowds, there’s the 2023 Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend from February 23 to 26. This is the 15th Anniversary of that popular runDisney event, and it long ago sold out. In essence, this means there are two popular long weekends for Walt Disney World visitors plus the week of Mardi Gras, all on top of one another.

To make matters worse, discounts are not blocked out for those travel dates. This isn’t really such a big deal for room discounts, as there’s only so much hotel inventory on-site at Walt Disney World. Whether special offers induce more Florida vacations or simply shift the stays between off-site and on-site hotels is debatable. (My guess is that it does move the needle a bit, but that on-site hotel inventory does not have as significant of an impact on crowds as many fans believe.)

The bigger impact is likely to result from the 2023 Florida Resident Ticket Deal for Walt Disney World. Why this is blocked out for several weeks in March and April but not that timeframe is beyond me–probably a matter of precedent or simple oversight. Nevertheless, that ticket deal will also have an impact–especially during the final dates of the 2023 EPCOT Festival of the Arts, which is popular with locals.

Speaking of which, that event’s finale will likewise contribute to crowds even outside of the ticket deal. Floridians and even some non-local fans will turn out for the conclusion of the increasingly popular EPCOT Festival of the Arts and the ‘grand finale’ of the Disney on Broadway concert series (among other things).

Other wildcards will be ride refurbishments. We already know that Splash Mountain closes permanently on January 23 and that TRON Lightcycle Run won’t be open until April 2023. Over at Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Rock ‘n’ Roller Coaster goes down during this window and it’s also possible that Tower of Terror will still be at half-capacity. Hopefully more isn’t added to the 2023 Walt Disney World Refurbishment Calendar for the second half of February.

A similar confluence of circumstances occurred just a couple of years ago at Walt Disney World. Crowds started swelling a couple of days in advance of the Presidents’ Day (etc.) long weekend and got really heavy during Mardi Gras week. On our highly scientific scale of LSU and Saints shirts spotted in the parks, basically the entire state of Louisiana visited Walt Disney World that week.

The final weekend of Mardi Gras was particularly busy. All four Walt Disney World theme parks hit capacity for all ticket types and Walt Disney World extended weekend park hours at the very last minute. That came after the company extended hours several times, and the total hours ended up being about 3 hours per day longer than what was then normal.

As it turned out, the week of Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras was one of the busiest weeks of the year at Walt Disney World. (Ditto Universal Orlando.) It was especially bad for Magic Kingdom where wait times were on par with the week leading up to New Year’s Eve, and higher than the week leading up to Christmas. It’s a similar story when looking back at prior years when Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras coincided.

The key difference the last time this occurred is that park attendance was still being heavily restricted, with Walt Disney World still throttling Park Pass reservations and capping capacity far below normal. That was also amidst what was otherwise a very slow winter, which was largely due to the first big winter spike in COVID cases spooking would-be travelers. It still ended up being one of the busiest weeks of that entire year.

Last year, the two holidays did not overlap. Despite that, the week of Presidents’ Day was still one of the worst weeks of the year–right up there with the peak of Spring Break, and Thanksgiving. It was surpassed by Christmas and New Year’s Eve by a pretty wide margin, but was still up there, with far higher wait times than the low to moderate weeks before it in January and February.

We’ve been discussing this week for a while in wait time reports and this week is a “red flag” in our updated 2023 Walt Disney World Crowd Calendars. Again, we’ve predicted it will be the busiest week of the first quarter of the year, and probably one of the worst 5 weeks of the entire year at Walt Disney World.

Nevertheless, we’re pointing it out and drawing more direct attention to how bad February 17 to February 26, 2023 will be because we’ve found that even with our warnings in the past, these crowds have caught Walt Disney World visitors by surprise.

