We’re headed out to Disney’s Animal Kingdom bright and early to try to take advantage of an early 8am open. I’m hoping to beat the rush to Avatar – Flight of Passage this time around.
On our last attempt, with a 9am open, things didn’t go so well. Despite arriving before the parking lot even opened, and being among the first 20 cars to park, we still ended up waiting almost an hour for Flight of Passage. The only way that would be possible is if a lot of Disney resort guests arriving on buses got there first.
Theoretically, the parking lots are supposed to open at the same time as the first buses from the Disney resorts arrive. This typically gives a slight advantage to those lucky enough to be on one of those first buses, but there aren’t typically too many of guests on each bus with physical-distancing measures in place, and you’ve got relatively few buses on the road heading to any one Park early in the morning with the reduced fleet.
As far as the best way to arrive at each Park is concerned:
- Animal Kingdom: Drop-off from the auto plaza/parking lot, likely via Uber or Lyft. The drop-off area is closer than anyone will park, which puts you at an advantage over all of them. You could check the bus stop and the bus arrival time to see if you’re early enough to save the money on the trip and take the Disney bus instead. Those arriving on the first Disney buses will be the first to enter the Park. But you’ll have to be pretty lucky to be on one, more often than not. Uber/Lyft gives you more control and will be a better bet, on average. The parking lot typically opens 30 to 45 minutes before Park open. Pandora is usually open.
- Epcot: International Gateway from the Crescent Lake area, which includes the BoardWalk, Beach Club, Yacht Club, Swan, and Dolphin Resorts. Beach Club is the closest resort to the entrance. You’ll have the least trouble parking or getting dropped off with a confirmed breakfast reservation. With Epcot opening at 11am or 12pm most days, that can be an even later morning than Hollywood Studios. Guests entering from the International Gateway have always had an advantage at Frozen, because it’s closer, but they typically have an advantage at Test Track and Soarin’ because they’ll be able to walk over before the vast majority of other guests have an opportunity to park or walk over from the buses and then on to the attractions. Epcot typically opens 30 to 45 minutes early. Frozen, Test Track, and Soarin’ are typically operating.
- Hollywood Studios: The same as Epcot, with the exception that the BoardWalk is closest. I have more information on this type of arrival and why it’s so beneficial in The Best Way to Rope Drop Disney’s Hollywood Studios. All major rides should be operating. Hollywood Studios typically opens 40 to 50 minutes early.
- Magic Kingdom: Walking from the Contemporary or Grand Floridian. Accessing those resorts is the same gig as the Crescent Lake area. The second best way is to be dropped off at the Transportation and Ticket Center. You’ll be allowed to line up before the parking lot opens and be able to get to the Express Monorail over to the Park faster. Magic Kingdom typically opens 30 to 50 minutes early. The headliners are typically open if they’re ready, including Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Big Thunder Mountain.
Like most things related to Disney operations, things don’t always go exactly as intended. Sometimes, there is some amount of communication breakdown between the person who gives the go ahead to open the auto plaza and the person poised to let the first guests through temperature check. That delay can cause guests arriving via Disney buses or parking themselves at a disadvantage. Obviously, if the parking lot opens before more than a handful of guests arrive on Disney buses, most of those relying on Disney transportation will be at a disadvantage as they’ll have no hope of beating those driving themselves or getting dropped off. The reverse is also true if many more buses arrive before word gets over to the auto plaza that it’s time to open. That’s why it’s best to take your fate into your own hands by walking over when possible. Animal Kingdom is the one Park where it’s not. Whether you want to spend the ~$12 for a likely drop-off advantage is up to you. There’s always the chance that you’ll pick the “wrong” method of transportation on any given day, but the best we can probably do is what’s most likely to succeed.
I’d shoot for arriving 45 minutes before Park open for Animal Kingdom. At worst, you’ll spend ten to fifteen minutes sitting there waiting for the parking lot to open.
Disney has been opening up the parking lots and delivering guests from its resorts earlier and earlier in the morning over the previous few weeks. On our last visit with the 9am open, the parking lot opened 30 minutes before official Park open, and a lot of Disney buses had arrived before we did. This time, they were already letting people through before 7:15am as just a few Disney buses rolled up with each carrying just a handful of guests. I’m headed towards temperature check from the drop-off area at 7:20am. If I was parking and walking over, it’d be about five minutes later. That’s less significant with the 8am open and fewer people arriving this early. With a 9am open, a five-minute delay can mean hundreds more people in front of you at Flight of Passage, as it did on our previous visit. That’s a big part of why we like the earlier opens. They’re much more forgiving.
