Disney World Early Theme Park Entry Guide with Ride Strategy

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Back in January, Disney teased the advent of Early Theme Park Entry. Unfortunately, when they teased us with this, they gave very little additional information (updated August 24, 2021).

We still know very little about the practicalities, but I decided to create this post to take a look at what we DO know. As Disney releases more information I’ll update this post.

Eventually, we’ll actually have enough information to know whether or not Early Theme Park Entry is a good thing. Because I have to say, so far I’m not impressed.

Hollywood Tower Hotel at Hollywood Studios Orlando

What is Early Theme Park Entry?

Early Theme Park Entry is a perk for Disney Resort guests (and guests from other select hotels).

These guests have the opportunity to enter any of the Disney World parks (Magic Kingdom, Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Hollywood Studios) 30 minutes before non-Disney Resort guests, on any day.

In order to qualify for Disney Early Entry, a Disney resort guest must have a valid park ticket for that day as well as a Park Pass Reservation for that park.

Disney World Early Entry vs. Extra Magic Hours

Disney states that Early Theme Park Entry is a direct replacement of Extra Magic Hours.

Extra Magic Hours were ended when Disney reopened after lockdown. This was done based on the need to have more control over park capacity.

So what were Extra Magic Hours, and how is Disney World Early Entry different?

Extra Magic Hours 101

First, here’s a quick description of Extra Magic Hours. Disney’s Extra Magic Hours was a perk available to all Disney Resort guests, as well as guests a Good Neighbor Hotels.

Extra Magic Hours came in the form of either AM Extra Magic Hours or PM Extra Magic Hours.

AM Extra Magic Hours allowed eligible guests to enter a designated Disney park an hour before official park opening. Every so often it might be 2 hours early, but on the whole, it was an extra hour at the parks before it opened to all guests.

PM Extra Magic Hours were the exact opposite. These added extra time to the end of the day instead of the beginning. Typically, PM Extra Magic Hours added a couple of hours after the park closed to all other guests.

The park that allowed Extra Magic Hours on any given day was predetermined by Disney. They parks generally followed a certain pattern.

For example, Fridays were always AM Extra Magic Hours at Animal Kingdom. On that day, anyone wanting to use Extra Magic Hours had to go to Animal Kingdom.

During Extra Magic Hours, most, if not all, of the rides were running.

How Early Theme Park Entry and Extra Magic Hours are the Same

Extra Magic Hours and Early Theme Park Entry are the same in their basic premise. Each perk gives Disney resort guests the opportunity to spend extra time in the parks.

This extra time is specifically designed to give those resort guests a bit of a leg up when it comes to getting on rides with a significantly lower wait.

We don’t know this for sure yet, but presumably, Disney will use the same method of determining early entry eligibility as they did with Extra Magic Hours.

Previously, they did this by scanning MagicBands or tickets to verify the guest is staying at a Disney resort. I’m making the assumption this is likely the same with the new Disney World Early Entry.

The only difference is that now you can add the ability to use your MagicMobile Pass in addition to a MagicBand or ticket.

If you’re wondering what the difference is between a MagicBand and a MagicMobile Pass, check out my MagicBand guide to learn more.

How they are Different

There are two major differences between the two perks. The first is that Extra Magic Hours was typically only eligible in one park a day.

Sometimes two a day, one in the morning and one after park closing. But the moral of the story is that you had limited park options depending on the day.

Early Theme Park Entry allows you to choose which of the 4 theme parks you’d like to use it at on any given day. You aren’t limited to planning your entire park itinerary around the Extra Magic Hours schedule.

The second difference is in the amount of extra time the guests are given. Extra Magic Hours gave resort guests an extra hour, while Early Theme Park Entry only allows an extra 30 minutes.

Entrance Sign for Kilimanjaro Safaris at Animal Kingdom

When Does Early Theme Park Entry Start?

The official start date of Early Theme Park Entry is October 1, 2021. This coincides with the start of the 50th Anniversary celebration.

