Wednesday, May 4, 2022

Early Theme Park Entry Report


Guests staying on property at Walt Disney World have access to Early Theme Park Entry (EE for short in this case).  We recently had the opportunity to take advantage of this perk.  This post will discuss what we accomplished, what we could have done better and whether it's worth your time to use this advantage for your trip.

This is essentially a companion piece to our report about Extended Evening Hours that we recently posted.  That post was an unequivocal recommendation.  Early Entry is a slightly different story, and it's worth discussing the differences between the two and why our recommendation isn't as strong.

This version of Early Entry debuted in late September, right before the official start of the 50th Anniversary Celebration at WDW.  It allows guests of any on property resort (including the Swan, Dolphin and all Disney Springs hotels) access to any park, every day, thirty minutes before official park opening time.  During the holiday season last year, this was extended to sixty minutes, but thirty is the norm at most times of year.

Before the pandemic shutdown, there was an on property benefit known as Morning Extra Magic Hours (EMH).  During that experience, on property guests could access one particular park sixty minutes before official park opening.  There are a couple of notable differences here - for one, the amount of time allowed before the park open.  Thirty minutes often goes by like a flash, while sixty seems more substantial.

The bigger difference, though, relates to when they were offered.  As I said, EMH was offered for only one park at a time on any given day (Magic Kingdom, for example, used to be on Thursday).  The current EE is for all parks, every day.  This is a major difference when it comes to strategy.  In the past, going against the grain made more sense; there would always be a higher percentage of people taking advantage of EMH, and the best strategy was actually to AVOID the park offering those hours on that day.  The theory was that the more people at one park, the fewer at another.

With EE now, this isn't possible, as there will ALWAYS be resort guests lining up and entering the parks early.  This changes the strategy significantly.  If you are on property and want to rope drop, you have to do some math.  If Magic Kingdom opens to the general public at 9:00, EE would start at 8:30.  But it isn't always that simple - the proverbial rope is often dropped earlier than that, and if you're not at the front of that pack, you're already at a disadvantage when it comes to your first attraction.  You should really get to the park around sixty minutes before official opening if you're going to really take advantage of this strategy.  This is easier in some parks than others, as Animal Kingdom has been opening at 7:30 recently, which would mean ARRIVING at 6:30.  Getting up and on Disney transportation before that time is a challenge for many.

If you are NOT staying on property, our advice is to not attempt to rope drop any of the headliner attractions.  By the time you would be allowed to enter the park, those lines will already be filled with guests who entered during EE.  The exception here would be Magic Kingdom - during EE, only Fantasyland and Tomorrowland are open. This means that if you wanted to rope drop something on the other side of the park (say, Jungle Cruise or Splash Mountain), it would benefit you to do so early while resort guests are occupied with Seven Dwarfs Mine Train and Space Mountain.  

We took advantage of EE at Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom.  We had planned on doing it at all the parks, but we ultimately didn't have the time or energy.  I'm planning to discuss this in more detail in a separate post.  For now, let's just talk about what we did (and didn't) do on the days we arrived early.

For Animal Kingdom, as mentioned in a prior post, we did not have Genie+ for this day.  As such, we wanted to take advantage of as many early hours as we could.  My goal was to arrive by 6:30 a.m., but we didn't quite pull it off.  Part of that was the bus situation - I think we barely missed one bus and had to wait for a second to arrive.  Interestingly, Hollywood Studios buses came before another Animal Kingdom bus, even though Hollywood Studios didn't open until 8:30.  That was when I knew we were in trouble with our plan to rope drop Flight of Passage - if the buses were running that early, that meant there was already a crowd at Animal Kingdom doing that same thing.

Ultimately, we probably could have rope dropped and not had a terrible wait time.  We glanced at that line briefly on the way in, but didn't want to find the end of it, since we were going the other way in Pandora, to Na'vi River Journey.  Besides, our bus arrived right around 7:00 and we made the decision to purchase the Individual Lightning Lane (ILL) for Flight of Passage.  If we had waited to assess the line first, the ILL probably would have sold out.  If we had been in the park by 6:45, we would have had more data to go by.

In any case, I don't regret what we did there.  We managed to roll through the three of the next most popular rides at the park (Na'vi River Journey, Expedition Everest and Dinosaur) in short order.  We weren't even pushing that hard.  We had to crisscross the park, stopped for a photo and used the bathroom.  But by being there early and avoiding Flight of Passage, we got a lot done in the first hour or two of park time.  Your mileage may vary, and if getting to the park before the sun comes up is a non-starter for you, this probably won't be all that useful.

