Planning a Disney Theme Park Vacation: When Do You Go?

by Adrienne Krock, staff writer

So you want to take the family on a Disney vacation. Once you decide which location to visit, you need to decide when to go. This week we asked: Off-Season - High Season - Summer - Winter - When do you go on a Disney Theme Park vacation?

Elizabeth, who posts on our MousePad message board as eabaldwin, has been a Disneyland Annual Passholder since 2010. She and her husband have two daughters, ages 8 months and 2.5 years. Elizabeth writes:

We prefer to visit the Disneyland Resort during the off season, since we like to avoid the large crowds. There really isn’t a time when Disneyland is not crowded at all, but we do try to plan for days that would be less crowded. We usually head up to Disneyland about once a month, and very rarely on a weekend. The summer is my least favorite time to go, with the heat and the crowds. We went June 10 for a Cars Land preview, and didn’t go again until after Labor Day. I remember going as a kid and it was just so hot and so crowded. Since we have the opportunity to go pretty much at any time we would like, we would rather go at other times that aren’t as busy.

An organization to which my husband belongs holds a convention each year at the end of September. We have made this into a little vacation for the last couple of years. While it is still warm at that time, the crowds are a little smaller since schools are back in session and the Halloween holiday crowds haven’t picked up yet. We have really enjoyed going at this time of year for the past few years.

We also really enjoy going during the Holiday season. We have gone for the past three years (since we have lived in Southern CA) to DL for Thanksgiving where we enjoy a day in the parks and Thanksgiving dinner at the Grand Ballroom in the Disneyland Hotel. There is something even more magical, I think, when the parks are decorated for the holidays. While this time of year is increasingly popular, we still try to time it so that the crowds are a little smaller, like going during the middle of the week.

We are taking advantage of this time when our kids are young enough that we don’t have to plan our trips for when school is on a break. It allows us to go during more off-peak times and deal with fewer crowds.

Chris, also known as GusMan, is always planning his next family trip to the Walt Disney World Resort and loves to help others plan their trips, as well sharing his experiences. Chris writes:

As we start the New Year, my family is starting to plan the outline of our next trip to the Walt Disney World Resort. In talking with friends and neighbors, they do occasionally ask when we think is the best time to take a family vacation. In risking sounding like it could be a wish-washy answer, we usually say “it depends.” While there are certainly differences in crowd levels and price points that vary with the time of the year, the variable usually lies with the actual dates in which the family is available for a vacation.

For some people, vacation time may be limited by constraints placed by an employer. In some cases, it is simply harder to take a vacation during traditionally busy times. Those in retail sales, for example, might not be able to take time off near the end of the year because of holiday sales. Teachers might be limited to take time off during the summer months or during the end of the year or spring break. The problem is that the times available in these examples may vary widely. At the same time, some children might go to very strict schools where attendance is watched closely and a family vacation during the school year is frowned upon. Seasonal breaks may be the only options while some students or younger children may not have such limitations. In essence, it becomes easy to see that availability plays a very strong role in the trip planning process.

My family vacationed at all times of the year when our children were younger. We found in these cases, it was easier to vacation during the off-season, specifically the dates on the edges of the busier, peak seasons. The weather would still be very favorable while being able to tour at a very relaxed pace or even hit more attractions throughout the trip. If availability was no object, we would certainly give the off peak season, a serious look. Our favorite times were around Halloween and right after Thanksgiving. The parks are festively decorated for the changing seasons and there is always something exciting in store between the different special parties.

Once our children grew up and the school districts started to regulate our vacation time more, the summer months started to look like our only option. We tried different trips throughout the peak months and found that the sooner we got down to Florida after school let out, the better. A summer trip can be done with great success. However, a longer stay is recommended while also making sure that you have a plan for touring. You can still be relaxed after a summer trip—but planning a bit more will make sure that you do not wander aimlessly as the crowds get heavier. I say this after our first WDW trip, in mid-August mind you, proved to us that there was a serious difference in how you tour between the peak and off-seasons. We were simply not prepared for the heat, humidity, or crowd levels. Trust me, you only make that mistake once. Subsequent trips have been nothing but magic.

Sure, we gave spring break and fall break a shot, as well. However, being that we like to drive down to Florida, saving travel costs, the extra time needed eats into the actual time touring. Still very valid times to go—and we loved our trips during these breaks—but you need to determine if your typical method of travel isn’t going to eat too much into your touring time. Sometimes you have more time than money. Sometimes you need to spend more money to get more vacation time.

My recommendation to anyone who is on the fence about when to go is to pick a time that will give the biggest opportunity for you to actually enjoy the vacation with the least amount of concern for variables that are in your control. Items such as weather, historical crowd information, and seasonal cost differences, are much less within your control, but can at least be researched so you can know what to expect. From that point, you can set your goals to enjoy your vacation and create magical moments with your family.

