So far we’ve discussed that there exists a wonderful vacation resort in Central Florida filled with magical theme parks and dancing mice and you’ve hopefully decided how to get there. The next question is when are you going to go and in what bed will you spend your four to five hours of sleep per night?
There is an outdated piece of advice that says that summertime and Christmas are the two “busy” times to visit Walt Disney World and the rest of the year is relatively quite and line-free. Notice that I said “outdated.” Disney has gone to great lengths over the last decade-plus to ensure that there is no longer a “slow season” or a “quiet time” to visit. The introduction and expansion of a number of special seasonal events bring in big crowds. In addition to these events, Disney’s marketing team came up with the idea of offering “free dining” packages and other discounts (like discounted hotel rooms and package deals) to guests who book at particular off-peak times, often turning moderately crowded parks, hotels, and restaurants into mob scenes. The best time to visit now depends entirely on the visitor and what it is you wish to do on your vacation.
Generally January is a quiet time to visit and good if simply avoiding a crowd is your only goal. Crowds are more moderate around Martin Luther King Day which can coincide with Disney’s annual Marathon Weekend when many runners visit the park and compete in the races. For the most part however, the worst part of a January trip is the potential for cold weather, not overbearing crowds. (And yes, it gets cold in Florida in January. I once visited in January and it was 33 degrees when I woke up.) Crowds build throughout February mostly from President’s Day weekend through the month of March as Spring Breakers and some snowbirds visit. Things peak for the Spring with Easter. Wherever Easter falls, expect crowds to slide to a more moderate level afterwards, getting less and less crowded up until roughly the middle to end of May. Memorial Day is busy but crowds remain relatively moderate throughout the month of June. Crowds spike from late June through the middle of August. Peaking during the Fourth of July holiday week when the Magic Kingdom often reaches capacity. Crowds drop significantly through the end of August and September, as parents are often reluctant to take children out of school early in the school year. Things get busy again in October during the popular runs of the Magic Kingdom’s Halloween special events and Epcot’s “Food & Wine Festival” as well as school fall breaks and the Columbus Day holiday. November (with the exception of Thanksgiving week, which is very busy) through mid-December are generally very quiet times to visit, busier only than January and late August to mid-September. Crowds flock to the Magic Kingdom’s Christmas Events during this time but the other parks generally remain quiet. From mid-December onwards, the parks get busier and busier until Christmas Eve, when things go bonkers. Christmas Eve through New Year’s Eve are the eight busiest days of the year at the parks.
When considering all of this, there is of course one other major factor to keep in mind: due to work and school calendars, you may not even have much say in when you visit. Also remember what I said in the beginning, Disney has gone out of its way to make sure that no times are truly slow. There are other runDisney race events throughout the year, a Flower & Garden Festival at Epcot in the Spring, an unofficial Gay Pride weekend in June, a Christian Rock festival in the Fall, so on and so forth that I didn’t even mention. Not to mention those free dining and other such promotions that tend to pop up around April-June and September-December, to give some extra incentive to people unsure of what time of year to visit, to pick the less crowded ones.
While nothing is announced officially, Disney is also toying with the idea of a tiered ticketing price scheme that will make it more expensive to visit on weekends and during peak times of year and cheaper to visit on, say, a Thursday in January. This is similar to what they do with discounted passes available only to Florida residents and will have untold effects on the park’s crowd patterns.
Once you figure out where to go, you need to decide where to stay. There are a myriad of offsite (ie. not owned by Disney) hotels, motels, condos, vacation homes, rental properties, timeshares, campgrounds, etc. available to you. However, as this is a series on Disney World planning, I’m only going to discuss features and benefits of the accommodations located on Disney property. If you decide to go offsite, you’re on your own (but should feel free to e-mail me any questions you might have!)
Disney splits their resort hotels into three categories: deluxe, moderate, and value. Deluxe resorts are the largest, have the most features, and are obviously the most expensive. The three most recognizable are located around the Seven Seas Lagoon that fronts the Magic Kingdom. They are connected to the park and each other by monorail and are probably the three hotels anyone who knows almost nothing about Disney World thinks of when they think of a Disney hotel. The Grand Floridian has a bunch of high end restaurants, ginormous lobby, and opulent “turn-of-the-century rich-folk” theme. It’s where the Tanners stayed on the episode of Full House where they go to Disney World. The Polynesian Village has a Pacific island theme with a luau dinner theater, a beach, and a tiki bar. The Contemporary is the one where the monorail goes through the middle. The Wilderness Lodge, a “National Park lodge on steroids” that appears to be built entirely of redwood trees, is located in the woods behind the Magic Kingdom. The Animal Kingdom Lodge is of a similar vibe but is more an “African savannah lodge on steroids” and is located in the woods by the Animal Kingdom. The four other deluxe resorts are right behind Epcot, surrounding a lake that connects Epcot to Hollywood Studios. They include the Yacht & Beach Club, that has the best pool on Disney property, the Boardwalk Resort, that has (you guessed it) a boardwalk with restaurants, shops, and bars right underneath it, and the Swan & Dolphin resorts which aren’t actually run by Disney so nobody cares too much about them.
The moderate resorts generally have smaller rooms and are located a bit further from the parks. They include the New Orleans-inspired Port Orleans French Quarter and Port Orleans Riverside, which boasts a few coveted princess-themed guest rooms. Both are connected to each other and Downtown Disney by a river. There is also the sprawling Caribbean Beach resort that boasts a few pirate-themed guest rooms and the slightly more adult-oriented Coronado Springs with an adjacent convention center.
Finally there are the value resorts: motels on steroids featuring oversized statues of Disney characters and pop culture iconography. The All Star Resorts, themed after music, movies, and sports, the Pop Century Resort, and the new Art of Animation Resort that is comprised mostly of “family suites” with kitchenettes that sleep more than a typical hotel room and boasts Disney World’s best food court.
Not mentioned, because they do not fit into a typical category, are the Fort Wilderness campground where you can pitch a tent, hook up a trailer, or rent a full cabin with daily maid service and the all the comforts of a typical hotel room and the Shades of Green resort that is reserved for military members. Disney also has a number of “Vacation Club” properties generally reserved for their timeshare owners but open to the public at large based on availability. These properties are best served for large families that all wish to stay together, with some units sleeping as many as ten or twelve people.
All Disney resorts offer complimentary transportation to the parks, early and late admission to select parks on certain dates, free package shipping to your resort, Disney’s Magical Express bus transportation to and from the Orlando airport, and most importantly both early Fastpass+ reservations and MagicBands (MUCH more on this in part four.) Plus there is just a level of service and an “intangible” factor that makes staying at Disney worthwhile. In my opinion, a Disney vacation is just not a complete Disney vacation without staying at an on-site resort.
So which resort, exactly, you stay will all depend on your budget and tastes. I’ve been blessed to stay at many deluxe resorts with my family throughout my life and they are all amazing and spectacular in their own right. I’ve stayed at moderates with my wife, including on our honeymoon. In college, I went with a bunch of friends where all we could afford was to all cram into a value room. And guess what? Every one of those vacations was awesome.
All of this having been said…pick your dates and pick your resort, because next time we’re going to the theme parks. You’ll find out when to ride your favorite rides and I’ll explain what the heck a “Fastpass” is and why Disney thinks they’ve “plussed” it.