You know what they say? “Fool me once, strike one. But fool me twice… strike three.” ~Michael Scott

It’s understandable that the spike in crowds continues to surprise Walt Disney World fans despite there being clear precedent for the Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras spike. This is likely in part due to reports of low crowd levels for the month or so beforehand lull people into a false sense of security and optimism that off-season trends will continue.

If you’re seeing rock-bottom wait times one week, you probably don’t expect those to (essentially) double overnight. And yet, we’ve seen exactly that happen before. It’ll probably come close to occurring again when comparing wait times from the first half of February 2023 to the second half.

Then there’s the fact that many planners are not aware that Presidents’ Day is a long weekend that’s popular for getaways to Walt Disney World. Not many people have that day off work, so it probably doesn’t register as a holiday that would meaningfully impact attendance. Presidents’ Day is not exactly like Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve.

It’s one of those lower profile holidays that doesn’t attract a lot of attention, but nevertheless has an outsized impact on crowds at Walt Disney World. It’s a lot like Veterans Day in November.

The degree to which a couple of states or a region having a school break can impact Walt Disney World crowd levels is actually pretty significant. If you live in other areas of the United States, you may not be aware that Mardi Gras is a “big deal” and popular travel period for the Southeast.

It’s also a popular winter break for some Northeast school districts. If you don’t live in those locations, it’s an understandable blind spot. The same thing happens with Jersey Week, which impacts crowd levels at Walt Disney World. People who live in those locations generally know they’re popular break times.

However, if you’re a Midwesterner debating pulling your kids out of school to escape the cold, you might be oblivious to that–there’s no obvious or intuitive reason the first half of February 2023 will be so much better than the second half!

I speak from some degree of experience here. I’m a native Michigander and my parents used to pull me out of school for a temporary reprieve from the snow and subzero temperatures around this time of year, simply targeting dates to visit Florida based on our weather at home.

Moreover, I was also clueless about the impact Mardi Gras had on crowds at Walt Disney World until experiencing the week in the parks and noticing a very visible presence of LSU and Saints shirts (no such love for the poor Pelicans). That’s not a joke–you’ll notice the same if you visit that week!

Another reason you may not expect February 17 to February 26, 2023 to be bad is because none of those dates are yellow or grey on the Disney Park Pass calendar (yet). In fact, the entirety of 2023 is currently green, which will also lull some planners into a false sense of security.

While this was a good early indicator of heavy attendance post-reopening, the reservations calendars have been largely rendered obsolete more recently. Walt Disney World still uses them to redistribute crowds, pushing people towards Animal Kingdom and EPCOT, but they often do not provide advance warning of heavy crowds. Some dates still go grey, but that often doesn’t occur until the last minute–and some very busy days have maintained availability.

If you’re a Midwesterner (or anyone for that matter–but a special shoutout to my fellow Michiganders!) who is currently freaking out because you picked February 17 to February 26, 2023 (or dates within that window) to visit Walt Disney World: don’t. Sure, these dates will be busy. But it’s also an excellent time of year in the park with comfortable weather (certainly better than what you’ll have at home!)

On top of that, following a good itinerary and utilizing smart strategy is more important than choosing the “right” dates. And as we’ve seen on many occasions in the past, even those who choose dates that should be good have had that undermined by surprising crowds, disruptive weather, etc.

To that end, it’s entirely possible to beat bad crowds by utilizing Genie+ and Lightning Lanes, Early Entry, Extended Evening Hours, rope drop, etc. We cover the best & worst approach for each park in Best Time-Saving Strategies for Walt Disney World. If you’re only going to read one planning post, make it that. There are great ways to beat the crowds–even on busy days–without buying Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes.

By simply arriving early or staying late, you can beat the worst of the midday crowds. (Of course, that’s “simple” in theory but more difficult in practice, especially if you have small children. That’s a big reason why wait times are lower first thing in the morning and later in the evenings.) Beyond that, be sure to also check out our Walt Disney World Itineraries for plans of attack, including options with and without Genie+ and Lightning Lanes.