MousePlanet columnist Chris Barry his wife Diane, 11-year-old Samantha, and twin 8-year-olds, Casey and Alex, live on Long Island and are all major Disney and Walt Disney World fans. Chris writes:

Of course, the easiest answer to this query is…anytime is a good time to head to the Walt Disney World Resort! There’s definite truth hidden in that slightly exaggerated statement. I’ve never been disappointed in a trip to Walt Disney World. We’ve been there in each of the four seasons. I’ve been there in the heat of summer and in the coolness of fall. I’ve had to purchase a fleece jacket at Animal Kingdom in December and experienced quite perfect temperatures at the Epcot Flower and Garden Festival in April and May. They’ve all been wonderful trips and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite time of year.

Historically, we’ve actually gone to Walt Disney World the most in, of all times, late August. To some people, Orlando in August just seems like a crazy notion. Here’s a news flash for you all. It’s hot in Orlando…a lot of the time. Accept that fact. They put the place in Florida for a reason…so that they could have the maximum days of “open for business weather” at their disposal. Imagine a Disney park in New York City, as suggested to Walt after the New York World’s Fair of ’64-’65 by the infamous builder/tyrant Robert Moses. It’s going to be in the 20’s tonight here on Long Island. That would certainly put a damper on Wishes, wouldn’t it? Accept that you might be in for a hot spell when you head down to Disney and you’ll be better off. Besides, nobody does air-conditioning like Disney. You are always just a short stroll away from a crisp and cold AC break in a gift shop, bus, restaurant or attraction. It makes August very doable.

Late August works for us. I’m in the education business and that means my vacations are the same time as just about everyone else in the country, give or take a few days here and there. That said, I have no interest in heading down there during Christmas week, February break or Easter week like just about everyone else in the country. Much of the South goes back to school in the last two weeks of August. This noticeably drops the crowds down in Walt Disney World. It’s still busy…it’s always busy…but there’s a bit of sanity in late August that people don’t always expect. It’s also when Disney does something absolutely wonderful as far as I’m concerned. They drop their hotel prices! Late August is considered a Value or Value II season, depending on which level of resort you choose. This can save you more than a few bucks compared to other times of the year. Couple that with some of the deeper discounts like free dining or the recent 30 percent- to 40 percent-off rates that have been enacted starting in late August and it’s been our go-to season for several years now.

An off-weekend in fall, early December or non-spring break weekends in April or May are all great bets for Walt Disney World. There are great events going on, as well. The weather is pleasant and crowds are lower. But, working where I work, in the same school system as my three kids, disappearing to Disney during these times is tough. That’s why we’ll brave the heat, swim in the pools, and take advantage of Disney’s always cranking air-conditioning and head to our favorite vacation destination in late August. But, now that I’ve said that…I almost feel like I should dissuade you all from coming down there at this time. I like the shorter lines!

It's your turn—keep the discussion flowing!

Visit the Parenting in the Parks forum on our MousePad discussion board, and share your opinions about this topic or many others, or send your suggestions via e-mail. Reader-submitted tips might be used in a future article, and you might be selected to participate in an upcoming panel discussion!



  1. By mkelm44

    My favorite time of year... January. Yeah, I know, I know... but that's when it is. Because of how spread out my family is, we tend not to do much during the holiday season, plus going to work the last couple of the weeks of the year tends to be pretty low key. The rare Orlando cold spell (upper 30's/lower 40's) doesn't really phase me or my wife since we both grew up in colder climes (New England for me, Minnesota for her) so we know how to handle that temperature. There are no problems getting hotel rooms and rates are at their lowest for both airfare and hotels. The park themselves are not very busy, so in 4 or 5 days in the parks we might never wait more than 20 minutes but once or twice (oddly enough Peter Pan tends to have the longest line) so long as we are smart about park management and fast time usage. Because the parks aren't the busiest, I don't have to make dining reservations quite as far out either. Also, because the parks are less crowded we don't feel quite so rushed, so we can slow ourselves down and smell the flowers (literally and figuratively). Seriously, in 4 full days, we probably can get more done with less rushing than we would in a week in March... so I'd say offpeak January for me.

  2. By fdcmp

    I think the rules vary widely and are based on the part of the world the park is in.

    Disneyland, I'd visit anytime. The weather has the least-extremes of all of the Properties, and *every* Saturday/Sunday it's like summer as far as entertainment.

    Florida--sometimes one doesn't have a choice because business or school schedules have pressed us to visit during the summer, but if I could choose, I wouldn't go anywhere near Central Florida except October-February for the weather, and within that range, I rule out the actual holiday days surrounding Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years. And I favor February over January as it can be unexpectedly busy in January for a variety of reasons.

    Paris--July-September has pretty nice weather, but the entertainment calendar a Stateside guest might expect for "summer" only really exists in August and December, so if I had a choice, I'd say July-into-August: July for the weather and lesser crowds, and August for a full entertainment schedule but a crush-loaded park. December it's freezing; if one is used to that sort of weather it's probably fine, but I grew up in Aulani weather, so it's not for me, personally.

    Tokyo--The rule I'd use would be to fit the visit time of year to how much you like Seattle weather in the same period.

  3. By GusMan

    FDCMP - thanks for the additional insights for Paris and Tokyo. I liked the Tokyo-Seattle reference.

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