It’s possible there might be a soft opening of the perk in the days right before the anniversary start date.

Which resorts will offer Disney Early Theme Park Entry?

All Disney resorts offer Early Theme Park Entry to their guests. But which are the “select other resorts”?

These are the Disney Good Neighbor resorts who are confirmed to have access to Disney Early Theme Park Entry:

  • Hilton Orlando Bonnet Creek
  • Waldorf Astoria Orlando
  • B Resort & Spa Lake Buena Vista
  • DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Orlando
  • Hilton Orlando Buena Vista Palace
  • Hilton Orlando Lake Buena Vista
  • Holiday Inn Orlando
  • Wyndham Garden Lake Buena Vista
  • Wyndham Lake Buena Vista
  • Four Seasons Resort Orlando
  • Shades of Green
  • Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel
  • Walt Disney World Swan Hotel
  • Walt Disney World Swan Reserve

As expected, Swan and Dolphin, along with Shades of Green, were added to this list a little after all the others.

Contracts between the third party and Disney sometimes take time, even up to the last minute. I expect more hotels to be added to this list.

Update July 19, 2021: In addition to Early Theme Park Entry, Swan and Dolphin made an announcement that their guests also have access to the new extended evening hours perk Disney is offering to Deluxe level resort guests.

What Rides are Available During Early Theme Park Entry?

This was a burning question for quite a while. But now we finally have a list of Early Theme Park Entry rides.

We’re going to take a look at what rides are available in what parks and provide a little commentary on each one.

After that, we’ll look at which rides are the best to head to based on strategy. Remember, you only have a 30 minute head start, so you won’t exactly get a lot done.

Magic Kingdom

  • “it’s a small world”
  • Astro Orbiter
  • Buzz Lightyear’s Space Ranger Spin
  • Dumbo the Flying Elephant
  • Mad Tea Party
  • Mickey’s PhilharMagic
  • Peter Pan’s Flight
  • Prince Charming Regal Carrousel
  • Seven Dwarfs Mine Train
  • Space Mountain
  • The Barnstormer
  • The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh
  • Tomorrowland Speedway
  • Tomorrowland Transit Authority PeopleMover
  • Under the Sea ~ Journey of the Little Mermaid
  • Walt Disney’s Carousel of Progress

What’s immediately apparent is the fact that only rides in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland are available. This is not altogether surprising as most expected this.

By funneling all the Early Theme Park Entry guests to the most popular area of the park, I’m sure the hope is that those people will then head to Frontierland and Adventureland as soon as the park officially opens.

This would then leave some room for the regular park guests in Fantasyland and Tomorrowland.

Epcot

  • Beauty and the Beast Sing-Along
  • Frozen Ever After
  • Mission: SPACE
  • Soarin’ Around the World
  • Spaceship Earth
  • Test Track
  • The Seas with Nemo & Friends

Let’s face it, Epcot doesn’t exactly have a ton of rides to begin with, so this list is naturally pretty small. Lucky for all of us, the best rides in the park are all on this list.

Hollywood Studios

  • Alien Swirling Saucers
  • Mickey & Minnie’s Runaway Railway
  • Millennium Falcon: Smuggler’s Run
  • Rock n Roller Coaster
  • Slinky Dog Dash
  • Star Tours
  • The Twilight Zone Tower of Terror
  • Toy Story Mania!

Once again, you have a pretty good selection here of the top rides with standby lines. Basically, ALL of the rides that guests are most interested in riding are listed here.

Well, Hollywood Studios doesn’t exactly have a plethora of rides to begin with, so that makes sense.

Animal Kingdom

  • Avatar Flight of Passage
  • DINOSAUR
  • Expedition Everest
  • It’s Tough to be a Bug!
  • Na’vi River Journey
  • TriceraTop Spin

Basically, with the exception of Kilimanjaro Safari, you could do any of the rides at Animal Kingdom. The Safari is never open during early entries, so this is expected.

Remember, there are real animals out there on that safari who need to be fed and cared for. Cast members need time to do that before they open the Safari to guests.

