With higher crowds & wait times, you need superior strategy for saving time waiting at Walt Disney World. That’s the purpose of this post, breaking down the best & worst options–Genie+, Lightning Lanes, extra hours & rope drop–to beat long lines at Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, EPCOT and Animal Kingdom. (Updated November 23, 2022.)
Our goal is to find the ideal approach to using standby lines and/or Lightning Lanes, as well as the best times of day at each park. Spoiler: there’s no one-size fits all answer for all people or all parks. That’s the big thing we’ve learned while extensively visiting the parks extensively for the sake of research to test various strategies, which we’ve again updated for Christmas 2022.
Even many longtime Walt Disney World fans are overwhelmed by the options, so we’re here to provide insight into reducing friction from your days in the parks. As the ole tantalizing teaser goes, “…and the results will surprise you!” But seriously, they will. What we accomplished (or didn’t) with some of these approaches actually caught us off-guard.
Before getting going, we want to stress the importance of this strategy for Walt Disney World trips between at least now and January 9, 2023. The entirety of the holiday season will be varying degrees of very busy at Walt Disney World, and you’ll need solid strategy if you want to accomplish a lot each day.
This post is relatively long, but it’s arguably more valuable right now than anything else on this website. If you only read one post on this blog, make it this one. Not to set unrealistic expectations, but this strategy should save you several hours per day at Walt Disney World (and it should save you money, too!).
If you’re on a budget or more price-sensitive, this obviously adds up–amounting to over $400 in added costs for an average family during a week-long trip. That’s a significant increase, and makes us even more hesitant to recommend Genie+ in certain circumstances, especially for borderline parks and when the parks are so busy that Genie+ is less useful. (Sadly, there has not been a corresponding decrease in Genie+ utilization with the price increase–more people purchase the line-skipping option when crowd levels are higher.)
The good news is that Walt Disney World continues to maintain its earlier opening times, and the result is that EPCOT, Animal Kingdom, and Hollywood Studios all offer tremendous upside for early birds. Unfortunately, Magic Kingdom is a different story–it typically opens later and closes earlier than the historical norm.
Hours have currently been extended through January 2023, and this trend will almost certainly continue for the duration of the foreseeable future until there’s a slowdown in attendance.
Next, let’s do a quick run-through of the various mainstream ways to save time at Walt Disney World. This isn’t comprehensive, leaving out the priciest options–like doing VIP tours for the duration of your trip or renting out the parks–for what should be obvious reasons. Even though it’s safe to assume George Clooney, Oprah, and Carrot Top are loyal readers of this blog, most of you probably aren’t that big of high rollers.
The first option is the controversial Genie+ and Individual Lightning Lanes (e.g. Paid FastPass), which offer one way to skip standby lines. Unfortunately, these come with a cost–not just a monetary one, but also with frustrations, back-tracking, getting up early, and the steep learning curve of mastering the new system. (Look no further than our ~4,500 word Guide to Genie+ at Walt Disney World & Lightning Lane FAQfor how confusing it can be.)
Sticking with the pay to play options (of sorts), there’s Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours, which replace Extra Magic Hours in the morning and at night.
Next, there’s tried and true rope drop or regular park opening.
For those unfamiliar with this inside baseball-esque term, rope drop is simply when the lands and attractions officially open, which is synonymous with the published park opening time. (It’s literal–there’s a rope that is dropped, opening the lands to guests.) Since the front gates usually admit guests before park opening, Disney fans have demarcated the two times with this rad term. In practice, rope drop is pretty much anytime during the first hour of regular operations.
Finally, there’s the end of the evening, which is usually the last couple hours of regular operations. We don’t have a rad term for this one, but I feel like that’s a huge missed opportunity for a cryptic moniker. Just imagine how many of the uninitiated we could confuse by referring to this as “rope rise.” (Get it? Because they drop the rope at the beginning of the day, so it stands to reason that they pick it–you know, nevermind.)
If we did call the end of the night “rope rise,” no one would know what the heck we’re talking about, so fewer people would take advantage. In any case, wait times tend to be shorter towards later at night. When and by how much they fall varies by park, and is often not fully reflected in posted wait times.
Of course, there’s also the middle of the day, or anytime between around 10 am and 6 pm.
With few exceptions, this is the busiest time of day at Walt Disney World–when crowds peak as most guests have arrived, but few have left. The majority of guests visit the parks during these hours, making them the worst time to do anything popular. Conversely, it’s the best time to focus on unpopular, low-wait attractions like stage shows and other entertainment.
