As a local, I’ll admit that I’m spoiled. I don’t wait in long lines for theme park attractions. At Disney World, I grab a FastPass+ for a couple of my favorite attractions during the busy season, visit my park of choice for a couple of hours, then hightail it home when my crowd tolerance reaches its limit. At Universal, I go late in the day, since my Premier annual pass gives me Express access after 4 p.m. At SeaWorld, I arrive at opening time and head to the farther-back attractions while the arriving hoards are dazzled by the likes of Manta and do things closer to the front gate.
But every few months I get a real treat: a tiny bit of off-season time. The most notable periods are those right before Memorial Day and Labor Day, but there’s also a nice chunk of slow time right after the mad holiday rush. The crowds head home, their credit cards and energy levels depleted, and don’t think about another vacation for at least a few weeks. Meanwhile, I can enjoy Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando Resort, and SeaWorld Orlando at a more leisurely and spontaneous pace than I’m normally able to do.
What are my top three favorite parks to visit during this rare period of quiet time? Here they are in no particular order:
You have to be careful at Disney, since marathon weekend falls in this period, but otherwise Epcot tends to be quiet until the Epcot International Flower and Garden Festival starts in early March. The lines can be a little long in Future World right around opening time, since World Showcase doesn’t open until 11 a.m. I like to come a little later, take a leisurely global tour in World Showcase, then head back to Future World where the lines have typically died down to enjoy Soarin’ and Test Track a few times, then hit Nemo and Spacehip Earth on my way out.
If you’re a Flower and Garden fan, I advise coming out early in the festival. The crowds pick up throughout its run, although it’s fun to visit at both the beginning and the end so you can see how the displays change over time as the season gets warmer.
There’s so much to do outside at SeaWorld, and January weather is usually perfect to do it. The chance of rain is rare compared to the summer, and it’s generally cooler and much less humid. Normally a day at SeaWorld means working around the show schedule to make sure you get to each arena with plenty of time to get a good seat.
Lower off-season crowds means you don’t have to get to Shamu Stadium 45 minutes early or to rush to Blue Horizons long before showtime. That means more time to enjoy underwater viewing and the rides and exhibits like Turtle Trek, the sharks, and Wild Arctic. It also means shorter lines at Antarctica: Empire of the Penguin, where you must do the ride to get to the amazing open-air penguin habitat.
Universal Studios Florida
Actually, while I love all of Universal, my big recommendation for the off season is Diagon Alley. It’s still the new kid on the block, and as such, it’s wildly crowded at busy times of year. You can’t fully appreciate all the detail in this area when you’re too busy trying not to get run over by a stroller or otherwise trampled in the crowd.
Thankfully, the off-season lull gives Harry Potter fans a chance to take it easy and really explore all the shops, noting the fun details of the displays and the amazing architecture of the buildings outside. It’s also fun to buy an interactive wand and take some time to cast spells. There’s a line to do so during the busy season, but you won’t have to wait for other wizards to practice ahead of you when you visit in the rare lull.
There is a time when Harry fans will find themselves in the midst of a crowd. A Celebration of Harry Potter runs for three days, starting January 30, but it’s worth braving the mob to see exhibitors like Pottermore and Scholastic and attend panel discussions with some of the movies’ stars.
These are my own personal choices, but this is a great time to visit any of the theme parks. Just beware of the weekend of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, as students generally have a long weekend, which means a reprise of the crowds.