For over a decade, we’ve been singing September’s praises. No, not the Cosmic Rewind song. That along with mid to late August, it was part of the early “fall” off-season that’s among the best times to visit Walt Disney World. (Air quotes around fall since the Disney version of the calendar looks very different from actual seasons!) But is mid-August through late September still a good time to visit Walt Disney World? That’s the question this post will explore.
We’ve been doing WDW during the fall off-season as long as we’ve been visiting together as adults. It started by accident, as there was a brief window when Free Dining was offered but our school had yet to go back into session. We took advantage, and noticed that crowds were much lower than our prior summer visits but hours were still just as long.
It was a fantastic experience. We did the now-defunct Pirate & Princess Parties (back then, Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party didn’t start until mid-September), saw SpectroMagic (sometimes more than once per night!), enjoyed evening Extra Magic Hours until after midnight (it wasn’t uncommon for them to run until 1 or 2 a.m. at MK), all while having ridiculously good–and huge–meals (the Disney Dining Plan included appetizers). These trips quickly became an annual tradition while we were living in the Midwest.
We became hooked on this time of year and found ourselves routinely returning during the ‘sweet spot’ when hours were still long but schools were starting to go back into session. Over time, we also began doing getaways in September and October, empowered by cheap flights from Indianapolis paired with Southwest Companion Passes, Annual Passes, and lower rate seasons for Disney Vacation Club (or room discounts, when we ran out of points).
Then we started spreading the good word about mid-August through September to anyone who would listen. Long-time readers of the blog probably already know that our #1 month of the year at Walt Disney World is September. That’s been true for a long time, since it passed the final three months of the year as those–especially October–became busier.
As we’ve pointed out for several years, mid-August through September have remained reliably uncrowded even as other past off-season months have gotten busier. For us, what fully and finally “cemented” the status of September was when not even the opening of Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge moved the needle on crowds. (I’ve gotten a lot of predictions wrong over the years and am not afraid to admit it, but confidently calling the low crowds of September 2019 months in advance even as fans were freaking out remains an odd point of pride.)
September 2019 was our first time experiencing the month as Floridians, and we took full advantage. If you weren’t there, it’s impossible to explain how gloriously uncrowded the parks were and how awesome ‘Extra, Extra Magic Hours’ was. Even having lived through that stretch, it’s almost unbelievable given how things changed ~6 months later. But it really was incredible, and I have thousands upon thousands of empty park photos from our many visits during that stretch to “prove” it actually happened.
To be entirely honest with you, nostalgia for both our first off-season visits together and those more recent heyday of early fall off-season has probably clouded my judgment, and caused me to keep on my rose-colored glasses about this stretch. However, reality has really set in over the course of the last couple years…
The big eye-opener the last 2 years has been the weather. It was uncomfortably hot last year to the point that we found ourselves taking more midday breaks than normal and really being ‘beat’ by the weather. At the time, that felt like the worst weather we’d experienced during the August and September off-season. It was noticeably hotter, but not necessarily unexpected or historically bad. Just worse than normal.
Then the early fall off-season of 2023 happened. I’m no stranger to hot summers in Central Florida, and the couple weeks I was there in mid to late August were the worst weather I’ve ever experienced at Walt Disney World. My return for Destination D23 in September wasn’t nearly as bad, but then again, I spent a lot of time in icy-cool convention centers.
August was so awful that there were excessive heat advisories on a regular basis and the Florida Division of Emergency Management warned residents and visitors of dangerously hot and humid conditions. Actual temperatures often flirted with triple digits, and feels like temperatures routinely hit 110-115° throughout month. It was a record-breaking summer for Central Florida, with August being especially awful.
I can understand why some of you might be dismissive of that. After all, Florida is always hot and humid this time of year. Not only that, but weather forecasts are frequently filled with hyperbole, finding new ways to sensationalize and scare. So maybe those 110°+ feels like temperatures aren’t actually all that much worse than the 90s you’ve experienced in Florida and elsewhere in other months, right?
Wrong. At least, in my opinion. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a tremendous tolerance for heat and humidity, but I at least became accustomed to it while living in Florida. This was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in Orlando. About the only thing that compares was a summer a few years back at Hong Kong Disneyland, which somehow manages to surpass Central Florida when it comes to heat and humidity.
By definition, record heat waves are unprecedented and atypical. But this was the second year in a row that I’ve encountered unseasonably hot weather during the early fall off-season. The next few years could be downright pleasant by comparison, but the trend is not your friend when it comes to temperatures. To each their own, but I’m not inclined to gamble on better weather next year. Walt Disney World trips cost too much–the stakes are too high.
It wasn’t just triple-digit temperatures and feels like heat this off-season in Florida. Add to that humidity above 75% plus UV indexes of 10/10, and it was a perfect storm of uncomfortable weather. About the only positive I can say about the weather during my weeks in Central Florida this August and September was that it was, thankfully, a reprieve from storm season at Walt Disney World.
