Dream of Walt Disney World and you envision temperate days spent skipping merrily from “It’s a Small World” to a Mickey Mouse photo op to a space-themed roller coaster. In reality, carefree memory-making takes strategic planning or you might end up with memories like this:
A Disney World vacation is most enjoyable with airfare and hotel prices low, the thermometer hovering around 70°F and the crowds thin. You can, in fact, achieve a fun-filled family vacation when airfare and lodging costs are lowest and the crowds are thinnest. You might even be able to arrange for glorious weather as well.
Even if you’re the type to lounge outdoors during a heat wave up north, you won’t bask in a Walt Disney World trip from June through September. During that time span, the air sizzles into the 90s during most daylight hours and the humidity surges up to 100 percent, according to weatherspark.com. That adds up to a heat index that can exceed 100, according to the National Weather Service. From June through August, you’ll get a break most afternoons for an hour or less during monsoon-like rains with thunder and lightning; that’s a good time to scurry into an indoor attraction, restaurant or gift shop. Once the storms end, you’ll be comfortable outdoors for about an hour before the oppressive temps return.
Bottom line: Try to visit in late fall through early spring (except the last week of December). Beginning in late October and lasting until the end of March, you can practically count on sunny skies and moderate temperatures at Walt Disney World. (Of course, don’t forget that hurricane season runs through November but it is rare for a storm like that to impact WDW. It happens but it’s the exception and not the rule from August–November.) A few midwinter mornings a year are cold — so chilly that you’ll seek out cute gloves to warm numb fingers. By noon, though, you’ll have perfect weather just about every day.
Price aside, plan around what you like to do. Water parks appeal most during the hot summer months, while golf is best in spring and fall – unless you’re OK with shivering in the pool or hitting the greens in the cool of dawn. For the massive ESPN Wide World of Sports complex, time your visit by the calendar of events so you’ll be able to watch tournaments you’ll enjoy. And if someone invites you to a wedding at Disney’s Wedding Pavilion or elsewhere … bring a hat for the sun and a sweater for the air-conditioning.
In case entertainment from putt-putt to scuba experiences to theme parks — soon to include a lifelike Star Wars immersion — isn’t enough to draw in visitors, Disney World hosts special events, large and small, throughout the year.
Learn new gardening techniques and see detailed topiaries that resemble Disney characters, at the Epcot International Flower & Garden Festival. It runs more than a dozen weeks and features not only Disney topiaries, but festival-specific eats and concerts by your favorite bands of the ’70s-’90s.
There are fewer events in summer at Disney World, surely because the parks are packed. For a few days in August, however, the LGBTQ community holds its Gay Days gatherings in Orlando.
Culinary travelers time their visits for Epcot’s annual International Food & Wine Festival, filled with food stands, multicourse meals, food-and-wine parties, lectures, seminars and wine tastings over the course of several weeks. Alternatively, pack a costume and join the ghoulish crowd at Mickey’s Not So Scary Halloween Party, a ticketed evening at the Magic Kingdom.
During some winter weekends, the Epcot International Festival of the Arts offers interactive visual, performing and culinary arts. Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party at the Magic Kingdom, an after-dark celebration requiring special tickets, is a wholesome way to kick off the holiday season. Disney embraces the holiday spirit at the Epcot International Festival of the Holidays with several global incarnations of St. Nick, plus the Candlelight Processional nightly featuring celebrity readings of the biblical story of the birth of Christ. January’s Walt Disney World Marathon Weekend and February’s Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend are renowned for their multiple races — short, long and kids-only.
You can’t escape crowds altogether. Disney World’s four theme parks get 58.3 million visits through the virtual turnstiles a year, according to the TEA/AECOM 2018 Theme Index and Museum Index by the Themed Entertainment Association. That’s not even including folks who show up only for the complex’s golf, water park, shopping, dining, spas, wedding pavilion, entertainment and conference facilities. The Orlando area in total receives 75 million visitors annually.
During big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, Disney World gets so packed that the Magic Kingdom — the most iconic of the theme parks – sells out. The sister parks, Disney’s Hollywood Studios, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Epcot, draw hordes too. You’ll wait longer for rides, food and character encounters.
To avoid crowds at Walt Disney World, visit when most kids are in school. The ideal time is the three weeks after Thanksgiving break but before families descend for winter break. The weather will be cool and the lines will be short. Otherwise, try for a slot soon after Labor Day, when parents hesitate to pull their children out of school but the air is still steamy in Orlando, and in late January, presumably because families did all their traveling during the holidays.
It’s no coincidence that when the crowds are smaller, ticket prices are lower. Disney World charges less when fewer people show up. For example, as of June 2019, single-day tickets ran from $109 on most September weekdays to $150 between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Weekends tend to cost more than weekdays. You’ll save in subtle ways too. Notably, buffet restaurants and character meals cost a smidgen less during so-called “value seasons” than during peak times.
If you have the luxury of flexible dates, you can get cheap flights to the Orlando International Airport (MCO) during those same slow times at the theme parks. According to statistics on the travel app Skyscanner, January after New Year’s Day through early February has the least expensive airfare to MCO from major U.S. cities coast to coast, with September a close second. Nonstop rates begin at $29 from nearby Durham, North Carolina, in January.
You can stay in one of 20+ Disney-owned hotels and vacation villa resorts;. They include extras such as free theme-park parking, extended (and less-crowded) hours in the parks and complimentary transportation to and from theme parks and MCO. Like tickets, prices vary by demand. For example, the mid-level Port Orleans Resort charges $227 for its most modest room when park tickets are cheapest, and $318 on New Year’s Eve. Disney World’s “value” hotels uniformly offer fair prices starting at $112/night, plus friendly service and themed environments. Campsites begin at $63 a night.
You can upgrade to “Magic Your Way” packages, which might include park tickets and discounts at certain venues. You can also add on a Disney Dining Plan option to get prepaid daily snack and multicourse meal options, but those tend to offer real savings for big eaters, not light nibblers. Or you can stay in an “official” hotel on property that is owned and managed by another company; you’ll reap a lower cost but fewer perks, though free bus rides to and from the parks are standard. Further, you can stay in an unrelated hotel in the nearby Lake Buena Vista, Kissimmee or International Drive tourist areas. Some of those offer transportation too.
It’s not yet possible to use points directly to pay for Disney World tickets or hotels, but nearby chain hotels such as Hilton, Marriott and Holiday Inn do accept points from their programs.
While we hesitate to say there’s a bad time to visit Disney World, there are times that are definitely less crowded and easier to manage. By finding the sweet spot for your schedule, Disney’s slower seasons and any special events you want to take in, you can maximize the fun factor while saving both money and your sanity.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.