I was held at temperature check for just a minute as they waited for the first wave of people to scan their tickets and head in. There may be a hundred people ahead of me, if that.
We had been celebrating the 25th anniversary of The Lion King for what “felt like” about ten years, but Disney finally switched the photo op out in front of the entrance to match the holiday overlay that we saw Disney add to Discovery Island last year.
At the moment, Animal Kingdom will open at 8am every day through December 19th. From the 20th to the 31st, the opening moves to 7am, before returning to 9am beginning on January 1st. It’s incredibly likely that Disney will extend the hours on January 1st and 2nd. There’s also the possibility that they’ll make the 8am opens that we saw from July 11th through the first week in September, when demand was much lower, the norm moving forward. We should at least see 8am opens on most Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays to begin the new year.
Earlier opens are always beneficial for those able to take advantage of the extended hours. Not a whole lot of people want to be on their way to a theme park before 7am “on vacation.” But you probably want to wait 2+ hours for Flight of Passage even less, which is probably also worth adding to the equation.
Animal Kingdom wait times have recently taken off. Here’s the daily average since the Parks reopened:
We didn’t see the average wait hit 20+ minutes for 36 days. And even then, the average dropped back into the single digits the following week. We then saw our first 30+ minute average exactly a month later, in September. A full five weeks later, the Park hit 40+ minutes for the first time in the middle of October. Then over Thanksgiving, we saw the first 50+ minute average. It’s not tremendously surprising to see Thanksgiving Week with the longest weekly average, but it may be surprising to see that the average wait this past Saturday was 47.1 minutes, or longer than five out of the seven days comprising the holiday week. Sunday, December 6th’s average of 51.5 minutes is the longest yet.
With Disney increasing capacity by about 40% about nine weeks ago, the numbers check out. The long waits over this past weekend are a little surpring, but with cooling temperatures and limited opportunities to see the Park after dark, Passholders boost crowds significantly. From our recent wait times post, you may remember that this past Friday, Saturday, and Sunday had no availability for Passholders at any Park. Combined with an increasing number of other guests, waits are going to be a lot rougher. Somewhat interestingly, the hours are longer on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays at the moment, with the Park open from 8am to 8pm, instead of the 8am to 5pm weekday hours. Waits are still typically longer on those weekend days.
Here’s the wait time chart for this past Sunday, when the Park posted its longest waits yet:
Expedition Everest’s extended morning downtime is the obvious culprit for some of the longer waits, but “105 minutes for DINOSAUR,” and “limited capacity,” may not fit cleanly into the same sentence. While the hours are obviously extended, it certainly “feels” like the number of people they let in also increases substantially. We’re usually concerned about an average wait of 60+ minutes at Hollywood Studios as “feeling” long, but Animal Kingdom hits 70+ minutes at noon. The fact that fewer people are interested in riding Kali River Rapids, which will go offline early next year for its annual refurbishment, during cooler temperatures, combined with Kilimanjaro Safaris still closing at 5pm, don’t help either. Even at 9:30am, you’re looking at an average wait above 40 minutes. TouringPlans had the day as a 2/10. It’s more comparable to last Thanksgiving when there was no capacity limit.
Unfortunately(?), we’re going to have to return to experience some of those nuttier waits ourselves.
It’s going to be smooth sailing on the day of our visit. Too smooth, really.
In fact, there are so few people coming in that we can take a look at the decorations around Discovery Island without much concern that it’s going to affect our wait:
It would be nice if we could be more assured about how the arrival experience will go on any particular day. Back before the March closures, we could be reasonably sure that the morning would go just fine with a 7:45am arrival and a 9am opening, or a 7:15am arrival with an 8am opening. At the risk of going further out of business, touring strategy basically boils down to being willing to arrive earlier than most other people and identifying a couple of the most popular attractions to visit first. Back before the closures, Disney buses began shuttling guests before 6am, and the parking lots were wide open at the same time. An early arrival was possible for anyone willing to be up that early. Now, even with the best plan of attack, you can run into unexpected slowdowns regardless of whether you go with the parking lot or a Disney bus. Uber/Lyft is typically your best overall bet, and a nominal cost in the grand scheme of things, but the extra 12 bucks may sting a bit if you’re already paying to park at the resort and/or the cost of transportation is rolled into your room rate. Some number of people also remain a little uncomfortable about the whole thing. You can always go with a Mears Taxi or something, but then you may really be taking your life into your own hands, at double the cost.
