Best Time of Year to Visit
Because of the large number of international visitors, there's really no off season at Disney, but during the winter months, usually mid-January through March, crowds are smaller (except on weekends), and the weather can be mild (though at times it can get quite cool). The crowds also thin from mid-September until the week before Thanksgiving, and in May, before Memorial Day weekend. (Again, weekends tend to be clogged with locals.) Summer is when the masses throng to the parks. It's also very humid and hot, Hot, HOT. If you can skip a summer visit, you also won't have to worry much about the possibility of a hurricane (admittedly rare, but as the summer of 2004 proved, not unheard of) or an electrical storm (an almost daily occurrence).
Best Days to Visit
The busiest days at all parks are generally Saturday and Sunday. Seven-day guests usually arrive and depart on one of these days, so fewer of them turn the turnstiles; but weekends are when locals and Florida commuters come to play. Beyond that: Monday, Thursday, and Saturday are pretty frantic in the Magic Kingdom; Tuesday and Friday are hectic at Epcot; Sunday and Wednesday are crazy at Disney's Hollywood Studios; and Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday are a zoo (forgive the pun) at the Animal Kingdom. Periods around major holidays also attract throngs -- mid-December through the first weekend in January is busy beyond belief. Crowds tend to thin later in the day, so if you're going to visit during the busy season and have included the Park Hopper option on your ticket, you'll bump into fewer guests the later you visit. This also applies to the water parks.
The big attractions at Animal Kingdom are, obviously, the animals, and the best time to see them is early in the day or late in the afternoon or evening, when things are cooler. You'll also get a decent midday glimpse of some of them during the cooler months. Note: If the forecast for the day calls for extended rain, you should save Animal Kingdom for another time because many of the primo attractions are outdoors.
It's not uncommon for the skies to open up on Orlando, even when the day begins with the sun ablaze. Florida is well known for its afternoon downpours, so don't be too concerned -- storms don't usually last too long. Most people simply run for temporary cover, and then resume their activities when the rain slows to a drizzle or stops altogether. It is wise, however, to bring along some type of rain gear, as storms can spring up rather quickly. A small fold-up umbrella can protect you until you can get to shelter. If you forget your gear, rain ponchos can be purchased throughout the parks for about $6 for a child-size poncho, or $8 for an adult size. The child-size poncho also happens to cover the average stroller quite well, protecting camera equipment and souvenirs -- not to mention the child sitting inside it.
Don't let a rainy afternoon spoil your fun. Crowds are dramatically thinner on these days, and there are plenty of indoor attractions to enjoy, particularly at Epcot, Disney's Hollywood Studios, and Universal Studios Florida, where many of the attractions are actually indoors. The flip side, of course, is that many of the outdoor rides and attractions at Disney, Universal, and SeaWorld are temporarily closed during downpours and lightning storms.
Note: If you're taking advantage of a land/cruise package, make sure you take into account hurricane season, which generally runs from around June 1 to November 30 (when the majority of Central Florida's afternoon downpours tend to occur). Inland, the worst is usually only sheets of rain and enough wind to wipe the smile right off your face. That said, the summer of 2004 (when three hurricanes passed through the area) was a noticeable reminder that the worst can happen, and 2005 brought with it what seemed like an endless number of storms, extending the rainy season well beyond the normal timeline. And while 2006 was relatively quiet weather-wise, tornados touched down and devastated areas just north of Orlando in 2007. Although the past few years have been relatively quiet, forecasters predict an increased number of storms in 2012 -- but how many will actually reach land (or affect areas as far inland as Orlando) is unknown. The moral of this story: Be prepared, because almost anything can happen. If you are on the coastal areas or at sea, you will likely be at the point where the storms hit their hardest, making them extremely dangerous. Tornadoes and lightning -- two particularly active summer curses -- should also not be taken lightly.
Hours of operation vary throughout the year and are often influenced by special events, so it's a good idea to call to check opening/closing times.
The Magic Kingdom and Disney's Hollywood Studios are generally open from 9am to 7 or 8pm, with hours often extended to 9pm and sometimes as late as midnight -- even 1am during major holidays and summer. Animal Kingdom is usually open from 9am to 5 or 6pm but sometimes closes as late as 8pm.
Epcot's Future World is generally open from 9am to 7pm and occasionally later. Epcot's World Showcase usually opens at 11am and closes at 9pm. Once again, there are extended holiday and summer hours.
Typhoon Lagoon and Blizzard Beach are open from 10am to 5pm most of the year (with slightly extended hours during summer and some holidays). Both are closed on a rotating basis during part of the winter for maintenance; be sure to check ahead if they're on your to-do list.
Shorter Days, Fewer Shows -- Although attendance has been steadily climbing back to where it had been before the hurricane season of 2004, the theme parks -- like everyone else -- are still feeling the financial crunch (though that didn't stop them from raising ticket prices by significant percentages in 2010 -- and again in 2011). Given recent history, increases should be expected again in 2012 -- they usually take effect in mid-August. If you haven't been to Disney in several years, you may notice that, in many cases, the parks close earlier than in previous years, and some areas open later. Additionally, select shows and parades are offered less often or only on certain days. In order to avoid being disappointed, call tel. 407/824-4321 or go to www.disneyworld.com for up-to-the-minute information.
Extra Magic -- Extra Time -- The free Extra Magic Hour program allows Disney resort guests (as well as those staying at the WDW Swan, the WDW Dolphin, and the Hilton at the Walt Disney World Resort) some extra playtime in the parks (even the water parks). Under the program, a select number of attractions, shops, and restaurants at one of the four major Disney parks (or one of its two water parks) open an hour early on scheduled mornings, and those at another park remain open up to 3 hours after official closing on scheduled evenings. And because only resort guests can participate in the Extra Magic Hour, crowds are almost nonexistent, and lines are much shorter -- not to mention that the temperatures are usually a lot more agreeable early in the morning and later in the evening.
To enter a park for the morning Extra Magic Hour, you must present your Disney resort room key and park ticket. For the evening Extra Magic Hour, your room key, park ticket, and a special wristband (for every member in your group) are required. You can obtain the wristband at the park scheduled to remain open that evening, but no earlier than 1 hour prior to park closing.
Warning: If you hold a ticket with a Park Hopper add-on, then you can attend any Extra Magic Hour at any park. But, if you hold a Base Ticket with no park-hopping privileges, then you can only attend the Extra Magic Hour at the park where you're spending your day. So, if you have only a Base Ticket and go to the morning Magic Hour at Epcot and spend the day there, you cannot head over to Magic Kingdom's evening Magic Hour on the same day. Call tel. 407/824-4321, or visit www.disneyworld.com for details.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.