Visiting Disney World during the holiday season offers an unparalleled experience. They go ALL OUT for Christmas and New Year's, and it's something everyone should experience at least once in their lives. However, late December tends to be the busiest time of the year at the parks, so an enjoyable trip definitely takes some planning. Here's all you need to know about planning a holiday Disney trip.
Planning ahead is the easiest and most important way to make sure your trip goes according to plan. (Or, at least mostly according to plan. It's also important to remember that not everything will go perfectly! When this happens, just go with the flow and remember you're still at Disney World.)
If you're going to Disney World for Christmas break this year (2018), odds are you've already started planning. Things like room and dining reservations usually need to be booked 180 days out or earlier to get exactly what you want. But no worries: if you're just beginning your planning process you can still have a great trip. My family decided to go to Disney World and Universal Studios from December 22-January 1, 2017 halfway through October 2017, and although it was a pretty daunting planning process, we were able to get most the FastPass+ reservations we wanted, some great dining options (including a last-minute spot at Be Our Guest) and ultimately ride everything we wanted (usually several times).
If you're beginning your planning process right now, here are the steps you should follow in order:
1. Choose your dates
2. Book your hotel/accommodations
3. Create a basic daily plan
4. Get your dining reservations
5. Make your FastPass+ reservations
6. Get park touring plans
7. Keep learning
Here is each step in more detail:
Step 1: Choose your dates
Normally when you're planning which days to visit Disney World, you'll comb over crowd calendars and compare them to your free dates throughout the year, but this article is about visiting over Christmas so your dates are a little more limited. December 23rd through the first week of January are going to be pretty similar when it comes to crowd levels: 8/10-10/10 every day. People planning for a Christmas break vacation don't have a lot of leeway, so my one piece of advice here is get to the parks as early in December as you can. December 22, 2017 was the only reasonably crowded day during our trip, and we were very grateful we got to enjoy it!
Step 2: Book your hotel/accommodations
Hotels fill up very quickly around the holiday season, so book as soon as you can. You'll have to decide if staying onsite or offsite is worth it to you as well- I recommend these articles to learn more:
If you're trying to save money, exploring other options like Airbnb and camping can be useful too!
Step 3. Create a basic daily plan
You don't have to figure out your touring plans quite yet, but you should decide which parks you'll be visiting on each day of your trip ASAP so you can make dining reservations and be ready to schedule your FastPass+ options. I personally love Touring Plans crowd calendars:
Make sure to see which days have Extra Magic Hours (generally the parks will be busier these days, so only go if you can use EMH to your full advantage) and any events you may want to see (or avoid).
Step 4. Get your dining reservations
You can book dining reservations 180 days in advance, and they are HIGHLY recommended, especially during busy seasons. You can cancel a reservation up to 24 hours in advance without penalty, so if you're not 100% sure you can make one but want to try you can always make the reservation. Just be sure to cancel within 24 hours if you don't want it or you'll be charged a fee of $10/person.
Making a reservation is simple. Just go to the Disney World dining page, enter the date & time you want your reservation, enter your party size, and see what's available.
If you are unable to get the dining reservation you want, you have a couple of options. First, it's never a bad idea to call Disney Reservations or the restaurant (for many Disney Springs restaurants) directly. Disney doesn't post every reservation online, so you can sometimes snag times that are still available.
Another option you have is to check out Mouse Dining. This is how I was able to get a dinner reservation for Be Our Guest on Christmas Eve just a couple of weeks before we left for Orlando! You can create custom alerts that will notify you when a reservation you want opens up.
And you can always check often yourself! Reservations are cancelled all the time, so if you try there's a good chance you'll find something you want, even if it's the day-of.
Step 5. Make your FastPass+ reservations
FastPasses are a free and essential park of visiting Disney World, especially during the holidays. A FastPass can mean waiting in line for 20 minutes instead of 2 hours for a ride, which is more fun and maximizes your time and value in the parks. The Disney World FastPass+ system allows guests to make reservations for three rides or shows per day. If you're staying onsite you can make FastPass+ reservations 60 days in advance while offsite guests can make them 30 days in advance. Bookings open up at 7 am ET, so set your alarm and get on as soon as you can!
When making your FastPass+ reservations, you'll want to prioritize by difficulty to get and not by time. The hardest passes to get include Avatar Flight of Passage, Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, Slinky Dog Dash, and Peter Pan's Flight. (These are usually gone during the 60 day booking period, so don't be too disappointed if you're staying offsite and can't get one.) The most popular rides in each park will be the hardest to get FastPasses for.
Another tip is to not book your FastPasses too early in the day. The first 2-3 hours after park opening are never that busy even during the holidays, so waste your precious FastPasses when you don't need them. I wouldn't book earlier than 10:30 or 11:00 am over Christmas break. The only exception would be if you found a FastPass for one of the above mentioned difficult to get passes- those rides develop incredibly long waits as soon as the park opens, so if you get a pass for one it's usually worth it, no matter the time.
Step 6. Get park touring plans
Okay! You have your hotel, you have your dining reservations, and you have your FastPass+ reservations. Now you need to create a daily touring plan. This is especially important during the holidays, where a touring plan can help you stay ahead of the crowds and not get stuck in those 2-hour queues.
Shameless plug: I love creating touring plans. The plans I created for my family over Christmas and New Year's last year are the reason we rode every ride in the parks (usually several times), saw every show, and never waited in line more than 30 minutes during the busiest time of the year! If you want help with your touring plans and Disney World planning, learn more here.
If you don't want personalized touring plans, you can make a basic plan yourself of all the rides you want to hit and put them in order of busiest to less popular. If you want to hit any really popular rides that you don't have a FastPass+ reservation for, you'll also have to plan on getting to the parks at least 45 minutes to an hour before they open to be there for rope-drop. That mad rush to the ride is the only way you'll avoid a ridiculously long line.
Step 7. Keep learning
You don't want to take away any of the magic of a new Disney experience, but reading up on rides, restaurants, and magical extras is a great way to feel more prepared and maximize your experience. There's always new information being published out there about Disney World, so if you have a question you'll find an answer somewhere! Here are a few links to get you started:
There ya go!
I hope this helps you plan your next trip to Disney World during the holidays. It's crazy busy all the time, but seeing the Christmas decorations and performances is an incredible experience. With some planning and lots of patience, it will be a Christmas you'll never forget.
Want help planning your next Disney trip? Learn more about my custom trip itineraries here!