Got all of that? Good. Now let’s go park by park and discuss which approach is best right now, as of Late 2022. Since first publishing this in the spring, we’ve tested and retested every single strategy for all of the parks, and updated our conclusions as things have changed. Here’s the park by park rundown of which time-saving approaches are best…
Unlike the other parks, choosing the right day to visit Magic Kingdom is incredibly important, so we’ll start there. If you visit Magic Kingdom between now and late December 2022, you’re going during Party Season. This means that the park is hosting Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party (MVMCP), which really disrupts attendance patterns at Magic Kingdom.
The good news is that party season is now in its fourth month, and there are now observable trends. Crowds are significantly lower on days when those events are held in the evening, and significantly higher on non-party days. While crowd levels have started to increase slightly on party days, the vast majority are still at or under 4/10 on the crowd calendar. By contrast, non-party days are frequently 9/10 or 10/10.
The busiest weeks during heart of the holiday season, Magic Kingdom will start seeing elevated attendance on party days because people will be “forced” into those days by the reservations system. However, the non-party days will also become more crowded, with even worse 10/10 days in Magic Kingdom becoming more common on days when MVMCP isn’t happening. (One thing to understand is that not all 10/10 days are equally crowded–that’s just where the scale maxes out!)
If you opt against this approach for whatever reason (maybe you don’t have Park Hopper tickets or want to see the fireworks), you’re at a definite disadvantage. However, there are still ways to beat the crowds.
Let’s start with Early Entry, which we’ve found less successful here than at any other park. This is probably due to a mix of higher demand (we haven’t done head counts, but it sure seems like more guests show up for Early Entry at Magic Kingdom than any other park) and only Fantasyland and Tomorrowland being open. Following along with our most recent Magic Kingdom Early Entry Photo Report as compared to others, you can see we didn’t have quite as much success.
If you’re not eligible for Early Entry, regular rope drop is still good because Frontierland and Adventureland are not open during Early Entry. This makes rope drop alone, or Early Entry plus rope drop a great approach. If you’re only eligible for rope drop, doing Frontierland and Adventureland first and saving Fantasyland until later in the day can be a workable approach.
There are also enough worthwhile secondary attractions in Magic Kingdom that you can round out the rest of your day with relaxing, low wait shows and more. Many of our smartest and sexiest readers enjoy filling out the middle of their days by watching Country Bear Jamboree on repeat.
Thanks to a high worthwhile attraction count available via Lightning Lanes, Magic Kingdom is the one park where we highly recommend buying Genie+. More importantly, I was able to accomplish all of that without getting up at 7 am, setting alarms, or diligently refreshing. It was a laid back and relaxed day using Lightning Lanes at Magic Kingdom.
This would not have been possible at the other parks, especially Disney’s Hollywood Studios. Unlike those, Magic Kingdom is the park where Genie+ is easiest to use and presents the fewest headaches. At Magic Kingdom, you can book Lightning Lane ride reservations with a more leisurely approach and less criss-crossing the park. There’s also less competition with Genie+ at Magic Kingdom, and the lower-stakes nature leads to fewer frustrations than at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Next, there’s the end of the night. Like every other park, wait times at Magic Kingdom do fall off in the evening as guests grab spots for the Disney Enchantment fireworks. You can enjoy shorter waits if you’re willing to skip those, or watch them from a last-minute location in Fantasyland.
The drop-off isn’t quite as pronounced as the other parks, but it’s still significant. That plus queueing up for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train one minute before park closing is a great approach if you don’t buy Genie+ or Individual Lightning Lanes.
Finally, there’s Extended Evening Hours for those who are eligible. We’ve done this a handful of times, so our sample size is still relatively limited, but our success rate is 100%. Low waits everywhere and blissfully uncrowded parks.
Even if you take advantage of one of the aforementioned approaches and “conquer” Magic Kingdom before this late night perk, do it anyway. It’s a delightful way to enjoy Magic Kingdom, offering a serene experience that’s a great way to decompress from the earlier chaos during peak season. (See Magic Kingdom Extended Evening Hours Photo Report.)
With its 8:30 am opening time, Early Entry is the best way to beat the crowds at Epcot. That’s doubly true if you’re arriving via International Gateway, as you’ll be able to do Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure with a 10 minute wait or less. (See Early Entry v. Genie+ at Epcot.)
From the Rat Ride, it’s entirely possible to do Frozen Ever After as a near walk-on, Test Track with minimal wait, Soarin’ Around the World with minimal wait…and everything else in the new neighborhoods with no waits. It’s a lot of walking, but that’s par for the course at Epcot, and you could modify this approach to minimize steps if you’re staying the full day.
