Disney World is significantly less fun when it's crowded. This, I imagine everyone will believe and agree with. Nowhere is all that fun when you're battling 50,000 other people to enjoy yourself.
But we've got a few tried and true strategies to help you to make the most of your vacation in Disney World. Stick with these--and go with the flow--and you'll have a truly enjoyable Disney vacation.
Rule #1: Go when school is in session, and avoid major holidays
Because Disney is very appealing to families with kids, school vacations are the busiest time at Disney World. And while not everyone has the flexibility to follow Rule #1, it really is the best way to ensure you're not fighting crowds.
Disney is most crowded during Christmas week, Spring break, and Summer. If you're able, schedule your vacation for Fall (September-early December), late Winter (January-February), or late Spring (late April-mid May). Try to avoid three-day weekends when you can.
Rule #2: Go when the park opens and closes, and take a break in between
Disney's daily crowd levels are shaped like a bell curve: low in the early morning, high mid-day, then low again after the evening's fireworks or events. This is because most people arrive about an hour after the park opens (it's tough to get up and going that early in the morning), and begin to migrate out of the park after the final big event of the evening.
Be sure to get to the park 15 minutes before it opens, and you'll likely be able to get in two or three rides (and snag a fastpass for something else) on popular attractions with no wait just as the park's opening up.
Also, during busy times, Disney often keeps the parks open for an hour or two after the evening's fireworks or final big events, which means you can get another couple of hours of rides in while the park is emptying out.
How do you keep your stamina up? Head back to your hotel as the park is filling up mid-day (around 11am) and have lunch or take a nap. Then go back to the park around 3 or 4pm that evening. You'll be rested up while everyone else is just starting to lag.
Remember--Disney has a policy that if you're in line when the park closes, you get to ride that ride (no matter how long the line is).
Rule #3: Use fastpass
Fastpass is a genius system with which you can "wait in line" for a ride without actually waiting in line!
It works like this: go to an attraction you want to ride and get a fastpass at the fastpass stand. Your fastpass will give you a window of time in the future during which you will be able to bypass most of the"stand-by" line and get on the ride with a minimal wait. Simply return to the attraction when your window of time opens up, and show your ticket to the cast member at the fastpass entrance to the ride. You'll be on the ride in about 15 minutes or less.
Take note: you may only hold one fastpass at a time until your ride window opens up, or 2 hours pass. When one of those two things occurs, you're free to get another fastpass for another ride!
Also, though not explicitly stated by Disney, guests have been known to be able to use fastpasses when their window has passed. You can never use your fastpass prior to your window opening, but experience shows that you can use your fastpass after the window has closed. In other words, if you get a fastpass for Space Mountain in the morning, it should be useable when you come back that evening. Fastpass cannot be used on different dates.
Remember, the system is free with your entrance ticket.
Rule #4: Eat at weird times
This goes back to the bell curve idea: consider what everyone else is probably doing, then do the opposite! If you schedule lunch at 11am and dinner at 4pm, you'll probably be hitting the rides when everyone else is eating at noon and 6pm! Even better--have a late breakfast at 10 and a late lunch at 3... . You get the idea!
Rule #5: Skip parades and fireworks
Same concept again: folks line up for parades and fireworks an hour beforehand, meaning they're not in ride lines for about a two-hour period when you can be! If you're not able to do so in the early morning, ride the most popular attractions during parades and fireworks.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE TIPS AND TRICKS:
Consider Not Taking Disney Transportation
We have found that renting a car vs. taking Disney Transportation can save us tens of hours when we're at Disney World--especially when we're "opening" and "closing" the parks. Bus lines get horrendous during busy periods, as do monorail and boat lines. There's nothing worse than being exhausted at the end of a Disney day, only to go wait in another 60 minute line for a bus to take you to your hotel.
Avoid transportation crowds and rushes with a rental car or taxi.
Book an early ADR to avoid the park opening crunch
All four Disney World parks offer 8:00am-9:00am seatings for breakfast at restaurants in the park. Booking an 8:00am seating means you get into the park early, keeping you from dealing with the early morning crowd crunch at the turnstyles. It also means you get breakfast in without sacrificing ride time, AND you're already in the park when it opens, giving you a leg up on getting to your favorite rides before the turnstyle crowd!
Use Extra Magic Hours to your advantage
If you're staying in a Disney resort, consider using Extra Magic Hours--those hours that select parks are open early or late for resort guests only--to your best advantage. Check a "times guide", or an Extra Magic Hours flyer like the one to the right for Extra Magic Hours scheduled during your trip.
Morning EMHs will almost always be useful for avoiding crowds and getting onto popular rides with low waits, because a surprisingly few number of folks are willing to get up that early during their vacation! Evening EMHs we find to be more crowded, but tend to thin out into the wee hours of the night/morning. Plan to use that last hour of an EMH to your advantage while lots of others are tiring out and throwing in the towel.
We've learned from our members here on Walt Disney World for Grownups that a great way to use EMH is to visit the park holding morning EMH, then hop to the park that held evening EMH the night before. Chances are, everyone was at that EMH and won't be visiting the same park the next morning! This way, you get to take advantage of morning EMH without being hindered by the resulting crowd that stays in that park for the rest of the day, and you get to take advantage of the low crowds in the park that held EMH the night before. It might not always work, but it's a pretty good system to try!
Use the International Gateway Epcot entrance when you can
This entrance, located between the France and UK pavilions in World Showcase, is always less crowded than the main gates and will offer a real time savings at rope drop. You may have to walk slightly farther than you would from the main gate to reach Future World attractions, but that beats standing in endless lines to get through the turnstyles!
If you're staying in an Epcot resort (Boardwalk, Beach/Yacht Clubs, Swan, Dolphin), this tip will be a great one. If you're staying in another resort, this could be useful if you've booked an early breakfast at an Epcot resort and are heading into Epcot after breakfast.
Walk through stores on crowded days
This may sound silly, but when you're moving at a snail's pace up Main Street in the heat of summer, you'll thank us! The shops lining the "main" streets of Magic Kingdom and Hollywood Studios are usually connected to one another, meaning you have a straight thoroughfare through them. When crowds are pushing through the main street, you can retreat into the air conditioned shops and make your way to the same destination much faster. The shops are usually much less crowded than the main street.
This trick can also cut a few corners at Animal Kingdom and Epcot, depending on your destination. Just know that, as a general rule, the shops will be less crowded and cooler than the main thoroughfare, and they usually have more than one entrance, meaning you can use them to get from here to there.
We hope this primer will be helpful to you! Join us in our forums for more discussion, or visit our Where to go and what to bring section for great packing lists and more info about the best times to visit Walt Disney World!