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For the most part, there is no "off-season" at Walt Disney World or Disneyland anymore. But finding the least popular dates is an important part at many stages of planning your Disney trip, from getting the cheapest flights to getting the most out of Fastpass+ to knowing which days to turn into resort days. This is where Disney crowd calendars come in.
In this post, we cover not only the basics of Disney crowd calendars (what they are and what the best ones are), but how to use them and, just as importantly, how not to use them. We also cover how you can handle the crowds if you wind up in a park on a busy day. Read on to learn everything you need to know about Disney World crowd calendars and Disneyland crowd calendars!
What is a Crowd Calendar?
A crowd calendar is (as you might guess) is a calendar that attempts to predict daily crowd volume at a theme park. When we talk about Disney crowd calendars, we are talking about either Disneyland crowd calendars or Walt Disney World crowd calendars.
Disneyland crowd calendars can be broken into Disneyland and Disney's California Adventure, though few calendars do this. You don't hear so much about Disneyland crowd calendars because the location and climate of Disneyland, as well as its having only two parks, means both parks are pretty much always crowded.
For Disney World crowd calendars, there will almost always be four calendars grouped together: a Magic Kingdom crowd calendar, an Animal Kingdom crowd calendar, an Epcot crowd calendar, and a Hollywood Studios crowd calendar.
Are there any official Disney crowd calendars?
No! Disney itself does not publish crowd calendars. The best crowd calendars come from Disney experts who use a variety of methods (discussed below) to make their predictions. The best way to see when Disney thinks the crowds will be highest is to look at the rack rates for the rooms.
Higher rates usually mean Disney expects more crowds. Then again, Disney obviously would like to be operating pretty near capacity as much as possible, so they often release deals to bring in the more budget-minded travelers when crowds might otherwise be low.
How do the authors build crowd calendars?
Good question! I reached out to a few people I know who’ve built crowd calendars and gotten mixed responses.
What Do Crowd Predictions Mean?
As expected, most crowd calendars are “self-explanatory.” They’ll give rough guidelines like “green means low crowds” or “red means avoid at all costs,” but those are only helpful to a point. Touring Plans, which we discuss more below, is a notable exception that ties its predictions to actual wait times.
How Do They Predict Crowds?
Most authors rely on a variety of methods, but they all start with some combination of: season (primarily weather), day of the week, school calendars, park events (e.g. the Walt Disney World Marathon, Food and Wine Festival, Mickey’s Not-So-Scary Halloween Party, or new rides opening), local events (e.g. spring break), holidays, and overall park popularity at the time.
We should mention here that two of the posts we recommend above, from Disney Tourist Blog, aren’t really crowd calendars. Rather, they’re just extensive, thoughtful blog posts on crowds at Disney World and Disneyland. We recommend the Disney Tourist Blog posts specifically because they’re reasonable, from experts we trust, and not going to bury you in a ton of overwhelming colors and data.
Most crowd calendars use very rough guidelines for their predictions, and the above combination of major factors allows them to get close enough. Let’s face it, if your calendar is just predicting “red,” “yellow,” and “green” days, the major factors driving crowd levels are often going to get you close enough.
What Are The Best Disney Crowd Calendars?
In the above section, we mentioned the major factors most Disney crowd calendars are relying on. But there is one crowd calendar that somewhat famously takes things to a new level: Touring Plans.
Data Driven Definitions & Predictions
We’re amateur data geeks. Between the two of us, we have a math degree and experience in data journalism, corporate analytics, and non-profit analytics. We believe in data. When it comes to leveraging data, Touring Plans is leagues ahead of other crowd calendars.
First, it’s important to understand that Touring Plans offers one of the few crowd calendars where they’ll actually tell you what its figures mean. Their crowd level metric is tied to average wait times on rides. Some other crowd calendars make somewhat vague references to wait times, but not with the same depth.
Second, Touring Plans uses data from a variety of sources to always be improving their predictions. This means that (theoretically), they should be getting more accurate over time. Guess what? I checked the data, and they actually ARE getting more accurate over time.
Finally, they actively check their predictions against reality, and they are transparent about their hits and misses. You can see how their wait time predictions yesterday did, and most of the time, they’re pretty close.
How Does the Competition Stack Up?
Data are great, but at the end of the day, the Oakland Athletics still haven’t won the World Series since 1989. If that reference is too obscure for you, I’ll be more straightforward: data matter, but results matter more. So, is Touring Plans really beating other crowd calendars?
This was a challenging question to answer. It’s quite difficult to figure out how to compare a crowd calendar that predicts a “green” day at Magic Kingdom to one that is predicting actual ride wait times. We’re working on a supplemental post that goes through how we wound up making these comparisons, but the short of it is that yes, pretty much any way we cut it, Touring Plans was more accurate than other crowd calendars.
Briefly, we compared the crowd calendars by seeing how their predictions matched reality. For green/yellow/red predictions, we tried to be as generous as possible while mapping those onto a ten-point scale. Even when we gave those color-based calendars the benefit of all doubts, Touring Plans was consistently the most accurate.
