If you ask one of the bloggers or theme park experts at UndercoverTourist.com, they’ll tell you the best time to visit Disneyland or any of the other Southern California theme parks is as soon as possible.
But, admittedly, that’s not always feasible.
And despite some complaints over crowds and changes to the way some theme parks operate in the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, the parks are still hopping and as popular than ever. But some chunks of the year can probably be considered more manageable with fewer crowds and, arguably, more bang for your buck.
So when are the actual best times to visit Disneyland, Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm and Six Flags Magic Mountain? It all really comes down to your priorities.
Allison Click, vice president of marketing at UndercoverTourist, said the company is the largest direct to consumer retailer of discount attraction tickets with a wealth of knowledge accumulated over 20 years in the industry.
If you’re looking for smaller crowds when your favorite theme parks aren’t as “popular” as they are during other times of the year, Click has a few suggestions.
For one, avoid the holidays.
Sure, you might get Thanksgiving or Christmas or New Year’s Day off from work, but so do millions of other people. That means, lots of like-minded people will have similar plans to visit.
If you automatically have the day off, others probably do as well, so if you’re trying to beat the crowds, you might have to use some vacation days (or call in sick, we don’t care).
Still, the allure of spending the holidays at your favorite theme park can sometimes overcome the desire to avoid crowds.
“I think a lot of people who love Disney love going during the holidays or Halloween because of all the magic and the extra magic that’s there,” Click said.
But it’s not just the holidays you should keep an eye out for; any long gaps in the school year are also extra busy at California’s theme parks, and that doesn’t mean just the summer months.
“The most popular times to visit the park, as you can imagine, are when the kids are out of school. So it does tend to make wait times and things like that longer when you’re visiting during popular times like spring break or summertime,” Click added. “So it’s not that you can’t have an amazing trip, it’s just making sure that you plan for those wait times accordingly.”
In addition to the summer months, UndercoverTourist points to Spring Break and Easter as examples of when the parks are likely the busiest. You can expect elevated crowds starting in early March through the end of April. Neighboring states like Utah and Arizona tend to have long breaks in the fall, meaning plenty of out-of-staters might make the trip to Los Angeles and the surrounding areas. Those breaks often come around late September through mid October.
You should also be mindful of special events at your park of choice — particularly at Disney theme parks.
In 2023, The Walt Disney Company will be celebrating its 100th anniversary with special events and promotions happening throughout the month of January at all of its worldwide theme parks.
Click says Disney parks will have new nighttime entertainment and other events to look out for in early 2023 that will likely make the parks more popular than a typical January.
At Disneyland in Southern California, the “Happiest Place on Earth” celebrates the anniversary of the park’s opening each year on July 17. The anniversary usually brings a big crowd for those who want to be a part of the celebration.
Milestone anniversaries tend be even bigger productions. Disneyland’s 75th is coming up in 2025 — plan accordingly.
Disney also hosts soon-to-be high school graduates for some late-night fun. Those usually take place throughout the month of May and on select days in June. Grad nights are separately ticketed events, but they can impact the park crowds during regular operating hours. For next year’s schedule, click here.
Disneyland is also home to a handful of unofficial holidays that are planned by fans, not necessarily with Disney’s help. There’s Dapper Days, where Disney fans dress in their best 1950s attire in tribute to Disneyland’s opening day in 1955 and visit the park to take photos and meet up with other like-minded (and like-dressed) Disneyphiles.
Dapper Days usually happens twice a year, once in the spring and again in the fall. The fall Dapper Days outing took place Nov. 5 and Nov. 6 this year. The next spring outing is tentatively planned to take place on April 16, 2023.
Gay Days, is an unofficial three-day event organized independently of the park. It typically takes place in the fall and while there are lots of activities outside the park, many people venture into Disneyland and Disney’s California Adventure as part of the fun. This year’s event took place at the park on Sept. 17 and Sept. 18.
Crowds can be negatively impacted by both yearly events, so unless you plan on joining either, you might want to avoid planning a trip that coincides.
Other important considerations: is anything new opening at the park?
It goes without saying that theme park fans like to experience something new and exciting.
For fans of Universal Studios Hollywood, a massive expansion is set to open in early 2023.
Super Nintendo World will welcome visitors to the world of Mario, Luigi and all their friends. The new land is located on the lower lot of Universal and will feature the Mario Kart: Bowser’s Challenge ride, as well as interactive areas and new shopping and dining experiences.
In Disneyland, Toontown, one of the nine themed lands at the park, has been closed for months for renovations. The land is expected to reopen in spring of 2023, but the new Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway ride will open in January, in time for the company’s aforementioned 100th anniversary celebration.
UndercoverTourist says those two big events will likely have the “biggest impact to some of the West Coast states for 2023.”
With all of those new rides and attractions, it’s likely that lots of people will try to be among the first to experience them. That means crowds.
But there might be a silver lining: if you aren’t interested in waiting in line for new attractions, the rest of the park might actually be pretty calm.
When Disneyland debuted Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge in 2019, lines to get in to the new land were long and exclusive. But the rest of the park was pretty calm. If you’re feeling lucky and want to risk it, you might have similar luck.
Ultimately, it comes down to what was mentioned above. Holidays, school break and special events. Those are the days you should try and avoid if you’re looking for smaller crowds.
So when is the best time to go?
“Historically, we love the beginning part of the year,” Click said. “And we also think that the month of September is also a really great month … you’re kind of there before the holidays kick off, and you also largely have kids back in school.”
UndercoverTourist says these are the times of year where crowds might be most favorable:
- Weekdays in January (minus the week of New Year’s Day and the days around MLK Day)
- Weekdays in February (minus the days around Presidents Day)
- The first few days in March (until March 4, 2023)
- April 21 through April 28, 2023
- Weekdays in May
- Weekends during the last two weeks of August
- The first half of September; Tuesdays through Thursdays for the remainder of September and the second half of October
- Mondays through Thursdays in November (minus the week of Thanksgiving)
- Mondays through Thursdays during the first half of December
Remember that you’ll still have to buy your tickets in advance and book a reservation if you plan on visiting Disneyland.
Universal, Six Flags Magic Mountain and Knott’s Berry Farm have not introduced any similar plans, although Knott’s has some strict rules regarding free-roaming kids requiring a chaperone.
If this is all too much to consider and you’re more of a visual learner, fear not. UndercoverTourist offers a “crowd calendar” on its website which will allow you to see which days are a no-go and which days are a must-go.
“The crowd calendar has been around for 20 years, and it’s based on data that we’ve been collecting that entire time,” Click said.
It takes into account special events that are happening at the park, as well as ride openings and school calendars around the country.
Ultimately, UndercoverTourist recommends prioritizing what you want to get out of your trip.
“There’s not a bad time to go. There’s just more and less popular times to go,” Click said. “We encourage families to have a plan to have a great trip and use our resources to do so.”