Walt Disney World’s weather is wild. That’s true year-round, but especially in winter when there can be 30-40° swings in temperatures from the daily highs to lows. This photo report shares my near-freezing day in Magic Kingdom–covering what I accomplished, and (most importantly) actionable advice for beating the crowds on cold days and nights in WDW.
Winter is my favorite time of year at Walt Disney World. Probably an unpopular opinion among snowbirds who escape the freezing temperatures and winter weather of the Midwest and Northeast, fleeing to Florida for sunshine and warmth. But I far prefer the coldest days of the year (all 13 of them!) in Orlando to the hottest ones (all 43 weeks of them!).
Don’t get me wrong, I love sunshine and warm weather…but I’m just not equipped for those days with 90+ degree heat and triple-digit feels like temperatures. Last summer was just brutal–I’ll happily take the cold over that. When temperatures drop, you can always add layers to stay comfortable. On the oppressively hot and humid days, there’s only so much you can take off before security gets involved.
There are also a lot of misconceptions about how the weather impacts crowds at Walt Disney World. This is worth mentioning because we regularly hear comments from readers who are surprised by this. Contrary to popular misconception, rain usually does not clear out crowds unless it’s an absolute deluge lasting hours.
High heat also has minimal impact on crowd levels. Anecdotally, I think it does make guests grumpier and more meltdown-prone, but they play through the pain. (Seriously, there’s a noticeably better ‘vibe’ at Walt Disney World from November through March than during the summer months.) About the only thing you’ll notice when it’s really hot is that nighttime crowds increase as more people take midday breaks and more locals come out after dark.
Hot and rainy weather have minimal impact on crowds because both of those things are pretty much par for the course with Florida weather–if Walt Disney World wasn’t busy when it’s rainy or hot, the parks would be uncrowded half the time! To the contrary, tourists and locals alike prepare for these types of weather so it doesn’t send them heading for the exits. No one is forgetting their shorts for summer in Florida; if they do make the mistake of not bringing ponchos or umbrellas, they can easily purchase those in the parks.
What does make a difference is cold weather. More importantly, a wider range of temperatures or “surprise” lows. If the daytime high is in the upper 70s or low 80s but the nighttime low is in the 40s, that is the sweet spot. Bonus points if there’s a bit of precipitation, or better yet, wind, thrown into the mix. It also helps if these lows occur suddenly, during timeframes when lows are otherwise in the 60s.
Pretty much everyone looks at the weather forecast for Central Florida while packing. If planners see current temperatures in the 60s to 80s, they plan for that. Moreover, most people will dress for whatever season it is when they head out the door in the morning. So if it’s in the high 70s or low 80s, that’s shorts and t-shirt weather.
Anyone who has spent a good amount of time in Orlando during the winter can tell you that there’s a massive difference between a sunny 80° day and nights when temperatures are in the 50s or lower. Even on paper, that 30 degree swing is significant, but it’s absolutely massive once you account for the divergence in “feels like” temperatures.
We’ve been warning about this for years, and I’m not too proud to admit that this advice comes courtesy of lessons I’ve learned the hard way. As a native Michigander who grew up in the belt that got hit hard by the “Lake Effect Snow Machine,” I assumed no Florida weather could faze me. Then came a fateful trip in December 2010, with lows in the upper 30s. I haven’t made the mistake of underestimating Florida weather since. (That’s not entirely true–I’m a slow learner–but I’ve mostly not made the mistake of underestimating Florida weather since.)
Point being, even if you’re from the Midwest or Northeast and are used to cold weather, you shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming you’ll be fine–that Florida (of all places) can’t dish out winter weather. Your body will become acclimated to those 70-degree Florida daytime temperatures pretty quickly, making double-digit temperature drop once the sun goes down feel even more pronounced.
More importantly, Florida cold is far worse due to the humidity. I can’t reiterate this enough. The “feels like” of even 50º weather in Walt Disney World is significantly worse than at home. Florida’s humidity makes even semi-cold weather far less comfortable. I may not be a meteorologist, but trust me on this–it’s science.
Most people won’t be prepared for a dramatic drop when the sun goes down. At that point, their options are to bear the cold weather in whatever they’re wearing, head home, or buy warmer clothing. There’s a reason racks of sweatshirts roll out to every gift shop when the temperatures drop–but at $60 a pop, buying your way out of the cold is a pricey proposition.