Speaking of which, we have a ~4,500 word Guide to Genie+ at Walt Disney World & Lightning Lane FAQ for those who want to thoroughly master paid FastPass. Weeks like this, it’s definitely a good option for Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and EPCOT.

Finally, I’ll draw specific attention to the 2023 After Hours at Disney’s Hollywood Studios. There are only two of these scheduled in February 2023, but oddly enough, one falls dead-center in the window of the worst winter crowds and the other is just before it starts. At present, neither of these dates are sold out (that is likely to change very soon).

While we are critical of “overbuying” upcharge offerings due to FOMO and so forth, we actually love After Hours at DHS. It’s definitely a splurge, but it’s one that’s actually worth the money. It adds a VIP vibe to the visit, and at a fraction of the price of hiring a tour guide. This will be doubly or triply true in February 2023 when After Hours is even more beneficial as contrasted with a normal day in Disney’s Hollywood Studios. (I’m honestly surprised that Walt Disney World scheduled After Hours that week–they normally don’t do these events when attendance projections are high.)

For those who are thinking about a visit to Walt Disney World this winter that’s outside the second half of February 2023, we’d recommend consulting our February 2023 Crowd Calendar and March 2023 Crowd Calendar for specific best and worst dates. In particular, avoid Osceola and Orange County K-12 Spring Breaks. Same goes for our April 2023 Crowd Calendar, although the spike there should be more obvious (Easter).

The good news when it comes to the Spring Break season is that Florida’s breaks largely occur earlier this year than those school districts that have Easter week off. This should spread out crowds, rather than the comparative consolidation of Presidents’ Day and Mardi Gras. (This is not to say Spring Break 2023 will be uncrowded. It will not. Just that the entirety of that busy season isn’t being condensed into a single week, as is the case here.)

Ultimately, we’ve been warning for over a year that February 17 to 26, 2023 will be bad at Walt Disney World. Although this understandably catches vacation planners by surprise, this is not a bold prediction–it’s one backed by at least a decade of precedent.

The open question is just how bad it’ll end up being. For whatever reason, runDisney is opting to hold the Princess Half Marathon that weekend. That’s also not unprecedented, but it’s nevertheless a perplexing decision given the growing crowds. There’s also the fact that Walt Disney World has not blocked out discounts for those dates, which is also perplexing but entirely precedented. All of this could mean that Disney’s internal attendance forecasts aren’t showing any cause for concern…or it could be a complete oversight.

We suspect that it’s the latter; it wouldn’t be the first (2nd, 3rd…33rd, 45th, etc.) time that Walt Disney World has whiffed on crowd projections and scheduling. Suffice to say, we recommend planning your winter “off-season” visits to Walt Disney World accordingly to avoid these “surprise” peak season attendance. If it’s too late for that, do what you can to position yourself to beat the potential crowds!

Planning a Walt Disney World trip? Learn about hotels on our Walt Disney World Hotels Reviews page. For where to eat, read our Walt Disney World Restaurant Reviews. To save money on tickets or determine which type to buy, read our Tips for Saving Money on Walt Disney World Tickets post. Our What to Pack for Disney Trips post takes a unique look at clever items to take. For what to do and when to do it, our Walt Disney World Ride Guides will help. For comprehensive advice, the best place to start is our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide for everything you need to know!

YOUR THOUGHTS

Have you visited Walt Disney World during when Mardi Gras and Presidents’ Day coincided in the past? What did you think of the crowds? Any parks, times of day, or days of the week noticeably worse than the others? What’s your expectation for February 17-26, 2023? If you’ve visited in the weeks before/after Mardi Gras, did you notice a big difference in crowd levels? Do you agree or disagree with anything in our crowd report? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!

25 Responses to “Worst Week of Winter is Coming at Disney World”
  1. Aaron January 15, 2023
    • Tom Bricker January 15, 2023
  2. Karyl January 14, 2023

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