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Disney World Crowds in 2012: Christmas/New Year’s 2011-2012

By Dave Shute

In this post, I’m covering the Christmas-New Year’s season 2011-2012.

(I’ve also posted on spring break crowds at Disney World here and summer 2012 crowds at Walt Disney World here.)


Disney World usually sees its highest crowds and prices of the year in the second half of December, in the week that includes Christmas, and the next week that includes New Year’s Eve.

This is for a pretty basic reason: most kids are out of school these weeks.

However, not every school district has the same break schedule.

  • Not every kid gets two consecutive weeks (or more) off
  • And the days of the week that these holidays fall on matter

As a result of all this, I’m seeing the week beginning the 17th of December 2011 as an OK week, with crowds beginning to build in the middle of that week and lasting through the morning of 1/2/2012.


School breaks are ultimately determined by state/local factors.

Legal and union-negotiated holidays and breaks are the key drivers, community tradition about the length of breaks the next most important, and after that factors shaping the timing and length of winter school breaks range from targeted semester end dates to heating costs to the wish to limit scheduled breaks so that more snow days can be banked to the wish to limit short weeks.

There’s three archetype districts:

  • Long breakers–districts that take at least 2 full weeks (and three weekends) off
  • Short breakers–districts that take off as close to only December 25 to January 1 as they can
  • Shorter breakers–districts that start with a December 24th to January 1 mindset, but are happy to extend the break if they reasonably can, especially to avoid one or two day school weeks before the 24th or after the 1st

For example, in a year (NOT 2011!) when Christmas is a Wednesday, New Years will also be a Wednesday.  Districts that traditionally take 2 weeks off will have it easy–they will mostly be off from the Monday before Christmas to the Friday after New Years.

Districts that take less time off will have a more complicated set of calendar calculations, but most will be off from Christmas itself through the Wednesday New Year’s Day.

However, many districts with traditionally shorter breaks will look at the  two-day week before Christmas and the two-day week after New Years and simply decide that it costs little and gains much to take one or both of these weeks completely off.

As a result, the Wednesday Christmas, and the patterning of school breaks around it, will make it equally easy for families to head to Walt Disney World either week.

This results in high crowds at Disney World both the week of Christmas and the week of New Years.

The 2011-2012 holiday season is very different. Christmas 2011 is not during the work week, but rather on a Sunday (and thus so is New Year’s Day 2012.)

Since almost all labor contracts require workday holidays for days that normally would be off that happen to fall on a weekend, what this means is that that typical  “short school break” will be the week after Christmas until the Monday after New Year’s Day, and the typical “shorter break” will be Thursday the 22nd through Monday the 2nd.

These beginning and end dates don’t create anything like the force to two full weeks that the Wednesday Christmas in the above example has.

As a result, in 2011 many fewer kids will have two week breaks, and the first part of the week of December 17th should be much better in terms of crowds than the usual “week before Christmas” is at Walt Disney World.


The chart to the right illuminates this.

It’s based on data from a weighted sample including more than 125 of the largest relevant US public school districts.

(Click it to enlarge it; when it opens, click it again to enlarge it more.)

You can see that Saturday 12/17 begins the Christmas break season, but for less than half of kids. More kids start getting off beginning Wednesday 12/21, and by 12/24 pretty much everyone is off.

Breaks continue, essentially, through January 2, and then drop precipitously.

At the simplest level, what this means is that about half of kids can only go to Disney World the one week that includes both Christmas and New Years, and that half of kids can go either week.

Given this, if the half that can go either week is randomly distributed between the two possible weeks, then 3 times as many kids will be at Disney World the week between Christmas 2011 and New Years 2012 than the prior week.

(I.E. 100% of half the kids plus 50% of the other half of kids yields 75% of kids, and leaves 25% of kids–and 75% is 3x 25%.)

Of course it’s not quite that simple, because of the build beginning the 21st.

So what I expect is to see the week of the 17th to begin quite slowly compared to comparable incredibly busy weeks in prior years, and then to build to very high levels beginning the 22nd.

Worth noting is that the holiday price season begins in 2011 on Friday the 23rd and ends in 2012 on Sunday the 1st.

Price seasons aren’t crowd calendars–they are more subtle than that–but certainly if Disney expected hordes beginning 12/17 prices would go up then, not the 23rd.

I expect crowds to remain high through the morning of January 2nd 2012, given that almost 90% of kids are off that day, and then drop the rest of the first week of January to typical January lows until crowds begin building again late in the week for the Marathon weekend.



1 Tina { 10.31.12 at 10:53 pm }

Hi Dave, My daughter (18) and I (NC) are joining a friend (CO) and her daughter (17) at DW. My friend is arriving in Orlando early afternoon on 12/18 leaving mid-afternoon of 12/24/2012. We have asked for early check-in. My daughter and I have gone to DW multiple times; however my friend/daughter are 1st timers. We usually are very well planned (scheduled) to maximize seeing all parks/shows and usually are in the parks from opening to closing; however, I am not too sure that will work for my friend. Our pace is usually exhausting. My friend has agreed to some very scheduled days and other leisurely days. We have the 4 day park hopper passes. We plan to visit the hotels (Christmas decor) and downtown Disney on our day off. (Not interested in Cirque/Quest) I would greatly appreciate any help/suggestions scheduling our days. I considered going to Magic Kingdom on 12/19 because of the later operating hours. But, I am uncertain of how to best utilize the our days. We want to see Osborne lights & Candlelight Processional….and of course fireworks as we are able. We usually make short 1 to 2 hour visits to Epcot & Disney Studios for extra time on favorite rides~I know this may not be possible this visit. I will be driving to the parks daily to facilitate “hopping” (less wasted time on buses). We are staying onsite, non Disney hotel. We will have meals onsite/offsite as necessary. Thank you for any suggestions on how to best use our 4 day hopper. 🙂

2 Dave { 11.01.12 at 11:23 am }

Tina this is tricky, as you will have massive crowds beginning the 21st and then really being overwhelming the 22nd and on. See this:

So that suggests you should do your park visiting bang bang bang at the beginning of your visit. If you are willing to do this let me know and I’ll make some suggestions.