People start dropping like flies. An hour or so after sunset, Magic Kingdom can clear out on days that are abnormally frigid. We’ve had late nights when the park is a ghost town, as the cold weather drives a lot of guests away. The parks clear out in a way that just doesn’t happen in other extreme weather, short of a veritable monsoon or hurricane scare.
On busy days between November and February, the best way to ‘forecast’ a lower crowd level in the evening at Magic Kingdom is taking the difference between the day’s high and low temperatures. The bigger the spread, the more likely crowds will be lower. That’s a better predictor than day of week trends, crowd calendars, or anything else.
To illustrate, I want to share my recent experience in Magic Kingdom on a night in January when temperatures dropped into the 40s. Daytime was pretty uneventful. Both because the park was pretty busy and because I wasn’t focused on efficiently. Most of my day was spent saying goodbye to Country Bear Jamboree (on loop), plus the Peoplemover and Carousel of Progress. I did that trio of attractions over a dozen times–probably no need to walk you through that.
Instead, let’s pick up when things actually get interesting–my near-freezing night in MK immediately after Happily Ever After, which was shown at 8pm. That left a little over 2.5 hours on the clock in Magic Kingdom, as the park closed at 11pm.
My first instinct was to knock out Peter Pan’s Flight, as it is possible to beat the crowd to that if you’re fast after the fireworks.
Unfortunately, I was not. The Lightning Lane overflow queue was already in use, so I had a pretty good idea that the 55 minute (not 5 minute, the photo deceives) wait was too close to accuracy for comfort.
If you watch the fireworks from Fantasyland, Peter Pan’s Flight is a great first stop after that on a night like this. Otherwise, wait until the final 30 minutes or so.
I did Haunted Mansion instead, which was a posted 20 minute wait time and actually a walk-on.
Now that I’ve finally had a chance to see Hatbox Ghost in person, I can’t say that I like it. I get why other fans are excited about this–it’s new and who doesn’t love new things?! Also, Hatbox Ghost is just flat-out cool. The gnarly cane, the enormous top hat, the rib cage showing through his trench coat for some reason, the nice box for conveniently storing his own head. Women want him, men want to be him.
Setting aside his enviable looks and accessories, Hatbox Ghost just feels too shoehorned into this spot and doesn’t flow with the rest of Haunted Mansion. To each their own, but I hope the work is eventually done to move this AA to the attic, where he belongs.
Speaking of spirits, Frontierland was a ghost town.
I’m honestly a bit surprised they haven’t been running Country Bear Jamboree from park opening until closing. The stage show was playing to (literally) full houses every single time I did it, to the point that looping sometimes wasn’t even possible.
I know it won’t happen, but I’d love if Imagineering changed the show to be Disney songs during the day and Country Bears ‘After Dark’ at night. Sorta like how Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along rotates with Impressions de France. Have the bears sing Toy Story songs or whatever until 8pm, but let them do the grown-up routine featuring violence, humor, horniness, and other hijinks in the evening hours!
Big Thunder Mountain Railroad was posting a 20 minute wait time at this point, but was more like 10 or so. I don’t recall the exact number, but it was not a walk-on.
I was actually slightly surprised by this. It’s an outdoor roller coaster, meaning that 44° temperature feels even colder. Regardless, the line moved quickly–far better than the 85 minute wait time it hit at one point earlier in the day. (That also helps explain why it still wasn’t a walk-on at this hour.)
Pirates of the Caribbean was posting a 5 minute wait time, which was more or less accurate in the sense that it takes that long to walk through the empty queue.
Riding this so soon after Haunted Mansion, I couldn’t help but compare the Jack Sparrow and Hatbox Ghost AAs. I remember when Captain Jack was first added to Pirates of the Caribbean–it was a huge deal. There was even mainstream marketing along the lines of, ‘first the ride inspired the movie, now the movie inspires the ride!‘
I was one of the Walt Disney World fans who was excited for this, and I still think the AAs are pretty cool. However, I also have to admit that the luster has worn off, and I now think that Captain Jack feels shoehorned in, and the ride would probably be better off without him. Either way, it’s not a huge deal to me–I just think it’s an interesting parallel. Already, other stuff from the film franchise has been removed from Pirates of the Caribbean. I assume the same will happen with Jack Sparrow, eventually.
