11 Tips for Navigating Holiday Crowds at Disneyland

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No question, the holidays at Disneyland are truly magical. The decorations, special events, and holiday atmosphere put a smile on your face. These things also attract lots of extra people to the parks, making for long lines and crowded spaces. So if you must visit The Happiest Place on Earth over the holidays, what can you do to navigate the peak holiday crowds at Disneyland? These are 11 tips that will help keep the holiday Disney magic!

Disneyland holiday Mouse Ears
Mouse Ears souvenirs have holiday magic (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

How to Navigate Holiday Crowds at Disneyland

During your holiday trip to Disneyland, you want magic. You want to make memories with your family. What you don’t want is wasted time!

To make the most out of every minute during your holiday trip, follow these sure-fire tips on how to avoid long lines and holiday crowds.

1. Holiday Crowds at Disneyland: Know What to Expect

Expect lots of people. Very long lines for everything. Plan on waiting. Lots and lots of waiting. But despite all this (throngs of people, long lines, and endless waiting), you’ll also experience amazing shows, extravagant holiday decor, special seasonal treats, and a definite air of Christmas through both parks. Know what to expect and you can make the most of your Disneyland days.

When is the best time to visit over the holidays?

The easiest way of navigating holiday crowds at Disneyland is to avoid the peak season. If at all possible, avoid the week of Thanksgiving and the week of Christmas through New Year’s Day. These are traditionally the busiest weeks of the year. The last few weeks of December are projected to be the busiest. However, many locals crowd the parks on weekends, so expect the holiday-sized crowds at Disneyland throughout the entire month. When kids are out of school, expect the parks to be packed!

The parks will reach capacity on New Year’s Eve, filled with Magic Key pass holders and locals that stake out spots on Main Street U.S.A. for the shows very early in the day.

That said if the holiday season is the only time of year you are able to visit, approach your Disneyland holiday vacation with knowledge of what to expect. Make sure to let the rest of your family know as well since crowds and long waits can be very stressful for children.

Snowmen dancing in the Disneyland Christmas Fantasy holiday parade
Dancing snowmen in the Christmas Fantasy Parade at Disneyland (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

2. Summer Disneyland Tips Hold True in Winter

Plan ahead and buy your tickets early. You will need both a ticket and a park reservation. We recommend purchasing your Disneyland vacation package from our affiliate Get Away TodaySave $10 on a two or more night trip with code SheBuysTravel-–just for SheBuysTravel readers!

Arrive 30-45 minutes before park opening so you’re there for “rope drop.” Or take advantage of Extra Magic Hour, which allows Disneyland Resort guests into the Parks one hour before the official opening. An extra hour at Disneyland is a great reason to book your stay at a Disneyland Resort hotel!

Make the best use of your first two hours. By arriving early, you will have the time to get a Lightning Lane spot to a popular ride (like Radiator Springs Racers or Haunted Mansion Holiday) and still have the chance to ride one or more of these, as well. Be one of the first in the park and you might be able to rush to Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge for a ride on Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run with minimal wait time. I also recommend looking into the purchase of Genie Plus, the MaxPass replacement. This program greatly saves time by allowing you to book your Lightning Lane reservations via your mobile device.

Top of Christmas tree at Disneyland Main Street
Disneyland Christmas tree on Main Street USA (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

3. Plan Ahead and Make a Schedule

When crowd levels are high, it is very important to plan a general schedule for your day. Know ahead of time where you’ll start in the Park and avoid wandering aimlessly. Avoid zig-zagging across the Parks, which can be a challenge when crowds are thick. Instead, stay in one area and hit as many attractions as possible before moving to the next Land.

Pad your day with rides and attractions that aren’t “E-ticket,” especially in the busy afternoon hours. Wander Tom Sawyer Island and take the Monorail. Explore Animation Academy and hop aboard the Disneyland Railroad. People watch in Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge or in Pixar Pier. Or simply grab a seasonal treat and check out the incredible holiday decorations throughout the Lands.

Meeting Holiday Characters at Disneyland

Is meeting Disney characters dressed up for the holidays is a big part of your vacation? Kids can also arrange a one-on-one chat with Santa Claus! The best tip is to get times and locations is to add the Disneyland app to your smartphone or device before traveling.

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Play around with the app at home to navigate and get an idea of where and when favorite characters will be available during your visit.

Frontierland Santa Claus sign at Disneyland
Find out where to meet holiday characters (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

4. Make Advanced Dining Reservations

Although Advance Dining Reservations (ADR) aren’t necessary other times of the year at Disneyland, ADR is a must during the busy holiday season if you want to reserve a table at a full-service restaurant. You can book ADR on the Disneyland website and hold the reservation with a credit card. Don’t want full-service dining? Then no ADR needed.

How to Save Time When Dining

Before your trip, browse menus online (listed on the Disneyland website) of the restaurants you’d like to eat at. If you know what you’ll be eating, you’ll spend less time wandering around looking for a place to dine, and you’ll already know exactly what to order.

When traveling with another adult, have one person order for the group and another person find a table, so as to avoid searching for an open spot while carrying trays of food.