Early Theme Park Entry Ride Strategy

Now that we know what’s available in each park, I want to take a brief look a potential strategy for each park during Early Theme Park Entry.

This strategy won’t be extensive, remember, it’s only 30 minutes. But it will give you an idea of where to head. Remember, realistically you might only have time to get on one ride.

A general rule of thumb for all of the parks: head to the ride that’s the hardest to get on later in the day. Often, this is going to be any of the rides identified as the Lightning Lane a la carte option.

Don’t know what I’m talking about, make sure you read my guide to Disney Genie and Lightning Lane. This is a major change coming to Disney World this fall.

Long story short: Lightning Lane allows guests to pay extra money to skip the line on two identified rides in each park. As you can see, choosing the right ride during Early Theme Park Entry can save you money later in the day.

Your goal in each of the parks is to ride one hard to get on ride, potentially ride a second easy access ride, and/or get in line for a second high demand ride.

Magic Kingdom Early Theme Park Entry Strategy

The clear winner for the #1 ride to head to at Magic Kingdom is Seven Dwarfs Mine Train. Mine Train consistently has the longest waits in the park AND is a Lightning Lane option for Magic Kingdom.

However, there’s a caveat with this: ONLY GO TO MINE TRAIN IF YOU ARE AT THE FRONT OF THE PACK. If you are towards the back of the pack, the line will immediately become too long.

If you’re too far behind to get on Mine Train, Space Mountain is your next best option in terms of e-ticket rides.

In my ideal world, this is what you’ll do:

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ➡️ Space Mountain ➡️ Big Thunder Mountain/Splash Mountain

Once the park officially opens, it’s time to beat feet out of Fantasyland and Tomorrowland as that’s where EVERYONE is about to head.

Instead, be opportunistic and head into Liberty Square, Frontierland, and Adventureland. You should be able to get on one or two rides there with minimal wait.

Here’s my plan B:

Seven Dwarfs Mine Train ➡️ Easy walk on ride ➡️ Big Thunder Mountain/Splash Mountain

Epcot Early Theme Park Entry Strategy

If potentially saving money is your jam, it’s highly likely that Test Track is the Lightning Lane ride for Epcot. That makes it a no brainer for Early Theme Park Entry at Epcot.

However, if you have any serious Frozen fans in your group, heading to Frozen Ever After is also a respectable choice. Soarin’ is the third potential option. I wouldn’t pick any other ride as my top choice during Early Theme Park Entry.

Here’s my ideal plan:

Test Track ➡️ Soarin’ ➡️ Off into the park

Seriously, this has been my go to rope drop strategy at Epcot for years, and I don’t plan on changing it now.

Again, this only works if you are at the front of the pack. If you get there even a little bit late, the line for Test Track is too long. And Test Track is also prone to first thing in the morning breakdowns.

If this happens, immediately divert to this plan:

Soarin’ ➡️ Frozen Ever After ➡️ Off into the park

Hollywood Studios Early Theme Park Entry Strategy

Let’s just put this out there right away: You cannot ride Rise of the Resistance during Early Theme Park Entry. The only way to ride is either getting a Rise of the Resistance Boarding Group, or buying Lightning Lane access.

In the absence of that, Slinky Dog Dash becomes the most desirable first ride during Early Theme Park Entry. Slinky Dog has the consistently longest lines throughout the entire day.

Rock n Roller Coaster and Tower and Tower are also good alternatives as those lines gets lengthy later.

Oddly, I wouldn’t head to Mickey and Minnie’s Runaway Railway. It will get mobbed first thing, and you’ll be able to get on it easier later in the day. The ride is pretty efficient in terms of boarding which makes the wait shorter.

Here’s option #1 for Hollywood Studios:

Slinky Dog Dash ➡️ Millennium Falcon: Smugglers Run ➡️ Off into the park

Millennium Falcon seems to be a little slower to fill up than the other rides, probably because of the long walk. So it’s a good second ride option.