Jungle Cruise was next up, posting a 10 minute wait with an actual wait of 0 minutes.
This was actually one of a few walk-on attractions where I actually passed people in the Lightning Lane. Late at night, this actually isn’t uncommon–it often takes people longer to scan into the Lightning Lane than it does to walk through an empty standby line. It makes me wonder why they don’t just close the Lightning Lane at some point since it adds zero value? Probably because the perception of value is important, and/or because the standby line could suddenly get longer at which point the Lightning Lane would have some nominal value.
Since I didn’t go into this night thinking this would be a post topic, I stopped to screw around and take photos in Frontierland and the Central Plaza. I also did the PeopleMover twice towards the end of the night to get off my feet.
The biggest blunder I made was completely forgetting to grab a spot in the TRON Lightcycle Run virtual queue. I’ve mentioned this before, but I always gamble on joining the virtual queue now. Always the 1pm entry, and never right at 1:00:00pm on the dot. I’ll usually wait until at least 1:05pm, at which point I’m often in a boarding group that gets called after the fireworks. If I wait until the end of my window, I’m among the last groups.
That would’ve been a fantastic strategy on this night, as there appeared to be virtually no physical line for the virtual queue. As with the rest of the park, I’m guessing that the cold weather cleared people out and people bailed on their spots in the VQ. Earlier in the day, the return line had a long overflow area, so the difference in actual waits between day and night would’ve been pretty significant.
Space Mountain was my second-to-last ride of the night, with a posted wait time of 20 minutes and an actual wait time of less than 10.
This was actually the shortest I had seen Space Mountain in a while. There have been several times I’ve done it recently at the beginning or end of the day when the actual wait slightly exceeds the posted one. Plus, it’s indoors and this was a cold night–I was bracing myself for a 20-25 minute wait.
I debated doing Peter Pan’s Flight next, but I wasn’t confident I’d be done before park closing. Instead, I stopped for more photos before jumping in line for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train at 10:58pm.
Above is the end of the queue behind me. I was actually surprised at how many people were in front of me–much “worse” (mild air quotes) than I was expecting given the lack of lines elsewhere.
Posted wait time was 55 minutes, my actual wait was just under 20 minutes.
Obviously, that’s not bad (at all) for Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Just for perspective, though, I’ve had waits as short as 7 minutes at the end of the night. Not that I minded–one way or another, I have to kill time before the park clears out for photos. It’s either waiting Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, eating corn dog nuggets, or browsing the Emporium for stuff I don’t actually want.
On the plus side, between the cold weather and Seven Dwarfs Mine Train taking slightly longer than normal, the park had really cleared out by the time I was off the ride.
Fantasyland was quickly emptying, and the Central Plaza was uncrowded once I got up there. On a normal day, these areas can still be packed 30 minutes or more after closing. That’s especially true if it’s a warmer day or Magic Kingdom closes at 10pm or earlier.
Here are some more photos from my near-freezing night in Magic Kingdom:
Ultimately, it was a productive night in Magic Kingdom. By the time I left the park at 12:15am, the temperature had dropped to 42° with a feels like of 38° (there was even a wind chill advisory issued for Orange County). That’s not even close to the coldest I’ve ever been at Walt Disney World, but it was frigid enough to clear out Main Street in a hurry.
Amusingly, there were almost as many PhotoPass photographers on Main Street as guests at one point–presumably because they didn’t have the ‘all-clear’ to leave yet from a manager. I got this shot to commemorate the occasion:
The moral of the story is that, between the end of the night and Early Entry/rope drop, you can knock out every high-profile ride in Magic Kingdom as a walk-on, even on a busy day with 7/10 to 9/10 crowds. That leaves the middle of the day for stage shows, snacking, or even accomplishing more attractions efficiently via Lightning Lanes, if you so desire.
All in all, a very satisfying day at Walt Disney World despite cold weather and winter attendance pretty far from off-season lows. Hopefully this demonstrates to you how it’s possible to have a great experience and use the weather to your advantage in order to beat higher daytime waits!
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Have you done a freezing evening at Magic Kingdom? Were you able to accomplish a lot after the sun went down and temperatures plummeted? If you’ve done cold weather at Walt Disney World in the past, what are your recommendations? Do you agree or disagree with our advice? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!