Those arriving for regular rope drop will still enjoy success and time savings pretty much everywhere except Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, and that’s easy enough to save for the end of the night. Off-site guests who aren’t eligible for Early Entry aren’t at too considerable of a disadvantage at Epcot.
Speaking of which, the front of the park empties out at Epcot in the evening hours, because guests eat and drink around the World Showcase, and secure spots for Harmonious. Hitting these rides the last two hours of the day can be a smooth move, especially since it’s not imperative that you get a front row view for Harmonious.
For those arriving after rope drop, Genie+ and Lightning Lanes are your default–but even requires waking up early if you expect to score Lightning Lanes for 3+ headliners. Epcot is our second least favorite park for the line-skipping service, and we don’t recommend it here unless you’re Park Hopping or cannot take advantage of the aforementioned strategies.
With both Frozen Ever After and Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure now being included with the Genie+ service, that does move the needle. However, if you’re visiting on a busier day when Genie+ costs ~$30, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll score Lightning Lanes for all 3–while paying more for the service. On those days, I still strongly favor arriving early or staying late, especially since Genie+ at Epcot can force you to do a lot of backtracking.
Extended Evening Hours at Epcot are as delightful at Epcot as Magic Kingdom, but the lower ride count and more obvious top priorities means wait times for the trio of headliners don’t fall as dramatically. On top of that, if even one ride is down, it can throw a real monkey wrench into things.
With good strategy, you can still accomplish Remy’s Ratatouille Adventure, Frozen Ever After, and Test Track during this post-closing perk, but it does require determination (and luck). You can also do Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind so long as you score a spot in the virtual queue. Speaking of which…
Finally, there’s Guardians of the Galaxy: Cosmic Rewind, the newest blockbuster attraction at Walt Disney World. This hasn’t really changed Epcot touring strategy in the least, which is because it uses a virtual queue. Fortunately, Cosmic Rewind is much more reliable and efficient than Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, so this is much easier and less frustrating.
We’ve been saying for the last two-plus years that Hollywood Studios is the most frustrating park at Walt Disney World. Among other things, this is due to the top-heavy nature of its attraction lineup, and lack of secondary rides. There was a point during the phased reopening when this was particularly problematic, but it has gotten much better with the return of most stage shows and entertainment.
For much of the last two years, wait times at Disney’s Hollywood Studios have peaked earlier than any other park at Walt Disney World. In the last month, this has started to shift with the return of Fantasmic, and we’d expect that trend to continue. Even Animal Kingdom, which opens earlier and is commonly derided as a half-day park, doesn’t see its longest wait times of the day until afternoon.
Against this backdrop, the best option for beating the crowds at Disney’s Hollywood Studios is Early Entry. In large part, this is because Early Entry encompasses all important, high-wait attractions at DHS and also because it usually ends up being much more than a 30 minute head-start.
That’s especially true if you prioritize Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, with the added upside of doing this first being that you’re less likely to encounter a breakdown while you’re in line for it. Check out our report on Early Entry at Disney’s Hollywood Studios that covers our experience knocking out the “triple digit trio” at DHS before the park opened to regular guests.
The worst strategy for Disney’s Hollywood Studios is relying on traditional rope drop. This should be pretty intuitive for the two reasons identified above: wait times peak early and all headliners are open for Early Entry.
If you can’t enter DHS until regular park opening time, you’re going to get maybe 1-2 attractions done with below average waits. Your likelihood for frustrations–and thus leaving before the end of the night–will also be higher.
Instead, consider an afternoon arrival and staying until park closing. One thing to keep in mind with this is that it does not work as well is prior to the return of Fantasmic. As a result of that nighttime spectacular, more visitors are staying later or Park Hopping to Disney’s Hollywood Studios. As a result, wait times remain elevated into the late afternoon and evening.
The good news is that there’s still a pronounced drop-off during dinner and Fantasmic. The bad news is that, like everyone else, you’ll probably want to eat and see Fantasmic. This is definitely a big blow for our favorite way to do DHS, but it’s definitely not a net-negative. Fantasmic is great, so we’re very happy to have it back; also, DHS is now drawing crowds away from EPCOT and Animal Kingdom in the evening hours, making those comparatively less crowded.
Posted wait times are lower in the last two hours of the day at DHS, but that only tells part of the story. Actual wait times are often dramatically lower, particularly for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, Slinky Dog Dash, Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway, and other headliners.
The only caveat we’ll add here is that this approach with the unreliable Rise of the Resistance is risky–if you only have one shot at it and the ride goes down in the last two hours of the day, you might be out of luck. Read our Ride Guide for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance, which offers an overview of the best & worst ways to do that, and plan accordingly.