Alternately, I’d try this strategy:

Rock n Roller Coaster ➡️ Tower of Terror ➡️ Off into the park

With these two rides located right next to each other, it makes them a no brainer for Early Entry. Also, people tend to neglect these rides first thing in the morning in favor of the other rides. You might get on them pretty darn quick.

Animal Kingdom Early Theme Park Entry Strategy

Last but not least we have Animal Kingdom. Considering that Flight of Passage is one of the best rides ever created, it should be #1 on your priority list for Early Theme Park Entry at Animal Kingdom.

The line also gets astonishingly long, very quickly. It’s also very likely to be the Lightning Lane a la carte option at Animal Kingdom so this move is a money saver.

Here’s my #1 plan for Animal Kingdom:

Flight of Passage ➡️ Expedition Everest (repeatedly) ➡️ DINOSAUR

Historically, you can ride Expedition Everest as a walk on multiple times right when the park opens. We’ll see if this remains true, but I sure hope so.

Plan B for Animal Kingdom if Flight of Passage is already too long:

Na’vi River Journey ➡️ Expedition Everest ➡️ DINOSAUR

How Will Early Theme Park Entry Impact Rope Drop?

The biggest impact is that once Disney World Early Entry officially starts, only Disney resort guests will ever be able to take advantage of rope drop.

In case you’re wondering, rope drop is the phrase used to describe being at the park prior to the official opening time. This allows you to be one of the first guests into the park.

This is actually a major deal. With Extra Magic Hours, guests staying off-site could still take advantage of rope drop. They would simply go to a park that wasn’t offering EMH that day.

This loophole is no longer an option with Early Theme Park Entry.

Now, if you have any plans to use rope drop, you MUST stay at a Disney resort (or one of the other approved resorts).

There is one major aspect of how Disney Early Entry will impact rope that we don’t know the answer to yet. Traditionally, guests are let into the park earlier than the official time.

For example, if Extra Magic Hours started at 8:00a, guests were often let into the park in stages, into the queues, and on the most popular rides no later than 7:45a.

Clearly, this gives an extra little boost. I hope this still exists once early entry resumes, but we’ll have to wait and see.

Splash Mountain Entrance at Magic Kingdom

Pros and Cons of Early Theme Park Entry

Until we have all the information about Disney World Early Entry, these pros and cons are mainly speculation and opinion. Once we see how Disney executes this perk, we’ll be able to have a clearer idea of the pros and cons.

I really hope that the actual execution of Early Theme Park Entry eliminates some of the cons, but I have my doubts.

Pros of Early Theme Park Entry

1. Getting in Early is ALWAYS a Good Thing

Really, I think that heading explains it all. The early morning is recognized as one of the best times of day to go to the parks.

It embodies the phrase, “The early bird gets the worm”. Not everyone is a morning person. Some people want to sleep in and have a leisurely start to their day.

At Disney, this is a mistake. The earlier you can get into the parks, the better. You’ll be able to get on multiple rides before everyone else rolls out of bed.

2. Spreading Out the Crowds

With the creation of Early Theme Park Entry, Disney is clearly trying to spread guests out across all four of the theme parks, instead of flooding to just one of them.

In terms of park capacity, Early Theme Park Entry is probably a good idea. It’s also nice that it gives guests a little more flexibility in planning out their days.

One of the major downsides of Extra Magic Hours was the fact that only one park was eligible at a time. Therefore, anyone wanting to take advantage of EMH flooded to that park.

Notoriously, the park with Extra Magic Hours was generally more crowded later in the day than it was on non-Extra Magic Hours days.

This is why many bloggers actually advised against going to a park with Extra Magic Hours.

The fact that Early Theme Park Entry splits the benefit between all four parks, every single day, should eliminate this phenomenon of higher crowds on certain days of the week due to Extra Magic Hours.

3. Flexibility is King

There is a lot about planning a Disney vacation which is pretty restrictive. You are locked into many things as you go through the process.

When planning your ideal Disney itinerary, you used to look at which parks had Extra Magic Hours and plan around it. Some people avoided those parks, others gravitated towards them.

