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Brian Bennett

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Developing a Daily Game Plan

Developing a Daily Game Plan | Morning Chunk | Afternoon Break | Evening Chunk

Planning Approaches

There are three general methods to planning your day at Walt Disney World:

  • The rigorous planning method: You plan out every moment of the day from morning to night. Some people think that this is the only way to visit WDW. This method is a surefire way to maximize the time speny in the parks for those who visits only every several years.
  • A go-with-the-flow method: You get up in the morning and decide what to do. This is great for those who visit frequently, or are staying for long periods of time. Although this method can be very relaxing and liberating, the drawback is the inefficiency that results from having a completely unplanned day.
  • A centrist method: Personally, I prefer a middle ground of a centrist approach. Before I describe it, let me comment on the more rigorous planning method.

The Rigorous Planning Approach

The most visible proponent of rigorous planning for each day of a WDW trip is Bob Sehlinger's The Unofficial Guide to Walt Disney World. Although I personally do not prefer such detailed planning tactics, Sehlinger and his staff have nailed the strategy to a science.

I'll also point out that Birnbaum's Walt Disney World: Expert Advice from the Inside Source has recently added touring plans, probably due to the high praise that Sehlinger's readers have given the Unofficial Guide.

Finally, MousePlanet's Mike Scopa has developed some daily touring plans for the major theme parks for his Scoping the Parks column. In my opinion, Mike does a fantastic job of providing a good framework, without going over the top like a Disney commando.

The Centrist Method: Chunking the Day Away

Instead of carefully planning each moment of your vacation months before you leave for WDW, decide what to do on a daily basis as you go.  I find it rather convenient to plan in large chunks of time. By considering the morning, afternoon, and evening as three separate blocks, or "chunks" of time, you can plan what to do in general without overdoing it.  Park opening hours, traditional crowd levels through the day and week, the weather, water park crowds, park closing hours, and personal preference all dictate what you do during each of those chunks.

Visitors return to Epcot after their mid-day break
Visitors return to Epcot after their mid-day break 

Park Opening Hours

Park hours that each park vary throughout the year, but generally open around 9 or 10 a.m. In general, the parks open earlier when crowd levels are higher. So, during the Christmas, Summer, and Spring / Easter seasons you can expect the parks to open as early as 8 a.m.

A general listing of all park hours is available here.

Extra Magic Hour

Guests who stay at a Disney "on-property" resort can enter a select theme park a bit early each day.  This program, called Extra Magic Hour, is very similar to Surprise Mornings at Disneyland and the old Early Entry at Walt Disney World. Check the link provided to get more information on the program, including the park schedule, so you may take advantage of the extra time each day.

Which Park to Visit on Which Day

Which park should you go to on which day to avoid the crowds? I try to avoid answer that question because, unfortunately, there is no great answer to that question. There are just too many variables to consider. However, consider these general concepts:

  • Vacation duration: How long do people come to play at WDW?
  • Vacation timing: On what days do most WDW vacationers start and end their stays?
  • The Royal Order of Park Sequencing I: Which park is the first one that most people go visit?
  • The Royal Order of Park Sequencing II: Which park is the first one that most people go visit?

General Concepts

Vacation Duration: Crowd levels at WDW do not vary from day-to-day as strongly as they do at other (non-WDW) theme parks because most vacation at Walt Disney World for multiple days at a time. This is not the case at Disneyland, where local visitors greatly affect park attendance patterns.

Flying to Orlando
Flying to Orlando

Vacation timing: Vacationers tend to travel on the weekends. Since airfare is still cheaper when incorporating a Saturday, most fly into the Orlando area on Sundays and stay through the following Sunday. This result is lighter crowds on Sundays. Although this decrease is not as dramatic during peak times of the year, the parks are noticeably more quiet on Sundays during off-peak periods, especially during the first part of the day. The Studios may be the sole exception to the Sunday pattern, but that would be due to the small size of the park more than anything else.