Sarah was unable to join me for obvious reasons. When I first bought my ticket to attend Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party–the first she had missed in over a decade–she was disappointed to be missing out. That wore off by the time the party rolled around. I had been sending periodic updates on the weather, with screenshots of the temperature when I first left my room each day.
The day of Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party was particularly brutal. After leaving Magic Kingdom for a meal outside the park and returning for MNSSHP, the temperature was 100° with a feels like of 115 degrees. This wasn’t even as bad as it got this particular day–the actual temperature hit 102° and the feels like reached 118 degrees. I don’t know about you, but nothing says “Halloween” to me like triple-digit heat in the middle of August!
It wasn’t just that afternoon. There was almost no reprieve from the heat and humidity. I got up every day at the crack of dawn for Early Entry, which started because I wanted to test strategy for park opening reports but continued because it was the second-most pleasant time of the day. It was hot even at 7 am–to the point that I began keeping my camera bag on the balcony overnight so my lenses wouldn’t be fogged up when I needed them the next morning.
Evening was a similar story. Sunset was a welcome relief, but only in part. There were nights when I left the parks and the feels like temperature was still over 100 degrees. Now in fairness, when you go from blazing sun and 118° feels like temperatures to darkness and “only” 101° feels like temperatures, the difference is pretty pronounced. But I was still sweating like crazy at pretty much all hours of the day.
This was unpleasant even for me, but I worked around the weather to the greatest extent possible. Plenty of midday breaks, taking things slow after Early Entry and rope drop, and finding ways to avoid the heat. I couldn’t help but think about how much my Walt Disney World experience differs from the average guest, as I do the parks in atypical ways and “for the sake of research.”
As just one example, I dressed like a total doofus. I wore my dorky bucket hat paired with athletic shirts, and still managed to sweat through those every day by like 10 am. I have this really thick sunscreen that gives me the complexion of a ghost (better than cancer!) and that plus the debilitating heat, getting up early and staying out late, gave me a nice near-death appearance.
If you’ve seen the PhotoPass Shots from MNSSHP, you already know this. Just keep in mind that those are the best photos. There are way worse ones that’ll never see the light of day. This is a family-friendly blog and I don’t want to scare the children. Well, on second thought…
Point being, if this were a trip with Sarah and Megatron, we would probably want nice family photos. I’m not sure the extent to which that even would’ve been possible unless we prioritized pictures first thing in the morning (many families definitely did this–lines for PhotoPass early in the day were far longer than normal) or took second-showers and returned for post-sunset photos.
Of course, it’s not just the photos that would be unsustainable were we visiting as a family. That’s actually something about which I thought a lot during my visits these months, concluding that August and September family trips probably will not become a family tradition going forward.
The heat gives everyone a shorter fuse, too. Although it’s not something that’s measurable, I can say with complete confidence that I overhear and observe more meltdowns–among both children and adults–in August and September than during November and December.
This isn’t me passing judgment. The heat and humidity are to blame, and it’s not like I’m immune to it. The weather causes crankiness, and I found myself being a bit more irritable than normal, and annoyed by things I typically would’ve brushed off. The difference is that I was flying solo, so it was simply an internal grumbling to myself and not outward orneriness.
Even stopping short of full meltdown territory, the heat and humidity just beat you down. The weather is exhausting, making it exceedingly difficult to do a full day in the parks without a midday break or taking time to decompress. This alone can undermine any efficiency gains from the lower crowds.
If you’re skipping a few hours or going at a slower pace due to the weather, you might end up accomplishing just as much during the slowest days in September as you would during slightly busier (but much more pleasant) weeks in late October to December.
Unscheduled breaks or necessary downtime can also exacerbate tensions and stress. If your months-in-the-making plan dictates being in the park from opening until closing–but it becomes clear that’s not feasible–it can be crushing to see that slip away. One of the reasons we are vehemently anti-spreadsheet is because we’ve seen exactly this scenario play out too many times.
Parents set unrealistic expectations, things don’t go completely according to plan (they never do), and either disappointment ensues or misguided efforts are made to ‘course-correct.’ This is not to say all spreadsheets are bad or anyone who uses them is “wrong” for doing so–different strokes and all that–but we’ve seen enough to not actively recommend them. But I digress.
While I did several full days from Early Entry until after park closing in August and September, my batting average was probably less than .500. And that’s just me, an adult who likes to power through whenever possible. Envisioning how we’ll do Walt Disney World as a family with a child in tow…I just cannot fathom full days during this time of year.
By contrast, I can do full days during the holiday season with ease. The temperatures are much more conducive to it, as are the fewer hours of daylight. Even if crowd levels are higher, that might only amount to an extra ~5 minutes of waiting per attraction. But if you’re spending an extra ~2 hours in the parks per day, you’ve more than offset the added wait times.
And although it’s tough to quantify, I’d argue that the whole vibe is merrier during that time of year, from guests to Cast Members. Silly as it might sound, I fully believe you feed off of the energy around you at Walt Disney World. It’s much easier to be reinvigorated and upbeat thanks to the collective energy in November and December than August and September.
