Disney World Crowd Update: A Tale of Two Seasons

As you’ve probably gathered from the flurry of Walt Disney World construction updates, we just returned from a trip to Florida. Crowds and wait times were…interesting…and we thought we’d drop in here with our experiences, and some tips on ways to have the best experience possible if you’re visiting in October, November, or December.

At first, crowds were great. I had anticipated this as I monitored wait times from home (as one does). Nevertheless, I was a little apprehensive that the calendar changing to October would cause a spike. We arrived in early October, and the first several days of the trip, crowds were low.

Definitely not what I expected for October. We walked on to numerous popular attractions, from Soarin’ to Big Thunder Mountain Railroad. We didn’t need FastPass+ for Space Mountain or Expedition Everest during the middle of the day. I even began thinking up “clever” names for a sequel to our All Quiet on the Crowds at Disney World Front post, intent on coming up with something even more obscure that fewer people would get. Then the first weekend of October hit, and it was like flipping a switch.

The next several days were all intensely crowded, which is somewhat unsurprising given the Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day holidays. Even as we employed strategies we normally use to minimize the impact of crowds, it was pretty bad. Instead of experiencing the off-season lull we had enjoyed on our last trip to Walt Disney World and the beginning of this visit, we experienced the “new normal” for October–perhaps even slightly elevated from the norm.

As we’ve reiterated in our October at Walt Disney World and Best & Worst Months to Visit Walt Disney World posts, October is not off-season. There is still some outdated info floating around that it’s a good time to go for a good mix of weather, crowds, and seasonal events, and that’s simply not the case. It’s not just the Columbus Day or Indigenous Peoples’ Day holidays, either–this pattern of elevated crowds continues throughout October.

I mean, October definitely has one of those things (seasonal events) and can have another (good weather), but the crowds part is inaccurate. It also didn’t help on this trip that the weather was not favorable. It was hot and humid the entire time, with temperatures in the 90s and “feels like” temps well over 100.

Florida weather in October can be a crapshoot, and we definitely got the crap part of that. When you compound the crowds and hot weather, it’s rough.

Disney’s Hollywood Studios is the park where this all is probably the most noteworthy. As I mentioned in our October 2018 DHS Update, the Bus Stop Half Marathon is absolutely miserable, and sets a really sour tone for visiting that park. It doesn’t help that there’s very little shade once you’re inside.

I spent maybe 10 minutes in Toy Story Land before saying “enough” to that and bouncing. We’ve heard from credible sources that a minor ‘re-tooling’ of this land is coming to install more shade and rain cover…but we heard that back in July. I have no idea when this will occur–perhaps when the Christmas decorations are installed? More shade can’t come soon enough.

When you couple the park-wide wait times (you cannot possibly FastPass+ it all) with the heat and Bus Stop Half Marathon, I think a strong case can be made for Walt Disney World regulars who have been to the park before and will go again in the future to sit out Disney’s Hollywood Studios for the next month or so. We’ll definitely be back to see the Christmas decorations, but I’m perfectly content waiting until temperatures cool a bit.

The situation is in some ways worse and in some ways better at Animal Kingdom. Pandora – World of Avatar remains a big hit that draws guests all day long. Crowds are huge throughout the land, and Avatar Flight of Passage and Na’vi River Journey often are the longest waits at Walt Disney World. (It doesn’t help that Flight of Passage is often operating at reduced capacity.)

Fortunately, there’s more shade in Pandora, and the payoff of these attractions–Flight of Passage in particular–is far better than Toy Story Land.

The restaurant there is also indoors and air conditioned. For us, the upsides far outweigh the downsides. Animal Kingdom is a must-do even with the crowds–you just need good strategy.

Circling back to our previous post about early fall crowds, there were a few things we noticed from reader comments, specifically those that disagreed with us. First, we have it on good authority that August and September attendance and hotel occupancy were markedly down year over year. Irrespective of what crowds felt like on any individual day, these were the overarching patterns.