The Bottom Line ($)
This is sort of the elephant in the room. Full access to the Touring Plans crowd calendar requires a subscription that comes at a cost of $14.95 per year. (That subscription comes with plenty more than the crowd calendar.) That makes it the only paid option of the crowd calendars we listed above. $14.95 could almost buy you a whole cocktail at Disney prices…
Look. If you’re still reading this post, you’re obviously really invested in making your Disney trip perfect. $14.95 for the most comprehensive crowd and wait times predictions, as well as the touring plans for the parks and everything else they offer is probably a good deal. But we’ve got plenty more to cover in this post, so feel free to read on before making up your mind.
This was Crowd Calendars 101. You know what a crowd calendar is, have some idea of how they’re made, and what the most accurate one we’ve found is. But we’ve still got much more to say about crowd calendars, specifically whether and when you should use them.
What's the Controversy About Disney Crowd Calendars?
There are basically two schools of thought on Walt Disney World crowd calendars.
The first is that they are a necessary part of optimizing your Walt Disney World trip. Time is money at Walt Disney World, so spending more time in line because of crowds is a waste. Being stuck in a crowded park is also an unpleasant experience. If you can find the best Disney World crowd calendar by park, you can even figure out which days to spend at which parks (and which to save for Disney resort days).
The alternative theory is that crowd calendars are useless. Since day-to-day variations in crowds are mostly random, it's hard for them to get it right. The rest is basically common sense because it is an unavoidable part of your own planning. Parents don't need a crowd calendar to tell them spring break is going to be crowded because they're considering spring break for the same reason as everyone else!
Disneyland crowd calendars are maybe even more challenging. Because of its location and size, Disneyland is much more of a local experience than Walt Disney World. Things like weather and local events are more likely to impact crowd levels. Disneyland crowd calendars thus can give you something of a guide when it comes to specific local events (like spring break), but also will be very unreliable if something like bad weather strikes.
However, Disney offsets general seasonal patterns by blocking out annual passholders from certain days. Disneyland crowd calendars have a much wider set of variables to consider than Disney World crowd calendars.
What are the best things about Disney crowd calendars?
Crowd calendars are useful for trip planning, and we don't think you should complete ignore them for at least one reason.
You can and should use crowd calendars to avoid the big problems you might not know about
You should definitely check a crowd calendar or two before deciding when to take your trip. If you don't have kids, you might now know when spring break is (spring, I guess?). You might not know which days Florida or California kids get off school. You might not be a Disney fanatic who tracks every new ride. And so on.
Disney World crowd calendars should do a good job of outlining major events at Walt Disney World that drive vacationers. Disneyland crowd calendars are good for figuring out when Disneyland locals are going to pour into the parks.
Using the crowd calendars to make sure you're not picking an awful time is a reasonable thing to do. WDW Prep School has a great example of a useful crowd calendar that provides an outline of what is going on at the parks and the reasons to expect bigger or smaller crowds.
What's not as great about Disney crowd calendars?
Parks Are Too Dynamic To Predict
We're firmly in the camp that the crowd calendars are basically useless on a day-to-day basis. You can see this just by comparing them. The best ones frequently disagree, some having a day as the busiest at a park or resort while others say it will be completely empty.
Moreover, the parks change too much. Do you think the history of crowds at Animal Kingdom (now with Pandora) and Hollywood Studios (with rides closing and opening at a frenzied pace) will be useful at all in the coming years? No way! But if crowd patterns at two parks are changing, they'll change at the other two as well.
2018 is going to be a trying year for Disney World crowd calendars, particularly. Hollywood Studios is getting a new world when Toy Story Land opens up. Obviously, crowds will go up at Hollywood Studios, but how much? And will this be a "rising tide lifts all boats" and bring more long-term travelers to Walt Disney World? Or are those people going to wait until the new Star Wars area opens in 2019?
As we touched on above, Disneyland crowd calendars face the unpredictable nature of the behavior of lots of locals. Yes, people vacation at both Disney World and Disneyland, but the proportion of locals at Disneyland is much higher than Walt Disney World. Bad weather isn't going to make you cancel your vacation, or even stay inside on your vacation, but it may make you rethink a trip to a local park.
Disney Can Manipulate Crowds and Waits
"Manipulate" maybe has too much of a negative connotation, but the point here is that how Disney conducts its operations on any given day can impact "crowd" levels. We put crowd in quotes because you can have the same number of people in the park on two different days but have two very different experiences.
If Disney understaffs or overstaffs rides, for examples, wait times will be different than they would with proper staffing. Similarly, the number of Fastpass+ slots Disney allocates for a given ride will impact wait times. Disney Tourist Blog has a great discussion of operations and crowds.
Crowd Calendars Don't Tell The Entire Story
We visited Animal Kingdom on July 4, a classic "Red" or "Highest Crowds" day on most Disney World crowd calendars. The crowds were pretty large, even at rope drop (the time we were there). But guess what? They almost all went to Pandora! The wait for Flight of Passage was three hours when the day started, but we walked right on to Expedition Everest multiple times.