Let's turn to Magic Kingdom.  We actually arrived about 45 minutes before official park opening on two different days.  The first day, we lined up at the entrance to Fantasyland where they held us until a few minutes before 8:30. The picture at the top of this post is a look at where we were on that line, even at that time of day.  That should give you some indication of the crowd levels and how early you need to arrive to be at the front of that line.

We figured that most people would head to Seven Dwarfs Mine Train, and we were correct.  As the line was still building, the initial wait time I saw was 65 minutes.  Even if we had been considering doing this at rope drop, that time probably would have dissuaded me.  But we had planned on hitting Mine Train during the Extended Evening Hours, which we did with no difficulty.  And there's always the option to buy the ILL if you have no better option.

Instead, we headed to Peter Pan's Flight, which I knew would have the second highest wait time in Fantasyland.  The posted time was 40 minutes, I believe, but we got through the line in about 20-25.  I consider that a big win, especially considering how quickly the wait time balloons to over an hour for this attraction.  We then headed right across the way and did it's a small world with maybe a ten minute wait.  

The second day we used EE at Magic Kingdom, we instead chose to line up for Tomorrowland.  That line was shorter than the Fantasyland side, and some of those people even used it as a "short cut" to head up to Fantasyland anyway (depending on how fast you are, and what the lines look like, this could be a good strategy if you're planning to get to Fantasyland at rope drop).

Our kids were ambivalent about Space Mountain, so we didn't push that hard as we saw the line quickly growing.  Instead we rope dropped Buzz Lightyear's Space Ranger Spin, which was a walk on.  We even considered going to Space Mountain after that ride, and the wait time said 45 minutes.  The line LOOKED long, but I think it was because people were lining up so fast, the inside queue wasn't backed up. The line was moving but again, we didn't want our kids to suffer a long wait for a ride they didn't want, so we ditched it.

If you were considering using EE for Tomorrowland, Space definitely was the right choice here, probably followed by Buzz.  Even with the daunting look of the line, this could have been accomplished efficiently.  While Space is popular, it's not at Mine Train levels of crowds, especially at rope drop.

My wife took our daughter to hit some Fantasyland rides at this point, while my son and I crisscrossed the park for the actual rope drop of Frontierland.  We probably arrived around 8:45, and the line wasn't that bad (again, if you didn't have access to EE, this would be the place to start your day at Magic Kingdom).  We had planned to hit Splash Mountain first, but fate intervened - it was down (for a few hours, ultimately), so everyone on that side of the park had to switch gears and do Big Thunder Mountain Railroad instead (if Splash had been working, I estimate it would have been about a 60/40 split in favor of Splash first, based on what I heard while we waited to get in).

So while Extended Evening Hours were a big success, do we still recommend using Early Theme Park Entry as a strategy?  The answer is mostly yes, with some caveats.  Unless you're going to get there REALLY early (like, more than an hour before posted park opening time), it behooves you to stay away from the park's headliner rides.  If you do some secondary attractions, you'll be able to accomplish a lot, even in the brief time you have until the park opens.  And if you aren't eligible for EE, I wouldn't push hard to rope drop.  You're going to be standing around before they let you in, and then you'll be behind everyone else anyway.  You're better off showing up soon after official opening time, where you can saunter right in with little to no wait, and then judge for yourself where to go first, based on current wait times.

Why is Early Entry not as big of a slam dunk as Extended Evening Hours? For a few reasons - first, the list of eligible guests is much higher.  With EEH being limited to guests of deluxe resorts, the pool of people able to use them is much smaller.  Second, thirty minutes isn't nearly as big an advantage as two hours (which is what you get at EEH).  By the time you're done with a ride or two during EE, the park is open. Plus, mornings are when most people are ready and raring to go.  After walking around the parks all day, a lot of people aren't willing to stay an extra couple of hours, even if that was their original intention.  

There's no reason to pass up the advantage given to you by Early Entry; you just have to be savvy enough to make smart decisions when you arrive.  And as always, be prepared to change your plans at a moment's notice.  If a ride is down or has an exceptionally long line, you're better off changing to something else rather than letting it drag your day down.  

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