Second, several people pointed out that the parks seemed busier in mid-September around the time of Hurricane Florence. We have no insight into this one way or the other, but it’s entirely plausible that there was a spike then as residents of the Carolinas headed to Florida.

Third, we still have no concrete explanation for the attendance spikes at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. After a couple lower-attendance parties in early September, we assumed things were back to normal. Not so. In addition to several parties selling out, crowds have been heavier this year.

There have been rumblings among Cast Members that Disney increased the attendance cap, but we don’t have credible confirmation of this. It’s surprising that even as prices spike for this event every year, so too does demand. (It’s also tough to reconcile lower daily attendance in September with higher party attendance.)

Finally, crowd levels can be very differently based upon the day of the week you visit each park. To that end, we have some easy ways to minimize your exposure to ‘peak’ crowds If you’re visiting between now and…pretty much the end of the year.

If at all possible, plan your day visits to Magic Kingdom on weekdays when there is a hard ticket party scheduled in the evening. Day crowds at Magic Kingdom are considerably more manageable when the park closes to regular guests at 6 p.m. Conversely, day crowds are significantly heavier when the park closes at 10 p.m. or, worse yet, has evening Extra Magic Hours. (Park Hopper tickets are your friend this time of year.)

Avoid Epcot on weekends and week nights when there are Extra Magic Hours. Weekends are when local Food & Wine crowds show up in full force, and EMH nights are a similar draw. In fairness, we do not follow the second half of this advice ourselves. We love evening Extra Magic Hours at Epcot; we just suck it up and deal with the crowds those nights. (However, we usually don’t show up until evening; crowds during the day are worse on EMH nights.)

Morning Extra Magic Hours remain the best option for resort guests wanting to experience Toy Story Land or Pandora – World of Avatar with minimal crowds. If you’re staying off-site, you should absolutely avoid these two parks on mornings with EMH–rope drop them a different day.

Alternatively, do either of these newer lands at the very end of the night and jump into the standby line right before park closing. Not only is this a solid approach for minimizing your wait, but it’s cooler at night and there’s (obviously) no sunlight to make the wait even more excruciating. We favor this same approach with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train–it’s typically the only way we do that ride.

This advice applies year-round, but it’s especially true in the fall and winter when new-ish offerings seem to be the most popular. We’re guessing this is because annual visitors favor these times of year, and also make more of a point of experiencing whatever’s new?

That’s really about it. The Magic Kingdom tip deserves the strongest emphasis, because the difference in daytime crowds between a party night and non-party night can be extreme.

It’s one of those things that’s self-evident when you think about it, but is easy to overlook. Visitors without Park Hopper tickets (which is a lot of people) plan around park hours, and a 6 p.m. closing is far less appealing than 9 or 10 p.m.

If you do have Park Hopper tickets, we’d strongly encourage you to do Magic Kingdom in the day on a party night, bounce to Epcot for the evening (or whichever park is open latest), and return another night for Happily Ever After and nighttime at Magic Kingdom.

If you don’t have another day on your tickets to return, you can always watch HalloWishes from the Ticket & Transportation Center, which is arguably the best viewing location to see those perimeter bursts in their full glory, anyway.

Overall, October has been one of the worst months of the year crowd-wise the last few years, and that trend would appear set to continue in 2018. What’s unclear is where crowds for November and December go from here. Given that several resorts appeared ‘sold out’ for select holiday dates months in advance, we’re guessing that the low crowds of August and September were a short-lived anomaly, but we’re holding out hope that they make a reprise…for early to mid-November, at the very least.

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

What has been your experience with Walt Disney World crowds over the course of the last three months? (If you share your experience, please also share your travel dates.) Do you agree or disagree with our assessment of crowds at WDW? 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!

59 Responses to “Disney World Crowd Update: A Tale of Two Seasons”
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