5. Queue Troubles: Holiday Crowds at Disneyland

During the holidays, forget about “walk-on” attractions. You’ll be waiting for everything from Dumbo to dining and just to use the bathroom. Start your search now for ideas to entertain kids while waiting in line.

We play games in the line (like “I Spy”). Or grab a bag of snacks from your backpack to eat in line. This keeps everyone in a good mood and meltdowns to a minimum when you finally reach your destination.

6. Max Capacity at Disneyland

On those crazy-busy days (like New Year’s Eve), don’t leave the Park. When the Parks reach their maximum capacity, you’ll be turned away at the gates even if you have a ticket in hand. So don’t leave.

That means no Park Hopping either.

7. Deck the Halls and Stay Late

One of the plusses to visiting Disneyland during a busy season is the extended Park hours — late into the night. If you can take advantage of this, all the better for you! Crowds thin into the night when families with young children head out.

After the final parade and shows are over, crowds will decrease even more. Stick it out until closing, and your last hour may prove to be your best with shorter lines.

8. How to Avoid Disneyland Holiday Crowds

If the crowds are getting to you, escape the Parks via Monorail and hit the Downtown Disney District. Shop for gifts or treat your family to seasonal surprises available at many of the restaurants.

Walking through the lobby of the Disney Grand Californian Hotel & Spa is a treat of its own as well, with an enormous Christmas tree and gingerbread house in the lobby. Santa even makes an appearance on occasion!

9. Experiencing Seasonal Overlays

Haunted Mansion Holiday is insanely popular, and rightly so! The transformation of the Haunted Mansion into Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas is stunning.

“It’s a small world” is generally a fast-moving line that rarely has a very long queue…except, when it’s transformed into “it’s a small world” Holiday! This ride is completely changed over, inside and out, for the holidays and is a can’t miss attraction.

Over at Disney California Adventure Park, you’ll find two additional holiday ride overlays, both in Cars Land. Luigi’s Joy to the Whirl and Mater’s Jingle Jamboree are both great choices for younger kids.

Interior of it's a small world - holiday at Disneyland
“it’s a small world – Holiday” at Disneyland (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

10. Holiday Shows & Entertainment

Disneyland Holiday Shows & Entertainment

  • Because of the expected crowds during the holiday season, both Parks offer several parades and fireworks showings. In most cases, the later shows will be less crowded and therefore highly recommended– if your kids can stay up past 10 p.m. to watch them, that is! In all cases, plan on arriving at your viewing location at least 30 minutes early (even earlier if it’s the early show).
  • A Christmas Fantasy Parade will be featured twice daily at Disneyland. Believe…In Holiday Magic fireworks spectacular and two showings of Fantasmic! light up the night.
  • Candlelight Processional in Disneyland will take place only on the first weekend of December. We were there in the Park several years ago about an hour before Candlelight Processional started and Main Street U.S.A. was chaos. There are chairs for reserved seating and those that don’t have a seat stake out their locations hours ahead of time to be assured a view of the stage. I’m sure this is a beautiful event (choir singing, celebrity reading of the Christmas story), but unless you have a chair, Cast Members will keep the sidelines moving and it’s extremely crowded. I’d recommend staying at Disney’s California Adventure Park during this time to avoid the scene completely.
Disneyland holiday fireworks
“Believe…In Holiday Magic” fireworks show (Joshua Sudock/Disneyland Resort)

Disney California Adventure Park Shows & Entertainment

  • Disney California Adventure park hosts the Disney Festival of Holidays. Kiosks will be offering specialty holiday foods for purchase including gingerbread Bundt cake, tamales, Swedish meatballs, and eggnog. I recommend grabbing your treats at each kiosk earlier in the day because the lines definitely increase as the day goes on.
  • There will be two nightly showings of the popular World of Color-Season of Light, a holiday water show at Disney California Adventure park.
  • If you’re looking for a holiday event that has fewer crowds, try Disney !Viva Navidad! This festive street party is featured in the Paradise Garden. The holiday event celebrates Latino culture with giant “Mojiganga” puppets, familiar characters in costume with music and dancing. This event happens for most of the day, which helps keep the crowds lighter in this area.
Festival of Holidays at Disney’s California Adventure Park (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

11. Go With the Flow

You know that visiting Disneyland during a peak time always means more people in the Parks. By coming prepared with your day loosely scheduled, Advance Dining Reservations in hand, family prepped on expectations and tickets at the ready, you’ll be far more prepared than most.

And what if things just don’t go as planned? Just go with the flow and have fun in the moment. Soak up as much magic as you can, because it’s not all about how many rides you go on or how many character autographs you collect. It’s about making memories with your family!

What are your survival tips for navigating holiday crowds at Disneyland? Share with us in the comments.

anna waves to the crowds from a float with olaf and elsa text reads disneland complete guide to navigating holiday crowds
We’ve got tips that you need to know to navigate Disneyland holiday crowds with ease. (Photo Credit: Julie Bigboy)

One response

  1. I believe It’s A Small World has a Fast pass this holiday season.
    : )

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