When Should We Go?
Let's be honest: there is no "empty" time at Orlando's theme parks. Crowds thin in January, after New Year's, and stay reasonable until around Presidents Day. From that point through Labor Day, though, crowds are either heavy (as in mid-February through early June and again in late August) or very heavy.
Things lighten up after Labor Day, but grow busy again around Columbus Day. After that, comes another light patch until right around Thanksgiving, which is huge in the parks. There's a slight lull in early December, right between Thanksgiving and Christmas vacations.
If your schedule demands that you go at a peak time, you can always get a break from the crowds by planning non-theme-park days. Visit the Kennedy Space Center early in the workweek, when you'll avoid both weekend crowds and late-week school field trips. Eschew Saturday theme-park madness in favor of a trip to charming Winter Park, where you can stroll a farmers' market between 7 am and 1 pm. Stick around to roam the grassy parks, visit the Morse Museum or Park Avenue’s galleries, or maybe catch a matinee at the Winter Park Playhouse.
If you'd rather not venture far from the parks, you can escape the crowds by simply slipping back to your hotel for a spa treatment, a swim, a walk around the grounds, a paddleboat ride—many of Orlando's hotels offer such a variety of recreation options that they're practically theme parks themselves.
Considerations for Different Types of Travelers
As always, the makeup of your travel group will determine when it's best to go. In this case, however, it boils down to two types of travelers: those with school-age kids and those without them.
Traveling with Kids
It's a dilemma: you want to plan a great vacation and avoid the crowds, but can you really rationalize taking the kids out of school to visit a theme park? It's a tough call, and the best plan is to consult with your child's teachers first. Ideally, they can advise you on the best time of the school year to go and create a study plan to ensure your child's education isn't compromised during the trip.
For elementary-school kids there are ways of making the trip educational. For example, your child could write about the different countries featured at Epcot in lieu of a missed homework assignment, do a report on the animals of SeaWorld or Animal Kingdom, or prepare a talk about what he or she learned at the Kennedy Space Center.
To avoid crowds and meltdowns, families with young children should visit theme parks in the morning and evening. Leave the hot afternoons for naps and downtime at the hotel pool.
Note that although it may be fine to take younger kids out of school for a few days, missing several days of middle or high school could set your child back for the rest of the semester. If you do go during school vacations like the rest of the world, all is not lost. Take advantage of Extra Magic Hours, FastPass+, or Universal's front-of-the-line privileges when you can; retreat to your hotel when you need to; and simply make peace with the crowds so you can enjoy your vacation.
Traveling Without Kids
It's very simple: avoid crowds by avoiding school vacation times. If water parks aren't a priority, early January is a great time, specifically about two weeks after New Year's. Kids are back in school, and the Walt Disney World Marathon weekend is over, so those crowds are gone, and the weather can be spectacular. If you love water parks, go after Labor Day, when kids are back in school. It will still be hot enough to make the waterslides a joy.
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