The Royal Order of Park Sequencing I: Most people visit one specific WDW park first, out of habit. It may be a family tradition, for example, to visit the Studios first because every from Dad down to Junior just loves the Tower of Terror. In fact, almost every regular visitor whom you ask has some traditional starting point. My family is pretty typical; we almost always spend our first WDW morning at the Magic Kingdom. We are, by far, in the majority on that routine. The fact that Mondays are the busiest weekday in the Magic Kingdom supports this theory.

Fantasyland draws crowds in the morning
Fantasyland draws crowds in the morning

The Royal Order of Park Sequencing II: Likewise, many people go on to visit the major parks in some specific, regular order. Animal Kingdom is still relatively new, so many guests who haven't yet been to that park often make it a priority. The fact that Animal Kingdom is busiest on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays lends credibility to this hypothesis. For more regular visitors, though, the habit of chronological order (in order of the year in which the various parks opened) is a typical pattern.  That is, a large proportion of WDW visitors visit the parks in this sequence: Magic Kingdom, Epcot, the Studios, and Animal Kingdom. The fact that Monday is the busiest weekday at the Magic Kingdom and that Epcot has it's busiest day on Tuesday followed by the Studios on Wednesday supports the model.

Magic Kingdom

The Magic Kingdom is usually busiest on Mondays, Fridays, and Saturdays.  Monday is often busier because vacationers who often arrive on Sunday usually make the Magic Kingdom the first park they visit. The greater crowd levels on Friday and Saturday (especially Saturday) are due to:

  • Nighttime entertainment (SpectroMagic and Fantasy in the Sky) often running on those nights even during non-peak times of the year.
  • Local (Florida) park visitors are much more likely to visit on a Saturday than any other day of the week.

Epcot

Epcot is such a huge park that large crowds are much more easily absorbed herek than in the Magic Kingdom. In addition, the night time entertainment (Tapestry of Nations and IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth) run every night.

IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth (photo by Ian Parkinson)
IllumiNations: Reflections of Earth (photo by Ian Parkinson)

As a result, there is very little day-to-day fluctuation in crowd levels in Epcot. However, you will notice a very large hour-to-hour fluctuation within each day. Crowd levels are much greater in the evening than in the early morning when the park first opens.

Disney-MGM Studios

The Studios sees crowds that are much busier than usual on weekends possibly due to local visitors. And beyond the very high crowd levels during special events weekends, such as Star Wars and Super Soap (opera) weekends, you won't see much other fluctuation. Wednesdays experience a bump in crowd levels, possibly due to that natural tendency of chronological park visitation that I'd mentioned.

Rope drop at the Studios
Rope drop at the Studios

Crowd patterns during a given day at the Studios is affected by the fact that the Studios is the smallest of the four major theme parks. Crowds form early in the morning and stay pretty solid throughout the day.  Crowd levels peak during the afternoon parade (Disney Stars and Motor Cars) and towards the end of the park day as people come back to the park to see Fantasmic, the park's nighttime show.  

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom is quite unique. First, understand that if Epcot is a huge park, then Animal Kingdom is gargantuan. It is just so big and spread out that crowds are very easily absorbed into the walks and gardens. However, unlike Epcot, Animal Kingdom has a dearth of attractions, restaurants, and shops. It just doesn't have as much to keep people busy... so the park doesn't have anywhere near the attendance levels that the other three parks experience. As a result, the park is generally open for a much shorter period of time, closing as early as 5 or 6 p.m. on most days. This means that the density of the crowds in the attraction queues is actually comparable to the other parks, with fewer people, but for a much shorter period of time.

Animal Kingdom, like Epcot and the Studios, lacks the large of swings in crowd levels from day-to-day seen at the Magic Kingdom. You may notice a decrease in crowd levels on Sundays, but it's not a major difference from the other days of the week. You may also notice slightly higher crowd levels early in the week on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays.  I can only attribute that to the desire of those folks who have yet to see this park, to do so early. In any case, since the park has less to see and do than the other parks, visitors tend to lose interest by midweek, and make fewer return visits to Animal Kingdom.

Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade (photo by Sheila Hagen)
Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade (photo by Sheila Hagen)

As far as hour-to-hour fluctuations in Animal Kingdom, there are three considerations:

  • Since the park has shorter operating hours, crowds tend to form early in the day.
  • Since the park is so large, visitors end up doing so much walking and wear themselves out much faster than at the other parks.
  • There is no nighttime entertainment at Animal Kingdom, so the crowds form strongly in the morning, a peak during the afternoon parade (Mickey's Jammin' Jungle Parade), and drop steadily drop until park closing.

Conclusion

What park is best to visit on which day of the week and what time of the day? Without being dogmatic, here is a summary of the general pattern, with black denoting average crowds, green denoting light, or below-average crowds, red denoting crowds, and yellow denoting a slightly above-average crowd.

Park Magic Kingdom Disney-MGM Studios Epcot Animal Kingdom
Sunday

Light

Above average (esp. evenings)

Light

Light

Monday

Crowded

Average

Average

Above average (esp. mornings)

Tuesday

Average

Average

Above average (esp. evenings)

Above average (esp. mornings)

Wednesday

Average

Above average (esp. evenings)

Average

Above average (esp. mornings)

Thursday

Above average

Average

Above average (esp. evenings)

Average

Friday

Crowded

Above average (esp. evenings)

Light

Light

Saturday

Crowded

Above average (esp. evenings)

Light

Light

Weather

Bad weather can dampen your clothes, but not your fun.  If you plan time in any of the major parks when rain hits, you are guaranteed to get wet,- but with the possible exception of fireworks and parades if the weather is really bad, you can still enjoy everything the parks offer.

Temperature and severe weather can also dictate whether you choose to enjoy one of the water parks (River Country, Typhoon Lagoon, or Blizzard Beach) on any given day.

Water Park Crowds

Due to their smaller size, the water parks are more susceptible to crowd fluctuations than the bigger parks, and actually close their gates to additional visitors when they reach their maximum capacity.

The water parks tend to be least crowded on non-weekend days. On Saturdays and Sundays Orlando area residents noticeably swell the crowds.

The water parks are busy on bright sunny days like this... (photo by Sue Holland)
The water parks are busy on bright sunny days like this... (photo by Sue Holland)

The crowds at the water parks increase significantly on particularly hot days and in the afternoons when the sun is hottest, so keep them in mind as you plan your day.

Park Closing Hours

Epcot closes at 9 p.m. or later every night during the year.  IllumiNations, the fireworks and music show that plays around World Showcase Lagoon, runs every evening at 9 pm. or later.  Although the Disney-MGM Studios, closes after Epcot during the quieter times of the year, has an awe-inspiring nighttime show called Fantasmic! that is not to be missed.

The parks are magical at night
The parks are magical at night

In contrast, the other parks have closing hours that vary widely during the year. During the busier seasons, the Magic Kingdom, the Studios, and Animal Kingdom are open later, so the evening can be a wonderful time to enjoy them. During the less crowded times of year, though, they close early, so you cannot plan a full evening there.

Personal Preference

Take my opinions and comments for what they are worth. Weigh your own wishes much heavier than my opinions as you balance these issues. Do you feel like riding Space Mountain this morning? Then you should catch the next transport to the Magic Kingdom. Do you have a hankering for a Cobb Salad at the Hollywood Brown Derby?  Then the Studios should be your destination.

The Hollywood Brown Derby
The Hollywood Brown Derby

I'm sure you see an even more valuable pattern forming...

Want More Information on Planning Your Day?

Walt Disney World Entertainment - Steve Soares site with WDW Entertainment Schedules.

 Developing a Daily Game Plan | Morning Chunk | Afternoon Break | Evening Chunk
Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide


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