One of the first questions you'll ask yourself when you're considering a trip to Disney World is, "When is the best time to visit?" Everyone has a different answer -- after all, there's a lot to consider: from personal schedules and time constraints to budgets and weather concerns. You might even want to take into account the Florida resort's lineup of special events and holiday celebrations. However, if you're basing your decision purely on lighter crowds and shorter lines, here's when you should go.
Best times of the year
A general rule of thumb is that Disney World is less than ideal during times of the year when kids are out of school -- meaning attendance is high during the summer, spring break, holidays, and weekends. Walt Disney World is never actually empty, but the periods below are typically when fewer guests are on property.
Once the holiday revelers leave town, the crowds are much more tolerable at this time. You may notice an uptick in guests around the Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend -- usually the weekend after New Year's -- but it has minimal impact on park operations or attraction wait times. In fact, in three out of the last five years, we've visited during this event and have still found it to be one of the best times to go. Not only does it add to an already electric atmosphere, there may even be some Christmas decorations still up. Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, on the other hand, may attract more visitors since it's a three-day weekend and kids have the day off.
The second month of the year is another quiet time at Walt Disney World. Presidents Week normally draws in tourists, as does the Disney Princess Half Marathon (taking place February 23 to 26, 2017), but attendance will drop off once everyone goes home.
The last two weeks of August through September
With school back in full swing, you'll find some of the lowest crowds during the last two weeks of August and in September. Historically, it's also been a time in which the resort offers a free dining plan (the promotion is typically released about three to six months prior), so you won't have to fight the masses and you'll be getting your meals at no cost. Even better, September is when the Epcot International Food and Wine Festival kicks off; guests arriving at this time will be among the first to experience one of the park's best events.
The weeks after Thanksgiving and before Christmas
The magic of Disney gets even more fantastic around the holiday season, so it's a no-brainer as to why guests flock to the resort for Thanksgiving and Christmas. It's that sweet spot in between that you should aim for -- you can see all the decorations in their full glory, without the swarms of holiday travelers (though some days may be iffy thanks to the separate, ticketed event Mickey's Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom).
Pro tip: To get a sense of when crowds might be high, check out the resort's tickets page; the darkest shade of blue on the calendar (for peak season) will give you an idea of the days that Disney anticipates high attendance.
Best times of the day
About 30 to 45 minutes before the park opens
Here's where the phrase "the early bird catches the worm" really applies. Getting to the park between 30 and 45 minutes prior to opening makes a difference. While most people are beginning to get ready for the day or just arriving at the parking lots, you'll have a head start over everyone else -- giving you some time to walk onto rides with little or no wait. On select mornings, resort guests have the option of going to a park during its Extra Magic Hours, during which it opens about an hour ahead of its usual time. While this puts you at an advantage over non-resort guests, you might notice that the park will quickly fill up once it opens to the public.
During the afternoon parade
As hundreds of park guests settle in for the Magic Kingdom's Festival of Fantasy Parade, this presents a prime time to get on some rides. With folks staking out a spot as early as an hour before, you might notice fewer people on line for the attractions -- so take advantage. A word of caution: If you're just entering the park for the day between 2 p.m. and 3:15 p.m., there may be congestion on Main Street, USA and in Liberty Square and Frontierland, where the parade route is.
Before the nighttime shows
Similar to what occurs in preparation of the parade at the Magic Kingdom, visitors usually begin to find a spot for the nighttime shows about an hour prior to their presentations -- meaning most people are waiting for the parade or fireworks instead of queueing up for an attraction, leaving shorter lines for many rides. You'll find this to be the case for the Magic Kingdom's Wishes fireworks display and Main Street Electrical Parade (which ends its Disney World run in October 2016); Epcot's IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth; and Fantasmic and Star Wars: A Galactic Spectacular at Disney's Hollywood Studios. We expect the same sort of occurrence at Disney's Animal Kingdom when its Rivers of Light show -- seating 5,000 people -- debuts later this year.