Fortunately, there’s really only one audible you need to call if you fall behind – and it’s whether or not to go to Flight of Passage first. If for whatever reason there are hundreds, or potentially even thousands, of other people around you as you head inside, visit Flight of Passage last thing at night. Even on this past Sunday, when Flight posted 75+ minutes basically all day, and triple digit waits for almost four hours, the posted wait still dropped to 35 minutes to end the night. And the actual wait was probably about half that. If you can’t or don’t want to stay that late, then you’ll simply want to get in line for Flight as late in the day as possible.
Here’s posted waits at Flight of Passage over the last month or so:
My color-coding job along the bottom doesn’t do a whole lot to highlight lower waits at the end of the night because the closing times vary so much. But if you look at the days when the Park closes at 17:00, or 5pm, waits are typically much shorter than earlier in the day. Overall, the longest waits run from 15 minutes after Park open through 12:45pm. While there may not be a huge difference between waiting 63 minutes at 3pm ,and 78 minutes at 9:15am, waiting that long that early in the day will only put you at each subsequent attraction that much later in the day. With waits typically climbing through the afternoon as more people arrive, you’ll end up waiting longer everywhere all morning and afternoon. By skipping Flight of Passage first, you’re basically skipping ahead of your itinerary by at least 25 minutes. Instead, visit Na’vi River Journey and Kilimanjaro Safaris first. Then get in line for Flight last thing if you can, or as late in the day as possible. You’ll save hours in line overall.
Of course, it does remain to be seen what effect Park Hopping has on afternoon and evening waits. I’m not too concerned about Animal Kingdom, which has historically emptied even when Park Hopping was not only available, but also much cheaper. Disney tried to add entertainment to keep people around, including the nighttime ride on Kilimanjaro Safaris and Rivers of Light, but both are out, at least as far as the original offerings go.
Those markers on the left are for Na’vi River Journey, while the ones on the right are for Flight of Passage. You don’t want to see how far back the line has to wind around for these markers to be needed, but they would be necessary with a 70+ minute wait for Na’vi or 120+ minute wait for Flight.
If things look like this as you head into Pandora, then you’re more than fine.
We’ll take our usual right. Those heading to Na’vi would continue straight on the left.
We have an opportunity to enjoy the view.
And then continue on our way.
While we haven’t been in much of a hurry so far, just a few minutes can make a big difference. A lot of people have caught up as I turn back around.
We’re still about a half hour away from official Park open.
About two people are headed for Na’vi River Journey.
Screaming “SIVAKO” didn’t seem to sway their decision. I doubt it will help my court case either.
One problem with our wait time charts is that they don’t capture anything before the Parks actually open. At the Studios, virtually all of the rides will be operating 45 minutes before Park open. At Animal Kingdom, it’s usually just Pandora. The charts would look a little less scary with some shorter wait times to start things off, but Disney probably doesn’t want people stranded at its resorts, waiting for a bus, to see that the rides are already open at the Park they’re trying to get to. Back before March, Disney typically pushed waits to the app as soon as the attractions opened. At 7:34am, we have 15 minutes posted and Flight is already operating.
And we’ll just about be able to walk on:
We were in the pre-show 13 minutes after first entering the line, and back out front at 8:02am. That’s a total experience time of just 27 minutes. This 20-minute posted wait will change to 45 minutes in about five seconds.
Since we made it through Flight of Passage so quickly, we’ll have an opportunity to visit with a short wait Na’vi right after. If you were to arrive closer to 8am, this is likely where you’d want to start the day.
At 8:04am, or just four minutes after the Park officially opened, we’re headed into the attraction with the Park’s second-longest average wait. It’s currently posted at five minutes:
We were on-board in eleven minutes, so our wait was over twice what was posted. Instead of boarding, I threw a thousand dollars on the ground and left. Or I took this picture of the boat, where it looks like Disney isn’t looking to make any modifications to accommodate a separate party in the back row. Big plastic barriers would certainly damage the aesthetic more than on something like Rise of the Resistance, or even Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway. Once you enter the tunnel of screens, and it somehow becomes nighttime, they may be less of an issue. As it stands, a party of anywhere between one and eight will get their own boat. It does make for a much more pleasant experience, at the high cost of lower capacity and longer waits.
We’ll head through:
Na’vi River Journey took exactly 20 minutes with a queue that is now extending back towards the Land’s entrance.
Unlike our recent series at Hollywood Studios, I won’t be able to threaten long waits and heavy crowds throughout the morning.
I tried to go on a busier Friday.
But sometimes the best laid plans don’t work out.
At 8:29am, I’ve already made it through Animal Kingdom’s two newest attractions. It’s still taken a little over an hour since I arrived. You’ll want to budget that much time even if things go well.
But I think we’ll be okay.