Because Disney World Early Entry allows you to choose any of the parks you want, it increases your flexibility when making your plans.

4. The Return of a Much Needed Disney Resort Perk

Even before Disney closed and reopened, the perks of staying at a Disney Resort were slowly evaporating. Let’s face it, staying at a Disney Resort costs way more than a regular old Orlando hotel.

We should get more than just experiencing the “Disney bubble” for our money. Once Disney removed Extra Magic Hours and announced the closure of Disney’s Magical Express in 2022, there was really nothing left.

While not perfect, at least Early Theme Park Entry throws a bone to Disney Resort guests.

Mission Space Entrance at Epcot

Cons of Disney Early Entry

1. It’s No Different From How the Parks are Running Without Early Theme Park Entry

If you go to Disney World tomorrow, all 4 parks are letting guests in around 45 to 30 minutes early. That’s right, Early Theme Park Entry has essentially been happening for months.

The only difference is that right now ALL guests with a park ticket and park pass can take advantage. However, I’m going to hazard a guess that the vast majority of people doing rope drop are resort guests to begin with.

Considering some parks let guests in almost an hour early anyway, Early Theme Park Entry is a definite downgrade.

2. 30 Minutes Early is About 30 Minutes Too Short

This is probably my biggest beef with Disney World Early Entry. When you go from previously getting into a park an hour early, to only 30 minutes early, it’s a bit of a rip off.

You can accomplish A LOT in an extra hour before park opening. Sure, you can accomplish stuff with an extra half an hour, but it’s just not the same.

Let’s say a park has an official open time of 8:00a. That means guests who qualify for Disney Early Entry can enter the park at 7:30a.

With Extra Magic Hours, guests would be able to enter at 7:00a. For people who aren’t early risers, there’s a big difference psychologically between getting up early to get to the park at 7:30a than at 7:00a.

The earlier the entry window opens, the lighter the crowds will be. That chunk of time from 7:00a to 7:30a is like gold. And now you won’t have it.

3. It’s Not Enough to Justify Paying Extra for a Disney Resort

That extra 30 minutes of park time probably isn’t worth the hundreds of dollars extra a Disney resort costs.

Don’t get me wrong, even saying this, I’d still choose to stay at a Disney resort instead of off-site. But I’m a Disney die-hard. I’m also a crazy morning person and a rope drop ninja.

So I’ll be out there with everyone else to get in the parks during Early Theme Park Entry.

But, coming from an entirely practical standpoint, an extra 30 minutes in the parks is a nice bonus, but might not be worth the extra money.

Final Thoughts

Really, at this point, jury is still out for me. Will I use Disney Early Theme Entry? Absolutely. Am I completely happy with what I know so far? Not really.

I still think it is a pale attempt to make Disney resort guests *think* they have a major perk. And it really does have some benefits.

Just the simple act of being able to get into the park 30 minutes before park opening is a big deal. For anyone who knows how to take advantage of rope drop, this is still a good perk. I simply wish it was more time.

If you want to learn more about rope drop and how to use it to your advantage, check out these posts:

Disney World early entry pin image

Your Thoughts

What do you think about Disney World early entry? Are you disappointed like me, or are you completely on board? Let me know in the comments below.

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4 thoughts on “Disney World Early Theme Park Entry Guide with Ride Strategy”

  1. Sounds good! It says “must have resort reservation for same day” but what about the morning you check out? I’d think the morning you wake up in the resort would be the day you want to use your early entry? I guess my questions is, can I stay at a resort one night, and get in early both days on either end? Or can I pick which day? Any help would be appreciated. I’m not a rope drop ninja 🙂

    1. Based on how things worked in the past, I’m assuming you are eligible for it on both days, both check-in and check-out. Because you’re technically spending part of your day at a Disney resort for both of those days. This was the case with the Dining Plan and FastPass booking, so hopefully also Early Theme Park Entry. But this is definitely an area we don’t have a firm answer to yet.

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