Note that beginning the 22nd there’s not much point to park-hopping unless you are doing it for evening fireworks, as all the FATSPASSES for the great rides will be distributed in the morning and waits will exceed 120 minutes by afternoon…
So let me know if you are willing to push your park visits into the 18th-22nd…

3 Tina { 10.31.12 at 11:28 pm }

….ps, just to clarify, I want to go through all 4 parks; and if possible, “hop” to Animal Kingdom (Everest) & Disney Studios (Tower of Terror/Rockin Roller Coaster) for extra ride time in early AM- then continue on to a “scheduled park”. Thanks! 🙂

4 Tina { 11.01.12 at 12:00 pm }

Thanks Dave! Because my friend is coming from CO, I just don’t think she will be able to do the parks on the 18th (exhaustion). Her flight doesn’t arrive until 3pm and we will have to check into our rooms first.

I was afraid we wouldn’t be able to do our ‘normal’ 1 hour visits to Animal Kingdom/Disney Studios because of the congestion and how much it will delay us. We’ll skip that. 🙁

I am buying the military 4day, do you suggest skipping the hopper? I originally wasn’t going to buy it because we only have a 4 day and I want my friend to see everything, but I thought it would be helpful for fireworks if my friend can “hang” in the evenings. I am all for “bang, bang, bang”. I am just concerned about my friend. My daughter and I can go 4/5 days straight, but I think my friend may need a mid-trip break. Maybe you can suggest a “bang bang bang” schedule and also a “bang, rest, bang” schedule?….lol. 🙂

Thank you for offering your help. Even though we have been to DW many times, it’s difficult to know how to plan for a 1st timer because they don’t know the pace they have to keep to see everything….especially at the Holidays. 🙁 It’s actually my favorite time of the year to go, even with the horrendous crowds, but the 24th is the latest I will attempt entering a park. This year, the 23rd.

5 Dave { 11.01.12 at 12:40 pm }

Tina–one more question before I finally give you an answer!

You’d said you were staying at an on site but non-Disney hotel.

Which one matters, as some (like Shades of Green, Swan and Dolphin, and Hilton) get you access to extra magic hours, and others don’t. Can you tell me where you are staying?

6 Tina { 11.01.12 at 6:35 pm }

Ummm, my daughter booked the hotel for me, I am not sure which one. It’s not any of the ones you listed above (no magic hours). It’s near downtown Disney.

7 Dave { 11.02.12 at 6:26 am }

OK Tina, here’s then what I suggest: Epcot or HS the 19th. Take the 20th off. Do MK the 21st. Do AK or Epcot the 22nd–if AK, then hop to MK in the evening for fireworks/parade. Reserve your fourth day to either return to one of these parks, or to go to HS. On your fourth day, hop (if needed) in the evening to see whatever evening fireworks you’ve missed so far. Everything will be wild the 23 and 24th, but Epcot and MK are worse choices the 23rd, and MK and HS worse choices the 24th..

8 Tina { 11.02.12 at 12:48 pm }

Dave, Thank you so much! We will follow your advise. 🙂

9 Dave { 11.03.12 at 7:16 am }

Tina, come back here after you’re done and let me know how your Colorado guest held up!

10 Vin { 11.05.12 at 8:28 pm }

We are going on the 9th of December for 5 days with 2 girls, 8 and 5. Staying at animal kingdom and are wondering which parks are best tis time of year for them. We took our older daughter 4 years ago, and likely wont be back for another 4. We have three day magic your way passes. Thank you

11 Dave { 11.06.12 at 9:03 am }

Hi Vin! With three day passes and kids that age, I’d spend two days at MK and one at either AK or HS–and probably AK, since you are at AKL anyway!

MK may be a bit crowded the 9th as it’s the grand opening of the New Fantasyland. The 11th and 12th will be the best MK days on your dates. AK will be best the 11th, good the 13th, and OK the 9th.

12 Carolina { 12.14.12 at 7:08 pm }

I am taking my almost 3 year old son to DW for the 1st time. We are arriving 12.21 leaving the 24th. I was planning on doing a self-guided DW resort tour until our check-in time and then go to the Very Merry Christmas Party the night of the 21st (last night). Looking at the crowds starting the 22nd, should I just go to MK all day the 21st and skip the party with a 2 year old? I was planning on taking a long nap with him ;).

13 Dave { 12.15.12 at 2:50 pm }

Carolina, if you can arrive at the park by 8.30a the 21st, I’;d do MK that day; if not, do MVMCP that night!

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14 Jessica { 02.26.13 at 5:43 pm }

My mother and I (I am 23 years old) will be attending DW December 15-20 of this year (2013). I am starting early planning because i worked at DW Jan-May 2012 and I know how quick things fill up. We were planning on going to, I believe, DHS on the 16, EPCOT the 17, MK on 18 and DAK on the 19th. We are also staying on site and getting the dining plan. My question is, are the days i picked for each park decent? We are also getting park hopper, i believe. We are not nap people so we can go go go all day. any suggestions will be helpful.

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