There’s a long-standing tradition in my family that you start your Disney visit with a photo in front of the castle. If visiting the California parks, then you start with Disneyland; if traveling to Walt Disney World you begin with the Magic Kingdom, etc.; you get the idea. But with the parks expanding, and the introduction of boarding groups for the new Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge addition on top of the evolving FastPass+ systems, sometimes the obvious starting points aren’t always the most time-effective ones.
Now, if you have a nostalgic connection with the original parks and always like to begin with the same lineup of rides, then keep doing your thing. But, for those of you who are looking to make the most of your time on Disney property, let’s look at some considerations to keep in mind when choosing how to order your park visits.
Know the park times
This might seem like an obvious one, but I would be remiss to leave it off the list. When you’re chomping at the bit to enjoy your first day of Disney, no one wants to wait for a late opening time. The parks usually have different hours for opening and closing, so make sure you know what you are working with. Whenever you can start early, take the advantage and get a head start on the park crowds.
Check for Magic Mornings and early closing for special events
Magic Mornings are a great way to get into the parks early with a limited amount of people. If you are eligible for one, take advantage when you can. If you aren’t able to get your early Disney on through Magic Morning / Extra Magic Hours entry, consider swapping this park for another that day. While the morning itself may be a little quieter, once the usual traffic piles in as well, the park can be more crowded than it might be on other days. Regular entry at a park that isn’t offering early morning entry may be a better way to utilize your time and avoid the crowds.
There is a new trend of special ticketed events that seems to be becoming more and more frequent. With Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party and Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party starting earlier and earlier each year, it’s easy to be caught off-guard when a park closes early for guests with regular admission. Double check that your plans don’t coincide with any of the special themed nighttime hard ticket events that aren’t included with your regular ticket price.
Consider your dining reservations
Making plans with smooth transitions is a crucial factor when creating a successful schedule. If you have dining reservations in one of the parks, it might be best to enjoy the day there so that you aren’t rushed for time. Even if you have Park Hopper tickets, you may not want to cut your day short to account for the added transit time to get to your reservation in another area or park.
Strategically schedule your resort day
If you are planning to take a break from the parks and throw a resort day into the mix, your next Disney day might be the best one to try out that early arrival at Hollywood Studios for Rise of the Resistance or Animal Kingdom for Flight of Passage. The rest from the day before will make the early start that much easier and help you get the most out of your long day.
Space out nighttime activities
Having park days with back-to-back nighttime activities can leave you exhausted and struggling for energy the next day. Keep your nighttime plans in mind, and try to space out those park days. This is less of a consideration if you have Park Hopper tickets and are not committed to one park for the day, but it’s still something to be mindful of in order to conserve energy.
Be aware that certain shows are only available on particular days, such as Fantasmic in Disneyland or some fireworks displays that are more frequently available for Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings. Others may differ in timing from weekdays to weekends, such as California Adventure’s World of Color that currently shifts between 9pm and 10pm.
Make allowances for weather
We can plan in advance for many of the factors I’ve mentioned thus far. Dining, FastPasses, attractions, most of those are predictable and, with the right planning, can be added into our plans ahead of time. What we can’t allow for is the weather.
If you are traveling at a time when the weather can be particularly unpredictable, think about keeping your plans loose so that you can make changes at the last minute if a storm rolls in or there is a prediction of heavy rain. Obviously, you might want to give the water parks a miss in cold weather, but you may also want to look at a different park altogether if trying to move young children around in the downpour. Some parks provide more shelter from the elements than others, so, if possible, keep your mind open to making changes as needed.
Consider your traveling party
If you are traveling with a group of people that may have varying levels of Disney exposure, it might be better to start off slowly with a less intense park like Animal Kingdom or Epcot. Alternatively, if you are bringing along a family member that is less than enthusiastic about Disney, you can use these two parks as alternates for Magic Kingdom or Hollywood Studios days to help give a little bit of relief from the intensity of princesses and parades.
Planning for younger kids? It might be beneficial to look at their big ticket experiences first just in case everything becomes overwhelming. That way, your special photos with Minnie and Mickey will be filled with fresh-faced smiles rather than overstimulated frustration.
If you are working with the challenges of special needs, and struggle with the noise and crowds, work up to the more intense parks and start with quieter areas of Animal Kingdom like Kilamanjaro Safaris or some of the walking trails. You can also use these as a great way to take a break and help your child regulate their mind and body if they are having difficulty coping with the rest of the park.
Even though it feels as though each trip should begin and end with a castle, on our last visit, we opted for a different strategy and started our Florida leg with Epcot and our Californian stopover with California Adventure. During our planning, we kept a combination of the above determinants in mind.
The short answer is that the right plan for your park days won’t be the same for everyone, so check out some of the considerations above and see what might be the best way to navigate your way through your next Disney vacation.
Zoë Wood is a travel writer from Sydney, Australia. Since her first visit to Disneyland at the age of 6, she has spent her years frequently visiting Disney Parks and traveling around the world.
Join Zoë as she lets you in on all the tips, tricks, anecdotes, and embarrassments that arise from her family adventures.