As the day wore on, the increased Pandora crowds obviously impacted wait times, but in the morning Pandora made it easier to get on rides, even on July 4! Not to mention, by keep our eyes on the ball and using Fastpass+ masterfully, we were able to get a ton of rides in on this supposedly crowded day.
When it comes to new rides, new lands, and special events, we never know in advance whether these attractions will cause congestion outside of additional foot traffic. Your Disneyland crowd calendar might say to avoid the opening of Pixar Pier, but you might find all the guests at Pixar Pier leave you the rest of the parks!
How To Beat The Crowds
If you wind up at the parks when the crowds are miraculously low, that's awesome. But if you're there when the crowds are high, you're going to need to know how to beat them. Let's cover some basics.
Master Fastpass+ At Walt Disney World, Fastpass / MAXPASS at Disneyland
Our Walt Disney World Fastpass+ strategy is our most popular post for a reason: it's detailed, and it works. On good days with some flexibility, you can fill a day at any Walt Disney World park without waiting in lines if you've mastered Fastpass+. On most days, you'll keep yourself to one or two long lines, at worst.
Similarly, while we haven't written about MAXPASS in depth (the Fastpass add-on at Disneyland), we had much success with it on our recent five-day trip to Disneyland. Undercover Tourist has good coverage of MAXPASS. The sad truth is too many people arrive at the parks with very limited, if any, understanding of these systems. You can't beat the crowds without understanding the Fastpass systems.
Pick Your Midday Attractions Carefully
There are going to be almost no short lines in the middle of the day. At that point, you've got two choices, assuming you're having no luck with Fastpass. First, you can lean in to the crowds. This means picking one or two rides with fun queues, preferably indoors, and waiting in them. Disney Tourist Blog has lists of the best queues in Disneyland and best queues in Walt Disney World. If you need to get as many rides in as possible, and you're not having Fastpass success, this is going to be your only choice.
But really, there's more to every Disney park than rides. Midday is really the best time to target non-ride attractions. This means parades, show attractions (like Festival of the Lion King and Philharmonic) and shows listed in the times guide and app as "entertainment" (like Burudika at Disney's Animal Kingdom). In most cases, if you're catching these in the morning, you're doing it wrong. And if you're skipping out on them because you think rides must be better, well, we think you're probably doing it wrong, but we get it.
Or Spend Your Midday Away From the Attractions and Parks
Whether you're in Disneyland or Walt Disney World, there is more to the resort than the rides and the parks. All the parks offer great restaurants, and this is a great way to enjoy some Disney magic in the middle of the day away from the crowds (and indoors). If you're more into beverage than food, you'll find good bars at every park other than Disneyland and Magic Kingdom.
If you're staying at a Disney resort, or a resort with easy transportation to and from the parks, consider spending the middle of your day back at the resort, enjoying the pool, food & drink, or activity offerings. Even if you're not staying at a Disney hotel, you can still visit one or two and take advantage of the restaurants, bars, and shopping. This is one of our favorite ways to scout resorts for future stays.
Even within their margins of accuracy, there are so much more important things to be worrying about than crowds. Fastpass+ availability and ADRs (advance dining reservations) are the biggies. If your favorite Epcot restaurant is only available at 4PM on a Tuesday but your partner says that won't work because Tuesday is a red day that week and you'll be at Animal Kingdom, where things are green, then go find yourself a new partner. If there is a way that over-planning can ruin a Disney trip, it is over-reliance on crowd calendars.
The truth is, if you're planning carefully, you'll be minimally impacted by crowds except between the weekend before Christmas and New Year's Day, when crowds usually reach unbearable levels. Once you've rope dropped and used your first set of Fastpasses, you'll be able to check wait times around the parks to see where to head next.
You'll have planned to get all your rides in via Fastpass, rope drop, or, last resort, waiting in line. But those you're waiting in line for? They shouldn't be the rides with waits of an hour plus. Double the crowd might take one of your lines from 20 to 40 minutes, but that's within the margin of error of Disney's line times anyways (joke, sort of).
All Your Other Disney World Planning Questions Answered
Don't be overwhelmed by Disney World planning! Take a second to check out our most important content and you'll not only be an expert, but you'll save big $$$ along the way. If you're still picking dates, we've got everything you need to know about Disney crowd calendars. For picking your hotel, check out our Walt Disney World hotels guide.
Don't forget to master your Disney World FastPass+ strategy a few months in advance. We'll keep you out of long lines so you can maximize the magical time in the parks! We've got park-specific guides as well: Magic Kingdom FastPass, Epcot FastPass, Animal Kingdom FastPass, and Hollywood Studios FastPass.
Finally, before you head out, be sure to check out our to-the-point packing list, 10 essentials you forget to pack for every Disney trip. And if you're interested in saving, there's no better list than our 53 Ways to Save on your Disney trip from start to finish.