Another issue that’s becoming more pronounced is park hours. Long gone are the days of Magic Kingdom staying open until midnight for regular guests. Obviously, Extra Magic Hours are a thing of the past, too. Early Entry and Extended Evening Hours are not the same, either in duration or eligibility.
The end result is that there’s now fewer hours that the parks are opening after dark, which is the most pleasant time of day to do Walt Disney World during September. I did Extended Evening Hours a couple times at Magic Kingdom and EPCOT during the most recent off-season, and it was the busiest I’ve seen it at either park–worse than the peak of spring break. And that’s despite lower crowds across the board and the company self-reporting lower resort occupancy at Walt Disney World.
I’m guessing there are multiple reasons for Extended Evening Hours getting busier, but the most obvious to me would be weather. That more eligible guests took midday breaks with the intention of returning to the parks in the evening. (Rather than staying all day, getting burnt out, and heading home before ExEH started, as often happens.) The influx of guests at the start of Extended Evening Hours would seem to corroborate this.
Equally concerning is how Walt Disney World quietly shortened hours in September. A lot of attention has been rightfully paid to Magic Kingdom closing too early or now opening at 9 am on most MNSSHP dates. Walt Disney World cutting hours at EPCOT and Disney’s Hollywood Studios is just as big of a deal–and one that has flown under the radar. It’s really unfortunate and if this trend repeats itself in September 2024–but not October, November, or December–it will significantly change the calculus on which of these times is the “best” to visit.
With all of that said, mid-August through late September remains a really appealing timeframe for a few reasons. First and foremost is that it’s consistently uncrowded. Yeah, it’s busier now than it was in 2008 or 2017, but relative to other months in the same calendar year, it’s #1 for crowds.
Unlike other months that were once the off-season but have since seen spikes (looking at you, January and October!), September is likely to stay uncrowded. The main factors keeping attendance down–school schedules and weather–aren’t going to change. Walt Disney World can’t get crafty scheduling runDisney, ESPN Wide World of Sports, conventions, or other events in September to buoy attendance, as the weather makes it a non-starter for so much.
Most schools are going to be in session during the entirety of September, and parents are unlikely to pull their kids out after the new school year just started. For tons of people, September is simply an undesirable month to visit, and that has remained true no matter how many times they’ve heard effusive praise about the early fall off-season. Many fans, perhaps the wiser ones, might view that as the Siren’s Song of September.
Another is events. In an attempt to reverse the September slowdown, both Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween and the EPCOT International Food & Wine Festival now start as school goes back into session in August and run for the entirety of the early fall off-season. Again, that didn’t always used to be the case–it wasn’t even that long ago that Food & Wine started 2 full months later than it does now, and MNSSHP began a month later.
Finally, there’s pricing. If you look at the Cheapest Times to Go to Walt Disney World, you’ll see that the early fall off-season typically trails only the winter season. Even that is no sure thing, as superior discounts in mid-August through September can more than bridge the gap. (That happened this year!) If Free Dining returns in Fall 2024, that’ll widen the spread even further for families that know how to leverage that promo.
An arguably better comparison is how the early fall off-season compares to the final three months of the year. Not only are room discounts better and rack rates lower, but there’s a wider range of deals–like the recent 4-Parks Magic Tickets. Then there are significantly lower prices for hard ticket events like Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party. It all adds up!
Ultimately, I can see why the early fall off-season is still such an appealing time for so many Walt Disney World diehard fans to take trips. It’s cheaper and less crowded, reminiscent of simpler days in past decades when prices and attendance were lower. The seasonal events are a ton of fun, and there’s something so satisfying about walking onto attractions with virtually no waits. You feel like a VIP.
Personally, I love the idea of mid-August through late September. I see photos of us in empty parks that stir up fond memories, conveniently forgetting the heat we endured along the way. To some degree, I think that’s how nostalgia works–your mind savors the good and lets go of the bad, creating an idealized version of a past that never existed.
But like an egg on the Magic Kingdom sidewalk, this year’s memories of the heat are fried into my mind. It’s tough to see myself wanting that experience again. (Well, until I forget all about the weather but continue to remember the low crowds!)
We’ve instead advised waiting until later in September when it’s slightly busier (but still slow relative to the rest of the year), late October, or the low-crowd windows in November and December. Even though none of those dates are as objectively uncrowded as mid-August through early September, they’re subjectively superior.
I’ll definitely be back for the start of the 2024 Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party and EPCOT Food & Wine Festival, but because I’m a blogger who doesn’t learn from past mistakes and that’s what my people do. When it comes to family for fun trips or recommendations to friends (including you all), it’s getting harder and harder to justify mid-August to late September without serious caveats. Even if you think you know what you’re getting yourself into…it’s tough to fully comprehend that heat until you’ve felt it. And by then, it’s too late!
Have you visited during the recent heat waves? Do you think it’s still worth braving the weather in August and September for the lowest crowds of the year at Walt Disney World? Or, would you take the slightly higher crowd levels but subjectively superior overall experience during the November and December lulls? Do you agree or disagree with our assessment? 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!