DHS has a top heavy lineup, and essentially, you need to be Genie+ power user to score the most-coveted ride reservations. Even then, bad luck or technical difficulties might sour the experience. We’ve heard from many readers who have only been able to book 1-2 Lightning Lane ride reservations with Genie+ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios.
Think of Genie+ at Disney’s Hollywood Studios as an option of last resort. If you can’t do Early Entry or don’t want to stay late for whatever reason, you should purchase Genie+ and probably an Individual Lightning Lane for Star Wars: Rise of the Resistance. It can be headache-inducing, but not any more so than standby lines, which are just brutal at DHS. This is especially true during the holiday season–you really need to utilize savvy strategy to prevent Disney’s Hollywood Studios from being downright unpleasant.
We go from the most frustrating park to the easiest one. Strategy for Animal Kingdom essentially amounts to “don’t go during the middle of the day and stand in long lines,” which seems to be what the vast majority of guests do for some odd reason.
Going early, staying late, or using Genie+ are all solid strategies. Almost equally so. We’d give the edge to Early Entry, which starts at 7:30 am on most dates. That is absurdly early, and a huge barrier for most guests. If you’re able to arrive to Animal Kingdom by 7 am, this gives you a huge advantage.
Traditional rope drop also works, so long as you prioritize something other than Avatar Flight of Passage. Again, most people aren’t up and out the door this early in the morning on vacation, and that applies even to regular park opening time at Animal Kingdom. (With the peak season 8 am official opening, you might be able to hit Flight of Passage with minimal wait even at traditional rope drop.)
Personally, I’m a fan of doing Animal Kingdom later in the day (see Animal Kingdom Afternoon Arrival Strategy). Subjectively, this is nice because Animal Kingdom is the hottest park at Walt Disney World, and hitting it when the sun is lower knocks a good 10-20 degrees off the feels like temperatures. The atmosphere at sunset and night is also fantastic, and something few fans see.
Unfortunately, wait times aren’t plummeting towards the end of the day like they were about a year ago, which is likely due to more entertainment having returned. While most other rides will be walk-ons or close to it, you can still expect lengthy lines for the two Pandora – World of Avatar attractions.
At this point, Genie+ is the objectively better option at Animal Kingdom than staying late. Even though the lineup is limited, most eligible attractions have availability well into the afternoon. I’m disinclined to buy Genie+ at Animal Kingdom because arriving early or staying late works well and the eligible attraction roster is so limited, but it still offers time savings.
Personally, I only buy Genie+ at Animal Kingdom when Park Hopping. It’s our recommendation then because you can knock out the 2-3 attractions where Lightning Lanes are useful at Animal Kingdom and also use Genie+ to skip a few lines in one of the other parks, too. Outside of Genie+, Avatar Flight of Passage can be worth the cost of the Individual Lightning Lane, but we usually hit it early, late, or during the lunch lull instead.
Ultimately, there are a lot of ways to beat the crowds at Walt Disney World, and that applies even during the peak weeks of summer and beyond. Strategizing has definitely gotten more complicated in the last year, and we’ve heard from countless long time visitors who feel left behind or overwhelmed. The bad news is that there are more pay-to-play options and they’ll either cost extra or have less eligibility.
The good news is that there’s actually greater accessibility to saving time at Walt Disney World. If you read this ~4,000 word post the night before visiting Walt Disney World, you could take advantage of many of these tips. That simply was not possible at this time a few years ago, when pre-booking FastPass+ up to 60 days in advance closed the door for a lot of first-timers who, quite understandably, had no clue ride reservations were booked months in advance.
Now, tactics are uneven and inconsistent among the parks, but there’s pretty much something for everyone. Whether you want to pay extra, not pay extra, rise early, or stay late. As always, we highly recommend our Walt Disney World Park Itinerariesfor more granular, step-by-step advice for planning out your entire day.
About the only thing you can’t do is sleep in, visit the parks from 11 am until 4 pm, and leave early. This has always been the worst way to do Walt Disney World, and that remains true to this day. Yet, for reasons beyond me, that continues to be the “preferred” approach for so many guests. If you simply don’t do that, you’re automatically ahead of the pack!
Thoughts on our suggested strategies for each of the Walt Disney World theme parks? Do you prefer rope drop, “rope rise,” Early Entry, Extended Evening Hours, or Genie+ and Lightning Lanes? Or, do you favor a miss of approaches when touring the parks? How do you do things differently in each park? Any other feedback on arriving early or staying late at the Walt Disney World theme parks? Agree or disagree with our advice or approach? 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!